Review: Last Train Home is the last big surprise of 2023

last train home

Czech studio Ashborne Games hasn’t been a household name around our part until now, since their only release up to this point has been 2020’s revival of the classic helicopter piloting sim Comanche, but things are about to change. That’s because their latest release, Last Train Home  is easily one of the most captivating and unique real-time strategy games I’ve ever gotten to play.

Centered around a Czech squad of soldiers returning home from the Eastern Front right after the end of World War I, Last Train Home chronicles their struggle trying to cross the massive Russian territory right in the middle of the Bolshevik Revolution. Their last hope lies at a ship that’s waiting for them at Vladivostok in order to bring them to newly-formed Czechoslovakia, and their means of getting there is the titular train.

This game can be called an RTS, but there’s much more to it than the mechanics at play that are very akin to Iron Harvest’s or even Company of Heroes due to its reliance on cover and micromanagement of very small groups of soldiers against overwhelming odds. Your units level up the more they battle, and can be split among various classes depending on their inherent stats, so even though you only have a handful of them at your disposal at any moment, they are very flexible. 

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that there’ll be an answer to every single problem, and you’ll have to make do with punching a square peg into a round hole. More often than not, there won’t be an ideal situation and it’s exactly that which makes the whole premise of this game so gripping and tense.

last train home
Don’t mind me, just clicking along…

The relation to Prime Matter’s excellent title from a few years ago doesn’t stop there, either. Both share similar themes and a striking sense of style, with gorgeously painterly loading screens and character portraits, as well as carefully planted instances of live action footage. Last Train Home’s presentation adds another layer of authenticity to its proceedings by having excellent voice acting in Czech and Russian, which help even more with the immersion.

But it’s where the real-time strategy segments interweave with the long stretches where you’ll be riding the train that the game truly shines. It has you deal with an assortment of issues such as troop morale, dwindling supplies and a laundry list of meters that stand between the hapless group of tired combatants and the warmth of their homes and families. In this regard, a parallel can also be drawn between Last Train Home and 11bit Studios’ Frostpunk, especially due to the harshness behind every single one of the decisions you have to make along the way.And the fact that you are forced to cross Siberia during a particularly cold winter, with little to speak of for clothes, food, and other vital materials, of course. 

To make matters worse, there’s an upkeep to be minded when it comes to the train you ride as well, since it can break down and suffer from all sorts of issues along the way. It can be said that it’s as much of a character as the humans that ride in it, and those issues that can make things tough for you even more than the mental and physical status of your troops.

last train home
Last Train Home’s stealth sections are tense and exhilarating.

Thankfully, every single facet of the layers upon layers of complexity in Last Train Home are clearly depicted and taught to you through the game’s excellent tutorials, which slowly introduce you to and help you understand every one of its mechanics. But there’s only so much you can do with such knowledge unless you put it into practice, and for that you’ll be put into a number of crossroads that are absolutely heartbreaking, forcing you to think what’s best for the group, or in most cases, what’s “least worse”. 

For instance, at the very start, you’ll come across a village that’s been razed by the Red Army, who left little to no survivors to speak of. The few that remain are starved and ask you to help them put together what is left to be rebuilt by lending some of your men to do it. If you choose to do so, you’re treated to a mission of its own where your squad has to do mundane things like carpentry and hunting wolves, and the only reward behind that is their gratitude and possibly some injuries to your units. 

Or, you can just leave them to their fates, which can have lasting repercussions depending on the faiths and ideologies that those under your command have. Situations like that are what cement the shaky sense of security that everyone aboard the train lives under as they travel into unknown hostile territory riddled with random dangers. It makes the very livelihood of them feel especially realistic, something that’s elevated by the fact that it’s a period piece set in a particularly dramatic point in history.

last train home
This is cold, Jerry, COLD!

It’s rare to see games that treat its setting as seriously and realistically as Last Train Home. That and the sheer abundance of incredibly varied and dramatic make it a game that shouldn’t be overlooked. Funnily enough, we’ve got to see two fantastic titles set in World War I with this and Amnesia: The Bunker, and they couldn’t be further apart and at the same time provide the same sense of dread, only through their own means, masterfully so.

Last Train Home is proof that there’s much to be explored in the RTS genre and goes to show how far an idea can go if it’s developed with the amount of care and love that Ashborne Games obviously had going for it, being Czechs themselves. This game is a real gem and I couldn’t think of a better surprise to be had at the tailend of 2023.

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