Wot I Think: The Final Station

I hate ladders, ladders are my enemy. The world is coming to an end; I am driving a temperamental train to one forsaken town after another; I am rescuing survivors and then mopping up their remains when they expire in my carriage; and I am hunting for the tools to advance amid derelict buildings full of zombie-like silhouette monsters. But it’s the ladders in The Final Station that provide the largest obstacle.

The Final Station is an austere, side-scrolling action game. The world is experiencing a “second visitation”, of what it’s not clear, but the result is a lot of people being killed, often by their panicked fellow humans, and a new population of violent silhouettes with beady white eyes. As a train driver, you’re given an order to travel south with some important cargo, and at each stop you’re forced to disembark and search for an access code that lets you continue on your journey.

That splits the game into two halves: train sections, and on foot sections. The train parts are simple enough. During each journey, one part of your train will be malfunctioning and require you to pull a level/hammer a button/time your button presses in order to maintain it. Meanwhile the passengers in your carriage, who you rescue in your on foot sections, will require feeding and healing while they fill in the story by bantering among themselves. It feels like busywork and quickly becomes rote, but you’re given money as a reward if you can get the survivors to their destination settlement in one piece. That money, in turn, can be used at vendors in those settlements to buy ammo, health packs and more food.

The other half, and the core of the game, is spent on foot. Each hand-designed level works the same way: you arrive at the station to find that the person who has the code to unlock the barrier blocking your train has wandered off somewhere else. You must adventure further in search of them, or what remains of them, and thus deal with the monsters you find along the way.

Those inky enemies come in different varieties; they’re unnamed, so I’ll give them my own. There’s the Shamblers, who trundle slowly towards you and swipe when they get near; the Rushers, who run at you quickly and lunge and bite when within range; the Tallboys, who are like Shamblers but taller and more powerful; the Armored Shamblers, who must be melee’d once to remove their helmet and then shot in the head to finish; the Exploders, who are on fire and blow up when close or when shot; and the Humpers, who run at you like the Rushers do and latch on to you in order to do damage.

Like much zombie fiction, in isolation no single enemy poses much threat to you. The inconvenience is that you’ll rarely encounter them on their own, that ammo is at times scarce, and that you can never see what’s in a room ahead until you open the door. If it’s a couple of Shamblers, then great; you can edge backwards while punching them in order to conserve ammo and never get hit. If it’s an Exploder on his own, then that’s still fine; shoot him at range and he’ll explode harmlessly. If it’s an Armored Shambler with an Exploder behind him, then that’s where things get trickier. Shooting the Exploder will cause him to blow up and take the Armored Shambler with him, but the Armored Shambler is in front and will deflect the bullets. You need to get close, punch him to knock off his helmet, then shoot him to kill him, and then deal with the Exploder who by now has probably already got close enough and detonated.

You have three weapons with which to deal with the problem: a pistol, a shotgun and a rifle. You’ll spend most of the game using the pistol, as you don’t get the rifle till near the end and because shotgun ammo is more scarce. You can also pick up various items in the environment, such as crates, office chairs and for some reason toilets, to throw them at enemies for a one-hit kill, though whether you can do so quickly enough while being rushed by enemies is another question.

Yet the largest challenge I faced were ladders: it takes a few moments to get on and off them and enemies can strike you in the head before your weapon has a clear shot to allow you to fight back. More often than not you’re going to spend your time either thoughtlessly firing bullets into crowds in order to thin their number or backwalking and punching.

This is a problem. The Final Station feels like a game that should be about the tension between exploring more in pursuit of resources and survivors, and avoiding further risk in favour of boarding the train again as quickly as possible. Instead enemies often feel like little more than an inconvenience, rather than an outright threat. You’ll learn simple tricks to dealing with them and by about two-thirds through the game I had gathered enough crafting materials to make everything I needed in abundance on the train between missions. Even when I did die, I was only ever set back to a checkpoint with little or no progress lost.

In many games that generous checkpoint system would be a boon, but here, without even a cost in terms of resources, it removes any sense of fear from the world. You can afford to be rash and, with the threat depleted, that leaves the on foot sections often feeling rote by the end of the game, too.

Yet it’s not a damning issue. Though I was ready for it to end when it did, I enjoyed myself for the game’s 4-5 hour running time. There is a satisfying sense of exploration as you move through levels, revealing each room, rescuing survivors, and gradually finding your way through each of its locked doors. That’s helped by the level design, which neatly loops back on itself each time to stop you ever needing to backtrack towards your train, and through which much of the story of the world is told. You’ll discover notes on tables and walls that you can read, revealing details about what went on in the buildings before you arrived, and the buildings themselves vary from blocks of apartments, to mountaintop mansions home to some dread machinery, underground research facilities with grisly experiments happening inside, and new cities built into cliff faces.

