Review: The Final Station

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Part sci-fi survival horror, part train maintenance, part passenger management sim, The Final Station from Do My Best Games and tinyBuild puts you in the role of a train operator tasked with transporting valuable cargo and rescued passengers on many stops across a post-apocalyptic world painted in beautifully bleak pixel art.

Gameplay alternates between two styles as you chug, chug, chug along. During the train travel segments, different parts of the locomotive and its cargo gradually overheat or degrade, requiring various buttons, dials, and levers to be fiddled with to maintain proper operational levels. Civilians that have been picked up have health and hunger bars that decrease as time elapses. Stock is limited in the food and medkit storage bins, so keeping everyone aboard the choo-choo alive requires careful management of resources. Passengers that die don’t lead to truly impactful repercussions, so ignore them if you so desire. However, a status report is issued at the end of each act in the journey, with different cash and supply bonuses granted for each passenger that survived the trip. Letting passengers die also means missing out on dialogue that may have brought some new insight to the story.

Ammo and medkits can be crafted from scavenged parts at the train’s main console. This terminal has a world map with nodes that can be clicked for information about the locations you visit. There is an instant messaging system where other operators and machinists will sometimes contact you for short conversations with occasional dialogue choices, but sadly this system is way underutilized and adds little if anything to the plot development.

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Once the train makes its next stop, the conductor hops out toting his pistol and shotgun (you don’t start with guns but they are acquired early on), ready to search the town, factory, plant, mansion, underground tunnel, railway station, or military base he’s arrived at, primarily to find the access code required to unlock the blocker box so the train can continue its journey. This part of the game has the look of a side-scrolling action shooter, but the pacing is much more in the style of a survival-horror adventure as you scavenge boxes, lockers, desks, and other receptacles for supplies, examine notes and computers for additional exposition, talk to NPCs and possible survivors to bring back to the train, find keys to access locked doors, and dispatch enemies with simple melee attacks or cursor-based gunplay. Certain objects like chairs, toilets, crates, and explosive red barrels can sometimes be picked up and thrown as weapons, which is an important tactic to take advantage of since ammo is just scarce enough to prevent being able to run and gun. Conserving ammo by aiming for headshots and picking the right moments to utilize melee adds to the survival-horror mentality.

Your infected enemies in this train ride through the apocalypse are not-zombies that fulfill the same purpose as a zombie, though in appearance they are drawn as nothing more than dark silhouettes with beady white eyes. The infected come in a handful of types–the bog standard zombie-type, small guys that dart and dash around, ones wearing SWAT-style body armor that can only be shot in the head (after first being hit to knock off their helmets), flaming suicide bombers, and lumbering brutes–but the variety does wear thin fairly quickly, especially since the AI is pretty easy to kite and manipulate once you know how each enemy type behaves. The game isn’t scary and grotesque in the typical way you might associate with the horror genre but rather is more mood driven. Periodically you’ll encounter pop-out moments where enemies will hide inside closed bathroom stalls or suddenly break down doors and attack, but mostly the game builds tension through the ambient rich environments and in the way that it plays up the fear of the unknown by shrouding rooms in what is essentially a fog of war that hides what’s ahead in the map until you open the door. It’s always smart to have a melee attack charged up or throwable object in hand before ever turning the knob to the next room, because more often than not something’s waiting to pounce on the other side. Even knowing in your head what’s about to come, there’s always a reluctant pause to prepare yourself before moving ahead.

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And so The Final Station carries on for about 4-6 hours, switching back and forth between train travel and on-foot exploration until the climax is reached. The game does settle into a rote routine that could have been alleviated by greater variety of gameplay mechanics or perhaps more puzzle-solving elements (a few moments call for finding a battery and carrying it to its proper socket to power up switches or lower a walkway, but that’s about it). Thankfully the game is right-sized in terms of length to keep from overstaying its welcome. The gameplay mechanics work hand in hand with the other aspects to set a tone for the story being told.

Paying close attention to the scenery is an integral part of the game, to absorb clues from the lived-in environments for unspoken story development, and to simply soak in the atmosphere. For a pixel art game, the backgrounds are incredibly rich with detail, while visual elements like moving cars, loose newspaper pages fluttering across the screen, and stationary environmental pieces overlay the plane on which the player character moves as foreground silhouettes, adding immersive layers of dimension and scale. The scenic landscapes are constantly changing as you travel the countryside. Though the subject matter is dark and dreary, the color palette does a good job of contrasting the drab grays, brows, and blacks that establish the overall mood of the world with occasional glimpses of blue skies, warm sunsets, ocean views, foggy lakes, rolling hills with herds of sheep, and the rare forest or field still green with life. It always seems like there’s a contrast between light and dark, hope and despair.

The same can be said of the audio, which uses the sounds of outdoor nature and weather with adaptive, location-based interior sounds (creaking metal, clanging chains, humming motors, spewing pipe steam) to fantastic atmospheric effect. The music reinforces the melancholy mood and air of mystery surrounding the world events at the center of the story.

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One aspect of the story delivery that could be more clearly presented is the NPC dialogue that occurs during the train travel segments. The speech boxes flow back and forth even when the characters speaking are not visible on the screen, which means chunks of the conversations will be missed as you perform maintenance duties and other tasks at the front of the train. One possible solution would be to have the speech boxes appear on the screen regardless of NPC visibility. Another idea could be some form of travel log or conductor’s journal that keeps track of the running conversations as well as any text notes that are discovered throughout your travels, to be referenced at your leisure.

Something else that could prove problematic for some is the small font size on a lot of the text for notes and computer messages. On a number of occasions I had to lean my face closer to the screen to read certain lines.

I have purposely avoided talking specifics about the storyline, because The Final Station is a story-driven experience that doesn’t explicitly reveal its narrative, but rather expects you to investigate, put the pieces together in your own mind, and interpret the events. Some may find this method of storytelling murky and confusing, but I like it because it’s the type of story that gives back what you put into it rather than spoon-feeding everything to you without any effort. Though abrupt, I also thought that the final scene closed out the story with an emotional gut punch that immediately made me think back to earlier, seemingly inconsequential moments that in one shot suddenly made sense.

The Final Station isn’t without its faults. No one aspect of the gameplay is especially noteworthy in and of itself. However, the true success of the game is the way that the individual components cohere with the narrative as a single thought and click together like a well-oiled train engine.

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Pros:
+ Richly detailed and atmospheric pixel art; I could screenshot it all day (in fact, I did!)
+ Intriguing story and world building
+ Unique mix of survival-horror elements and train/passenger management
+ What’s-on-the-other-side-of-the-door moments of tension

Cons:
– Easy to miss passenger dialogue during train rides
– Settles into a predictable routine fairly early on

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available for PS4 and Xbox One
Publisher: tinyBuild Games
Developer: Do My Best Games
Release Date: 8/30/2016
Genre: Action-Adventure / Survival-Horor
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by publisher

Buy From: Steam, GOG.com, PlayStation Store, Xbox Games Store

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!