A few hours in
The stakes just got raised.
Okay, so I was being facetious just now. I did actually anticipate that The Final Station would get more challenging and intense over time, because isn’t that how these things always go? And sure enough, soon after that first ‘easy’ circuit, the towns you force-stop at become a lot less friendly and open and a lot more darkness-infested hellhole.
From there on out, The Final Station becomes an… interesting experience. One that’s hard to talk about (without needless spoilers), and one that’s hard to quantify — or even qualify. I definitely had an okay time with it, and the overall Steam reviews are very positive, but all the same there’s one person in those reviews yelling at everyone who rated it highly that they’re liars and that this game is a scam. So your mileage may vary, I guess.
Before I get to the more nuanced criticism, let me just get this out of the way: god damnit, this game is good-looking. It is incredibly well-crafted. Pixel art isn’t a style that everyone appreciates, so always keep your own interests into account, but The Final Station is almost a masterclass in how to do it right. The train, the characters, and the immediate environments all seep with attention and detail, from the stores you walk through, to the items you pick up and throw, to the tiny-scale character animations like reloading a gun or winding up a punch. And the backgrounds, oh my god, the backgrounds. Look at this.
Combine this gorgeous animation with a really good environmental soundtrack, that reacts to ongoing events incredibly well to evoke senses of dread, or excitement, or wonder, and you get a game that’s all-around an aesthetic feast for the senses. Whatever else you think of The Final Station, it deserves full accolades for that if nothing else. And I wanted to get this gushing out of the way early, otherwise I’d be compelled to stop halfway into every other line of argument to bring it up. I may still do this.
There are two reasons why the The Final Station experience is hard to quantify. First, the gameplay often feels like two entirely separate, only loosely connected sets of game systems. And second, the story is… let’s say very committed to that air of uncertainty and mystery. I can’t really say if The Final Station is any good at telling its story in a paced and compelling way because I almost can’t tell you what that story is.
Gameplay-wise, it’s probably fairly easy to see the split from what little I’ve already written. On the one hand, and I’m tempted to call this the ‘core’ of The Final Station, the gameplay consists of traversing 2D ‘obstacle course’ maps in search of the blocker code you need to proceed. This part of the game is a very Resident Evil-feeling resource-management survival game. You must explore the environment to find the code, which often involves solving a puzzle or finding an obscure path of some sort, and you’ll want to explore the rest of place too, because it might hide resources like ammo, food, and healthpacks. But enemies might be lurking behind every door and under every latch. And while you have a gun (or two) and they’re (often) slow-moving darkness monsters, you’re not made of ammo.
I enjoyed this part of The Final Station. It’s not flawless, but it crafts an immersive experience of loneliness and dread. The game makes clever use of sight lines and the colour black: any inside room you haven’t opened a door or a window into is pitch black from your perspective. Anything could be hiding in them. And this is often coupled with small, short corridors, and little room to maneuver.
Although The Final Station isn’t afraid to throw the combat book at you, sometimes.
Particularly early on, it’s remarkable how much of a sense of danger the darkness monsters can radiate. They might be slow, except the ones that aren’t, and they might be weak, except the ones that aren’t, but… I forgot where I was going with this. The look helps too. There’s something that just feels wrong about this character design. It made me not want to be close to them for too long.
It doesn’t quite last. Commonly, the challenge in resource-based survival games (the non-multiplayer ones, at any rate) is being good enough, fast enough, accurate enough, clever enough, to get through the challenges with the limited tools you have. The better you are, the more you keep for the next one. But the worse you are, the less you keep. And the inevitable endpoint of this, the implied (if not made explicit) reason for having to be careful in the first place, is that if you’re not good enough often enough, you’ll hit a point where you can’t proceed. If you waste all your ammo and then have to power through a room with ten zombies, you’re going to lose. Maybe permanently. If your latest save game is also right after wasting all that ammo…
But modern game design sensibilities don’t really allow for this anymore. The move from manual saving to generous auto-saving is one factor, and The Final Station uses this to (fairly) generous effect. But more to the point, modern game design shies away from ‘unwinnable’ game states. With good reason, because unwinnable game states suck. I remember having to start the first Tomb Raider over from the start because I save-locked myself into a puzzle I couldn’t clear, about 60% of the way in. So design is steered away from this. The player isn’t allowed to get stuck; ways are added for them to get out of everything. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: if done right, in a way the player doesn’t notice, it can actually add to the player’s sense of empowerment. Mass Effect 2 famously added the heat sink mechanic to include a resource-based challenge to the gunplay, but then made it so that new clips always spawn in semi-random locations if the player needs them, so they can’t possibly run out. And that worked for me! I thought I was just being really good at ammo scrounging! It’s only when the player notices the systems coddling them that it becomes annoying.
I noticed the systems coddling me in The Final Station.
Running out of bullets feels like it should be a fail state, but The Final Station empowers your fist to a ridiculous degree. Remember how you can walk backwards faster than normal zombies can walk forward? You can walk and swing your fist and the same time. And a basic zombie requires four hits to go down. Four. That’s not a lot of hits! It’s about the same as the amount of body shots needed from your pistol. In fact, of the six enemy types I encountered throughout the game, I very quickly defaulted to killing three of them with my fist alone. The fourth is a little dangerous, the fifth is very dangerous, and the sixth literally can’t be killed with fists alone — though you can still use thrown environmental objects for that. But regular zombie, big zombie, and clinging zombie ceased to be any kind of challenge once I figured out their weakness to noodle-arm punches.
