The retro 8-bit art style of The Final Station lulls you into a false sense of security with the assumption that nothing in it is going to be too scary. But the way that the creepier elements of the story are introduced into the game makes it incredibly chilling.
You play as a train conductor. All you need to do is get your train across the country to its final station, so you can get off and go home to your family. It’s a simple goal with some generally simple tasks that you complete in order to achieve it.
In order to ensure that your train gets safely to each station, there are a number of sections of the train you have to check on and make sure that they remain stable throughout the journey. This gets increasingly more difficult as you progress through the game. The first level or so you can probably get through without changing anything at all, giving you a chance to get to know how each things works.
When you arrive at each station, you need to fetch a code from the office in order to depart for the next destination. Again, this begins easily enough. The first code you need to retrieve can be easily gained by asking the person sitting at the desk within the station office building, right next to the train.
But as the game continues and the apocalypse creeps up on society, this gets more and more difficult. The people who should be there to help you have mysteriously disappeared. Sometimes, it’s easy enough to get a misplaced code from a different room, other times you need to hunt it down.
The darker elements of the game are implemented beautifully. The first indication you get that something is wrong is wonderfully subtle. It starts with comments that are easy to miss from people waiting at train stations for trains that will never arrive. Trains across the country are cancelled one by one, until you are the only one left still dedicated to finishing the journey. Guards appear at stations, becoming more numerous as the threat gets more tangible. Finally, you don’t see anyone else.
You can scavenge whenever you are off the train. At first, it’s amusing that you can help yourself to people’s pencils and pills. But it later becomes a necessity – without the health kits and ammo that you find scattered around town, you’ll die.
Eventually, you start to see the creatures that are taking over the world. They are simple, but terrifying. Pixelated black silhouettes that can be difficult to spot in the murkier places on the map, except for their glowing white eyes that loom out of the darkness at you. They gradually infest the towns you visit, finally overrunning them so that they are near impossible to escape.
Over the course of the game, all you have to do is get home. When you come across other survivors of the zombie invasion, you can choose to help them and take them safely home on your train. You can use your limited supplies of food and medicine to keep the alive. Or you can let them die and take their stuff.
The controls (and what you do with them) are broadly simple, but at no point patronising. You have to learn quickly how to be a survivor and there are definitely situations that you can stumble into that feel pretty hopeless. It’s challenging in the sense that it requires a decent amount of strategy. You need to know when to be frugal with your supplies and how to shoot to kill as many zombies as possible with in a single round, because you never know what threat is going to lurking behind the next locked door.
The little details that make the horror in the story so absorbing are what make this game truly special. It’s not a particularly long or difficult game, but it has a fiercely engrossing atmosphere that makes it a hell of a lot of fun.