Review: The Final Station (PC)

tfscoverThe Final Station
Publisher: tinyBuild
Developer: Oleg Sergeev
Genre: Survival Horror
Release Date: 08/30/2016

When it comes to zombie apocalypse games, it would appear at first that no stone has been unturned. That goes doubly so when you throw survival mechanics into the picture. The genre has become so clogged and cluttered that it’s become a complete joke. However, The Final Station aims to jump above the crowed by using a combination of pixel art, a mind bending story told from a hands off approach, and twitch based combat. It also has a train.

At the start of the story, the world is a different place. Some sort of cataclysm left the world in relative ruins. Mankind has congregated into cities that can only be reached by train, and the government is building some sort of powerful defensive weapon to thwart off something called “The Second Visitation”. When people start becoming infected and turning into rage fueled monsters, it’s clear the time to act has come. You play as the conductor of a train meant to deliver precious cargo. Unfortunately, you’ll have to stop at every town you come across in order to find the code that unlocks the way to the subsequent station. Along the way, you’ll rescue survivors, fight off infected hordes, and perhaps piece together the stories of the fallen.

tfs1While the game is linear as can be, the story is told in a hands off fashion. Firstly, the conductor never speaks. Other characters will respond to him as if he’s talking, but you never hear what he says. You aren’t clued in to his motivations until the very end. That’s to say the game goes for the gut with a surprise ending. More to the point, you’re never given a proper history of the world, or told why you’re seeing the things you are. While explanations can sometimes be found in the background, most of the story is left to interpretation. It is up to you to piece together a story from the notes, messages, conversations, and environments you come across. This is potentially disappointing for those hoping for a more straight forward romp.

What the game is good at, though, is setting the mood. Although the main story is often shrouded in mystery, you’ll come across smaller stories in each town. For example, you might come across a note about how an employee is taking a particularly long bathroom break only to later on find an infected bursting out of a stall. These moments never fail to be cool. They keep you invested in the minutiae even as you struggle the piece it all together.

Pixel art is the graphical style of choice for TFS. It’s not uncommon in the least, especially for an indie zombie game. At first glance, the game is unimpressive. The character models are varied, but blocky. However, that refers mostly to the humans. The rest of the package is pretty great. The infected are draped in black, similar to the look of a game like Limbo. Buildings you enter are blacked out and slowly get revealed as you enter each room. The backgrounds are the real star. They showcase a variety of colors, horizons, and effects that really sell the world. The game never looks better than when you’re whizzing by beautiful landscapes in your train. Each environment is also filled with bits of detail and flourish. From darkened tunnels with white lettering to offices with pictures on the desks, it’s a world well sold. The atmosphere is oppressive when it needs to be and awe inspiring when it wants to be. It’s a visual style that never stops finding new ways to stand out.

tfs2As for sound, the game plays it low key. Rarely do you hear music. Typically, the only sounds you hear are the footsteps and door creaks as you move around each level. This only makes the potential cacophony of gunshots more impressive when you end up in a fight. When there is music, it’s dreary piano tunes and acoustic guitars. The music punctuates important moments of the game and those scenes stand out compared to the quieter sections. The audio serves the atmosphere first, and it’s a decision that pays off.

Gameplay in TFS is split into two sections: exploring levels and maintaining the train. Either way, you control the character with the WASD buttons on the keyboard, while the cursor chooses what direction you face. The E button interacts with objects and people alike, the Q button uses up a health kit, and the R button reloads your equipped weapon. During combat, you can fire with a left click, melee with a right click, and switch weapons with the tab button. There are also some simple mini-games that use the cursor to push buttons and pull levers. It’s a simple control scheme that becomes second nature rather quickly.

At each stop, your goal is to find the key code that will unlock your train. This requires exploration. In safe zones, you’re free to look around. You can talk to many people, visit shops to restock, and potentially learn a bit more about the world. Finding the code in these areas usually means reporting to someone in charge and getting your next destination. In infected areas, you have to fight through enemies in order to reach your goal.

tfs3Typical level layout has you move from right to left one way before looping back through a new series of rooms on the way back. While there are more than a few extra rooms and areas you can check, your general path is linear. That is to say that if a locked door hides the key code, you’re going to have to find the key before you can get it. Often doors will be blocked, or there will be a trap door you can’t open from the top. When you loop back, you’ll find yourself coming through those doors the other way. As an interesting note, none of the houses or buildings have stairs. Instead, you have to climb ladders. Perhaps this is part of the game world’s method of dealing with infected. They can’t climb ladders, you see. Either way, it makes for some interesting level layout.

