Thursday, 1 September 2016

The Final Station - Review

Feel like riding the rails through a stunning, yet rotting, world of shady governments and the undead? Well, that's your mission, and it may be humanity's last hope. All aboard for The Final Station, a side-scrolling, cross-country pixel-horror developed by Do My Best Games and published by tinyBuild Games. There will be no hot drinks or snacks served on this service. 

What there will be, however, is a thought-provoking combination of music and pixel-art. The soundtrack, composed by Geoff Hart-Jones, first grabs hold in the title screen and doesn't let go until the credits roll. (You can check out his work on Soundcloud, or chat with him on Facebook and Twitter.) Pair this with TFS' pixel-art — which is perfect for showing the beauty of the surviving world, the horrors within it, and the untold stories of its inhabitants  — and you have a gripping experience that goes much further than its familiar gameplay structure would make you think.

In essence, TFS has two main sections of gameplay; managing a train and its passengers, and exploring stations and towns in search of survivors, supplies and blocker codes. The latter is the only way to progress from one station to the next.

The train management sections are similar to Faster Than Light, albeit a much stripped back version. In these you keep an eye on your passengers' health and hunger stats and feed or heal them when the time arises. If the time arises. Supplies are hard to find, and the reward that passenger's safe journey may bring you (normally money or ammo), may not be worth taking a precious medi-kit from your own inventory. The choice is yours. Keeping them alive does nurture some interesting conversations, though, which give fleeting insight into the decaying state of the often beautiful world that you're steaming through.

While doing that, the train has a few issues of its own. A few different systems around the train tend to break, and to fix them and keep power flowing through the carriages, mini games need to be completed. For the most part, these are extremely easy, but on the occasion that you have a train full of hungry, bleeding passengers, it can be a nice challenge to juggle the tasks. 

Occasionally there'll be a notification directing you to the front of the train. When this happens, someone working somewhere along the rails wants to talk. These conversations are short, but left me with snapshots into what others were going through. It gave me a tip-of-an-iceberg feeling that only made me feel more entrenched into the world of TFS.

When you reach a station, the second part of gameplay takes over. You're on foot, armed with a pistol, shotgun, or machine-gun, and you're tasked with exploring a town or station to find the code for the blocker that's stopping the train in its tracks, quite literally. 

Either you'll find a town full of people, conversations, shops and hints of a shady government working beneath it all, or you'll find silent stations full of '​them'. In The Final Station'they' are zombies.

Zombies are represented as two eyes in a silhouette, but those silhouettes come in a number of different shapes and sizes. A 'regular' build is your average Romero zombie; Slow moving, downed with one shot to the head, but dangerous in numbers. If that was all TFS would be a walk — or train journey — in the park.

Gradually introduced throughout the game are smaller zombies, built for speed; taller zombies, built for defense and power; and armoured zombies, who can only be killed with a headshot once their helmets have been knocked off. There's also a couple more, but I won't spoil them because then they might not surprise you like they did me. 

And you will be surprised, I'm sure. Only by opening a door will you be shown what is waiting inside. It could be food, ammo, money, but it could also be a horde of 'them'. Depending on how many of them there are, it can be better to run than use up what's left of your ammo. Another option is punching your way through. Punching works best on less energetic varieties, but is often the only way to thin a herd without running out of bullets.

Then, when you've searched almost everywhere, there'll be a note on the wall. This will probably be the blocker code, a four-digit code that lets the train pass. My favourite thing about these blocker codes and DMB Games' level design is that once I found the code, I knew that I'd seen all there was to see. More often than not, there was then a very clear path back to the train that didn't involve backtracking. I never felt like I'd missed anything, and I left each town or station feeling like all loose ends were tied up. It was a consistent sense of satisfaction.

Consistence is another thing that TFS does well. The game follows this train management to station exploration tag-team throughout and rather than becoming monotonous, it feels right. The developers found a structure that seemed to work, and they stuck to it. Thanks to this consistence I was able to take the time to appreciate the beauty and unrest of the world.

In towns, trains were being cancelled leaving people with nowhere to go, and others were in hiding, either at their church or deep underground with a shotgun held to their chest. All the time, an overly aggressive police force watched over them, begging somebody to step out of line. Each town was full of hidden people and moments that pieced together a world that, ironically, was falling apart.

Then, on the train, the backdrops were often as gorgeous as they were haunting. Snowy mountains, towering cities, a silent lake house, followed by the occasional gas canister or graffiti: "The Guardian will save us."

I never really found out what The Guardian was, though I know I helped to transport parts for it, but I'm okay with that. A lot of TFS' stories are hidden in shadows and only see light when completed in your own mind, so it feels right that humanity's last hope and its results are equally murky. However, some of these mysteries may have been answered without me knowing...

One minor issue I found was that I was unable to read all of the conversations between passengers, due to running up and down the carriages to fix machinery and grab supplies. These conversations felt important to the narrative of the game, but it was impossible to read them all and keep the train running. If I were to miss anything in terms of context or information, it would have been during those conversations. 

Also, in direct contradiction, sometimes I couldn't help but read the conversations because the text boxes covered up tasks that I was trying to complete. It didn't happen often, though it's one to watch out for.

In relation to the tasks, they seem to be isolated to only one machine at a time. Early on when there's little to do between stations it would have been nice for multiple objects to fix, as I found myself twiddling my thumbs. Not that I really minded... The pixel-art scenery rolling past the train is truly mesmerising.

Controller support, which I much prefer and used throughout, was also a little sensitive for aiming. Not a deal-breaker, although I couldn't see any sensitivity settings to tweak, which might have been helpful. As you can see, there's nothing that took me off the rails in terms of negative feedback, and definitely no blockers to my enjoyment.

See that? That's a blocker. It's empty because it didn't block my enjoyment.

Overall, The Final Station is a 5-6 hour journey that you should definitely be taking. You'll travel through a world of beautiful pixel-art scenery, thriving towns of fear, confusion, and shady governments, all of which is broken up nicely by exploring abandoned, zombie-filled train stations complemented by TFS' haunting soundtrack (which you can buy!).

Though the train management sections could take a leaf out of Faster Than Light's difficulty book, and also revealed a few issues in pacing, text overlap and missing dialogue, the game is all the better for its consistent mix between the two types of gameplay. At only £10.99 ($14.99) on Steam, it costs about as much as a train journey and is a hell of a lot more fun. Jump on board before it leaves the station, because who knows when they may arrive.

The Final Station is on PC, PS4 and Xbox One right now, and you can find out more about the game on its website, or by chatting with the developers or publishers on Twitter.

Or you can come at chat to me! (Go on, I have a competition running and you could win Resident Evil HD on PS4 if you enter by Sunday 11th 2016.)