I’m a big fan of indie games. Since the Xbox 360 helped bring a few new studios into the limelight with its Xbox Live Arcade program, and especially now with the PS4, Xbox’s ID@Xbox scheme and Steam Greenlight, the indie scene has exploded over the last decade. While AAA games are great for everyone, it’s arguably in the smaller independent sector where the innovators lie, pushing new ideas that big studios simply won’t take risks on. But it’s not just mould-breaking games that come from indie developers, there are plenty of new takes on old formulae, or those titles that simply mash together different genres to create something a bit different.
The Final Station is one such game, bringing together the micromanagement of FTL, the claustrophobic horror of Deadlight, and the tense ammo conservation of classic Resident Evils. In a world that’s gone to hell in a hand basket, courtesy of some mysterious zombie plague, you are the driver of seemingly the only transportation left in the country: a rather large train. You ferry important goods from place to place, but the danger lies in the “blockers” at each station – a special lock that requires a code in order to release your train, allowing you to progress. Finding the code for each station means leaving the relative safety of your locomotive, and it really is a dangerous world out there.
Exploring each station is a side-scrolling affair, with a twin-stick aesthetic. Controller support isn’t fully supported yet, but the mouse and keyboard setup works perfectly well in its place. The standard WASD keys move your character around, E interacts with various parts of the environment (searching lockers, opening doors, etc.), R reloads and Tab changes weapon, while the mouse cursor allows for precise aiming, the left button shooting and the right button executes a melee attack. It’s incredibly simple and that’s exactly why it works. The controls quickly become second nature and, as a result, your focus is solely on watching what’s ahead of you. The harder you’re focusing on that locker and what it contains, the more likely you are to forget about the door at the other end of the room, and the shadowy infected that burst out to feed on your complacent arse.
The presentation really helps in bringing out the heavy atmosphere in The Final Station. There is little to no music in the game, instead relying on ambient effects like the wind rustling discarded newspapers, and using silence to startling effect. It’s incredibly unnerving to hear nothing but your own footsteps as you move to the next door, its opening booming loud in the empty corridor, making you move closer and closer to your PC monitor as you grow more and more tense. You open the door to a cramped bathroom, a short, dark figure awaits your arrival. In that second, you see the dead whites of its eyes as it glares your way, and then it leaps forward, teeth gnashing. You panic fire, gunshots deafening, wasting precious bullets as it takes a chunk out of your leg. You live to fight on, but your nerves are shot. What was that thing? It made no noise, just threw itself at you with a mindless rage.
The creatures are no simple zombies in this mysterious outbreak. These are no gore-soaked, decaying corpses reanimated, they are jet black from head to toe, more wraith than the walking dead. This simple design choice works well, making enemies stand out against the gritty semi-realism of the pixellated industrial environments, or perhaps helping to keep them hidden in shadow when you find yourself descending into subways and sewer systems. Each encounter is an event, requiring some strategy if you want to keep ammo consumption to an absolute minimum. Sometimes a horde can ruin things though, as the combat doesn’t always feel suited to large groups. It’s the smaller, more claustrophobic encounters where the game excels.
Hidden within some stations are survivors, too. Finding them will automatically send them back to your train, allowing you the chance to help them reach safety in the main city. But the lack of any choice is frustrating, as you may find yourself with an extra survivor onboard and no supplies to treat their wounds, or nothing to feed them. Perhaps their obvious injuries are due to a bite from an infected creature? Is it worth the risk, potentially putting the rest of your survivors in danger, possibly even endangering the city? Giving players this choice would offer a moral dilemma that could heighten the tension of every encounter, and even offer an extra degree of control. It’s your train, after all.
On the train is where things (ironically) lose some traction. I mentioned FTL earlier, with its intelligent management systems, well-balanced but not above reducing you to a gibbering wreck as your oxygen fails and the enemy boards your ship and your shields are offline. It’s this feeling that The Final Station attempts to recreate, albeit with more of a Sims-like style as you balance the wellbeing of the survivors onboard, with keeping the train running. You also use this time to use the supplies you’ve scavenged to craft medical supplies and ammo, and can also be contacted via radio by survivors at nearby stations. It becomes a bit of a Benny Hill situation as you constantly run from one end of the train to the other, pulling switches and pressing buttons to keep everything running smoothly, or ferrying food and medicine to the relevant people, all the while trying to read their speech bubbles as you attempt to piece together the story behind the sudden outbreak and its consequences. It all feels a little too hectic to be tense, and you genuinely feel like you’re missing out on the story as you’re running laps around the train.
As an Early Access beta, The Final Station offers glimpses of a very special game. Exploring stations is nerve-wracking, more suspenseful than terrifying, and its gameplay is simple and satisfying. If the train sections can strike the right balance between management and storytelling, and if an element of choice can be implemented when it comes to meeting survivors in the wild, then it could be an astonishingly good title. As it stands, with a Summer release looming, it may be too late to make drastic changes. However, there is enough in the opening hour of its beta to suggest that The Final Station may still be a very, very good game.
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