The story these locations and notes tell runs the sci-fi, fantasy and supernatural gamut, hinting at but never outright stating a backstory involving aliens, viruses, giant robots, tentacled beasts and more. You glean details in part through conversations with NPCs you meet at settlements, which are short and never particularly witty, but which are more engaging by the fact that your character seems to speak but you never see your own dialogue, thus forcing you to piece the context of people’s responses together in your own mind. Oddly you’re also able to have conversations via a communication link on the train, this time with occasional choices about what to say, and there you do see your responses.

The Final Station is a simple game, which is always just compelling enough for its duration. I’ve come to think of it as an efficient, low budget horror movie: it has a high concept it can’t afford to show directly and so it wrings as much as it can from the mystery and the satisfaction of piecing the plot together from snippets. It’s only a shame that its action suffers more from never having a particularly interesting concept of its own.

The Final Station is out tomorrow on Windows and Mac via Steam and Humble for £11/$15/€15, with a 20% discount at the time of writing.

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14 Comments

  1. seroto9 says:

    It’a odd that you have to describe each level as ‘hand designed’. I know why: lately it’s becoming rare that something isn’t procedurally-generated.

    I’m not sure how I feel about that: you have a superb realistic galaxy in Elite – which becomes same-y despite its random element. Then you have silly dino-frogs in NMS…it’s a mixed blessing.

    • ButteringSundays says:

      Elite may utilise procedural generation, but the galaxy isn’t ‘random’, it’s modelled on our own milky way.

      There’s a place for both, besides, and there’s no better or worse. You get awful handmade environments just as frequently as awful generated ones, and the reverse.

      I don’t consider there to be anything wrong with NMSs proc gen, incidentally, but I’m one of the few that had my expectations grounded in reality rather than expecting some kind of alternative reality to rival our own.

    • malkav11 says:

      Despite? I think much more likely because of.

      Any time you generate things algorithmically they’re inherently going to be samey because they are literally being made based on the same algorithm and not, say, tuned to differing purposes based on sentient input. (Which is why I was skeptical of NMS from the beginning and feel largely vindicated on said skepticism.)

  2. Shadow says:

    I was mildly interested in this, due to its post-apoc nature and atmosphere, but 15 dollars seems like a steep price to pay for 4-5 hours worth of content, particularly if the game is only merely decent.

    • machstem says:

      I spent 20$ on Firewatch and it was about that amount with some sense of replay. I ran the entire game in about 6hrs, admiring the art, etc, and I felt my 20$ was incredibly well spent.

      • Shadow says:

        That’s fine. Everyone has criteria to decide purchases.

        For $20 I bought Factorio, a robust, deep game which I’ve played for over 40 hours. That’s what I consider money particularly well spent, given I’d have only expected 20 hours from it.

        • Kaeoschassis says:

          Just since it’s something I happened to be thinking about lately while browsing through my games – the two I own with the best cost-to-gameplay-hours ratio are FTL (less than £2, 160-ish hours or more) and Doom2 (I mean, I had it back in the day, but since I re-bought it for, again, less than £2, I’ve had over 200 hours from it in various states from vanilla to modded-to-hell). Of course I absolutely wouldn’t expect a ratio that good from every single purchase, I don’t even particularly use that to determine if my money was well spent or not, but it did amuse me.

          I guess I’m easily amused, now I think of it.

    • zarniwoop says:

      I’m not particularly interested in this game, but the number of hours you spend playing a game has always struck me as a ridiculous measure of value. I don’t judge films or books on how long they last, and I’m not sure many other people do either.

      One of the best gaming experiences I’ve had was 30 Flights of Loving, which is extremely short. I paid £4 for it. There have been many games that I’ve paid less for, or even got for free that I’ve played for far longer. They don’t feel like better value to me.

      The problem with the cost-time ratio, is that if you take it to its logical extreme, then free games are automatically infinitely good value for money. It doesn’t value the cost of your time, nor does it take into account the fact that some of the most memorable experiences of our lives, and some of our greatest works of art are short.

