Friday, October 7, 2016

Review: The Final Station

The Final Station
Developer: Oleg Sergeev , Andrey Rumak , Do My Best
Publisher: tinyBuild

Duplicity is the word that best describes The Final Station. From the onset, it starts off in a rather vague and terrifying way, involving zombie like creatures, churches, and people with glowing eyes. That all sounds well and good, but there is something underneath the surface that wants to get out and it doesn't follow the rules. Something that defies your logical mind and dares you to take another look at the big picture. Having beaten and enjoyed the game, I couldn't help but feel as if I had missed something important. When the credits roll you are left with nothing but a sour taste in your mouth and far more questions then answers.

All of this could be attributed to the games mechanics or vague method of storytelling. Some would say that the game is genius and requires a keen eye to understand the greater meaning of the Conductors journey. I found myself somewhere in the middle, enjoying the grim tones but frustrated with silly inconveniences in the design of the game.

The basic gist of the game is that you are a Conductor during a strange event that seemingly starts the end of the world. You are tasked with maintaining your train, its passengers, and supplies. At every train stop there is a blocker that prohibits your progress and requires a four digit code hidden somewhere in the town, facility, etc. There is a focus on survival and playing smart. The game boasts about not being able to shoot your way out of every situation and having to make hard decisions about who lives or dies on your train. There is crafting, gun mods, and even some shops at certain stations.

Sadly, for every thing that works well, there is something that either by purposeful design or oversight, makes the game easy, too easy. These are the key things I wanna touch on before anything else. There are two modes to the game, train management and survival/combat.
As mentioned before every train stop has a code that must be found somewhere in the level, usually nearing the end or behind some sort of locked door. After finding the code to move on, the game usually provides you with an alternate path to the beginning to keep things from becoming a retread of what you've already seen. Speaking to level design, the developers did an amazing job using the pixelated art style to express decay, destruction, and general end of the world themes. No level ever felt the same and each one has its own story to tell. Despite its theme being grim, it never felt dull.

The problems start with survival/combat. One of these problems is the black ooze monsters which I will refer to as zombies, even though they are not zombies. The zombies are very stupid, they shamble towards you or run at you in varying speeds depending on the type. There are zombies that wear armor, some explode, some latch onto you. Some of them require a varying degree of strategy to kill. One problem is that failure/death has no consequence. You simply revert to a checkpoint and know whats ahead and how to deal with it. This makes using medkits pointless as you can get through an entire level with one health bar. This in turn, makes an aspect in train management far too easy.

Another issue is that the way levels are designed, ladders are your best friend and worst enemy. Depending on the situation, the ladder will allow you to charge up a Power Punch, which is the games form of melee combat. This kills zombies rather quickly and makes using a gun nearly unnecessary. So you just end up repeating, going up and down and power punching everything to death and moving along. On the flip side, the game has certain ladders that don't let you charge a power punch at all. This leads to situations where you are sitting and waiting for zombies to move away from the base of the ladder so you can shoot them or throw a chair/tv at them. Why not just charge em' and grow a pair? Cause you are super squishy and die in about 3 to 5 swipes, not to mention the zombies tend to group up on the bottom of a  ladder.

 (Protip: Chairs/TVs are god weapons and kill everything in one shot.)

Waiting for zombies to move away really slows down the action and almost seems silly at times. Using my power punch, I had more bullets/medkits then I could ever use. To be fair though, there were moments where I was surprised and killed despite my best efforts. The lack of consequences at death made the game far too easy.

A simple degradation of your passengers or loss of a medkit would've raised the stakes a bit for me to care if I died. Despite the issues, I still loved playing the game, it's rather addictive and the tone kept me on the edge of my seat.

 Which brings me to the train management portion of the game. Along your many stops you will find survivors that you can bring aboard your train for a reward of money, supplies or gun mods. These passengers have two needs, medicine and food. The train itself also requires maintenance by making sure no one section is using up too much power. Managing power boils down to switch flipping mini-games and that in itself is rather repetitive. There is a main console that lets you speak to other conductors on occasion and serves as the crafting station. Which I didn't learn until about my fifth mission.

The meat of the story/narrative is presented here through your passengers. During travel you will speak to them and see their interactions with other people, discussing events and giving you insight into the world. The problem is that the passengers seemingly are hemophiliacs and constantly need to eat. Between bringing medkits, food, crafting, conductor messages or maintaining the train you miss most of the dialogue which sometimes is off screen and fades away. I would've loved to hear what happened in the last town but Tom's damn toe won't stop bleeding and the brain box needs me to constantly flip it or it explodes.

The management sections aren't difficult but just don't lend themselves to reading the narrative of the game. I missed a good 60% of conversations because I had to run around before the timers ran out and we hit the next stop. You could just focus on passenger survival and say screw the rest and then repeat the section but that seems a bit much and doesn't flow. As mentioned before due to my abundance of medkits, I never lost a passenger or really failed. It just all ends up feeling like a chore more than fun. It wasn't my favorite section of the game.

Finally, the story of The Final Station is either going to really mystify you or piss you off. After I beat the game, I cruised through Steam forums, reddits, anything I could find to break everything down so I could digest it and understand. What I found was many confused people and about a dozen theories to the events of the game. Some suggesting it was a simple story about aliens visiting, another about an escaped convict trying to make it home, another about government corruption. It could be all these things and it could be none of them. Which is what in retrospect I admire about the game. It defies traditional storytelling and unabashedly gives you the finger. For that alone, I would gladly recommend The Final Station to anyone.

From the music, tone and graphic depiction of the end of civilization, The Final Station has many merits and deserves your attention. While some of the game elements could've been sharper, it doesn't take away from the grand puzzle of a story that the developers have made.

Replayability is dependent on the user and how much they want to dissect every letter and scene.
The game is about five to six hours in length so it hardly overstays its welcome. Just be ready to ask questions and have only yourself to answer them once all is said and done.

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