Given the subject matter, it’s no surprise that Last Train Home is hardly a cheery experience. As a commander leading the Czechoslovak Legion home after World War 1, you’ll need to steer a single train full of gallant but beleaguered souls through a Russia torn apart by civil war. Neither the Reds nor the Whites are particularly sympathetic to your cause, so it will take hearts of steel to get everyone home.
This is the main thrust of Last Train Home, a game that mixes real time combat with strategic decision making, resource gathering, and some base maintenance. I played the first couple of chapters in the demo, and got to grips with most of the systems, although the deeper nuances of upgrading and maintaining the train itself are still a bit of a mystery.
As you progress along the seemingly endless track, you’ll need to stop here and there to investigate things like abandoned towns, or you’ll be stopped at stations and checkpoints along the way. Often these moments will see you select a squad of soldiers from those onboard to explore the area. You’ll seek out survivors, supplies, new guns and ammunition; you’ll even need to secure trade goods to barter for food, bullets, fuel, and medicine.
Exploration is often punctuated by combat, where you can order your squad to take cover and flank the enemy. Different soldiers have different skills that can help in certain situations. A medic’s role is obvious, but you’re able to use the machine-gunner to lay down a cone of fire to slow an enemy advance, or call in air support to harry the Russian defences.
After each foray, you get to select who to promote and reward for their actions in the field, which is a better system than the game simply doing it for you. It means you can build bonds with your soldiers, and you’re more likely to risk the tougher, more competent soldiers in the harder missions.
The train will need to be upgraded, adding a workshop, kitchen car, barracks car, and many others. This lets you train soldiers with new skills, develop gear, and improve your chances of survival. Soldier deaths are permanent, but you can pick up survivors to bolster your flailing ranks as you travel.
Sometimes you’ll come across events that require your input, such as altercations with ruthless Russian officers. Most of these are clear cut choices, but they will have consequences down the line. Ultimately, your job is to protect your train and its passengers until you cross the border, no matter the cost.
Last Train Home is pretty intense at times, and that’s evident from the demo. Poor decisions or rash actions in battle can cost you dearly, while failing to investigate an area or missing the chance to trade could see you struggling on for some time before you get another chance. You can also run the risk of leaving patrols behind if you don’t get everyone back to the train or, as I did once, forget to actually stop it while they explore.
Nothing here feels too hard or punishing though, which I’m happy about. This could easily be a hardcore challenge, and it’s definitely presented as a life-and-death ordeal, but it never felt in the demo like I was being too savagely punished. I’ve no doubt it’ll hurt to lose seasoned soldiers due to silly mistakes, but that’s the genre.
Last Train Home handles itself very well, paying careful respect to the memories of those who lived through the true events the game is based on. It eschews humour to maintain a stoic, often grim tone, but it does so deliberately and in a measured way to maintain the player’s engagement without relying on bombast. It won’t be an easy campaign from what I’ve seen, but it’ll be worth the struggle to get every one of your soldiers back to their families.