      • poliovaccine says:

        It is just tempting for people (not just us Americans, but people too) to think “bigger is better,” or “more means more value,” and that is why we hurt ourselves eating (and passing) things from Chipotle that weigh more than your average newborn. But games, like almost anything capable of variation, do tend to have a “sweet spot” (with “strict/pure” simulations kinda being the big exception I can think of offhand – since with those, if you’re in for the premise, you’re probably in for it indefinitely – no narrative to SimCity, say, to get you sensing middles or ends.. and no amount of Microsoft Train Simulator that will make you suddenly bored with trains).

        But yeah, that sweet spot… I dont think it’s a fixed number, but rather a function or byproduct of the content. Like, my least favorite thing about Far Cry 3 was that there was so damned *much* of it. If it had just focused itself a little more, reigned itself in a bit, it never would have given me enough time to start getting sick of it… I came late to that party, so by the time I was first starting to enjoy it, I was already aware of complaints about a map choked with icons/side stuff/minigames/ubisoft boilerplate… and at first I though, “pish posh, these ritalin-bred brats look at a city and yawn – im sure i wont mind having lots of extra, totally optional content…” and while it does still sort of feel like looking a gift horse in the mouth, guess what? To this day I’ve never finished it.. my interest was too thinned by the glut of activities, even though that interest was enough that, for a game half that size/length/icon-density/whatever, it would’ve totally been enough to carry me, and would’ve probably left me enjoying replays to boot… but I saw what people were talking about, in other words.

        Frankly, as much as I like big, open worlds in games, they so rarely work for me in any kind of straight action title. To me you really need those RPG-style elements to create the level of personal investment in those worlds befitting of their levels of detail, and the scale of their similated life… it just seems like such a shame to have some living, breathing, bottled city full of little lives… and your only means of interacting with them is to punch or shoot them, or run them over in cars. And your only means of interacting with the world itself is by looting it of objevtively valuable game resources, rendering the locations they came from objectively “spent, finished, used, rendered unto entropy, heretofore officially pointless to ever come visit again.”

        Sometimes you get lucky and these worlds are crafted with such love that the experience of being in them itself IS innately valuable… for me those games are Vampire: Bloodlines, Morrowind, Fallout New Vegas, else.heart()break, The Sims, Mafia (with my free ride mod), Thief 3 if you can believe it (mostly for the fun possibilities related to the AI), Hitman (Codename 47, Silent Assassin, Blood Money, Contracts, take yr pick), Consortium (which I name here both for its strongly equivocal sense of place and for the fact that it benefits from being rather short), and precious few others… these games all offer worlds (either in their totalitu or just from level to level) I feel like I can actually *live in,* and it’s really hard to pin down what about em makes that so. But a big part of that is clearly knowing when theyre outstaying their welcome..

        Also, Consortium has a similar conceit as this featured game, of taking place in a single big vehicle, a ship instead of a train but whatever, and it stands as a good example of how a keenly simulated, lovingly populated-and-assembled yet *small* game world can be more engrossing and rewarding, and sometimes even offer more fun possibilities, than a whole “open world” without a single original idea on its big lonesome map.

        Incidentally, these days trying to play GTA3 is about as immersive as watching sea monkeys. Of course, when it was new it sent my imagination wild with notions of what games would be in the future. At the time, I was just thrilled with the details like those little fade-ins you got every time you crossed into a different district, I liked the districts being named and visually distinct, and how the density of hooker NPCs was dialed up in the Red Light District, and etc, etc…

        …btw, even tho I own GTAV, after having seen it being played, I’ve put off *for years* actually playing it (well okay, ive played *a little,* but only at a friend’s, never my.own copy)… why, you might ask? Because it is clearly one of those games I won’t burn out on anytime soon… starting a new character/storymode in a game like that is, for me, basically tantamount to deciding to try heroin, “just to see what all the fuss is about…” That “good buy for cost:play-hours ratio” thing hits its parabolic peak right at GTAV for me… after which point, it will start degrading into a (“simulated har har”) experience of enslavement..!

        • poliovaccine says:

          My bad haha, this happens to all my posts when I decide to start typing concurrent with starting a fresh cup of coffee…

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    gritz says:

    Please use the RPS tag “ladders”

  4. Hobbes says:

    Lieeees! Tricksy hobbitsses! It’s not out until tomorrowses!

    30th of Augustsses! Gollum!

  5. twaitsfan says:

    Ugh. Damn. Wanted this to be good. I wonder if it’s a conscious decision, an artifact of flawed design or poor balancing that makes games easy enough that it lacks the tension of a tough but fair challenge. By now I would figure that with the successes of Dark Souls, FTL, Darkest Dungeon, Don’t Starve, Hyper Light Drifter etc. it would be apparent that erring on the side of difficult seems to be a safe bet.