The Final Station

The Final Station is a mess.  It is a playable one, and it is one that doesn’t overstay its welcome or fail to get you engaged, but it is a mess nonetheless.  It can’t figure out whether it wants to be a tough, retro action game, a survival and crafting experience, or a management simulator, so it combines shallow elements of all of them, with limited success.  The game dangles a tantalizing and intriguing story in front of you, only to disappoint you massively in the end when the credits suddenly roll and nothing makes sense.  The story in the game is flat-out broken, either because it was lost in translation from its original language, or because the writer(s) had no idea how utterly incoherent it was.  Whatever the case, The Final Station is an admirable attempt at something different, but mostly a failure as a game.

The world of The Final Station is a post-apocalyptic one.  106 years ago, capsules bearing a strange gas arrived on Earth, turning most of its inhabitants into zombies in what was known as The First Visitation.  You are a train conductor in Metropole, which appears to be a large city-state with various districts.  You hop from district to district by train, ferrying passengers, as needed, and sometimes carrying precious cargo for the government.  You earn money by safely transporting passengers, which you can then, in theory, use to buy food, health kits, ammunition, and weapon upgrades.  While you are on the train, you do some basic maintenance while making sure that your passengers don’t starve or bleed to death. When you arrive at a station, you usually get off the train, break out your weapons, and search the area for supplies while defending yourself from the zombies that lurk there.  Occasionally, you arrive at a station that has yet to be overrun.  At these locales you have a chance to catch your breath for a few minutes while you do some shopping and engage in some storytelling.  This simple routine comprises the five hours of gameplay in The Final Station.

Simple is a good word to describe most of what The Final Station has to offer.  Train maintenance, for instance, is essentially a handful of mini-games.  If the train breaks down, you walk up to the component that is broken, click the mouse on a box a few times, and that component is fixed.  Each passenger has a bar for hunger and health.  If one of those bars is low, you walk over to the food or health kit dispenser (assuming they aren’t empty), grab an item, and give it to them.  You don’t need to put much thought into it, nor do you need to put any thought into the game’s simplistic crafting system.  You can craft three items – medkits, pistol bullets, and shotgun shells.  Since medkits don’t share any components with ammunition, there is no thought put into whether to spend you components to make them.  The crafting system, for the most part, seems tacked on in an unsuccessful attempt to add depth or variety to the gameplay.

“Simple” is also a good word for describing the game’s exploration and action elements.  They function adequately, but once you are halfway through the game, you have seen essentially everything that there is to see gameplay-wise.  There are only three weapons in the game and a simple melee attack for killing enemies at close range.  There are only a few types of enemies and they mostly just appear and reappear in various quantities and combinations.  You explore buildings, open containers to find money and supplies, kill zombies, find the code that you need to unlock the exit, and leave.  After following this routine a bunch of times, you are done and the game ends.  This aspect of the game is part of an overall pattern in The Final Station.  Gameplay elements have been borrowed from multiple genres, but they have no depth and are underdeveloped.  Another example of this problem is with the game’s economy.  Although it offers some resource management, there is next to nothing in the game that is worth spending your money on, and there are only a few places in the entire game where you can actually buy something.  Towards the end of the game there are none, which means that every dollar that you collect after your last shopping spree is completely worthless.  This game may have been more successful if it had eliminated one feature of its gameplay to lend some variety and depth to what remained.

For what it’s worth, the game doesn’t take very long, and despite its repetitive nature, it is still good enough to keep you moving forward to completion.  The Final Station is, if anything, sufficiently challenging and resources are sufficiently scarce.  A swarm of enemies that rushes you when you open a door can kill you in just a couple of seconds if you aren’t prepared.  You can’t carelessly unload all of your ammunition into a pack of enemies, lest you be empty for the next pack.  You must scrounge for everything that you can and use the occasional object in the environment (e.g. chairs, exploding barrels) to gain the upper hand in any way you can.  The carrot-and-stick mechanism of fighting for precious resources so that you can live another day to fight for precious resources is intact, albeit shallow and unrefined.

Whatever issues it has with its gameplay, The Final Station is held together by its atmosphere, which is both a blessing and a curse.  Like with most works of this fiction genre, it is a bleak game.  It pulls this off a lot better than many other games thanks to its haunting synthesized score, which adds an element of tension to every area.  And, although the graphics in the foreground are pixelated and ugly (and, as you can see in the screenshot below, sometimes broken), the vistas that you see in the background during your travels can be quite beautiful.  They sport a lot of variety, from the countryside to a huge, abandoned oil rig, giving you the sense that you are travelling across a great distance.  So, while the game’s low budget is apparent in its visuals, its overall presentation isn’t bad.

Where The Final Station needs to succeed is where it fails most resoundingly, and that is with its story.  The translation from its original language is poor, if not outright disastrous.  Grammatical errors abound in the dialog and in the notes that you find scattered about.  Some of these errors you can overlook, but some of them are so blatant that I'm still confused about what I experienced.  The game’s much bigger sin though, is the sloppiness of the storytelling, in general.  There is no exposition to acquaint you with this futuristic, almost alien world.  There is nothing in the game telling you who you are, whether you were chosen for this mission, or whether you are just a random guy who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The game opens with what appears to be a flashback, but it gives you no clue whether it is just a nightmare, an event that took place during The First Visitation, or an event that took place yesterday.

The story centers on The Second Visitation, and the building of a giant robot that is supposed to save humanity – The Guardian.  Once again, the information that you need to absorb what is going on with these events is hopelessly jumbled and confusing.  Who exactly is building this Guardian and how is it supposed to be deployed?  Why is a giant robot the solution for fighting off a bunch of zombies?  Did the world return to normal after The First Visitation, or has this always a post-apocalyptic world?  The game suggests a rather sinister motive behind the “Visitations”.  What, exactly is that motive?  These questions and many others like it will have you wondering up until the end whether you overlooked a critical note somewhere.  You will have a confused feeling in your head until the moment that the game pulls the rug out from under you and ends abruptly.

There is something to be said for a story that keeps some of its secrets close to the vest and invites astute observers to fill in the details.  Last year’s Her Story is a great example of a game that prospered with this type of approach.  The developers have said in the Steam Forums that this was the approach that they took with the story in The Final Station, expecting that multiple playthroughs of the game would clarify this story.  The biggest problem with The Final Station, however, is that the game is simply too linear and repetitive to warrant a second playthrough.   And, even with a second playthrough, many basic elements of good storytelling are missing.  For example, I replayed about half of the game, and after about 7 or 8 hours, I still can’t tell if Metropole is a huge city state or a country.  I can’t tell if I am travelling an area the size of Poland or the size of Washington, DC.  The game makes frequent references to directions – north, south, etc, but the only map that you have only shows you going in random directions on a rail line that looks like strands of spaghetti randomly dropped onto a piece of paper.  I can’t tell if the game’s setting is the last bastion of civilization on Earth, or just one pocket.  The game fails badly at World Building 101.

Somewhere, deep down in The Final Station, is a game that you can fall in love with – a rough adventure where you uncover a mystery and where every moment is filled with tension or despair.  Unfortunately, the game that you actually get is too shallow and repetitive to be satisfying, and the story is so confusing that it is downright broken.  The story’s failures are especially disappointing, because you can see the makings of something great around the periphery.  There was clearly inspiration at work in The Final Station, but for a variety of reasons, it failed to make the transition into the final product.  That final product is playable and fairly unique, but still difficult to recommend.