Exploring each level isn’t just for lore’s sake though. You’ll also be on the lookout for scrap and supplies hidden inside lockers, chests, drawers, and so on. Scrap is instantly converted to cash, while supplies are used to craft med kits and bullets while riding the train. You might also find survivors you can bring back to your train.

Of course, what would a zombie game be without zombies? There are four primary archetypes, with some variation after that. You have slow moving ones that shuffle forward and try to grapple you, shorter ones that speed across and take more hits, armored foes that have to have a helmet removed before you finish them off, and zombies that will explode if they get near you. I say zombies, but the game does allow you to take them down without destroying the head. In fact, you can punch most of them to death just fine. The catch is that using fisticuffs gets you close enough to get hit yourself, and swarms can run you down in no time if you try to get too fancy. Still, it’s a good way to save ammo when you can get away with it.

For weapons, you get a pistol, a shotgun, and some throwables. The pistol is fast and efficient, though it doesn’t deal much damage. Ammunition will be plentiful so long as you don’t fire like a maniac and melee once in a while. The shotgun is a powerhouse that will take down most foes in one shot, and has the ability to spread to multiple targets. However, it starts off only able to hold two shots and bullets are much more rare. The good news is that you can melee with the gun for more damage than you can do with your fist. As for the the throwing items, you’ll find items like boxes and chairs you can toss. These will take down any infected they hit, but slow you down while you carry them. They’re also one use only and fairly rare.

tfs4Combat is incredibly fast paced. You almost never have time to think before you’re being swarmed. That’s because the infected will stay inside a room until you open the door or climb down the ladder. Once you activate them, they’ll come running. You won’t often be able to tell they’re there until they’re barreling down at you. The key is to act quickly. If there are throwable objects, use them. If there is room to move back, do it. Fire only when you have a shot and melee only if you can. Even when there are a dozen foes coming at you, the action is often over in just a few seconds. The pace is brutal, but exhilarating.

Dying is, shockingly, of little importance. There are frequent checkpoints throughout each stop, and you’ll suffer no penalty for biting the dust. This means you’re free to keep trying until you get a perfect run.

In between stops, you’ll ride the train. While here, you need to tend to the passengers and the train’s systems. Passengers have a health and hunger meter. You give food to the hungry and aid to the hurt. The kicker is that you only get food and health kits that you find during stops, and the health kits are the same ones you use for yourself. Trickier passengers will have wounds open up that drain their health until you patch them up. Timing the aid is important, as they will keep bleeding out as you go. Your train systems can also malfunction, which can stop the train or stop the oxygen from working. You simply go to the affected system and fix it via a simple mini-game. For example, the ventilation system merely has you pulling the right lever to balance the system out. There are no instructions for these, so you have to figure out the trick. It’s not hard, but it might stump you at first. Passengers can die, but there’s no penalty for this. Instead, you’re rewarded for delivering them to safe zones. Each passenger will tell you what you get if you save them, so losing one is kind of like losing the reward. They will give you cash, supplies, and possibly even weapon upgrades. As such, saving them is well worth it.

From start to finish, the game is roughly four hours. The linear nature and strict level design make subsequent playthroughs less interesting unless you want another crack at solving the game’s cryptic storytelling. While there are some seriously challenging bits, the helpful checkpoint system and simple enemies make the game overall fairly easy to complete. As long as you’re not too reckless, you’ll be fine. It’s mostly about understanding how the works.

Short Attention Span Summary
diehardjack1-150x150The Final Station is a bit of an anomaly. On one hand, the pixel art, fast combat, and attention to detail make it something that most indie gamers would eat right up. On the other hand, the story is perhaps too obtuse, there’s little replay value, and the friendly checkpoint system strips the challenge away. As a result, the more hardcore fans might want to pass this up. Still, the game is atmospheric and fun, which is no small feat. This one is worth a look to be sure, but keep your expectations in check or risk disappointment.



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