Sometimes, games are generic. That’s fine, and I have no problem playing games that don’t break new ground. Still, if I play something cliché, I at least expect a certain amount of charm. Final Exam is not only a game that doesn’t introduce anything new, but it doesn’t even bother to create an engaging world. It teases something that could be charming but otherwise sticks to genre conventions and performs below average.
So with a name like Final Exam, I expected a game to be related to school, and it barely even scratches that surface. It’s about four friends who have a class reunion and then all goes to hell when the monsters invade. Of course it’s going to be a battle with a team consisting of the jock, nerd, punk girl and alpha male, but the game could have tried to have been unashamedly cheesy. They could have defended their school from a monster invasion with a soundtrack that reflects their glory days; and the characters, while remaining generic, could have at least poked fun at convention.
Instead, the game seems to present itself as a straight-faced monster apocalypse. The story is told from the alpha male’s perspective, and he is trying to present his best impression of the hard-ass who has seen a lot of shit despite only being, what, a late twenties or early thirties graduate. The other characters don’t get their chance at the spotlight except for their specific in-game traits. Final Exam weaves this together with cutscenes that consist of stylish stills, but it has a soundtrack that uses unmemorable guitar riffs in attempt to make the game seem more bad-ass than it really is.
Final Exam is a sidescrolling beat-em’-up, and it tries to separate itself from the pack, and I respect it for its attempts. But the thing I respect most about old-school beat-em’-ups is that they realize how repetitive they are. They introduce colorful characters that players kill repeatedly, but we only had a certain amount to deal with before the games told us to move on to the next part of the level.
Final Exam, on the other hand, structures its levels in large maps, and it begs its players to explore it. But it’s still a mostly linear adventure with objectives to fulfill, and there’s little plat-forming to break up the monotony. What it boils down to is mashing square until the zombies are dead and then moving to the next objective and pressing circle when the game provides the context.
Actually, the monsters aren’t technically zombies, but the archetypes are there. It has the normal zombie, spitting zombie, chunky zombie—who, by the way, represents 99 percent of the boss battles save for the final boss—the crawling zombie, and anything else that belongs to the genre. They all look too similar, and the game later introduces mega forms that take more hits, making the game even more of a grind. But they all take a preposterous amount of hits, and I dreaded each encounter—not because they’re a threat but because they are a chore.
That’s because they never stop coming. As this is a beat-em’-up that allows players to explore, there isn’t room for set pieces of enemies like in other beat-em’-ups, so they randomly crawl out of parts of the levels. Then the game has the nerve to throw packs of twenty zombies at me. While they aren’t much of a threat, I now have to deal with twenty, and then some more after I finish off the pack. Instead, I grew so bored that I just dashed to different parts of the level, sometimes carrying something random yet important, like a box or something, and then the zombies would explode once I fulfilled an objective. This is fine until I had to protect key characters who don’t risk death; however, they won’t move until I cleared enough zombies.
The game does introduce a leveling system, skills, attributes, and secondary weapons to play with, but it does little to break up the monotony. For instance, there are guns, but they’re weak compared to melee attacks, and the characters don’t carry a sufficient amount of ammo. There are skills, but the skills meter takes a long time to recharge, and I still had to mash square in between skills—granted, there are skills that allow you to recharge my skills meter faster. I could try to throw zombies in the air and then curb stomp them when they hit the ground, but it didn’t help break the grind. Thankfully, there are grenades to kill multiple zombies at once, but I only had a limited amount of those. No matter what I did, I eventually mashed square until my foes were dead.
Final Exam also reuses environments for its levels, giving me little reason to explore. In the first four levels, the game had me explore the same two environments—two levels per environment. These two environments are a subway and a carnival, respectively. It isn’t until the next two levels in which the game allowed me to explore the actual school, finally living up to its title. Then the game took me back to the exact same carnival level with a mini-game thrown in, and then it took me back to the same level used for the school. That’s beyond monotonous level design—it’s lazy. Thankfully, the game at least scatters items in the levels so I could gain more points to improve my character’s attributes.
Sometimes there are vehicle sections, which I will admit had an interesting take. There’s one vehicle where, if I wasn’t playing multiplayer, I had to press a corresponding face-button to move my character to a certain position on the vehicle and fire different weapons. This is the most interesting of the vehicle sections. On the other extreme , I rode a wasp monster and fought the same enemy model—another wasp monster, fittingly enough—until I reached the boss. Then, I had to fight the same wasp monsters for an ungodly period of time until I fought the same boss.
It occurred to me that the game may have been designed specifically for multiplayer. This makes sense considering that the levels are large and the monsters are resilient. I played a round of multiplayer with a fellow writer from the Koalition, and all seemed to go well. Monsters were still a chore to kill, but they didn’t require so many hits because I had another player to help, and we could have split up and tackled different objectives at the same time. If you buy Final Exam, I recommend you stick to the multiplayer, as it is the ideal way to play. But then my fellow writer quit after twenty minutes of boredom, so be warned if you’re looking for a friend to join you–you may have trouble convincing them to play it through the end.
It’s a shame, because at its core it functions nicely—the controls aren’t bad, and the pieces seem to be in place for a fun multiplayer game. And with its school-days theme, it would have benefited with levels with aesthetics similar to Lollipop Chainsaw and characters that poke fun at convention–specifically of grownups reliving their high school glory days. But it’s repetitive, and there’s no charm to reinforce it.
Don’t bother studying for this exam—it’s a blow-off.
This review is based on a digitally downloaded review copy of the game for the PlayStation 3 provided by Mighty Rocket Studio.