Indie Quickie: Final Exam

It takes a lot longer to fully review a game than it does to get a good sense of what a game is. Even with a full-time staff of writers it would be impossible to fully review the thousands of games that are released every year. Indie Quickie is our way to offer snap impressions of the countless indie titles small teams and one-man game studios are releasing literally every single day, and to help guide players to worthwhile games they may not have heard about before.

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What is it? A 1 to 4 player 2.5D side-scrolling beat ‘em up platformer/shooter starring a team of cliché teen horror movie characters who return to their old high school to get their party on, but end up having to save the town from an invasion of monsters. The game is loosely related to the Obscure survival horror series, but bears no resemblance in terms of gameplay or visual style.

Who made it and where can you get it? Final Exam is out today on Steam and the U.S. PlayStation Network for PS3 at a price of $9.99, and will be available tomorrow on EU PSN and on Xbox Live Arcade this Friday. It was developed by Mighty Rocket Studios, a new indie studio founded by former members of Hydravision Entertainment (yes, the studio behind the aforementioned Obscure series).

How much did we play? I have passed the exam with flying colors on four of the campaign’s eight missions, playing in online co-op with Tim for three of those stages before replaying a couple more to get a feel for solo play and improve high scores.

Any technical concerns or hardware requirements you should know about? On a few occasions I encountered a weird glitch when trying to pick up objects where as soon as I picked something up it immediately jumbled around and fell back to the ground, forcing me to repeat the action a few times until it finally locked in like it was supposed to. Other than that little animation glitch, the game appears to be up to scratch on the technical side. The engine looks great and runs smooth, and online performance (pre-release mind you) was free of lag. My only suggestion is to make sure to have a gamepad before playing. Mouse and keyboard controls are supported and work fine, but feel awkward for this type of game compared to using an Xbox 360 controller.

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Why should you play it?

    • Brainless Button Masher, This Game is Not: For a side-scrolling beat ‘em up, Final Exam has quite a bit of depth to its combat system and character progression. Hammering the attack button to perform the basic three-hit combo string is enough to kill off a few enemies at a time, but when the action really heats up skillful use of dodging and other abilities like charge attacks, sprint slides, ranged gun and explosive weapons, and aerial juggles that would make Dante proud become a must. Grappling is a helpful mechanic to master as well. You can pick up and throw exploding barrels or other objects, or you can even toss enemies into fire or grab them for a body slam move that also takes out other nearby foes. Each of the four playable characters has a skill tree to develop with skill points earned by completing missions and collecting all hidden objects in a level. While it is disappointing that the skill trees are largely the same for all four, each character does at least offer a unique set of special attacks and a passive skill to unlock, as well as different starting stats in attributes including Life, Strength, Precision, and Explosives. Additional thought must be put into choosing a weapon loadout that matches your style, as only three weapons – one melee, one ranged, and one explosive – can be equipped at a given time. Guns like the shotgun dish out high damage and stopping power, but have slow reload times and limited ammo, while uzis and machine guns sacrifice damage for higher rate of fire and larger clip sizes. For me, the shotgun is too slow, but I really like the magnum for its high damage and precision, even if it runs out of ammo in a hurry.

    • Bank That Combo: One of the other great things about the combat system is how it handles the combo multiplier. By default, the combo system is set to automatic, which means after you’ve killed off the surrounding enemies and the action stops for a few seconds, the combo ends and the points earned from the preceding battle are automatically posted to your overall score total. By changing to the manual setting, however, the decision of when to stop the combo and bank points becomes entirely up to you. The combo multiplier will continue to build from encounter to encounter, but if you get hit a single time before slamming the button to bank the combo, the counter will reset to zero and you will lose any bonus points you may have stockpiled. This system brings an element of risk versus reward that I think skilled high score hunters are really going to appreciate and have fun mastering. Do you get greedy and risk losing a spectacular combo of a couple hundred hits in a row because of one wrong move? Or do you play it safe and bank your combo at lower levels to at least keep a steady supply of bonus points rolling in? Knowing when to go for it and when to take the easy points is part of the fun.

    • Co-op Monster-Bashing Madness: In real life, having friends help you finish an exam would be considered cheating, but in the video game world of Final Exam collaboration’s not only allowed, it’s encouraged. Yes, you can play the game by yourself and have a great time, but like with all beat ‘em ups co-op is where the game earns its highest grade. Many of the mission objectives and action sequences are tailor made for teamwork, whether it’s pushing a powerless wagon down train tracks lined with gooey monster nests (more players pushing makes the wagon go faster, but one player may need to stop to fend off monsters while the other pushes), riding on a parade float armed with multiple gun positions to each be manned by a different player, or fending of swarms of frenzied creatures flooding the screen from all directions. Behind the cooperative spirit, though, is an underlying friendly rivalry as teammates compete for high score bragging rights by vying to complete the most objectives, build the highest combo, or kill the most monsters, for individual sections of a level in addition to an overall progress report at mission’s end. I’m not sure how local co-op is handled, but when playing online it’s nice that each player has their own screen and can roam about the level at their own pace. While this can lead to players easily getting separated from one another–especially since the level designs are fairly large and layered with multiple paths, almost like self-contained ‘metroidvania’ maps—having freedom of exploration for all players is a far better alternative to forcing multiple players to share the same screen and camera. The screen can get chaotic enough with one player, let alone two, three, or four.

Parting Thoughts: Final Exam truly is one of those “where did that come from?” surprise gems. When the game was first announced with the title of Obscure and yet looked absolutely nothing like the actual Obscure games that came before it, I was worried the game would be a big ol’ spin-off stinker. Halfway in, I am happy to say my concerns were totally off base. I have noticed a few little things that could be better. For example how every time you complete a stage, solo or co-op, the game drops you back to the main menu rather than giving the option to immediately proceed to the next level. Some of the mission objectives can also get a bit too fetch questy—in particular this one mission set in the Splashy World amusement park where visiting school kids have been lost and you have to repeatedly trek back and forth across the map to find and bring them all back to the school bus. The method for rescuing the children is usually funny (one needs to be scared back to the bus by one player wearing a giant bunny mascot head), but by the time you’ve completed half a dozen of these search and rescues the process grows tiresome. But apart from these minor missteps, Final Exam is an absolute blast to play, solo or co-op. Combat is fun, responsive, and downright relentless at times. The manual combo banking system offers an interesting skill-based way to shoot for high scores. Even the graphics, although a bit generic artistically, are crisp, bright, and well defined. I’m not sure what my final grade for the game would be since there’s still a whole other half left to be finished, but on its mid-term report Final Exam gets a big gold star sticker of approval from me.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!