I don’t want to throw this out as some damning ‘this is bad’ moment. If anything, I’m split 50/50 between ‘I’m glad this is here because otherwise it’d be frustrating to play’ and ‘this is hilarious’. But all the same, I can’t help but notice that what little sense of real fear was left after getting a gun — strange how that works — evaporated completely once I figured out I was playing a heavyweight champion. The Final Station shifted firmly into the ‘resource management survival game that isn’t actually scary’ territory for me. And that’s before we get into the really combat-breaking glitches — but let’s leave those for another column. Suffice it to say, this core gameplay is still fun: exploring and looting and reading and fighting and getting to exist in a series of beautifully hand-crafted landscapes, each a little vignette of man’s reaction to an expected apocalypse and the many ways we use and abuse each other when the end-that-was-nigh is actually here. Whoops, now I’m raving again.
And then there’s the train gameplay. You drive your train between cities on your nebulous quest du jour. This commonly consists of four aspects: fixing the train’s problems, feeding and healing your passengers, crafting supplies, and cooing at the gorgeous parallax backgrounds.
Unless you don’t want to.
The train gameplay is an odd little beast, in that it only matters if you decide for yourself that it matters. Take the passengers, for instance. Most of them are optional, in that you have to explore and find them in the darkness-infested stations and talk to them to get them to come. And when they’re on your train, it is a lot of stress and effort to keep them alive. The injured ones particularly, they go through food and medkits like crazy (and the latter you can use to survive yourself). There are rewards for carrying them: passengers talk among themselves and to you about the events of the plot, and if you get them to their destination alive, you get money, and sometimes stuff like medkits or weapon upgrades. Which sounds like a neat deal. Except you don’t have to do it. If you just let your passengers die, that’s a lot less hassle and resource consumption. And, sure, it sucks about the upgrades. Except that you can’t just buy food in town, you can also sell it. You see where I’m going with this?
I mean, don’t get me wrong, I kept 14 out of 15 passengers alive in my playthrough. It’s not a bad challenge, and the balance and timing aspects of it can be interesting. But it is entirely ancillary. Money isn’t even all that important, except for some early weapon upgrades… and buying enough food for the next batch of passengers.
There’s also crafting. You can craft three things: medkits, pistol bullets, and shotgun bullets. That’s it. There is no meaningful or interesting way to get crafting components: you just loot them randomly from the environment, the same way you can straight-up loot medkits and bullets sometimes. It’s literally nothing more than an extra step that lets the designers enforce some more exploration — because if you find some pills, it’s be a shame not to also get the rags you need for a medkit, right?
And finally, train upkeep. This is the thing that comes closest to tense interactive gameplay during these segments: every run, one particular part starts sparking, and you have to occasionally fix it up before the voltage differential becomes too big. This involves a small (area-specific) minigame, interesting at first but repetitive before overlong. Which is okay, I mean, we are talking about maintenance.
You gotta do the maintenance, or else… Well, I don’t actually know what else. I failed it twice, total, and in both cases it was a temporary thing. The cabin went black and the passengers rapidly started losing health. I didn’t understand why at the time, but I do now — it’s a story thing, you’ll figure it out. Suffice it to say, the biggest threat of the maintenance stuff is having people die — people that we established are functionally optional to cart around anyway.
Yes, their dialogue is nice and world-build-y. I like that part a lot! It’s just a shame that, for some alien reason, that dialogue only plays when you’re in the cabin with the passengers. Like, literally, you can’t even be one step outside or they stop. So if you’re busy carrying food and medicine to their lazy, surprisingly grateful asses, or the part you’re supposed to fix is in a side car… no story dice for you.
Oh, and the weirdest thing? Passenger health and food levels decrease over time as the train travels, which makes sense as an abstraction of how much time you spend on the track. But when the train horn toots and you arrive at your destination, they still keep going down. Which means that you can’t even afford to sit around and listen to them talk — they will die of starvation before they get to the end of their story. I would be so much more positive about The Final Station if I could just stay a while and listen without watching these people emaciate before my eyes.
So in summary: exploration sections good-with-occasionally-dodgy-mechanics, train sections pretty-but-feeling-superfluous. They connect only in the most tangential ways: you find resources during exploring to help you excel at train-ing, and train driving provides a sense of distance and time passage that makes the exploration sections feel like more than just a series of hallways. And, of course, both help in their own way with filling out the game’s larger story. Which is…
There’s… honestly not a whole lot I can say about The Final Station‘s story. The joke answer is that I don’t understand it myself, but the more serious explanation is that this isn’t a story that’s really meant to be understood. Partially because it’s told in scattered ways, through different narrators and emails and texts and in categorizations that defy being formed into one narrative. And also partially because it’s one of those personal interpretation stories: the core conceits and main narrative twists are never fully defined, leaving much of deciding what is what up to the reader/player.
There are definitely some common beats; it’s hard to misinterpret that nuke, once you know enough about when and why it happens. But everything about the visitations, the aliens, and the frankly baffling ending…
I don’t even think I’d tell you if I knew, to be honest. It’s much more fun to experience this weird train trip of consciousness for yourself.
Probably the kindest thing I can say about The Final Station that isn’t straight gushing about the art and aesthetic is that it’s hard to classify. It’s unlike anything else I’ve played in a while. I’m willing to say it shares similarities with Resident Evil in the gameplay department, and the body horror aesthetic (and general pixel style) reminded me of Lone Survivor, but that’s where my commonalities end. The Final Station is The Final Station, that’s really all I can make of it.
Is The Final Station worth fifteen Steam dollars? That depends on your reaction throughout the review, I think. If you find yourself aching to join Yelling Steam Guy after reading this, then maybe go look for fun elsewhere. But if you don’t mind a four/five hour game that’s clever, interesting, disjointed, sometimes a little shoddy, and oh-so-pretty to look at, I could think of many worse ways to burn fifteen bucks than a few rides on the darkness doom-train.
Jarenth thinks to know that the train driver’s name is actually Edward Jones. But don’t overthink this too much on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?