A game to make Tolstoy and Dostoevsky proud but also weep…
What is humanity? A great machine slowly shaking itself to pieces? A train forever chasing itself around an infinite loop composed of savage violence, corruption and despair?
Well yeah, of course, but we see some pretty sights and help each other out along the way sometimes. Dearest readers, I give you The Final Station in a nutshell.
The Final Station is a feast for the senses. The visuals are a mix of pixel art foreground imagery and fantastically detailed backgrounds that blend seamlessly. The sound design is just as engaging as the visuals with many beefy heavy sound effects and an atmospheric, macabre synth musical score layered over the top.
While the game is very pretty, The Final Station is a very bleak experience. The world of The Final Station can best be described as an intra-apocalypse as opposed to a post apocalypse. The game starts with an event called “The Visitation” then jumps forward in time to the beginning of “The Second Visitation”. It’s never clearly stated how much time has passed, but at one point in the game, a character who was alive during “The Visitation” is met, and he is an old man, so society has had some time to regain its footing at least enough to rebuild a rail network.
Speaking of trains, operating a train makes up half of the gameplay in The Final Station, as players inhabit the life of a middle aged train engineer. These sequences amount to a slightly complex plate-spinning act. The train has a variety of subsystems located throughout the engine, passenger, and, sometimes, cargo cars of a locomotive. The engineer must be standing near a subsystem to maintain it, so the player needs to constantly move him back and forth along the train to monitor the machinery. Additionally, the engineer is responsible for caring for any passengers on board the train, which requires carrying food or medical supplies to them. Also, occasional radio communications will occur which flesh out the character of the engineer and his co-workers which can be missed if the player is inattentive. The whole thing can be quite hectic.
The other half of the gameplay in The Final Station is a metroid-vania dungeon crawl through a wasteland filled with infected humans. Apparently what happens during a “Visitation” is that the world is sporadically covered in a gas that transforms people into black sludge monsters. Of course, bureaucratic policy states that trains must stop at every station until unlocked by a code and, oddly, at every station the player visits the person with the code has wandered off. Thus forcing the intrepid train engineer to traipse about a wasteland filled with infected to find said code. If the varied narrative excuses for these functionary’s absences weren’t so clever it would be seriously irritating. The designs for these areas are varied in structure, tone, and narrative depth; from bombed out cities, to creepy mansions, to sprawling factories in which deep dark secrets are revealed or alternatively ammunition, supplies and more passengers are found, and rescued in the case of passengers.
The Final Station is a masterclass in creating an atmosphere which both tells a story by itself and confounds the player’s attempts to figure out what is going on. Some of the backdrops go out of their way to make emphatic statements while others are simply a void which confound player’s attempts at analysis.
In case it was missed earlier in this review, The Final Station is an incredibly bleak experience. It is not accidental that a train, a form of transportation with a predestined end point, is the centerpiece of this game. Without spoiling anything, players with no stomach for grim dark storytelling will not enjoy The Final Station. Every narrative choice and metaphorical device used in The Final Station indicates a world where the fix is in, the sky is falling and everyone and everything people count on to protect them has been weighed, examined and undermined by a sinister and powerful enemy bent on brutal destruction. So basically the feeling a person gets after watching the evening news.
The Final Station, it must be said, does have a localization problem. The game was made by a very small team in Russia, namely Oleg Sergeev, Andrey Rumak, and the team at Do My Best game studio. A cursory search of the Steam store shows that this is the first game from this collective so it would be tempting to overlook a certain lack of polish in The Final Station. The problem is that there are a lot of indie games made in languages other than English that do not have the jarringly poor translation present in The Final Station. A lot of this problem stems from the fact that the storytelling in this game happens environmentally. Players find crumpled notes, open chat logs, or discarded paperwork from which to piece together a narrative and whenever there is a clear translation error on display it stands out like a sore thumb, and even more so when such an error happens in conversation with an NPC.
Two notes on the PC version: There are no in game options for setting key bindings or re-mapping buttons on a gamepad. Gamepad support feels a bit tacked on.
As video games mature as a medium of expression, it is understandable that stories outside of the conventional heroic yarn will become more common. The Final Station, alongside games like The Last of Us and, more humorously, the Grand Theft Auto franchise display the shadows of human nature so that heroism can be acknowledged and appreciated properly.
In the confines of an office, the world never changes. There can be riots in the streets, unchecked disease and rampant starvation spreading across the land like a cancer. There can be war and famine, and destruction of every conceivable kind. But within the office, the walls have the same textures they always have. Old photographs show portraits that never age, and normality can be faked until it’s real. My appreciation for The Final Station peaked when I stepped inside the boss’s office.
The Final Station is an action-adventure game featuring linear exploration and survival-horror inspired combat and resource management. As Stephen pointed out, much of the gameplay involves trekking through abandoned towns and factories while looking for codes so that you can restart your train. These levels task you with surviving hostile encounters while conserving medkits and ammunition. Infected humans are everywhere, and they’ll attack you on sight. The infected take several forms, each of which requires a different strategy to defeat. Basic foes can be handled with melee or dispatched with a well-placed headshot. Shorter chimp-like enemies are tougher and faster, while armored adversaries must have their helmets knocked off before they’re vulnerable. Players can find throwable objects and explosive barrels to conserve ammunition, while taking advantage of the geometry by luring foes into strategic positions. Sometimes enemies swarm you the moment you open a door. When this happens, all your careful planning gives way to mass panic. Here, you must rely on your twitch instincts.
The Final Station can be slow and methodical, or it can be fast and intense. The pacing is often brilliant, as the exploration and combat mechanics do a wonderful job of keeping you on your toes. Unfortunately, as fun as the gameplay is, it fails to introduce new concepts and challenges at a consistent rate. By the midpoint, the game feels highly formulaic, with repetitive exploration and predictable level layout. You only acquire three guns throughout the course of the game, and the rifle completely replaces your pistol. This was maddening for me, since I’d spent most of my money upgrading the pistol.
The game culminates in an ending that hits you like a frying pan across the face. There are clues that the final act is around the corner, but when the game actually ends, it’s frustratingly abrupt. It feels incomplete, like the last third of the game got lost in a wood-chipper. No last boss, no final test of skill, no nothing. It soured me on the experience, even though I really liked the game up to that point. The weaknesses in the game’s arc also bleed into the presentation. The user interface lacks important data and options. You can’t select a specific act to play, and there’s no way to view the button mapping. There’s no options menu at all, with only a couple adjustments you can make from the main menu. When shopping at an in-game store, there are no descriptions of any of the items you’re purchasing, so you have to rely on tiny icons. A lot of guesswork goes into playing The Final Station. While none of it is game breaking, it speaks to a real lack of polish.
While The Final Station lags behind technically, it shines artistically. The game’s simple graphics are enhanced by excellent design. The color palette is deliberately limited, with lots of gray-scale buildings and vast backgrounds of muted and washed-out colors. This combination gives a surreal, hazy feel to the world, and grips the player with a sense of melancholy that is enhanced by an introspective musical score. I especially enjoyed watching the train as it passed from one environment to another. Each shifting background told a story, from abandoned airports, to vast battlefields filled with broken down tanks. You really feel as if you’re living in a world that’s being beaten down by war and disease.
Video games are always more about the journey than the destination. The Final Station stutters at times, but the gameplay and atmosphere meld wonderfully. The game taps into a corner of the human psyche, subtly challenging your sensibilities the way that fine art sometimes does. It can be unnerving, and haunting and sometimes beautiful, but most importantly, it makes you feel. For that reason, The Final Station is a train worth taking.