The promise has been made.
Some of my favorite moments in science fiction are when the norms of everyday life begin to succumb to strange outside forces. In most zombie or apocalyptic films, you watch law and order stiffen and collapse under the staggering weight of change. In The Final Station, you have a front row seat to this type of chaos, as the world attempts to accept and respond to a mysterious disease turning humans into shadow-like figures. Bringing together the tones of amazing sci-fi with simple, almost puzzle-like combat; for a train ride, this one feels pretty smooth.
The Final Station is, essentially, a train management simulator. You’re a conductor, fresh off vacation, taking over someone’s shift. As your train moves from station to station, both tutorializing you and simultaneously revealing the game’s notable sci-fi setting, you explore various towns and gather materials for your route. When traveling between stations, you maintain your old beat-up train by pulling levers and controlling its ventilation systems, as well as keeping your passengers healthy and well-fed. You also can craft helpful items from junk found in towns, and get some spotty communication with fellow conductors. You have to stop at every station to find the next breaker code, enter it into the train’s controls, and head to the next stop. At each stop you’ll either be shooting your way through abandoned cities and towns trying to survive the “turned” human/zombie-like shadows, or you’ll be casually strolling through a city that’s still oblivious to the parts of the world that are falling apart.
Those cities, towns, military bases, and underground shelters all have their own style and feeling to them. Towns near the ocean may have homes built on stilts, while cities will feature taller buildings that must be scoured floor by floor. Despite being all in 2D the background lends atmosphere to the setting by revealing massive buildings or mountains, and the foreground will have birds or cliffs whiz by to give a sense of peripheral movement and place. Some cities will feel bigger or more important thanks to these small touches of art.
Most of The Final Station’s story is told through art and through conversations and notes. You’ll read through laptops, letters, and newspaper clippings left behind by the recently evacuated or killed. Sometimes those stories are about some nut-job a couple let sleep in their upstairs bedroom who steals books; other times, you’ll see glimpses and hints of what the world was like before the shadows appeared. An overbearing Orwellian government, an air of paranoia, and distrust between civilians; and something about an “arrival” happening years before. You aren’t given enough information to really put together what is actually going on at one time, but it’s enough to keep pushing you forward and make you curious.
The further you push along, the more the gameplay seems to open up. I wouldn’t call the combat deep, but conserving ammo becomes tantamount and punching the shadows becomes a risky alternative. Trying to juggle ammo, med-kits, and food while trying to survive turns some simple situations into puzzles. Having to punch your way through a handful of enemies while keeping a med-kit for a passenger who’s on your train bleeding out is pretty nerve racking. You’ll have some small items like boxes, toilets, or explosive barrels to help you deal with faster moving shadows, but you’ll need to risk more exploration to find some of them.
Honestly, I didn’t expect The Final Station to grab me like it did, but I also didn’t expect the deep sci-fi or the strong sense of place or ambience to radiate from the game. The gameplay might be a little simple for some, but you’re not meant to blast through every level as quickly as possible. Finding yourself in an unfamiliar setting and soaking in the sense of fear, safety, or something in between, feels wonderful. Just when I thought I had seen everything The Final Station had to offer, something new, creepy, and exciting would pop up. What seems like a simple game ended up showing itself to be pretty unique.