When The Final Station first hit Steam, there was a lot of excitement from people in the post-apocalyptic community. A game about a a weary eyed train conductor battling mutant hordes while rescuing survivors and gathering resources? Sounds great! On paper. In reality, I found The Final Station to be a repetitive and often confusing experience.
The game has a complicated premise which is never fully explained. Our role in the story begins 106 years after something called the “First Visitation.” During this event, locomotive sized capsules, each of unknown make and material, fell from the sky. These mysterious devices dotted the entire planet. At least one capsule landed in every major city and noteworthy town. Shortly after this event, a mysterious spacecraft fell from the sky and crashed in the mountains. Humanity’s combined armed forces went to investigate the incident, but were completely wiped out. The capsules, many of which had dropped into literal city centers, then released an unknown gas. People exposed to this gas without protection gradually transformed into inky black zombie creatures. A century later, some believe the First Visitation is a myth (despite the zombie infestation and massive capsules that dot the landscape). Meanwhile, the surviving city-state governments have spent a century preparing their defense for the Second Visitation.
That’s a mouthful. At the outset, the game leaves an impression that it has a story to tell. Why else would a 2D twitch shooter have such expansive lore? Like so many survival horror games, the more you explore and talk to other characters, the more hints you get about how this world works. It’s only ever hints though. You can guess all you want, but there’s never a direct exposition dump that suddenly explains everything.
The gameplay is split into two portions. The majority of your interaction consists of 2D twitch shooting in a variety of apartment buildings. In each level your primary goal is to find a 4-digit code that will allow your train to leave the station. Along the way, you’ll also collect supplies (food, medkits, and crafting supplies) and rescue survivors.
Environment layout is similar to Fallout: Shelter in that buildings and tunnels are hidden until you open the next door. Like that game, this creates an illusion that the levels are much bigger than they actually are, even if you can see the length and width of an apartment building. As a result, many doors lead to combat encounters with no loot at all. Level design tries to keep you guessing, but I found this design choice to be overshadowed by the 2D shooter genre. As you look through the pictures in this review, you might notice that every environment is a tight, rectangular corridor. Most of the game is like this. Some areas have ladders, some areas have high ceilings, but the enemies are always the same.
For the most part, these are Romero style zombies with Left 4 Dead infected mixed in. You have the regular slow zombies, the fast aggressive zombie, the exploding zombie, the big zombie, and the armored zombie. The point is that there’s not a lot of enemy variety for a game all about combat, which reduces our engagement as an audience when each fight is handled the same way. The game never throws any punches at you other than hiding enemies behind a fog of war. You can run from a few encounters, but one way or another, you have to go through some zombies to proceed. This is lethal to player engagement in a 2D setting, because they can’t avoid or distract the zombies, they can only go through them.
Luckily, after the first act, most locations have multiple routes to reach the same destination, but you still have to go through zombies and you discover these routes through trial and error door opening, each of which opens another can of squid ink spewing nightcrawlers.
Checkpoints are generous and there’s no penalty for dying. This means you can trial and error your way through every level. Realizing this early on, I challenged myself to complete the game without using a single medkit. I won.
Exploring gets tedious because there is only so much tactical input in a dungeon crawling 2D side-scroller. You open a door. You can shoot, punch, or walk away. It’s almost like a text adventure. Poor enemy variation only contributes to the monotony. . None of the enemies have ranged weapons and you never fight human survivors. So if there’s no variety in movement, no variety in gunplay, and no variety in enemy design, then what do we have left to work with?
Between combat encounters, you’ll ride the rails in your prototype train. Gameplay here is based around resource management and…it’s a disaster. The section goes like this: By exploring each station, you can optionally pick up a survivor. During the train ride to the next area, survivors discuss the world’s lore. While this is happening, the player must complete one of the three tedious and trivial repair minigames to stop the train from breaking down. In addition to repairs, all passengers must be fed and bleeding passengers must be bandaged. Bandaging doesn’t stop a passenger from bleeding, it just refills their health bar.
There are seven reasons why this section doesn’t work as exposition.
- Speech bubbles are behind the minigame HUD.
- The player is constantly leaving the passenger car to fetch more supplies and repair the train.
- Every single conversation is longer than the actual train ride
- Passengers continue to starve and bleed after you’ve reached your destination, but the player has to press a button to “actually” start the next level. This encourages players to end the train ride as quickly as possible, skipping more content.
- Passengers only speak while the player is in the passenger car.
- Speech bubbles only appear above the speaking character’s head.
- Passengers are widely spaced.
All this makes for a frustrating manner of relating exposition. When you have a lot of characters talking at once, they should be placed closely together to allow the player to see what is going on at all times. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare hit this mark perfectly in “The Coup.” Both Skyrim and The Final Station fail in this aspect because characters are placed too widely apart.
If you’re interesting in learning more about this element of expository game design, I would recommend this video.
The conversation comes to a dead stop when the player leaves the passenger car, but the player is constantly bouncing between train cars to fix the train and get more food and bandages. Worse, these sections are on a timer as you balance the power supply, hunger, bleeding, and wait for the train to reach its destination. In addition to that, conversations are different based on which survivors you rescued. If you rescue all six per chapter, there will be far more dialogue than if you only rescued two. As previously stated, hunger and health continue to deteriorate after your train has arrived, meaning that you have to choose between listening to the backstory and getting survivors out alive. Nothing is accomplished in the travel sections because the player is crushed under a mountain of tedious, unengaging busywork.
I won’t drop any spoilers, but when all is said and done I found the world isn’t nearly as expansive or deep as you’re led to believe. I think the reason is because we’re never oriented to the world. As an audience, we can’t even be sure what planet this game takes place on. The result is a game that bluffs you into thinking it’s holding a royal flush when it really has an ace high.
When you have a complex world, like a sci-fi setting, you either need to anchor your audience with some kind of introduction or use everyday words to describe the world. Mad Max does this, Fallout does this, A Boy and His Dog does this, even She Wolves of the Wasteland orients the audience to the world. Any franchise that wants to grow and build its fanbase does so by anchoring and immersing the audience. The Final Station drops you into a 2D world populated by two-dimensional lore and one-dimensional characters.
Tedious gunplay, frustrating resource management, and a story that teases and prods without explanation. The game is only four hours long, but it feels like seven or eight. I’d be more lenient to a $5 game, but The Final Station retails for $15, but feels like a phone app. It’s expansion pack, “The Last Traitor” goes for an additional $5.