As a Dutch person, particularly one without a driver’s license, I can’t help but like trains. They get me where I need to go. As someone who started video gaming in the late 90s, I like pixel art. A blast from the past turned established cool art form of the future, what’s not to like? As a lover of the unknown, I like games that focus on mystery and uncertainty. And as a nerd in general, I think I’m supposed to be into zombies and the concept of a zombie apocalypse. I don’t make the rules here, I just follow them, shambling-like and groaning about brains.
So what happens if you put those four together? Trains, pixel art, uncertainty, and zombies? Would you maybe get something like Do My Best Games‘s The Final Station, a pixel-art game about driving a train through a mysterious zombie-infested landscape?
And, follow-up question: how long do you think it would take from me hearing about that game, to me playing it forever and always?
Might I even be playing it… right now???
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low. Mechanical, low-medium.)
(Game source: Patreon funds. I love you guys.)
This bodes well.
Never before in my ten-or-so years of games writing have I wanted to spend time in an options menu less. Let me play my game, damnit! Luckily, The Final Station obliges, with a Settings menu that’s technically shorter than this paragraph I’ve spent leading it in.
Little disappointed about the lack of granularity in the sound options; I hope I won’t need to independently manipulate music and SFX volumes. Otherwise, good. Let’s get to the start already.
I am noticing a disappointing lack of trains.
The white dude with the doofy hat and handgun is me, and I am him. I discover this when I hit the WASD keys and the figure walks forward. I do not discover this through any fault of The Final Station, which remains steadfastly silent. Not even a popup. Ah, we’re playing that sort of game, then.
I walk forward. The Final Station is silent. I reach the locker at the end of the hall. The Final Station is silent. I press the left mouse button. The Final Station… responds, by telling me my gun is empty. Click, click, click. Which I guess is good, because I didn’t want to fire my gun. I just want to see what’s in this locker.
I hit the Escape button to bring up the menu. I didn’t see any control options in the settings menu earlier, but… I’m in luck: in this particular pause menu, The Final Station actually deigns to tell me some controls.
Okay, so E or F open the locker. And inside, I find… twelve pistol bullets! Which I load into my gun with R. The bullets are shown in an almost adorably minimalist HUD on the bottom of the screen. Also included are a count of my medkits (I think), my health bar (I deduce), the number of rounds currently in my gun (I hope), the amount of keys I carry (I’m pretty sure), and… my number of brown-red question mark boxes (I guess?).
I open the door at the end of the hall and move forward, which is to say rightward. The hallway slopes down into another door, which I also open. Behind it is a terrifying pitch-black humanoid shape with bright white eyes.
The music picks up in intensity. I briskly walk backwards. The creature slowly follows me, eerily and entirely silent.
When it becomes clear that this monster person isn’t stopping, I express my disapproval with a single bullet to the head. I can actually mouse-aim this pistol with a fairly fine grain. The monster’s head pops clean off, and it melts into an unrecognizable black puddle.
In the room beyond, the two corpses (in various states of goo-black decay) hold some more pistol ammo, and four bucks worth of cigarettes. This is not a fun place, I’m guessing. But their loss is my four bullets and four bucks worth of gain.
The next room holds another monster. My aim’s a little off on this one, so I actually waste five body shots killing it instead of a single headshot. Lesson learned: accurate aim is important in The Final Station.
I explore some more. I find a vertical shaft, another monster, and… a giant prison complex I can’t enter? And then things get weird.
In my confusion, I try to explore further: opening doors, walking down hallways, opening floor hatches, climbing down chutes… And then while doing the latter, I slip from a ladder and fall into a small room filled with darkness monsters. I get about one second of surprised terror before they tear my health bar to shreds.
And then I wake up.
Oh, okay. We’re going into this kind of storytelling. Well, at least I can’t say my desire for weird mystery isn’t slated.
The house I’m in right now seems surprisingly mundane by comparison. No weird geometries, no darkness monsters. Still no trains. I just… walk around the place. Checking the view from my bathroom, getting some food, not turning on the lights.
I walk out into the world, ever rightward. It’s filled with cars (which are not trains), trees, atmospherically faded background art, and optional world-building.
Vagueness aside, this all seems like a pretty normal suburb. I see houses, cars, white picket fences. I walk into a grocery store, make some very one-sided small talk with the owner, then walk out the other side — because apparently I need to walk through stores and houses to get where I’m going.
