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Final Exam Review: Passes the Test
Final Exam has all the trappings of a light-hearted, delightfully old school Beat ‘Em Up – multiple characters, fast-paced arcade action, co-operative play, and a middling story that serves just enough to get you to kill monsters by the bucket load. Beneath these genre conventions lie some really nifty gameplay mechanics that help lift Final Exam above other side-scrollers and create a memorable experience that begs to be played with a full party of four monster-bashers.
The seemingly random bunch of young heroes could be lifted straight out of the Breakfast Club – the melee-focused football player Brutal Joe, the punky street-dancer and all-arounder Cassy, the techie nerd Nathan, and gun aficionado Sean provide a hero that specializes in each of the major ways you can kill monsters – melee, guns, and explosives (with Cassy being balanced in all three). Each hero has a skill tree, though all of the fancy melee dashes and throws are the same for each. In a nice nod to games like Kingdoms of Amalur, you can preview most skills to see what grabbing a monster and slamming it to the ground will actually look like.
Aside from different skills, each hero has four distinct abilities that must be unlocked, and are activated by building up a meter through dealing out damage. The powers nicely reflect each hero’s personality and weapon preferences – Brutal Joe can enter a rage mode to do dole out more melee damage while Sean gains infinite explosive ammo. As you progress in the game finding more weapons and collectibles and achieving higher scores you’ll unlock additional Character Points (CP) and Special Points (SP) for whichever character you’re playing. CPs raise your stats of Life, Strength, Precision, and Explosives while SPs are used to unlock additional skills, moves, and passive abilities. This system works remarkably well for giving you a sense of progression with your favorite character, while at the same time possibly hampering the ability to switch up characters in between levels.
After a fairly standard tutorial, Final Exam pits our heroes against eight increasingly difficult and non-linear levels with multiple objectives, boss fights, and horde events. The level design is vastly different from anything I’ve experienced in a 2D Beat ‘Em Up, with later levels spawning you in the middle of the level with the freedom to explore for collectibles or complete the various objectives of escorting people, finding objects, and killing more stuff. The world actually uses a 2.5D engine that’s become commonplace in side-scrollers, giving each level the illusion of depth while bright colors and cartoony graphics keep the bloody action light and friendly. The levels themselves are quite large and usually provide several stories worth of ground to cover, from a multi-storied high school to a creepy amusement park, though it’s a shame these few set pieces are reused several times throughout the adventure. Each level took me anywhere from 30-45 minutes depending on exploration, and even then I missed many collectibles on my first pass. Having multiple people tackle a level is vastly preferred; you can choose to split apart and complete the objectives faster and more efficiently, or stick together to spawn larger monster groups and go for those higher combo scores.
Final Exam doesn’t shy away from its genre’s arcade routes – it’s all about the high score. A combo multiplier appears in the lower right corner whenever monsters start getting smacked, and gets interrupt ed whenever a hero gets hit. Everyone in the party shares in the combo, so it behooves you to deal out tons of damage while avoiding hits. An option to lock in your combo multiplier gives players an interesting risk/reward feature during the frantic gameplay – do you lock in that high score now or go higher, but risk losing it all the second someone gets smacked? During the game’s many “Approaching Pack” horde events things can get really crazy with multiple people firing off guns and grenades and activating colorful super powers that ignite their weapons and fry their foes. At times I completely lost my character in the ensuing chaos, much to the detriment of my team.
A few special moments and boss fights break up the standard routine, from jumping on a flying monster for an extra dimension of monster bashing to transforming into the large tank-like monsters while the game distorts and spits out random gaming references (New Objective: The Cake is a Lie). A few of these instances are hampered by frustrating platforming, specifically two cases of having to carry a box of easily-exploded Nitro over a crash course of bumper cars and later a rollercoaster. One hit and the box explodes and you have to try again, all while monsters continue to spawn and harass you. Infinite monster spawns help prevent backtracking and exploring from being a lonely and boring affair, but it can also quickly grow annoying. An almost Left 4 Dead style spawn system is employed by continuing to harass players and basically punish them for exploring to gather collectibles, and as time spent in each level is calculated into the high score, clearly the folks at Mighty Rocket Studios expect players to replay levels multiple times to get the best scores and unlock all the goodies.
You start off with just a baseball bat and a pistol, but new weapons come quickly at the pace of two per level, though only a single new weapon drops from each hidden crate at a time. Once you’ve found a weapon it permanently unlocks for that character. Melee weapons don’t change a whole lot, from cleavers and crowbars and machetes you’re still mashing X while throwing in a few air juggles and throws, though some are faster and others do more damage. The chainsaw, beloved of many gamers, makes a special appearance in the final level allowing you to rip into foes with a satisfying power attack.
Guns include all the standard types and help break up the monotony of bashing monsters over and over. The Uzi and AK-47 fire rapidly and deplete your ammo very quickly, while the shotgun has limited range but hits multiple foes. Only three types of grenades can be found – standard, Molotov, and a cluster frag grenade, limiting Nathan’s specialty more than the others. The right stick acts as your aim for guns, grenades, and throwing monsters and objects, and it doesn’t take long before you’re juggling foes and blasting them apart with your weapon of choice. Thankfully ammo, grenades, and health pickups spawn fairly quickly, though in online multiplayer you’ll have to be quick to snag them.
Beat ‘Em Ups are okay time wasters in single player but really shine in co-operative play, and Final Exam knows this. By playing with up to four people you can all finish levels way faster by splitting up, or stay together to revel in the huge monster spawns and combo scores. I especially appreciated the drop in/drop out component, as joining a level in progress plops you right into the action – though you can only switch characters in between levels or before you join.
Regular difficulty gets impressively tough once you’ve met more of the monster types. Monsters range from standard ground shock troops to suicide bombers to ranged spitters (and are inventively named Hitter, Spitter, Kamikaze, etc), though unfortunately they all share the exact same greenish color scheme. While it does make it easier to differentiate between you and your foes, it makes limited variation in monsters even worse. After completing the final level and beating the final multi-stage boss that borders on frustrating you gain access to a new Time Attack mode as well as the “Rock Hard” difficulty setting. Time Attack essentially acts as one long horde event where you try to get the highest possible score. It works great for practicing combos and combat in general and a shame that it’s locked until after the game is beaten. Leaderboards and achievements help motivate you to continue playing on harder difficulties, and maxing out all four characters’ abilities and skills would take several playthroughs.
If you find 2D Beat ‘Em Ups boring Final Exam might not do enough to change your mind. But larger non-linear level designs, character progression and skill trees, and lots of different weapon loadouts make this one of the best games I’ve played in the genre. Even then it’s a game I wouldn’t care to play alone as the single player lacks the fun open world play style of online co-op or the shared experience of local two player co-op. If you’ve got some interested friends that harken back to those casual, score driven days of arcade Beat ‘Em Ups, Final Exam is an instant recommendation.
Platform: PC, PSN, XBLA
Release Date: November 5, 2013 (PC, PSN), November 8, 2013 (XBLA)
Developer: Mighty Rocket Studio