A few years back I went through my graphics hound phase. Everything was about how games looked, how textures popped and physics exploded across my screen. These last two years, however, I have played a huge number of amazing games that don't rely on ultra-realistic visuals. The sheer volume of games being released is, of course, a factor and there are far more indie developments teams knocking around these days. Stardew Valley showed what one man (and a lot of hard work) can accomplish and that even pixel-art titles can be beautiful. So last year a little game called The Final Station released from developers Do My Best Games and was received with fantastic critical praise.
The awesome people over at TinyBuild have very kindly given me a copy of The Final Station as well as the DLC (The Only Traitor) due out this week. I wanted to review the main game and this new chapter together in order to present a complete package. So let us take a look and see if this is a game I would recommend to all you budding survivalists out there.
'When the Wind Blows'
The game is set within a world on the cusp of an apocalypse. You are the train conductor and have been tasked with getting a rickety locomotive (and mysterious cargo) to its final destination intact. Your secondary goal is to find survivors along the way whilst calling at stations to either gather resources or resupply at the end of each chapter. The game starts you off with next to no back story: all you know is that an event referred to as the 'visitation' occurred many years ago and now it seems a second event is happening. For some unknown reason, people are turning into black zombie-like creatures which form the immediate enemy while away from the safety of your train.
The game loop falls into two main areas, one being the sections where you hop off the train to nosey around and the second being on the train while travelling to your next stop. Each station has a line blocker for which you need to find a code and thus we see the main reason why you would stop: as opposed to putting your foot down and ploughing your way to the finish line. As you explore each station you will come across various laptops, notes and visual clues as to what is happening around you. There is also a very real sense that you are moving away from the source of the problem but that it is still snapping at your heels every step of the way. For some reason, I actually kept thinking of Mad Max beyond Thunderdome and the sequence where they steal the train from Aunty.
Form meets function
As soon as you leave the train you enter a fairly basic game mode in which you must explore the current station and its surrounding structures. Anything that you can interact with can be seen by a distinct white outline, this includes containers, laptops and people. As you search you pick up items that either have a monetary value or can be used to craft items back on the train. You can also pick up food, ammo and medikits. To protect yourself while on these scavenger hunts you initially have a pistol and melee attack. You later gain a few more powerful weapons but combat remains largely the same throughout the game. In most cases, I would thin out the faster enemies with ranged attacks and them beat down the slower ones in order to save ammo. You can also pick up and chuck various items (TV's etc) which help with tougher enemies. The problem is that combat never really feels engaging and while you can get overwhelmed the checkpoint system is super generous: which removes any feeling of risk.
The whole game is presented in a pixel art style and for some games this can leave the visuals lacking. However here the art team have managed to create some fantastic scenes: where the sun is setting in the distance for example or a town is covered with low lying mist in the early morning. Yes, some of the backdrops are very low resolution but they still exude a wonderful feeling of atmosphere and beauty.
Leaves on the track
Ok so despite me enjoying the simple combat and overall game design there are problems here. For a start, the train sections are very basic and when you are asked to fix certain components this equates to simple button pressing. In my opinion, this should have had more meat or been left out altogether. These tasks also interrupted the flow of conversations my passengers would have (depending on who was still alive) and I felt like this was a bad design choice because I actually wanted to listen to how the various survivors bounced off each other. I did like the many backdrops you see on this journeys and deciding who to keep alive was certainly interesting: but again there didn't seem to be any real consequences (that I could see) to letting people die. Yes, you would receive less money at the end of that chapter but then money isn't really important once you decide to let your passengers starve to death.
While off the train the gameplay felt under-baked and I would have loved a more involved system of survival. Most of the enemies you meet can be dispatched with ease and so offer little more an inconvenient obstacle. While most of the sound effects are what you might expect from a pixel art game the music is very good. Sometimes haunting and other times just enough to instil a sense of dread: but it always seems well placed and this really managed to amplify that already excellent atmosphere.
So with The Only Traitor, we step into the shoes of another survivor and our overall goal is to reach shelter. Like with the main game we are given very little information to go off and so you are prompted to just start moving through the game. The format is fairly similar to The Last Station: the biggest difference being that we give up our train for a powerful muscle car. This means you only have enough room for one survivor and so choices must be made. Each survivor comes with three basic stats: crafting, medical and social. If I'm honest these stats didn't seem to change how I played much and so I chose my road trip buddy based on what they were saying. This part of the game seems like a good idea but like so many other concepts in this title: it felt woefully underdeveloped.
One vital thing that this DLC does do is fill in the many gaps left by the original and so this is why I would recommend you play them back to back. You will also visit some places seen in the main game and some light will be shed on events that originally seemed far too vague. It's really interesting to see how things worked out for some settlements and stations after you continued your journey as the train conductor. As I have said: I think the main game and this additional adventure are both bare-bones but when you combine the two you do get a far more satisfying conclusion.
While I researched The Final Station I came across many gamers searching for help understanding the end of the main game. Obviously no spoilers here but I will say the conclusion feels very similar to how the game throws you into the world with little exposition to work off. The core gameplay mechanics that get you to the final Station are simple and will be too light so for some gamers. The train sections don't really inspire me with the inane button pressing and overall the game is lacking some conviction.
However, the big thing The Final Station gets right is the atmosphere it creates while traversing the open landscape before you. Some of the sights you see are really thought provoking and coupled with a fairly intriguing paper trail I did really enjoy the journey this game took me on. It is one of those experiences that is certainly more than a sum of its parts. As I have said, this game absolutely must be played in conjunction with its DLC and I wouldn't be surprised if we see more chapters of this story released in the coming years. If you enjoy pixel-art adventures, road trips or games that offer something a little bit different: I would happily recommend this game.
Thank you for reading my review of The Final Station and its first DLC: The Only Traitor. I played this game on PC and both games were provided free from the publisher TinyBuild. If you don't already please follow me on Twitter @riggedforepic where I post all my new content.