Before playing Final Exam, we’d heard it be described as a sidescrolling Left 4 Dead, and, in all honesty, that’s a fairly apt comparison; it’s a 4-player zombie slayer with online co-op, a level set in a subway, and a massive, hulking enemy called a Tank. Superficial, skin-deep comparisons aside, Mighty Rocket Studio’s latest effort takes inspiration from Valve’s popular zombie shooter in spades, and melds it with hints of Shadow Complex and Devil May Cry for good measure.
Described by the developers as a “pure 2.5D sidescroller,” Final Exam is actually part beat-‘em-up, part twin-stick shooter, boasting one of the tightest and most satisfying combat systems in living memory. You choose to play as one of four characters whose alumni party has taken a turn for the worse. While on their way to said shindig, our heroes manage to get themselves stranded in a small town which has been overrun by all manner of grotesque and ghastly monsters. Luckily, you’re armed to the teeth.
The plot is advanced by a combination of in-engine cinematics and the occasional comic book style cutscene, with some uncharacteristically high-quality voice acting for an XBLA release. As you might expect, the plot isn’t the main draw here; where the game really shines is in its fantastic, if not relatively simplistic combat.
Your melee attack is handled by the X button, while a dodge roll can be performed by hitting Y. Dashing behind an enemy before repeatedly clobbering him ‘round the chops with a spiked baseball bat feels great – that’s because of the super-tight, super-responsive controls, not because of any burning, sociopath tendencies, though they may help.
The game eases you in over the course of the first level, throwing a number of bog-standard ‘Hitters’ at you. Fighting just the one enemy type feels repetitive initially, but the game gradually introduces a further six monsters until the combat system eventually comes into its own. Beating the crap out of a Hitter before rolling under the legs of the dog-like Spitter, tossing it into the air and shooting it down mid-combo with pixel-perfect precision is an incredibly satisfying series of events to command. It’s at once stunningly graceful and legitimately badass.
Linking up the combos is tremendously great fun, thanks largely to the game’s near-perfect controls. The dodge mechanic is spot on, while both melee and long-range firearm attacks are beautifully precise, lending to a fantastically fluid and accessible fighting experience.
For the most part, Final Exam is fair and forgiving, with clever, dynamic enemy spawns and largely predictable and broadcasted enemy attacks. For beat-‘em-up novices like myself, the game rarely frustrates - veterans may lament the perceived lack of complexity and challenge, however.
The game can be played entirely in single player for the social pariahs amongst us, but there may be a few instances where you wish you had a buddy to help out. Some sections will require you to carry boxes, explosives or planks of wood partway across the level, and having to stop every 10 seconds or so to fend off attackers can get rather tiresome. In the main, though, Final Exam’s eight chapters are perfectly playable by oneself, so don’t be put off if you can’t muster the help of three buddies.
As we mentioned earlier, the real star here is the superb combat, which leads to the rest of the game often feeling like filler. There’s a fair amount of backtracking, ladder-climbing and seemingly avoidable carrying to be done, and the game is irrefutably at its best when you’re getting stuck into another seemingly endless horde of beasties.
Visually, the game is quite pretty; the vivid, colourful artstyle makes it easy to keep track of enemies, something you’ll be glad of as the intensity picks up. There are also some impressive animations, lighting and atmospheric effects. Some horribly aliased shadows and relatively generic enemy designs do little to deter from what is otherwise an aesthetically pleasing package.
The sound design is also pretty great, with generous use of location-contextual sound; playing the game with headphones on, it’s easy to ascertain which direction the enemies are coming from. Each blow to the face is accompanied by a worryingly therapeutic thud, while ladders and floorboards clank and creak as you traverse them. The music, though largely forgettable, also has its moments – particularly in the 3rd chapter.
A few annoyances hold the game back from being entirely enjoyable, mind you. The Tank enemy, for example, is an absolute git; it’s fast, extremely strong and attacks without warning. Let this guy grab you more than once, and you’re pretty much done for. That wouldn’t normally be a problem – a sense of challenge is all well and good – but the Tank fights are some of the rare instances in which the game feels a bit unfair.
The objectives themselves are entirely linear, while the level designs seem to suggest an element of non-linearity. This can be somewhat confusing as it’s not always entirely clear if the ladder you just walked past was the route you should be taking, or merely a branching path that you’ll return to later on.
Frustratingly, NPCs will struggle to keep pace with you during escort missions, (yes, there are escort missions) meaning you’ll have to keep going back to get their attention should they fall behind. Thankfully, they can’t actually die, so it’s not absolutely infuriating, but it’s a minor annoyance nonetheless.
Perhaps most offensive, though, is the game’s severe lack of content - even with the paltry five hour story mode, there are some serious issues with padding and recycling of assets, with only three unique locales spread across the game’s eight chapters.
Final Exam is a beat-‘em-up that’s extremely accommodating to newcomers, with an incredibly fluid, precise and, above all, fun combat system. Veterans will find challenge in the form of the game’s ‘Tough’ mode and the ‘easy to learn, difficult to master’ nature of the combat. But despite a relatively short story mode and a few niggling annoyances with NPCs and escort missions, Final Exam is still worth the price of admittance for the core gameplay alone - a robust upgrade system and four-player online co-op are just icing on the cake.