Last Train Home is a fascinating and engaging mix of real-time tactics and management. Tasked with getting the Czechoslovak Legion home by travelling across Russia in an armoured as a civil war is brewing, Last Train Home hones in on a lesser-known piece of history, managing to take the real-world struggle and make it into an entertaining, thoughtful experience.
of course, the real story of what happened is complex and harrowing, and the developers have attempted to acknowledge this. In a Steam community post in October discussing the gameâ€™s historical accuracy, especially in regards to some uniforms, developer Ashborne Games said: â€œThe game is inspired by historical events, and we have consulted the affairs with experts on the topic. Nevertheless, certain artistic liberties have been taken in various aspects of the game. Including the uniforms of the soldiers.â€
However, my own knowledge of events isnâ€™t good enough to pick apart what the game gets right, what it gets wrong and what it conjures out of thin air for the sake of gameplay or plot. What I can say is that I appreciate the focus on a portion of history that isnâ€™t discussed much. And I also appreciate not being portrayed as the grand heroes who will single-handedly end hostilities or who are 100% the good guys.â€‚
Review code supplied by the publisher.
The Czech Legion simply want to get home, and that means crossing Russia at a time when things areâ€¦volatile. While the Legion technically has been allowed to travel freely, neither the Red Army or the White Army are willing to simply ignore the existence of an armed force chugging through their country, bringing you into direct conflict with both numerous times. Historically, the Legion pulled it all off, successfully getting to the other side of the country and boarding a boat toward home. The game though, lets you fail this journey: let morale fall too low and soldiers will desert.
The narrative is bolstered by Captain FrantiÅ¡ek Langer, a real-life historical figure who did travel and serve with the Legion. As a poet, playwright and doctor, Langer lets the developers get a little zesty with their writing and narration. Heâ€™s not the only named character, though, as the many soldiers you pick up along the way have names and short bios, although these are fictional. You canâ€™t rename them unlike something like XCOM, but I still found myself getting a little attached to a few of them, especially as they levelled up and became my go-to guys and gals.
Each soldier also has a variety of traits both good and bad that can affect how certain situations play out. They wonâ€™t radically alter the storyline, but itâ€™s cool to see a message pop up to let you know that a certain character managed to influence events, perhaps earning you some extra resources or boosting the morale of everyone else. Sometimes it goes poorly, too, like taking someone on an excursion and their hatred of the Reds causing some problems.
Life onboard an armoured train in a hostile country is not easy, and Last Train Home doesnâ€™t shy away from the grimy reality. Your soldiers are going to be cold, hungry, tired and fed-up, and a lot of the game is about managing the situation by gathering resources like fuel, food and upgrade materials.
Getting all of these things means sending out squads to get them. As you drive your train across the map there are locations which you can send soldiers to in order to scavenge resources, trade with villages or even tackle various side-missions. But dispatching squads can also result in them being more tired out, winding up in danger or just getting hurt randomly, so you need to constantly consider whatâ€™s worth the effort and what is not. How a lot of this plays out is rando, too: a squad may come back with nothing even when you desperately need food so that you can put everyone back on full rations.
Sometimes moral choices will pop up too, providing a chance to shape your journey across Russia. Do you take the food offered by a village in return for helping them fend off a marauding band of Reds? Taking it may leave the village in a rough position, but on the other hand as the leader of the Legion your responsibility is to your comrades first and foremost.
In some ways then, the game reminds me of Frostpunk which loved to hand players complex moral choices, asking them how far they were willing to go for survival. And on paper, Last Train Home shares a fair bit with city-builders, from focusing on cold weather to the tight management of limited resources. However, Iâ€™d say Last Train Home is far more forgiving, its moral quandary rarely feels very difficult. Nor do those little moral tests really come back to bite you in quite the way I feel like they should.
Many of the resources you scavenge can be used to upgrade and bolster your train. Basic upgrades like armour plating to improved living quarters prove vital on the journey, as do new train cars that provide space for cooking and healing up injured troops. These improvements can only be made while the train isnâ€™t moving, however, and the longer you stay immobile the more dangerous it becomes as enemy forces can hone in on your location. Upgrades are best timed when you already have squads dispatched then, since you have to wait for them to return home anyway.
All of this is underpinned by managing your people. Every person you have under your command, plus those you can pick up along the way, can have both combat roles and train roles. Some need to be assigned to drive the train and stoking the engine, others to work on research or healing the wounded or constructing the newest upgrades. Day and night shifts must be considered; through it all, you have to keep an eye on morale and stamina. If the former drops tooâ€‚low itâ€™s game over, while if the latter dips then soldiers become unable to work until theyâ€™ve had time to rest up.
On top of that, each character can level up by performing duties and even unlock new roles. Youâ€™ll quickly establish whoâ€™s best at fighting, running the train or scavenging for supplies, and since there are no restrictions on saving the game itâ€™s usually best to focus on building up elite squads and engineers rather than spreading the love. I like that the roles can essentially be combined, too: give riflemen the medic role, and you can still dispatch him as a frontline fighter but now heâ€™ll also have the medicâ€™s ability to heal an ally.
It all comes together and works extremely well. As the train trundles along, itâ€™s satisfying to manage your crew, ensuring that your best fighters are getting some well-earned rest, pondering whether now would be a good time to spend some resources on improving the heating situation or whether itâ€™d be better to save them for later. Every side mission and location is an opportunity to get more supplies, perhaps some better guns or even a few more soldiers, and yet visiting them will exhaust your troops and leave you immobile for far too long.
