There's no eponymous Doctor in Last Stop, but each of the three storylines in this episodic narrative adventure game feel like they could easily slot right into a modern season of Doctor Who.
Last Stop is Variable State's second game after 2016's mystery adventure Virginia, and it weaves supernatural goings on into the mundane fabric of the lives of four British citizens: Donna, Meena, John, and Jack. It's easy to picture any of the four main characters getting dragged into one of the Doctor's extraterrestrial adventures, acting as the confused human to the Doctor's well-versed spaceman. The four characters' lives before the supernatural injection are routine in their own ways: Donna is a typical slacker teenager, Meena is a workaholic having an affair, John is a stressed-out single dad, and Jack is a young video game designer. But when the neon green glow of the paranormal casts its light on their worlds, they become crucial players in a game they barely understand.
Last Stop is an interactive story with the occasional walking simulation or quick-time event baked in that occasionally (and frustratingly) messes up the pacing. But a cracking story makes up for any slow bits, and its wild ending will have you feeling more than a little existential.
A slice of London life
Last Stop has three separate story arcs, each featuring six chapters, with a final seventh chapter that merges the characters' disparate paths together. You choose which chapter to pick up on from a main menu that features Donna, Meena, and John (or Jack) sitting on the Tube next to each other, each passively embedded in the ritual of their commute. You won't be able to pick a character and barrel through the entire thing at once, however, as you'll need to complete a chapter with each before the next tier unlocks.
Donna and John's stories are the most supernatural from the onset: Donna and her schoolmates follow a suspicious stranger to an abandoned pool and witness him engage in some type of supernatural ritual, and John and Jack swap bodies after a run-in with a stranger on the train, forcing middle-aged John to inhabit the body of twentysomething Jack. Meena's chapters are more of a government spy thriller, as we watch the professional attempt to gain a promotion while keeping an affair a secret. Unfortunately, the lack of supernatural elements in Meena's arc, coupled with her thoroughly unlikeable personality, make some of her chapters a bit of a slog.
But as all three stories progress, you can't help but marvel at just how well Variable State has written these characters and portrayed the world around them. While the fictional version of London can feel a bit too much like a Disney theme park, I can't help but smile at the things that remind me of my time living in England. There's the uniform rows of townhouses Meena walks along to get back to her flat, the colorful storefronts advertising vape shops and chippies, and the towering glass and metal modern monoliths. Couple that with some incredible sound design that includes a lovely plucky score, and you've got a world that feels pretty lived-in – even though all the NPCs have no discernible facial features.
The story's been written
The world of Last Stop is a well-crafted one, and the storytelling is fantastic, but immovable. For the majority of the game, nothing you do or say will have any lasting impact, save for choosing Jack's t-shirt or a slight variation of Meena's power suit. This makes the dialogue options feel a little flat, since you quickly become aware that Last Stop is a narrative train on a predetermined track. It doesn't matter what dialogue options you pick, as you'll end up saying a variation of the same thing, which can make some of the slower chapters feel like they're lagging. However, as the story progresses, you begin to feel as helpless as the characters you're controlling, which only makes the chapters more riveting.
Last Stop's otherwise crackling story can get hamstrung by its gameplay, most notably the transitions from cinematic cutscene to player-controlled movement. While the cinematic camera swings from first to third-person with the ease of a prestige television series, that shifting camera means it's often unclear when you're in control – or where you're going, for that matter. Several times I led a character (walking at a frustratingly slow pace for an impatient person such as myself) down the wrong path, just to have to double back and walk back up the street. Other times my character would lurk in a doorway as I missed the cue to take over, resulting in jarring transitions that too often breaks the fantasy.
The other interactive moments include Meena's ability to scan a person using her spy training, Donna flipping through her phone, John playing the piano, and various other quick-time events that, while not engrossing, are a nice change of pace. Ultimately, Last Stop isn't about groundbreaking game mechanics, so much as it's like playing through a moreish anthology TV series.
Previously, on Last Stop
The team at Variable State must love English sitcoms and Doctor Who, as the episodic nature and "Previously, on Last Stop" voiceover before each new chapter are tongue-in-cheek nods to your mum's favorite programs. As a Whovian myself, I can't help but grin at every moment that feels ripped from the Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who, with mysterious portals under the Tube lines and heart-wrenching moments of love and loss. The pathos Last Stop invokes is so reminiscent of Doctor Who's best episodes that I can't help but love it, as the extraordinary events of sci-fi hit so much harder when juxtaposed against the ordinary lives of people.
Even though we live in a culture of rapid consumption, Last Stop feels like it should be played in stages. It's a game that benefits from a bit of space – playing through it all in one shot can make certain chapters feel quite slow, especially with the occasionally awkward moments of interaction. Recaps are there to help you keep track of the three different stories, so that you don't forget whether or not Donna got with her school crush, Vivek, or if middle-aged John made it through a day at the game studio pretending to be developer Jack.
So much of Last Stop is written like a TV show that Twitter would go wild for, so much so that it's difficult to resist the urge to play through the six-hour-long game all at once – but trust me, you'll want to let this one marinate a bit. You'll appreciate the transition from Anglophilic mundanity to paranormal activity much more, and if you force yourself to take breaks you'll bake in little cliffhangers that could help power you through a boring day of work.
Giving Last Stop time to breathe also means the final chapter – which smashes all of the characters' paths together in a manner worthy of a proper Game of Thrones finale – will properly floor you. The final chapter is the only place you do get a chance to make decisions that affect the endgame, and they have so much more weight if you spend time worrying about these character's lives and how your choice will impact them. I won't give it away, but if you think Last Stop feels like an episode of Doctor Who, just wait until you get to the final act.