If you're like me and you care about the story and characters in games, when you start off with Last Train Home, you're going to set a personal goal for yourself; "Make sure everyone lives". Last Train Home is the latest top-down RTS train survival game with Company of Heroes style combat, released by Nordic THQ. I'm not very big on the survival genre or top-down strategy games, but the team at Nordic THQ has managed to do something very special here with Last Train Home.
Last Train Home has managed to perform a very impressive feat when it comes to its storytelling, and I'm not talking about the actual story itself. The basic story of the game is set during the end of WW1, where a Legion of Czech soldiers on a diplomatic mission are trapped in the heart of Russia in the middle of a civil war; their only chance of survival is to take a train to the extraction point through Siberia in the East. This primary story is told well enough with some nice dialogue and painted cutscenes that convey the overall atmosphere quite well.
The most impressive part of the game's story, however, is the fact that it makes you care about the characters, and I'm not talking about traditional characters. The characters in question are the Legion of soldiers under your command who will eventually number in the dozens. Traditionally, these would be considered replaceable and faceless units, but Nordic THQ has put in a lot of effort to try to give each of them a unique personality through their various strengths, weaknesses, traits and personal lore. You'll send them off on missions and take care of them based on their abilities and performance, and you'll eventually grow attached to each unit you have. You'll end up treating each of them like actual people.
Whenever I lost a unit, I'd simply restart the mission because I refused to leave any of my men behind. It's this feeling that Last Train Home captures perfectly as you end up really caring about your Legion of soldiers. It helps that the dialogue and flavour text is very well written and very well executed, with excellent VAs in native tongues that add a lot of immersion to the overall experience. In terms of immersion, the story is gripping and really makes you feel like a commander facing an impossible journey rather than someone just playing a simple RTS game.
The gameplay loop is fairly straightforward but keeps adding complexity as the game goes on to ensure that you never get tired of the basics. I imagined that the resource gathering or combat would eventually feel stale, but the game throws enough new things at you to keep you on your toes.
You'll have your forward base of operations and lifeline, the train which acts as your central mobile hub. As you journey east, you send soldiers in squads to local points of interest, where they gather resources such as food and fuel while also interacting and trading with the local villages. The goal is to keep going East as you upgrade your train and make your home base stronger. The game is very meticulous about tracking your resource usage, and every action requires a certain resource. You'll have to figure out how to maximize your efficiency.
On this path, you'll often run into combat scenarios with the Red Army or against bandits and even hostile villagers. The combat is quite similar to Company of Heroes in terms of mechanics, with a top-down view where you can command soldiers to move and pick targets. You have five combat classes with unique skills and weapons that you need to make the best use of. Combat is the riskiest part of Last Train Home, but it's also quite rewarding and keeps you on the edge.
The combat is probably the part I have the most contention with. However, before I get to that, I'd like to give it some praise. The combat in Last Train Home can be extremely challenging, and if you plan on cutting corners or being lazy with positioning, then you're not going to make it. The game demands that you actively make use of all available resources. Otherwise, make careless commands, and your Legionnaires will be dropping like flies.
Your combat troops consist of five different classes, each class having its own specialized role and purpose. You need to ensure each of them gets to play to their strengths. For example, the machine gunner holds choke points while the grenadier bombards clustered enemies and structures, and the medic will heal your units. Making squads with a good balance of the units you need is integral. This means you'll be multiclassing(yes, you can multiclass) these units as you upgrade them and have them perform multiple roles for you.
Combat itself consists of stealth and shootouts. Shootouts are brutal unless you're making use of cover. Cover is basically king in Last Train Home, and ensuring good angles from cover is the key to winning any fight, no matter how outnumbered. The stealth angle can also be quite fun as you sneak around and take down enemy numbers from the shadows, but it has some problems.
My major gripe with combat is the fact that the unit pathing can be extremely wonky, and sometimes, my units inexplicably seem to move on their own without me issuing a command. Stealth requires you to stay out of enemy sights, and weird pathing and random movement often throw a wrench into those plans. The result is a shootout, which can get extremely frustrating when it goes on for too long because resources are limited, and every bullet counts.
The shootout itself isn't exactly exciting unless you're making use of skills, as oftentimes, the shots your units fire feel like complete RNG. It's quite strange seeing several of your units take several seconds to take down a single enemy soldier. There were some bugs, such as unresponsiveness when trying to stabilize a downed unit, but these were rare. It's just frustrating when the stakes are high, and you end up losing soldiers and resources to weird quirks.
Overall, the combat does a good job at top-down RTS, and there's definitely fun to be had there once you get a feel for it. A bit of polish and some more mechanics could definitely make it a lot better, though.
The other half of Last Train Home features the resource management and train travel section of the game. There are several resources you need to keep your train running, and managing these is essential. It's no walk in the park, either. You'll constantly run out of resources such as fuel and food, making it essential to send out scouting parties to gather those resources.
This is where many of the flavour text and character personalities come in. Depending on the kind of mission, your squad will have differing results. For example, someone with a burglar trait can return with more resources when sent to villages and abandoned homes. You'll constantly be making, shifting and managing squads to send off to nearby villages, hoping that you get the resources you need. It's honestly more fun than it has any right to be and adds a good deal of immersion to your campaign and the feeling of operating a mobile forward base.
Speaking of which, Train upgrades can get costly and feel expensive really quickly. Everything is on a timer, and every second here can feel like it matters a lot. Upgrading your train requires manpower, repairing it requires manpower, and expeditions require manpower. It can get a bit confusing to keep track of everything going on and what and where each unit is assigned, but with a bit of patience, this experience can be extremely rewarding. My only complaint is the lack of diversity in the early-game expedition encounters. That and the fact that you can't cancel certain commands if you accidentally issue them leads to wasted resources. This isn't just an issue with this section of the game, however.
The lack of a save file system means that you're stuck with the single campaign that you're on, and wanting to roll back decisions gets extremely time-consuming and frustrating really quickly, which is a shame because I don't want to turn down the difficulty. Still, I don't want to spend 10-15 minutes doing the same tasks over and over again to ensure my Legion's survival. The coin economy isn't the friendliest either in the early game, and you're always in full survival mode one way or another(which can be a plus point for many).
In conclusion, while I have certain gripes with some aspects of the game, mostly related to the genre and a few issues with ease of use and polish, overall, the Last Train Home cements itself as a standout release among a wide sea of RTS games.