Review | The Final Station

The Final Station | Do My Best Games | tinyBuild

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend tells a story of a single man surviving against unfamiliar, alien humanoids in the wake of a genetic plague. Ultimately it’s a story about close-mindedness coming from a dependence on society, and it’s also a story about a man of science not accepting the clues in front of them, despite obsessing over peeling back a self created myth over their origin. In the final chapters he is presented with the absolute truth, and he accepts it, he has become a relic, and the very same type of spoooooky myth that he first villainised the victims of the plague as. It is not a zombie story,

The Final Station in turn tells the story of a single man, fighting through hordes of former humans all turned by a gas into creeping, or dashing, or smashing, or grabbing, remains of humanity. The gas is from strange, metallic pods, puncturing the ground as they crash-land from the skies. Edward Jones however, is a layman, not a scientist, and he is just following orders and trying to get in touch with those he loves, back home. It is not a zombie story.

It is 106 years since the First Visitation – a apocalyptic event wherein pods came crashing to the ground, they released gas, and people turned. Other crazy stuff happened as well, but eventually a specific pocket of humanity won over, and they took the technology that was left behind and they started to rebuild. How they won over is unknown, and what happened to life on the rest of the planet is as well; although what is known is that the settlers came shortly afterwards, those who had picked out a life in the ruins of society outside, and they joined up with the survivors under their new leadership, to steady themselves for a return of the pods, a Second Visitation.

In June of this year I was lucky enough to play an extended demo of The Final Station; I was left relatively impressed, but with a fair few questions and expectations for the final game. I was unsure of the game’s structure, thinking routes and characters might be different on different plays, and I was concerned as to how the tight ammo counts would be kept in balance with the end-of-chapter points offering you top ups. [Preview | The Final Station]

The Final Station - The Tribute
The Strugatsky Brother’s ‘Roadside Picnic’ is a clear influence, with the most advanced technology of the world said to be ruins left behind from The First Visitation.

As it turns out, as it so regularly does with brief glimpses at games, I was off the mark on a lot of counts. One of the few things that did persist throughout the game however was the pockets of history and context delivered through messages between train conductors and engineers, scraps of notes about people’s movements, and diary entries littered through the levels. In fact, this System Shock style approach to observational narrative is the biggest reason for a replay of the game, which without them is a simple path of A to B, but with cleverly designed loops of levels designed to lead you through the various facilities, bunkers, mountain-mansions, and towns in the most scenic and exploratory way possible. The littered pieces of narrative, that tell stories of the First Visitation, of conspiracies, or even of individuals trying to get away from life before it became harder, regularly form into arcs that continue throughout the game, and pull together the several large twists of the game into what is quite an interesting story.

System Shock might have been one of the earliest of examples of a hands-off narrative told in pieces, hence my decision to mention it, but a better example for the game as a whole would have been Resident Evil -although, The Final Station is not a zombie game- for it’s claustrophobic moments, limited ammo and healing items, and occasion jump scares (like those #$@&%*! dogs).

The game can be classified into three different gameplay sections; the core of the game takes place in the exploratory combat areas of the game, the majority of the 21 stations in the game are like this, although some of them are the second time; the passive areas of the game which are spent advancing the story or spending money on goods; and the train sections of the game, where you juggle resources and attend to the maintenance of the vehicle as you move from station to station.

The Final Station - On a Train
Tending to needy survivors to ensure rewards and pockets of story can be a bit of a drag at times, but is worth it.

The latter-most part is the is best and worst part of the entire game. It’s 2D platforming viewpoint, shared with the other two sections, gives a clear shot of everything that matters onboard; your passenger carriage and any occupants, any additional carriages you have for the story, and the locomotive. There’s no route management required, IE the game is linear, however you do need to maintain the train as you go, which means playing a set minigame depending on the route; these are fine little things, and they’re not too much hassle, but they do draw you away from the chatter of your passengers which is a shame as there’s some very good story content hidden in their rattlings. As well as this you need to keep an eye on passenger’s health and hunger levels which decline at a somewhat unrealistic rate. Failing to feed or heal them leads to them dying, failing to pay attention to the minigame leads to the journey taking longer, or passengers being endangered by collapsing environmental protection.

The passive telling of the story that comes from the conversations between the passengers is excellent; from the ‘Settler’ hating shop clerk to the scientist who knows too much, there’s also conspiracy theorists and drifters along, all adding flavour text to the game, and history to the setting. It’s just a shame that the game has you running backwards and forwards to complete the minigame and serve up food rations to them, meaning you miss their stories. Is this something that could have been done on one screen? Possibly; but, either way it wasn’t.