I actually enjoy walking through this pretty place. Not only is the art nice in and by itself, but the fore- and backgrounds make good use of parallax scrolling to convey a sense of three-dimensionality and motion. I even see car silhouettes zipping by on the foreground. And with the calm music and relaxed colour palette, I can’t help but feel that nothing’s ever likely to go wrong with, or in, or around this place.
And then finally, three minutes in, I make it to some sort of traffic control center. And I finally find what I’ve been looking for.
My character is so overcome with train excitement that, on getting here, they automatically run forward and then disappear. Some mention of a code is made, but before I can parse what’s supposed to be happening, the train unplugs with the station with a hiss and starts moving, past the background houses and into the infinite expanse of the right.
Once screen wipe later, here we are.
I’m on a moving train. I can tell because the parallax effects have been cranked up to 11: the foreground grass and tree silhouettes zip by, while the amazingly fancy backgrounds lazily pass by in the distance. It really looks incredibly good. I spend a few seconds just looking, with a grin on my face.
On exploration, there are actually things I can do in this train. The driver’s cabin hides a multi-functional menu: I can check the train’s power demands (for some reason), look at a list of names of people that are or are not online (for some reason), look at my progress on a stylized line map (for some reason), or… engage the train’s ‘reserve crafting system’? I guess?
Several other parts of the train also light up when I walk past them. For instance, two green boxes on either end of the passenger car display strange control panels when I activate them. The leftmost one doesn’t seem to do much of anything, but the rightmost box emits sparks. When I open it, there’s a lever, and a voltage number — in red — that keeps climbing. I find that when I pull the lever, I can bring that number back to zero, and a green checkmark. So that seems like something I’ll want to do. No idea why, except that train maintenance seems important. But what will happen if I forget to do this?
Maybe it has something to do with my passenger? I talked to this man right before we departed, and I guess he got on my train somehow. He talks with me, which is to say at me, any time I’m in the passenger car. It’s not so much a dialogue as it is a one-sided exposition dump, since my character never actually talks back. So I just listen to him ramble. Something about how important the delivery we’re making is, and how the train can fail if I don’t follow the operational procedures, and blockers and access codes. I nod along quietly, following maybe half.
When I get closer to the passenger, I can also see his Health and Hunger stats (along with his name and job). The Hunger one gradually declines over time. I don’t know what this means. Is he going to eat food soon? I did see an interactable train icon with a knife and fork image on it, further to the right. Is that, like, the train’s mess hall? Or am I supposed to take the initiative in this?
Suddenly, we arrive! I know this because the text ‘you arrived’ is showing in the main car, accompanied by a steam horn blast. I walk over and hit the E button, and the view switches to the previously-used wide side city view. The train rolls into view, and hooks up to a similar stop as the one we just left with a hiss. And then I get out, ready to face the day.
So, what happened? Why did I stop? It turns out that the train system in this (part of the) world has a quirk: trains cannot continuously travel for more that one station at a time, as they get insta-locked into ‘blockers’ the moment they reach a station. Yeah, I know, just… just roll with it. Normally I’m supposed to get the ‘blocker code’ from the station chief, so both I and they can move on with our lives. But this particular station chief is absent. They’re in town somewhere, and I’m gonna have to find them. Wow, I’m sure this’ll be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. I am sure that future station chiefs will have their act together.
So into town I go. It’s a nice town! I walk through houses and shops, and steal people’s watches and read their personal letters and emails.
I find the station chief, who promises to bring the blocker code to the station, and I also run into a nice fellow who’d love a ride on the train. I think. Whenever my character talks to people, they don’t actually talk: all that ever comes out of my mouth is ‘…’. But all the same, they’re on my train when I leave.
Third town, same as the first. It’s a little gloomier here, a bit more oppressed, and there are a few secret military torture sewers that I promised I wouldn’t tell anyone about. But I find another passenger, and even a store where I can spend some of my hard-robbed cash to buy food.
Three towns in, I think I have the measure of this game. It’s a train tycoon simulation, right? All I gotta do is transfer these passengers from point A to point Wherever. And make sure they don’t starve or bleed out during our all-stop gloom-world highlights tour.
A little strange that The Final Station would open with all that darkness monster and gunplay malarkey, but at this point I have to assume that was just a fluke. We’re three cities and 25 minutes in and I haven’t seen any mention of either. And because I’m an incurable optimist, I have to believe that this generous past perfectly predicts the present, and that the stakes of this little low-pressure train-driving adventure will never ever get raised.