You'd be forgiven for rolling your eyes and thinking "here we go again" when you hear the premise of The Final Station, the latest project by Oleg Sergeev, Andrey Rumak and Do My Best. The game is about an apocalypse where zombie-like creatures have ruined mankind and you are one man among the wreckage, a formula that is all too familiar to many, and when you add the detail that you have to manage a train and its passengers as well, that won't do much to convince many to pick it up. Don't be fooled though, The Final Station is a gem of a game and executes all of this incredibly well.
The narrative follows the player, an unnamed train driver in the wasteland of a society where civilisation is on its knees, and you are allocated different tasks by different figures in the world which you are forced to comply with. You are one of the last train drivers in this dying world and you are tasked with carrying important cargo as a result. Throughout the campaign you get the feeling that you are a figure abiding by the principle "theirs not to reason why" as he simply takes orders and travels to where he needs to go, picking up survivors along the way to take to safety.
Gameplay revolves around two things, the first of which are the stops on the train. You start the game in a friendly station and there are several more along the journey, but most of the stations are filled with enemies and you are tasked with finding the blocker code at each station to get the train moving again. The enemies in question are totally black figures that are a result of humans being exposed to an alien force in an event that occurred prior to the events of the game and they range in abilities, some being armoured and some being quick.
The second facet of the gameplay is the train itself. In between each station you play through the train journey and you have to take care of the systems, one of which is always faulty and needs to be manually adjusted by the player, as well as the health and hunger of the passengers, which you can address by using food and medkits you pick up at stations. The incentive to do this is that you get money and rewards for delivering survivors safely to friendly stations, so there is a reason to look for medkits and food on your travels. Ammunition and medkits can also be crafted on the train, a map can be seen and there are also snippets of narrative in these journeys as well which come in the form of messages you receive from other train drivers.
To return to the stations, at least the hostile ones, this is where the core gameplay takes place. Like many apocalypse games, especially ones involving zombies or any variation of them, resources are key. As mentioned, food and medkit ingredients are needed to keep not only yourself but your passengers alive, but there is also ammunition and items to sell for money scattered around these levels. Ammo is the most crucial item to find though, since a 2D game like this does not allow for escape very easily. Sometimes there's no sneaking round big groups of enemies and a gun is needed to take them out. Looking in every room is a must then and this is a game where gathering resources is vital, not just important.
Combat is simple: the right mouse button is a melee attack, the left mouse button shoots and the mouse aims. There are also three guns in the game which can be switched between using tab and the movement is with WASD or directional keys. The game benefits from this simplicity as there isn't much to get to grips with, allowing players to jump straight in and get to grips with the story immediately. What makes the combat so tense, though, is that the game doesn't allow you to see what's in rooms you haven't opened yet, so there are moments of panic when you open a room filled with creatures and have to decide between fight or flight.
The most gripping part about this game is the story and the intrigue it excites, though. From the outset the player is introduced to the mysterious happenings that form the context for the narrative events. There has been this alien force that has affected humanity but the military won't tell the truth, even when they give you important tasks, and you get fleeting messages from other train drivers giving you information that doesn't seem to make sense. The atmosphere of consuming despair, universal worry and crushing hopelessness weighs heavy and this helps plant the seed that it is not about you as a player but about others, helping survivors and doing the tasks you are given in order to maybe help stop the horrors that are happening. This is reinforced by the fact the player says very little during the campaign and that you have to manually carry the resources to survivors on your train, two very subtle but impactful details.
None of this would be possible without the stunning music that Geoff Hart-Jones crafted for the game though. The atmosphere is drilled home by the haunting piano and the slow, eerie tunes that are used sparingly but effectively throughout the game at key moments, being especially poignant during the game's conclusion. A key part about the game's soundtrack and its sound effects though is that silence often reigns supreme. More often than not the only sounds that pierce the quiet are gunshots, footsteps or doors opening. There isn't even any speech in the game as it all takes place via text.
Visually, the pixelated style that is often used for so many cute retro games has now been taken and made into something very different. The colour palette for the pixels are a mixture of greys and blacks, fitting nicely with the dreary world the game crafts, and although all the characters are small they are far from adorable. They are made to look like actual people and this is done very well. The whole world of the game genuinely feels like it is populated with actual people as you pass by various unique faces and figures on your travels. From the trains to the toilets the game looks stunning and the choice of using this style in a dark and sombre game turned out to be a good one.
Level design is also immaculate. In each station the buildings are designed intelligently, often requiring a circular route to obtain the code for the blocker, and the variety offered is similarly impressive. One level that stood out specifically was one where the station had been commissioned by the owner of a mansion on the top of a nearby hill, but upon entering the mansion to get the code you find some sinister secrets. This is all relayed to the player through environmental storytelling and this is one of the standout accomplishments of the game. Some of the eeriest moments of the campaign came from reading notes, messages or any of the other storytelling objects found in the levels, giving the player information on the world and its inhabitants should they desire it.
Unfortunately, as with the preview build we played earlier this year, there is a frustrating lack of tutorials. We benefitted from having played it before, but there is nothing to tell the player how to distribute supplies to survivors, manage the train's power supply or craft items. Some would argue that they are clear on the menu, but since some of these need to be done quickly it would be extremely useful to be told not only that you had to do them, but also how to do them as well.
Another thing that affected the experience somewhat is that the checkpoints were noticeably frequent. In a world where resources are costly, ammunition is scarce and others depend on your survival, there should be a sense of threat, but with checkpoints as regular as they are this isn't the case. Although this is a minor qualm that makes the game slightly easier, you can't help but think to yourself that it doesn't matter if you are to risk your life when there is a checkpoint just behind you, and that goes against what the game is trying to go for.
The Final Station is hauntingly beautiful from start to finish, though, and these criticisms don't make a great deal of difference when it comes to the bigger picture. The game places you in the shoes of an isolated, lonely train driver with the weight of the world on his shoulders and you really feel it, as well as feeling the corrupted world around you. The gameplay, atmosphere and visual style walk smoothly hand in hand together and these help make the zombie apocalypse of The Final Station feel unique and enticing, even in its horror.
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