High school reunions are a renowned source of fear. Everyone wants to give the impression that their lives have gone swimmingly and exactly to plan, which is especially silly given how easily those plans are given to change. But that need is still there, that psychological desire to prove that you have not only done well, by other people's standards, but that you've done better then they have.
What does this have to do with Final Exam? Almost nothing. A brawler centered around four friends who come home for their reunion only to find their school and the surrounding neighborhood neck deep in monsters. There is no analysis of their psyches, no look at how a group with the diversity of the Breakfast Club managed to not remain friends without the school walls that held them together as teens.
I'm not joking when I call upon the name of John Hughes' seminal high school film either. The four main characters each fit into an easy to identify stereotype, like the jock football player or the glasses wearing nerd. While a little gross, using these identifiers serves to not only make the characters stand apart from each other, but they also define their individual characteristics. For example, the football player is able to place more points into melee damage, while the popular girl is more well rounded, and doesn't excel in any one area. Each character also has to be leveled separately, and none of the different weapons you find are shared between them. It's a way of artificially stretching out the game, but I don't think it's one many people are going to run into, especially once they find the method/character, they prefer using.
Side characters are introduced in Final Exam almost as a lark, with the game giving little explanation to their appearance, and even less to the role they are supposed to play. Avoiding specific spoilers, two characters show up in the later half of the story that serve only to give you both a final boss, and the deus ex machina that defeats it. Neither is ever explained, and one is ridiculous in its assertion of stereotype over actual person. While this fits with the aesthetic of the game, its inclusion left my head shaking.
As a brawler, the individual characteristics provided by the translate to damage and survivability, though not in great enough amounts to make any real difference. Final Exam offers ranged options in combat in the form of fire arms and explosives, like grenades and molotov cocktails, but unlike melee, they are limited by the amount of ammo you possess. Yes, they are able to provide some substantial damage in the right hands, but I found ground/air combos and effective use of the dodge move to be more then enough in any situation.
And sadly, the situations you find yourself in are not that varied. Spread across eight chapters, the group's efforts to uncover and eventually defeat the source of whatever caused these monster problems ends up as a series of simple escort or collection quests, with the former almost always ending in the demise of the person you were escorting, after they performed their prescribed action of course. While their deaths are often quite comical, often signaling a new wrinkle that needs to be dealt with, they cheapen what you went through to rescue them. In the case of one survivor, a mechanic in a subway tunnel who the game notes as “Being scared of monsters,” you have to chase him down after he runs away, then walk him back to the spot on the tracks he ran away from. The entire ordeal takes about ten minutes, and once you return him, and flip the power on to open a door, he is promptly electrocuted and killed. This casual, almost flippant, use of “people as tools” really begs the question as to whether or not saving this town from these monsters would make their lives any better.
Rather then allow you time to ponder the “good works” you're doing, Final Exam throws monsters at you with furious abandon, and thankfully, the combat holds up. While not hitting the highs of a game like Foul Play, whose combat I loved, the frantic pace keeps things exciting. Focusing mostly on melee combat mixed with grenades, combat was more about corralling the monsters into groups before dismantling them with business end of my fireman's axe. It's easy to see how other choices in combat, like going heavy firearms, would work, but again, those choices are based on the resources available. Your almost alien-like foes drop ammo, explosives, and health, but nothing was never in such heavy supply that I felt like I could get by without relying, heavily, on melee.
Like the methods used to kill them, there are three main variations of monster you will be shooting, smashing, or blowing up: The bipedal, human-likes, the space dogs, and wasp-esque fliers. Each have only one or two ways to attack, and once you learn them, they are easy enough to dodge around. Every so often, you will also run into a “boss” monster. Fat and pustule ridden, not only can they take a fair amount of punishment, but they have a wider variety of attacks that makes approaching them a bit more of a challenge.
While none of the monsters are really challenging by themselves, the true test of Final Exam is in holding your combo. This is the first game I've seen where the option to confirm your own combo exists, allowing you to bet against the system by seeing how far you can take it. With one hit being all that stands between your gained points and no points, stretching those totals is a real test of confidence in your abilities. I have yet to hit the “S” rank in a combo, but the soul crushing defeat of watching a hard-earned “A” get swatted away by a mistimed dodge made me well aware of the costs associated with gambling.
Where Final Exam could have taken a few more chances is in the level design. Everything is dark and dingy, with the only highlights being the neon green used to represent the monsters themselves. The levels are stretched vertically to add space to explore, but the same levels are repeatedly used from the third chapter onward. With attribute progression tied into collectibles, this lack of variety makes then eventual break from the story to seek out cans of soda and new weapons a complete slog. Given the comic like graphics, and now officially over used static comic cut scenes, the look leaves a lot to be desired and fails to separate it from the rest of the brawler pack looking for space on your hard drive.
Multiplayer allows for up to four players to participate in the same chapter, and it works great. I ran into no problems during the sessions that I played, and the quick match provided easy access. It doesn't add anything challenge wise, and it does make things a bit more difficult to differentiate when players are using the same characters, but players are given free range over the map, so you're never stuck waiting for someone to get somewhere or do something in order for things to proceed. I also appreciate that chapter progress made online is carried over to the single player game. A two player local multiplayer is also offered for those interested in a split screen experience.
With lackluster looks and a lame story serving as ballast, the combat would have to be spot on perfect to carry this game out of mediocrity. It's good, far and away the best part of the game, with the scoring system adding challenge, thought and tension to the proceedings, but it's not enough to push this into “must have” status. To end with an appropriate pun, this Final Exam passes... but just barely.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!