Civilization, that great machine, has inertia. When the engine dies that inertia will keep the scenery scrolling on past for a long time before we come to our final, dead stop. We join the world of The Final Station in full motion. A generation ago there was a visitation. We don’t know what came, but it left millions dead. In the aftermath the survivors have rebuilt and responded, planned, plotted, manufactured their defences — and then settled, moved on with their lives. In the aftermath of terror they have rediscovered banality. Our protagonist is a train driver and he’s doing his job. Things go wrong.
“The environmental storytelling recalls Half-Life 2 “
Not quite a cold open, then, but it’s refreshing to join a story in the middle of its arc. Rather than a sudden and inexplicable catastrophe, the second visitation is a long-prophesied apocalypse, and though it is devastating it doesn’t shut down the world overnight. For a local equivalent, think climate change. People doubt it, people ignore it, people prep for it, scientists and governments respond slow or fast or hardly at all. People live in its long shadow, and if they’re fretful or uncaring they’re equally powerless to change the fact that it is going to happen. Some people experience the devastation long before others. The Final Station is as much about exploring the human response to catastrophes past and present as it is about shooting zombies in the face.
It is about shooting zombies in the face, though, in two pixelated dimensions. The game has two halves: the one exploring stations for food, medicine, ammunition, and refugees; the other piloting your train from stop to stop in search of sanctuaries or following an objective set by the game’s shadowy cast.
“It is about shooting zombies in the face, though”
Stations play out as classic survival horror, albeit rendered in 2D — never enough bullets, always too many foes, keys to find, monster-closets to unlock. While overland sections of the map are always visible, anything behind an unopened door appears blacked out. As you explore you gradually tunnel out these dark sections, creating a huge ant-farm full of gnawed up corpses. In a transparently game-y device you need to find a release code to get your train out of each station, in the possession of a station manager who has invariably gotten himself killed on the far side of the map. You’ll circuit the map in the search for his corpse, the level sending you back around until you close the loop at the train. Usually you’ll trudge in silence, except for the retort of firearms or the hum of a generator. The music that creeps in on occasion is ambient and trancey, a little like FTL’s main score, and it effectively establishes a mood of pensive melancholy.
Each station town is littered with notes and small tableaux that reveal the last point in the inhabitants’ lives before the visitation overturned them. At its best the environmental storytelling recalls Half-Life 2 and Resident Evil 2 for economy and evocativeness: a station-master who has been taking work trips to the port is found at a quay, dead beside his fishing rod; in an isolated rural hamlet an amateur engineer has pinned his hopes of achieving recognition on a cobbled-together war robot. The levels are undermined with sewers, basements, visitation-shelters, and other dungeons, an apt visual metaphor for the conspiracies large and small you will discover beneath the skin of each town: fighting rings, cults, love-affairs, voyeurs, and other furtive human secrets. The visitation has pinned these plots and crimes on the brink of completion or failure, preserved for your inspection. There are larger conspiracies still that ride in the background of the story, but the game is so careful to imply more than it discloses that by the end it’s unclear what is conspiracy, what alien intervention, and what allegory. It’s not as bad as season nine of The X-Files (what is?) but it does tarnish what could have been truly exceptional.
“Train driving is a flub”
Train driving is a flub. Your train is experimental and needs constant maintenance through simple micro-games, and your passengers — survivors you find hiding at stations — need your scant supplies of food and medicine to survive, and will sicken if the train’s systems go out of control. Occasionally another driver or mechanic will contact you through post-apocalyptic WhatsApp. There’s cash, loot, and upgrades to be won if you keep your passengers alive as far as the next safe station, but the real pleasure is listening to them talk to one another, speculating and arguing about the world and their fates. Unfortunately keeping them alive will have you buzzing around the train like a blue-arsed fly, making it very difficult to concentrate on what they’re saying, or to take in the beautiful backdrops that show the strange, changing world outside the train.
As pure speculation I suspect another, abandoned design has left vestigial elements in the game that shipped. From trailers and advertising I expected The Final Station to be a roguelike in the vein of The Flame in the Flood where you traveled between procedurally generated stations, scraping together resources to power your train a little further along the line before your inevitable permadeath. Refugees would be a resource, the story would be a subtext. Instead we have a linear yet expansive horror game that tells a powerful and very human science fiction tale, and I’m glad this is the game we got.