I remember my final exam.
At the end of it, I threw away my see-through pencil case with its’ pencil, eraser and ruler, although I kept my Parker pen as a memento of the whole experience. On my way back from the bin, a friend of mine was stood with a small group of people who were daring him to drink a bottle of vinegar – which he did and then proceeded to be spectacularly sick like a vomit fountain going off. It was equally baffling and impressive, with his epic chunder containing lumps of banana. Not sure why that particular aspect stuck in my mind but that’s school for you I suppose.
For the four heroes of Final Exam, their last experience of school seems equally puke-filled, albeit somewhat more violent than my own.
Choose from 4 school stereotypes; the Jock, the Nerd, the Girl and the… um, Ranged Weapons Expert, then take on hordes of monsters that have invaded their home town. Final Exam is a 2.5D brawler that sees you bash a path through a gruesome legion of punching monsters, spinning sort-of dog things, things that spit acid and the occasional tanky brute.
So far, so familiar – so what makes this title stand out from the crowd.
Well, here’s the rub my XBLA loving chums. Final Exam is one of those infuriating titles that manages to be fairly inventive and fun and yet thunderingly monotonous and dull at the same time. How does it pull off this feat? Read on.
The key to any good brawler (and there have been stacks of them over the years) is, of course, the quality of the combat. A player is looking for fun ways in which to take down their opponents and show off their skills – you want to feel like a whirling dervish of badassery, with deftly timed button presses seeing you dodge in and out of the enemies whilst dealing powerful feeling blows. Final Exam does allow for this, eventually.
Unfortunately, when you start the game for the first time, your move set is limited to very little beyond spamming the ‘X’ button and knocking down your opponents with simple combos – and boy, there are lots of enemies and they are all the same for far too long. By the end of the second level – well over an hour into the game – you will have encountered 4 different enemy types and one of those is the ‘boss’ monster. Wave after wave of the same respawning enemies appear and are duly dispatched with ‘X’. Sure, you can vary things a little by hitting them up in the air, but it’s more efficient to simply stand still and hammer the attack button, occasionally jumping over punches from your opponents. Starting to use the ranged weapons merely breaks your flow and so it’s easier to bash. Your foes ‘tells’ are way too easy to recognise and give you far too much time to respond.
As you progress, you’re awarded upgrade points for your characters based on your score for the previous round and begin to unlock more moves, better dodges, increased health from items and special attacks. These are great and fun to use – but it’s not until 4 hours or so into the game (at about 60% completion) that these become more useful than the good ol’ basic combo and throw, available from the start. This also means that you have to stick with the same character on each level – as boosting the skills of all your characters requires you to play each level repeatedly. Better get some re-enforcement for that ‘X’ button.
Now, that’s not an ideal start for a brawler, but fortunately Final Exam has some lovely features to separate it from the crowd. To begin with, on the first level which is set partly on the back of a speeding subway train, the game utilises its’ 2.5D in a creative way by having damaging signs come rushing out of the darkness into the foreground. You are fighting enemies on a derailed train that is sliding along at speed and these glowing signs streak past, damaging both you and your assailants if you don’t get out of the way. Another nice moment is when you are riding a fairground ride rigged up with weapons, and you have to continually switch places between different gun emplacements to keep the enemies at bay and your vehicle safe – a really welcome change of pace.
The only trouble comes when you’re back to the basic on-foot fighting sections, such as when you have to fight a horde. These come up periodically, and are literally a horde of enemies rushing your location. Spam the attack button and win, naturally, but these sections take a long time and are not really a welcome addition to the levels as a whole – rather they’re unwelcoming padding when they crop up multiple times in the same level. These horde attacks might have been fun if they were overwhelming like the similar sections in Left 4 Dead, but it’s really just a couple more enemies to fight through that will simply respawn until the event is over.
The game does feature several examples of that staple of lazy game design, the ‘escort mission’, although thankfully for the most part your rescuee can’t be harmed by the monsters so it’s simply a device to get you to move through the levels a certain way, ensuring you get to fight the monsters coming and going. Wouldn’t want you to miss out on any of that ‘X’ action.
Final Exam is graphically pretty appealing, with unique player characters and some inventive and interesting backgrounds. Sadly it’s also not afraid of sticking you in some pretty boring environments too – and as for the enemies, oh Lord, they are boring to look at. Apart from some slight variances in colour (that I may have imagined as my brain tried to inject some life into proceedings) there are very little differences in the enemies – with even the main enemy models looking like slightly reworked versions of one another. This can be a little problematic on occasion as you expect one kind of attack and then realise too late that it’s a different monster type.
One thing the design team at Focus Home Interactive did get right however is the sound assets used in the game. Final Exam’s heavy rock soundtrack suits the game perfectly and the in-game explosions and weapon hits are suitably meaty. The voice acting in the cutscenes isn’t going to win any awards but is fine for telling the story. Best in this area though is the sound cues used in game, they are easy to tell apart from one another and really help a player to judge what’s coming if things get a little muddled on screen.
Like most brawlers, Final Exam is best enjoyed in multiplayer when it’s limitations can be forgiven with alcohol and good company. Playing in a public lobby online works smoothly although there aren’t too many players out there yet. Better to get that local co-op going and defeat those alien scum over a slice of pizza. Try to avoid getting cheese in that ‘X’ button though – you’re going to need it.