A very clever thing that this section of the game also does is make it so that the character’s supply of healing items is shared with the passengers; meaning that if you want to keep someone alive (be it for story glimpses, or for the money-cash-upgrade reward at the act’s end) and they are bleeding out then you’ll be using a medikit that could save your life on the next level; this actually makes you more thoughtful before approaching certain situations in the combat sections of the game, and search more thoroughly for rations and medical kits during those parts.

Speaking to everyone, and checking every cupboard is essential to getting the most of the story.

There is also a crafting system, another thing to drag you away from the story chatter in the train, it’s rudimentary, and really just a case of using various pieces of scrap that have zero value in the game to make new items. If you don’t make the new ammo, or craft the medikits then that stuff stacks up to ridiculous amounts as you rummage through each of the levels. The scrap, if not used, can not be sold, it isn’t displayed anywhere, it is really a non-thing that the game could have gone without; the game could have easily made it so that you find other guns and half-full clips, and can move ammo between clips during the downtime in the train, and they could have introduced a lesser healing item, or simply a bandage to slow bleeding. That said, the current system is fairly well balanced, as I was never drowning in an excess of either resource, although it’s just a shame when the crafting gimmick is rolled out when alternatives could have been made.

The parts which drive the game forward however, and are the core of the game, is the combat and exploration sections that encompass themajority of the stations.

Enemies in the game are primarily melee based, with most lurking towards you to swipe or bite, and the odd explosive arsonist, armoured former police officer, and the occasional grappler thrown into the mix. Only the arsonist seems to move faster than the character, so a lot of the play is spent smashing helmets off, kiting out enemies, or even outmanoeuvring them using arranged ladders and doors. Your weapons are a pistol (later replaced with a rifle), your fists, and whatever you can grab and throw. Grabbing and throwing is actually quite a key part of the game; explosive barrels, crates, TVs and… toilets, can all be hurled at enemies and in most cases end them in a swift blow. This might seem a bit silly, especially when most enemies can be punched to death, but when an explosive enemy is hiding behind a tough’un and you’re on your last scrap of health, throwing that chair will save you from restarting at the last checkpoint.

Despite it’s balanced combat, and tight ammo constraints, it is it’s quiet, passive moments that remain the most potent.

Checkpoints -although never flagged as such- are a bit of a moot point in the game, they are a little too generous leaving death a thing not really to be feared, however, the best way to be ready for the tougher moments that would lead to death is to be callous, firing furniture, throwing fists, and thrusting past enemies to strike from behind. The more daring I played the more mundane parts of the game, the more equipped I was for when it went wrong, as I had a whole bunch of ammo left to spare. I died the most when I slowed down, when I was more conscious of my health bar.

While the game doesn’t have any power-ups per se, as you play through it new mechanics do come into play; kiting enemies, explosive barrels, new enemy types. All of these are introduced in carefully set up, controlled environments. There’s even several points where these techniques are reiterated, with the chargeable punch frequently being reminded by the game blocking your route with shatter-able, fissile walls dotted throughout the levels. The charged punch is a very effective counter measure to a lot of the tougher enemies, and can certainly save your shotgun ammo if used properly; that and the ability to shoot through tiny windows – hitting enemies from well out of reach – is especially useful in keeping the protagonist alive and kicking.

I’ve been as subtle as I can about the story throughout this review, which is obviously quite a tough thing to do when it is the main driving force behind the game, and most of the stations, and backgrounds, give hints at a curious past that doesn’t quite make sense. A richly explained society with slightly Russian names, and historical tributes, but a population with heavily Westernised names. An industry focused country that demonises the settlers of a century ago. A country where none of the towns or cities share a name with any city we know, where only one instance of literature matches currently extant work; The Strugatsky Brother’s ‘Roadside Picnic’.

The setting is rich, the audio is eerie when needed, and the plot twists are played out in a precise enough manner that the one-sided conversations rattled around in my head afterwards, and still left enough room for interpretation that it stuck with me after I finished up with the game.

Visually, I was really impressed with what the team managed with the layered parallax backgrounds, several story moments that took place outside of the train were punctuated with the mutterings of the passengers, and it all tied together really well. Some of the level designs were also very clever, the mountainside manor of a millionaire, a town with a bunker network below, and a city built at the feet of a giant statue were three environments I wouldn’t expect to have been done so well, let alone in the same game.

Unfortunately, outside of returning for elements of the story that have been missed, there is little replayability and no extra modes after completion of the 6~ hour campaign. Although, for the asking price and the quality I would argue that even now it is extremely worth buying.

In addition, the developers have been very active within the community on Steam, which always bodes well for updates and later content; I would gladly pay to add a large complex with a wave defence mode, or even more challenging game modes, and even *goodness me* a co-operative mode – the game is nigh on perfect for it.

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