By Tyler Lubben / July 7th, 2016
When it comes to zombie games, the genre has pretty much been done to death (or undeath?). With the exception of some truly fantastic outliers, it’s hard to find a zombie game that isn’t much more than just ‘walk around, shoot the ugly enemies trying to melee you to death.‘ The gaming lexicon has been getting absolutely inundated with forgettable zombie titles by lazy developers looking to make a quick buck, and it’s getting harder and harder to find a title in this genre worth much more than a passing glance. So, when I was told about The Final Station, a 2D game about travelling through the burgeoning zombie apocalypse by train, I was intrigued. But was that hook enough to keep the momentum all the way through?
The Final Station is an episodic title developed by the two-man team of Oleg Sergeyev and Andrey Rumak, and is being published by tinyBuild. You play as an unnamed engineer who apparently has the last working locomotive in the world?/country?/immediate vicinity?, saddling you with the unenviable task of traveling from city to city to rescue survivors, locate supplies and bring everything that you can back to what’s left of civilization. This is easier said than done, though, as there are hoards of zombies and miles of track between you and your goal.
Gameplay presents itself in two main forms: walking around on foot searching for supplies and traveling between cities on your train. Exploring the mostly abandoned cities during your journey is a pretty straightforward affair, and anyone with even rudimentary experience with 2D platformers should have no trouble learning the controls in a couple minutes. Players walk around using WASD, click to shoot their equipped gun, right-click to use melee attacks and press E to interact with items in the environment. It’s quite simple, but should you forget any of the controls, there’s a handy cheat sheet on the bottom of the screen to reminder you what to do. Similarly, exploring environments is also simple. Food, medkits and ammo are the order of the day, and you’ll need to search every drawer, cabinet and bathroom stall to get the most out of every area. Each city you explore is pretty linear, and anything you can interact with will light up with a white outline as you approach it, so you aren’t likely to miss anything as long as you check every room and watch closely for those lights. Of course, this is a zombie game, so you won’t just be able to waltz through each area unimpeded. You’ll eventually run into some… resistance.
The devs made the interesting design choice of representing zombies in The Final Station is strange black silhouetted creatures with white eyes. It’s a rather minimalist design, but it still works as it clearly defines them as a danger and differentiates them from any survivors you might be looking to rescue. There are only a few types of zombies in this first episode of the game, but they’re still fairly distinct, and each requires a different strategy to best take down. Regular zombies will simply walk towards you and attack if they get within melee range. Small, fast zombies are able to rush towards you and lunge at you. Strange smoky zombies will explode in a cloud of poisonous ash a few seconds after being angered, and riot suit zombies are immune to damage until you knock off their helmets. Again, not a huge variety, but difficult comes when these monsters begin to appear in groups together, requiring players to strategize quickly on how best to proceed. Eventually, though, you’ll fight through each area and locate the code needed to get your train moving to the next station, and it’s here that the gameplay gets a bit more unique.
Between cities, players will ride their train through the untamed no man’s land. During these sections, players can listen in on the conversations of survivors, maintain power and air quality of the cabin and see to the needs of passengers, usually in the form of giving them food or a medkit as their stats decline. You can also check your console in the engine room to view your map, chat with NPCs in the game’s chat client or monitor the condition of the train. These brief interludes usually only take a minute or two, but it’s a good way to catch a bit of the game’s lore, and least it would be if you were given time to do so.
The main issue I found the train sections at this point was that everything happens too fast. As I mentioned, you have the ability to listen to passengers as you travel or check your computer, but there’s very little time to do so. The health and hunger meters of all your passengers dwindle fairly quickly, so much of your time is spent walking back and forth between the cabin and the engine room to retrieve food and health. I initially tried to sit in and listen to a couple talk about what was going on in the world outside, and theories about what the government might know about it. Imagine my horror when I watched a third passenger simply croak right in front of me from starvation as I just stood by. After this point, I committed myself to keeping all my passengers alive and completely ignored anything else they had to say. Honestly, that’s a real shame, because from what I could tell, there was a very interesting subplot of government conspiracies and some shadowy organization that might know more about the zombie outbreak than they let on. Normally, I’d eat stuff like that up, but I couldn’t do it at the cost of losing passengers. Hopefully, the devs will be able to tweak the balance a bit in the final release so the story isn’t lost in the confusion of busywork.
Not only that, but resource management can be a bit annoying, as well. Finding food as you explore is fine, because there’s no other use for it aside from feeding passengers. However, the medkits you find act both as your means of healing passengers during the train segments, as well as your own way of healing lost health. This can be troublesome as you explore, because you know every medkit you use means one less resource to help an injured passenger. Ideally, this would encourage players to play more carefully and try to avoid as much damage as possible. Instead, though, I found myself just letting zombies kill me if I ever took too much damage, just so I could try again to get through each section without taking any damage. At the least, I eventually learned to not just blindly shoot every zombie I saw, and try to sneak in some melee attacks when possible.
I think the word that would best describe my time with The Final Station would be “stressful.” Now, I mean that in the nicest way possible. The Final Station is all about giving you just as much as you need, and I don’t just mean that in terms of gameplay. Obviously you can expect that kind of thing when faced with undead hordes wanting to chomp your gray matter. When dealing with the usual themes of despair and hopelessness that are so prevalent in the zombie genre, it kind of betrays the point if you’re constantly well stocked with ample supplies and ammo. That’s all well and good, but it gets a bit harder to justify when it comes to explaining basic game mechanics to players. That said, it only took me a few minutes to figure out most of the ins and outs of the game. Perhaps the devs are simply putting faith in the players to figure things out on their own. Either way, I can say that the story showcased in this first episode has caught my attention, and I look forward to seeing where it goes next. With a couple tweaks here and there to make the train sections more manageable, I think they might have something truly memorable on their hands.