Zombies aren’t scary, at least, not anymore. A few years ago, when pop culture was at its zombiest, they were on every TV, movie, book, cell phone and bumper sticker. You couldn’t throw a zombie cat without accidentally killing 6 six shambling brain biters. Today, even your mother knows you need to shoot them in the head. So how do you make bored, ex-zombie exterminators pick up their shotguns again? Try training them.
Created by Russian duo Oleg Sergeev and Andrey Rumak, The Final Station is a single-player, retro-stylized, 2D action game in which you, an average train conductor, must deliver top-secret cargo amid the chaos and uncertainty surrounding a mysterious catastrophe. Lacking any formal explanation, The Final Station’s strange, multi-themed narrative is told through found notes and conversations between disgruntled NPCs. While this is a nice alternative to spamming players with lore, many of these notes and conversations are too easy to miss, making it practically impossible for interested players to figure out what terms like “The First Visitation,” “The Guardian” and “The Council” actually mean.
Although railroad sounds like a relatively safe means of conveyance across a zombie-infested countryside, each train station you encounter has a “blocker,” which lives up to its subtle namesake and blocks your train. To “unblock” each one, you must venture on foot in search of the 4-digit key code. During your search, you scrounge for cash, food, ammo, medkits and crafting materials. You’ll also happen across various survivors who often hitch a ride on your train to the nearest safe station, where supplies can also be purchased. While riding the rails between stations, you must juggle various simple systems to keep the train running, as well as provide your passengers with food and medical supplies. If they survive, you’re rewarded with cash and various supplies when they disembark. Strangely enough, while you share your own medkits with the survivors, you yourself never actually have to eat. Apparently, train conductors know the importance of having a big meal before an apocalypse.
The Final Station is less Left for Dead, and more PS1 era Resident Evil. Health and ammo must be conserved and opening doors is perpetually unnerving. The scarcity of supplies ensures that taking down enemies must be done with a bit of strategic planning, forcing you to isolate individual baddies, use your melee attack and throw environmental objects whenever you can. These tense scavenging expeditions in various locales, separated by train “management” sequences, keep the game from ever feeling repetitive throughout its 5-6 hour campaign. The same goes for the prevalent, gorgeously pixelated, Soviet brutalist architecture and pleasantly varied environments. Intensifying the atmosphere is The Final Station’s almost complete lack of musical score, allowing the isolated ambiance and lonely footsteps to to be your only companions as you nervously head into the unknown. Unfortunately, as the game only has a handful of different, (yet very similar) enemy types, the unknown becomes known quite quickly. Furthermore, there are also only three different weapons, which wouldn’t be that much of a problem if you could upgrade them using found materials. Sadly, crafting is limited to medkits and only two ammo types.
In striking contrast with the first few train stations, where you’re taught how to move about and interact with the world, The Final Station’s learning curve promptly pulls into nowheresville early on. When the game really gets going, you begin to encounter warning indicators and various play mechanics that you must figure out on your own, with no explanation. This may have been intentionally included to heighten urgency and induce panic, but like bad tank-controls in horror games, it’s more frustrating than scary. The developers’ refusal to allow you to use the D-pad ranges from mild nuisance when typing on a keypad, to infuriating when the left joystick’s inconsistency causes you to accidentally climb or descend a ladder into a crowd of hungry zombies.
Despite all the baddies and scary environments, the only horrifying thing about The Final Station is the UI. While probably not an issue when playing with a mouse and keyboard, the cursor indicator is all but invisible, making crafting a pain. Because of this same issue, on more than one occasion I accidentally restarted from a checkpoint instead of just continuing from the pause menu and I nearly erased my save data multiple times when I accidentally highlighted “new game” in the main menu, instead of “continue.”
The concept, look and setting of The Final Station is exceptionally interesting. However, the game fails to convey nearly enough narrative information, leaving all the strangely compelling themes (dystopian government conspiracies, aliens, zombies, giant robots) tripping over each other at the door and thus ultimately ignored right up to the abrupt and unsatisfying end. While abundant in theme, the game offers few enemies, scant weaponry, and little replay value. A little more polish and more gameplay options would put The Final Station on track to greatness.
A PS4 Review Code of The Final Station was provided by tinyBuild Games for the purpose of this review