They could have called The Final Station [official site] ‘zombies on a train’ but they didn’t, and I think we should all respect them for that. In any case, the zombies don’t really go onto the train itself, and in any case they might be some sort of shadow-ghoul. Don’t ask me, I just kill ’em. Or get killed by them. Rather a lot, as it happens.
In closed beta for now, The Final Station has grander plans than just what’s in the sole chapter I’ve played. Which is just as well, as already I’m worrying that its great ideas and simmering tension risk becoming as repetitious as a daily commute to Slough. I like it, but it’s oddly rigid.
Here’s the setup: some kind of end of the world event has done what end of the world events do, leaving you coasting around the remains of civilization on your very own train. You pick up passengers who you must keep alive, but mostly you explore zombie-shadow-ghoul-thing-infested stations and settlements in search of passcodes which enable you to move on to the next zombie-shadow-ghoul-thing-infested station. The act of hunting around these stations, in a side-on, 2D, architectural perspective that to some extent evokes Gunpoint, is tense and challenging. Frightening, actually – there’s a little survival horror in here.
Bullets are limited in number, melee is savagely dangerous. More than one enemy is more than enough to be lethal. There’s a touch of the Dark Souls to it, in terms of having to approach each new junction with extreme trepidation and having little to no margin of error, and in a vaguely Metroidvania structure to the levels.
Maps and enemy locations are fixed, so we have hand-tailored challenges rather than the random ebb and flow of a roguelite, and it’s really not afraid to let you paint yourself into a corner. Expend too many bullets too soon and you may well have to restart the entire level, as there’s simply no way to make it past the veritable horde of zombie-shadow-ghoul-things lurking in the next room with melee alone.
The Final Station, such as is available so far, steadily turns up the heat, so the frightening sight of three enemies in one tiny room soon gives way to a parking lot filled with the best part of a dozen. The urge to try and kill everything has to be kept in check, because there just aren’t enough bullets and in any case you’ll probably get swamped in the process.
Sporadic thrown objects – toilets, chairs, TVs – are invaluable, because they score a one-shot kill against even armoured enemies. I’ve found myself lugging a post-apocalyptic crapper across half a level because I was so short on rounds. Worth it.
Levels are gently maze-like, all locked doors and impassable obstacles in order to loop you the longest way around, with a few secret rooms tucked about the place in addition to more overt ammo and health stores. You’ll also need to keep an eye out for food and cash: the former is used to keep any survivors alive on your long train ride and the latter to buy stuff in civilian settlements, though that’s not in the game yet.
It’s tense and it’s difficult, as I say. I died a lot, and at least a few times I was ready to declare it unfair, before resetting the level and taking another pass at it, this time avoiding more enemies and making sure that every single shot counted. I’m not sure the melee is quite as well telegraphed as it could be; it’s set up to do hit’n’retreat combat but I’m no good at predicting quite when an enemy will strike, so got my railroad-cruising bottom handed to me regularly. I need more toilets, basically.
My abiding concern – which may well prove unfounded as this thing shifts and flexes during beta – is one of structure. I ride my train to a station, run these very linear levels, find a passcode, tap it in then get back on my train. While on the train, I pass the time by schlepping back and forth to provide limited food and medkits to suffering passengers, and sporadically fiddle with two power meters that stop stuff from malfunctioning. Given how train-themed The Final Station is, the train side of it is deeply boring. And not pleasant ‘Euston to Glasgow on a quiet Spring morning’ boring; mindless busywork boring. Compounding the boredom, these sections go on far too long.
Similarly, that each level climaxes with the obtaining a four-digit PIN code which merely grants you license to do that boring train ride again is deflating. Those in which you also take a survivor or two with you have a stronger sense of accomplishment, though until the Settlements come into play all this really means is more dragging food and healthkits around on the boring train ride, like a sort of sub-Sims on rails. There’s no choice of destinations as yet, though I believe we might get this in later builds – but right now, it is indeed haha on rails haha.
It’s onto something: a creepy, appropriately difficult not-zombie game with a neat style (the unexplained but immense post-apocalyptic backdrops put me in mind of the ageless Canabalt). It’s just that, so far, the train stuff isn’t doing much for me. This is not FTL on a train, or The Oregon Trail at the end of the world: it’s a slick, moody side-scrolling action game with tedious train cutscenes in between. Sure, I want to see what’s further on down the line, but I hope later builds can liven up the journey.