The Final Station: Next Stop, Conflicting Gameplay
The Final Station is a post-apocalyptic shooter exploration pixel art game developed by Do My Best and published by Tiny Build games. Now, what makes it immediately stand out from the slew of zombie survival games we already have today is not only the distinct art style, but the setting. For much of the game, you’re on a train, and the main character is a train conductor desperately trying to deliver his cargo while the world as he knows it is collapsing around him.
In the first moments of the game, you’re immediately plunged into the gameplay without context, giving you a chance to get used to the controls and how to move around. You’re then jolted out of this “teach yourself” tutorial when the Conductor wakes up and that’s where our story actually begins. It also sets up the despondent atmosphere with its pixel art graphics and urgent yet sorrowful soundtrack. Then add onto that the multi-layered story, and it seems that we’d have a surefire hit of a game.
We have the Conductor, who has some sort of backstory that makes characters hesitate to give him the job in the first place; the things he’s delivering for the government; the people within the cities wondering why the government is keeping secrets from them, and then the people within the apocalypse who you get to read about their last moments on tiny pieces of paper. As you can see that’s a lot of story layers, but the question is does The Final Station succeed at telling all these individual stories in a somewhat cohesive way?
Well... sort of
Don’t misunderstand, I do enjoy how The Final Station has set up this multi-layered story, but the way that the game is set up makes it hard for them to tell the players the story they want to. No matter what, the player will get the two baseline stories of the Conductor and the thing he’s delivering, but whether or not they work is ultimately up for interpretation. I thought the conductor's story worked since it’s hinted at throughout the game, but the government's is a more stereotypical, evil government hiding things from us sort of thing.
Unfortunately, the other layers either fall by the wayside, or they’re just there. You’ll get a general idea of the civil unrest that’s going on in this world by just walking through the non-zombified areas, but otherwise nothing comes of it other than a few angry words between your survivors. Which brings me to my next point of contention; in all of the zombie levels you have to explore the area to find a pass code to release your train. On the way you’ll find little pieces of paper on the wall that tells the last survivor stories which can either lead you to their tragic end or to another survivor you can take with you on your train.
Which is all fine and dandy when you say that sentence out loud, right? How can that be a bad thing? Well, the problem lies in what you have to do to get more of this story, and that’s actively risk your life to add more depth to a story. This isn’t like Transistor where you’ll get more story about each of the characters by using your abilities more or going slightly off the beaten path. The Final Station doesn’t make you go slightly off the beaten path; you go all the way to Xanadu in order to get some of these pieces of story. I wouldn’t mind this nearly as much if it wasn’t for one solitary thing.
Trial and Error gameplay
The problem lies in zombie levels themselves because what ends up happening is, you’ll go down the stairs into a room and then surprise, a zombie is there to eat your face. It sends you back to the nearest checkpoint which isn’t so bad but you think to yourself, “Okay now I’m going to be able to kill it”. Then you go there again, kill those zombies, open up the door to the next room and surprise more zombies! Let me abate any possible feelings of “WELL YOU SHOULD BE MORE PREPARED,” because here’s the thing about that: you can’t prepare for what’s going to happen next.
You can certainly try, and I did; I would always back away from the doors to shoot at the zombies heads or prepare to beat them down with my manly fist. Even then though, there was a fifty/fifty chance that I’d die. I could shoot and kill all the zombies, but I might accidentally walk too far one direction and get mobbed by another horde. Or I use all of my ammo to take on a fairly sizable horde, only to get eaten by the rest, not knowing I was just supposed to run through them and only blow some of them aside. Sure you get sent back only a little ways to a checkpoint, but the game tries to be punishingly difficult in order to hammer in its intense atmosphere, yet fails to do so when all you get is a slap on the wrist. It’s like getting put in a Groundhog Day of death but the difference is it only takes you back a few seconds.
this is what makes looking for other survivors or more of the story not worth the amount of resources you spend on just finding them in the first place. You get rewards, sure, but that hardly holds up to what you have to spend. What’s disappointing about this is that the shooting mechanics are fine, exploration is fine and even the combat is just fine. You get things to blow up, things to punch and things to throw. It checks off all the boxes on what should at the very least be workable in a shooter survival exploration game. There’s even a mini game in the train where you need to keep your passengers alive by giving them food and medicine in order to get their reward at the end.
You can run out of med kits while you’re out in the field, and while you can craft things like ammo and medicine, you might have to sacrifice a passenger in order keep the rest of them safe. It’s some of the most rewarding parts of the game and if you just breeze through the level not finding out that stories third layer, while you do miss parts of the game, you may end up enjoying the game more. Which I should add isn’t a compliment.
There’s quite a bit The Final Station does well when it comes to the tense atmosphere in each level or even on the train. You’ll find your breath taken away by the stunning visuals or you may hold your breath as the passengers of the train speak of something tense while you’re in their car taking care of them. There will be times where you will run out of ammo by mistake and you may need to run through the hordes, frantically searching for a place to reload. The Zombies themselves have this inky black look about them, giving them an appearance that they’re almost like liquid by the way they move, which adds a unique element to them. When you shoot them in the chest, they stagger them and it’s like your bullets just sink into this gelatinous mass.
The Final Station works so very well in these moments that it’s almost easy to forget that the frankly obnoxious trial and error gameplay exists... That is until you open a door and see a bunch of zombies with various hazards inside, that you know you’re going to die no matter what. The reaction isn’t “Let’s do this.” While loading your gun, or “I hope I can make it out of this alive.” While aiming your laser sights at the zombie's head, it’s “Oh great, I wonder how many tries this is going to take before I can beat this level/video game.”
It just breaks the immersion, which a game like The Final Station relies on in order to keep you invested
The Final Station is a tense game that I really did like playing, but that glaring flaw that it has prevents me from adoring the game like I wanted to. It just didn’t seem to know if it wanted to be a punishingly difficult rogue-like or a tense survival game, which ends up ruining what could have been an amazing title. There’s a lot to love here, but there’s also a glaring crack in this train's engine that you just can’t ignore.