The Final Station (Switch) Review
The best scene in The Final Station occurs around midway through the game. The anonymous protagonist — a suitable everyman, with a noble goal serving as the primary MacGuffin for his persistence — wanders the streets of a city, one of the few safe havens he comes across on his journey through a rapidly-decaying world. A man tells him that a public phone can be used in the back alley, so naturally I make our way there.
The phone rings twice, until the line cuts off and a droning buzz dictates an unsuccessful call. This moment of wordless emotional context tells us all we need to know of the situation: the train driver is looking for someone, likely a family member, hoping they have been spared the vile plague which has befallen the planet.
It is scenes like this that give The Final Station remarkable credence. The game understands the importance of humanizing its grand predicament, subtly examining an individual pursuit to emphasize the enormity of the situation. The political turns personal, so to speak, and the developers at Do My Best Games distinctly recognize this philosophy as a core narrative stimulant.
As a story, TFS is an impressively simplistic exploration of the nature of perseverance as an inherent human attribute. The small civilizations the player visits describe their own personal experiences with the catastrophic instances which have ravaged the world, mainly through environmental implications which cautiously emerge as the player navigates the layered structures.
Unfortunately, TFS is also a prime example of overlooked potential. It is a game that promises resource management, tactical play, and survival horror combat, but ironically seems afraid to fully commit to any complex gameplay design. The core functionality involves shooting a minimal selection of weapons, punching, or charging a punch for a more potent blow. Exploration is limited to following a linear pathway through the wonderfully-constructed settings, which ultimately leads to a disappointing lack of various content.
It is far more indebted to engaging players through the overall experience, as it consistently delivers a striking approach to worldbuilding across the variety of apocalyptic scenarios. Crumbling cities, empty houses, populated by little more than the remains of their owners, each setting is magnificently fully-formed and memorable.
From snow-capped hills, atop which rest mansions housing sinister cannibalistic experiences; to pitch-black tunnels, underground labyrinths where the air seems thick with desperation. There is surprisingly not a single dull moment, thanks to just how much of the developers’ attention was directed towards encapsulating the enormous apocalyptic implications through visual space alone.
Perhaps the game’s finest achievement lies in its ability to implicate narrative through gameplay. The player is not solving anything in this End of Days scenario; The Final Station understands that there is nothing to do but prolong the inevitable, to survive as long as one can until the health bar finally runs out.
There is a tremendous irony in the false title, a misnomer promising finality, some sort of conclusion. Only there is no ‘end’ the apocalypse — something the game wonderfully dictates in its final scenes. The player meets survivors throughout their journey, inviting them to board the train they are managing, and must keep them alive till they reach a safe haven to receive a reward. People become commodities to take care of, simply for the sake of compensation.
Losing survivors aboard the train consequently lacks emotional punch and for good reason. The core of the plot involves riding a train to a promising destination, a fitting metaphor for the triviality of Life in general. Much like INSIDE, it utilizes a limited 2D plane to illustrate the player’s lack of control, always moving towards a determined outcome which may or may not promise salvation. But The Final Station posits this question: In a world where one lives simply for the sake of surviving, are they really living at all?
So is TFS a good game? Rather, is it an engaging gameplay experience? Well the developers are frankly better at worldbuilding through visual storytelling than they are teaching players through visual cues. For the sake of comparison, the original Super Mario Bros. can serve as the foundation upon which teaching players vital gameplay functionality is based, in modern gaming. Jump on a block to reach a higher block. Be cautious jumping over pipes because some house chomping flytraps, etc.
TFS too often fails to accurately teach players the fundamental design principles behind its functionality in a similar fashion to Mario, even as it so wondrously describes the histories of its environments through subtle visual explanations. There is little strategic pacing to enemy encounters, though they are gradually introduced as to stifle creative suspension. Overall, TFS largely succeeds in its design philosophies, but sometimes feels held back by its focus on storytelling. So it is indeed an engaging experience, only one that relies on metaphorical philosophy to stimulate thought, as opposed to its mechanics.
The simplicity of the gameplay, however is supported by the game’s minimalist aesthetics. Manipulating the environment both signifies the developers’ structural ingenuity, and allows for slight resourcefulness (usually involving situated explosive barrels). Defense feels too limited oftentimes, making for instances of trite gameplay (I can’t guess as to how many times I took advantage of the invulnerable staircases, going up and down to punch enemies in intervals); but it works for such a minimalist game as The Final Station, since superfluous complexity would only diminish its charm.
The same can’t be said for tasks aboard the train, however. Juggling multiple tasks to keep the locomotive operating sufficiently and your passengers alive is more intense in theory than it is as presented; though the game would then also have to provide more resources during on-foot exploration. Ultimately, it comes off as the greatest instance of squandered potential within the game, since a more involved methodology to these situations would have made for more effective a reward and intense an experience.
The Nintendo Switch is the perfect console for a game like The Final Station. Deceptively simplistic, comfortably navigable, and aesthetically pleasing; it makes for a fitting companion, indeed aboard a train commute. What remains most memorable is the game’s suggestive imagery and haunted settings, the expressively-neon musical score constantly accentuating the morbid hopelessness of the protagonist’s pursuit.
TFS suggests the perseverance of humanity even as it slowly erodes away. Its conclusion, without spoiling, then acts as a counter to the hopefulness apparent in its interactive functionality; a fitting endcap to a long, harrowing journey into the past, paving the way for a future which will never come. For the prospects of a post-apocalypse promise only the longevity of decay, something only a situated bullet can finally bring a necessary end to.