The uneven clacking of the train upon the tracks could lull one to sleep, it if wasn’t for the constant dread that the next mile could be your last. They sit in the last car of the train, each from different places and circumstances, but brought together for a singular purpose: survival. Hopefully the next station will bring them safety, but most likely it’ll just be more of those dark creatures and the death they bring.
The Final Station is a 2D side scrolling survival/shooter in a world that’s not quite at its end, but they can see the end from where they stand. You take control of a train conductor whose main goal is to keep going North, despite the constant threats to his life. Along the way, if he can save a few lives, all the better, but sometimes tough decisions have to be made. The game was developed by a small crew, including Oleg Sergeev, Andrey Rumak, and the team of Do My Best; published by tinyBuild (Party Hard, SpeedRunners).
The Final Station is available on Steam, PS4, Xbox One, Linux, Android, iOS, and now the Nintendo Switch for $14.99.
The Final Station subscribes to the lesson that “less is more,” and that is none clearer than in its presentation of the story and lore. Nothing is ever explicitly told to you, the player, and very little is told to the protagonist. Instead, information is gleamed from scraps of paper, overheard conversations, and simply exploring the world around you.
In the game, you play a train conductor who is trying to go North, stopping at each station along the way for supplies, survivors, and the code needed to progress. These same survivors will carry on conversations with you and each other on the train, discussing their lives, as they are, amidst the chaos of a tragedy-plagued world. These talks are brief and not particularly gripping, so you can be forgiven for leaving the car out of disinterest. The basic theme they all follow is one of tragedy and diminishing hope.
The world is built up nicely, at least, through this minimalist means of storytelling. Discovering the information for yourself is always more impactful and interesting than just being told the state of things by some narrator in the beginning or exposition dump when appropriate. Scattered throughout the abandoned and derelict homes and places of businesses you’ll find curious things, such as an underground fighting ring, or chairs rigged to drop their occupants into a nest of monsters.
While the world building is nice, and there are some key moments when the backdrop will give a surprising piece that makes the puzzle take a new shape, the story itself isn’t anything the average player hasn’t already experienced before. There’s a plague of monsters, mysterious crashed objects, and humanity’s last hope to combat some greater, unseen, threat. In a game that plays its cards close to its chest, the ending it has will likely leave a few players scratching their heads and wondering what happened and why.
There are two main modes of play in The Final Station: on the train and off the train. While you are on the train, you are maintaining both the train itself and its passengers. Keeping the train running is a very easy affair, as of each of its parts, only one will be malfunctioning per trip, so you only need to check on that one spot. The passengers themselves have two needs: food and medicine. Most of your passengers won’t need first aid, but their health will diminish if you let them get to a starving status. While food is just for the passengers, first aid has to be shared between them and you. It’s unwise to leave yourself with no first aid before coming to a stop, even it means saving a life.
While the game tries to stress the importance of rationing your provisions, in the case of first aid and food you’ll rarely reach a point where you’re left empty (so long as you explore as much as you safely can and remember you can craft first aid kits). During my playthrough, only one passenger died before reaching a safe point, due to having used up all the med kits I had available. A dead passenger can’t pay for the ride, so if you want to be able to afford the nice gun upgrades like laser sight, keeping them alive is important. However, if all of your passengers die, well that won’t stop you from completing the game. You just might not feel great about it afterward.
At each stop, the conductor has to get off and hunt down the code for the blocker that keeps you from moving forward. This forces the player to explore the various towns you stop at, looking for the code while avoiding the monsters. The shadowy enemies can be a serious threat to a player that didn’t ration their bullets well or if there is a great number of them. Each room you go into must be considered a threat, and the player must be ready to retreat back to avoid being swarmed. While rationing first aid and food isn’t difficult, maintaining a necessary number of bullets can be. Bullets can be rationed by using melee, going for headshots, throwing heavy items, and generally remembering that not every enemy has to die, so long as you can find an alternate route. The game would have benefitted greatly by more alternate routes and means of distracting and sneaking past enemies. While these paths exist, they are fewer than ideal. Most cases need to be solved with violence.
Actually controlling the gun fire is something of a sore spot for this title, unfortunately. Perhaps it’s from not playing a shooter of any kind on console for years, exclusively using mouse and keyboard when available, but I found the controls to be too restricted to be as precise as I needed them to be (for consistent headshots). The cursor constantly wants to stay in one of the eight cardinal directions, and enemy heads are rarely in those spots. It’s frustrating constantly fighting with the controls like that. It never made the game unplayable, but a slight irritation is persistent.
The Final Station’s graphics are on the simpler end of the indie-pixel spectrum, but it doesn’t suffer for this. When it needs to be, the art explodes off the screen, immediately grabbing the player’s attention and pulling them into the world it’s creating for them to explore. The player and enemy models aren’t simple, but rather they are as complex as they need to be in order to show what’s necessary, not what isn’t. By having an emotionless face for the conductor, the player can better implant their own feelings onto their avatar.
It’s recommended to take a little time to appreciate how much of the world has been created with specific stories in mind. Homes and businesses all have stories to tell, be it through the art or through laptop conversations left open for the player to find. It’s not just an apartment building, it’s an apartment building where the landlord has set up cameras in certain rooms, or a tenant is a conspiracy nut, evidenced by all the paper and string on his wall. It helps to give the world some flavor and character.
While the world is bursting with visual storytelling, there is almost nothing in the way of audio. Music is rarely heard, only appearing during very key moments in the story. While having no music in a game can help set a tense and suspenseful mood, when every town is so quiet, it becomes the norm and thus loses its effect. It would have been great to see sound used more effectively in the game, such as listening for monsters behind a door. Instead, what sound you’ll usually hear is just the train moving, the gun firing and reloading, and walking on the mushy ground – all of which are very satisfying to hear, but they keep limited company.
In a strange way, having little audio helps the visual be more impactful, as it’s all the player can focus on. While this is a powerful tool, the boost to the visual appreciation is not greater than the sum of good visuals and audio. Life is missing from many of the towns in The Final Station, both in its inhabitants and in the sounds of the world. Limited audio would have been more appropriate if sound could alert enemies to your location.
The Final Station is a mixed bag of tense gameplay and dull stretches of time. While exploring ruins with only three bullets to your name, and countless monsters ahead of you, is suspenseful, taking care of the passengers on your train is not. Train maintenance simply doesn’t serve the game in a purposeful manner, and instead feels like a chore rather than a gameplay feature one looks forward to playing. Helping survivors means great boons of cash and items, but if there was some greater purpose to saving them then it would be a more interesting, and stressful when the supplies run low, experience.
Fighting the monsters is at least proper levels of suspense and thrills. The challenge of the game is tough but fair, with frequent deaths something the player should expect to see but don’t let it turn you away from playing further. It’s a short adventure, coming in between 4 to 5 hours, not including the included add-on campaign. There was a slight problem with performance, as the game would freeze for a couple seconds whenever one of the passengers was getting close to death. A good indicator to bring them aid, but an annoying one nonetheless. For a $15 price tag, there could be simply too little game for some players. If you’re looking for a game that doesn’t hold your hand, where exploration is encouraged, despite its dangers, then this might just be the game for you.
|+ Amazing visual storytelling.||– Lacking audio presence.|
|+ Tense survival gameplay.||– Some performance issues.|