The whole management layer is a lot of fun and is only slightly marred by a UI that I found fiddly and small. It isnâ€™t terrible, by any means, but it is certainly lacking in some quality-of-life features and isnâ€™t as smooth and as intuitive as Iâ€™d like. Even after a few dozen hours, I still had to stop and think about what I was doing or which menu I needed. A few updates could go a long way here, even if itâ€™s just so that the game displays a soldierâ€™s existing roles and traits when it asks me to level them up on the world map screen.
Doing some sightseeing
The other component in Last Train Home is the RTS sections where you take direct command of your chosen men and women in partially scripted missions, often pitting you against the Reds. The action can be paused by hitting the spacebar, kind of turning it into something vaguely like Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew from earlier this year, albeit without the supernatural pirates and giant talking trees. The idea is to let you set up smart ambushes, overlapping fields of fire and generally just get the drop on the enemy.
Thatâ€™s important because your soldiers are made of paper. They die faster than my motivation, so having them in cover and only taking on as few enemies as possible is vital. Itâ€™s easy to get flanked or decimated by a heavy machine gun, leaving bodies on the floor and you questioning why anyone ever put you in command of anything, let alone squishy humans.â€‚Itâ€™s simple stuff that feels a little Company of Heroes 3 â€“ pick your spots for maximum cover, watch the flanks and keep the enemy pinned down until your riflemen can get behind and introduce them to what I like to refer to as the dildo of consequences in special bullet form.
Pausing also lets you make use of special skills and abilities. A casually tossed grenade can wipe out entire little social gatherings of baddies. At the same time, a machine gunners-focused fire will cut down anything that even looks in their general direction, although the ammo cost is significant. Thereâ€™s an element of micromanagement in the action then, one that never becomes too overbearing. It can be a difficult balance to strike, but I think the devs got it right.
Speaking of which, you do actually need to keep track of ammo since itâ€™s one of the gameâ€™s many resources. It encourages you to avoid firefights where you can, something which Iâ€™m sure the real Czech Legion had to think about as well. In turn, that pushes you more toward the sneaky approach, keeping your soldiers hidden, scouting the environment and carefully picking off foes with a well-placed stab. Of course, sometimes going loud and proud is the only option.
A couple of quirks really stopped me from enjoying the combat as much as I could have, though. Most of them are little things that add up, like how the bayonet option targets an area rather than an individual, so 3 or 4 of your own riflemen all wind up charging the same enemy. I also find it odd that in such a slow-paced game where being out of cover is a death sentence, the bayonet charge is the most useful tool for dealing with machine guns rather than getting your scout to deal with the issue.
Scouts feel underpowered in the mix of other unit types, too. They can somehow 2-shot a tank but canâ€™t pop an enemy in the head. Itâ€™s presumably for balance reasons, but it doesnâ€™t stop me from feeling like scouts are almost useless outside of their binocular ability. In theory, youâ€™d think they would be perfect for ambushes, easily destroying a couple of skulls, but in reality, they arenâ€™t.
The enemy AI isnâ€™t up to snuff, either. On occasion, theyâ€™ll actually seek to flank your entrenched position or pull off something that could be loosely designed as intelligent, but for the most part, theyâ€™re an anaemic bunch that doesnâ€™t do much.
Then thereâ€™s the silent/loud toggle that lets you swap in and out of stealth. For the most part, it works okay and stealth actually feels like the best way to go as you can often progress through most missions by going in and stabbing some fools, using bushes and buildings to remain hidden. Since you have to toggle between the two options, though, it can lead to some daft moments where you order a soldier into â€œloudâ€ mode so that they will run fast enough to get into cover, only for them to take a pot-shot at someone before you can hit the toggle again. In another instance, it resulted in me accidentally telling my riflemen to shoot someone instead of stabbing them, and in the resulting carnage pretty much everyone died a horrible death. That one was my fault, though.
And it doesnâ€™t help that the gameâ€™s rules about when you can or cannot be seen donâ€™t make much sense. A lot of objects that look solid and should therefore block an enemyâ€™s vision simply arenâ€™t, so I constantly found myself surprised by when my soldiers could be seen.
Overall the combat layer feels a little less polished and mechanically interesting than the management stuff. However, it does serve as a nice break from contemplating schedules, thinking about upgrades and pondering whether now is the ideal time to install that stove youâ€™ve been eyeing up in one of the infantry cars.
Now departing for review conclusion!
Itâ€™s always a thrill to see games tackle lesser-known moments in history, and what Ashbourne Games have done here is terrific work. When you stop and think about it, an armed â€œneutralâ€ force travelling across a hostile country via train is a fantastic concept for a video game, and the fact that it was real makes it all the better.
Itâ€™s the management layer where the game feels best, letting you juggle resources, the health of your soldiers, upgrades and whether itâ€™s worth the risk of sending out troops to loot abandoned villages. Itâ€™s here where the oppressive setting and the bleak tone are at their strongest, though the game is never as punishing and as gruelling as its inspiration would suggest â€“ in fact, on normal difficulty I rarely ever came close to failure, whether through a lack of morale or running out of resources.
The combat sections are less impressive, mostly being fine. Just fine. They do the job, a few of the missions are very well designed and executing a smooth ambush feels excellent. But thereâ€™s really nothing special to be found in the fighting.
That doesnâ€™t stop Last Train Home from being a hidden gem of 2023, likely hiding from view by all the huge releases that snapped up the headlines and grabbed the money from our wallets. If you like your strategy and management games with a little grit and authenticity then Last Train Home is for you.