December 23, 2023

See Siberia by Train, Virtually


See Siberia by Train, Virtually
The armored train navigates around Lake Baikal. Screenshot by the author.

The recently released PC game "Last Train Home," developed by Ashborne Games and published by THQ Nordic, isn't just a compelling timesink; it's also a remarkably authentic retelling of history.

The game follows the story of the real-life Czechoslovak Legion which, if you aren't familiar with it, you may not believe.

The Czechoslovak Legion was an ethnic Czech and Slovak volunteer force that fought on the side of the Entente Powers (France, UK, Russia) in the First World War. They saw success on both the Western and Eastern fronts fighting German and Austrian armies. These victories made many Allied leaders amenable to the idea of an independent Czechoslovak state as a condition of peace at the war's end.

However, when the Bolshevik Revolution exploded in 1917, Russia's new leadership sued for peace. A unit of Legionnaires fighting in Ukraine found themselves stranded between hostile German troops and hostile Red troops, with nowhere to go.

Czechoslovak diplomats finally arranged for these soldiers to get home, but not through the territory held by enemy states. Instead, they'd have to take trains east on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, all the way to Vladivostok, where Allied ships would meet them to take them back to Europe.

The only issue: The trains' route lay through a country embroiled in a savage civil war between the new Red government and tsar-loyal Whites as 1917's winter began to arrive.

This is where "Last Train Home" picks up. You're tasked with leading a motley crew of Czechoslovak soldiers through the length of Russia, starting west of Moscow and ending in Vladivostok. Along the way, you'll have to make sure that your train is well-stocked, maintained, and full of fed, healthy, and warm soldiers who can fight off Russian armies to keep moving east.

Your armored train speeds east through a snowy landscape. | Screenshot.

Gameplay-wise, your time is split between tactics-based combat encounters with hostile troops, upgrading and maintaining your train, and exploring points of interest along the route to stock up on resources by hunting for game, trading with locals, and foraging in the woods. While none of these sections have groundbreaking design, each is solid. Together, they make for an enjoyable experience as stretches of calm, atmospheric trundling through Siberian wilds are interspersed with tense shootouts, tending to your troops, and collecting resources to make sure you can keep moving forward. Experienced PC gamers may see flashes of strategy and management heavy-hitters like "XCOM," "Banished," and "Men of War," with the best elements of each integrated skilfully.

You'll also be hit with hard choices. Do you take a northerly route that has fewer enemies, but is longer or colder? Do stop and forage at an upcoming village, or keep moving to make sure you don't miss your boat? What upgrades will ensure your survival?

In my playthrough, I had a soldier catch tuberculosis. I was given the choice of keeping her on board and possibly infecting my entire team, or leaving her to die in the wilderness. The game made it clear that army protocol dictated I leave her, but the protocol wasn't made for a grueling trip through Siberia. As she was one of my most skilled medics, I opted to try to heal her on the train. I'm still not sure if that was the right call, but it made for an interesting interaction.

A team of Czechoslovak soldiers in a combat mission. | Screenshot by the author.

It's surprising just how close the game hews to the actual story of the Czechoslovak Legion. While the designers are upfront that this is a fictionalized account with made-up characters and gamified mechanics, many of the actions you'll take actually happened. The capture of the Imperial Gold Reserve, the conquest of Kazan, and the betrayal by White allies are all story beats with real-life counterparts.

Even the artillery car you can pull along, which I was certain was added because calling in artillery strikes to help with a fight is a very fun, video-gamey thing to do, actually existed. The Legion captured it from the Reds as they sped eastward, and the car was later used by Imperial Japan into the 1930s:

The artillery car's real-life counterpart. | Public domain

All in all, "Last Train Home" is a remarkably satisfying experience that brings attention to an often-overlooked chapter in Russian history. The absolute craziness of the Civil War is on full display, and the interactions you'll have with civilians along the way only underscore its inhumanity. After all, you're an outside observer: you're just trying to get your troops home, even as you navigate a Gogolesque route to get there. Looking past the video game veneer, it's a well-done look at the factions and interests at play in the wake of the First World War and its impact on Russia and Eastern Europe.

Plus, Baba Yaga gets a couple cameos:

It's always a good idea to take the most interesting dialog choice, not the safest. | Screenshot.

 

 

 

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