Final Exam is a game within the crowded side-scrolling action genre, and fails to stand out in any memorable fashion. Perhaps most damningly, it lacks any immediately memorable aesthetic, opening with a dry tutorial and leading straight into a dull, featureless maze of underground trains and pipes. It has been marketed as inspired by classic teen horror movies, yet the dull, oppressively brightly lit levels the player is initially presented with provide no tension or interest.
The characters are broad archetypes of the horror genre, but feel quite interchangeable and again lack any initial memorability. A good point of comparison here is Left 4 Dead 2, which also has a group of four archetypal characters – but they are made characterful by their audio clips. Final Exam is an oddly silent game, and this ruins much of the mood.
The game’s soundtrack is subdued and often almost absent, which neither builds tension nor capitalises on its fun, smalltown American theme. Sequences where the player is beset with hordes of enemies, which highlight how dynamic and bloody the combat is supposed to be, would be improved with some suitably heroic music – the game’s blood-drenched chiller-poster fonts and garish stylings would invite Planet Terror-esque grindhouse sensibilities. Instead, the game in its attempts to be atmospheric and creepy ends up tedious and lonely.
Even adding multiple players does little to mend the aesthetic, although it does to an extent resolve the core problems of the gameplay. It feels generally incomplete in its commitment to its roots – not willing to fully embrace the exploitative gorefests of the video nasties but at the same time too lurid and cartoonish to ever be atmospheric. The monster designs are similarly uninspiring – the player is first presented with lumpy green aliens reminiscent of those from the first Half-Life, and fat zombies that could be from Left 4 Dead.
Mechanically, the game also feels incomplete; the controls are imprecise and exacerbated by an unclear tutorial. An instruction to “press up + B to climb stairs” neglected to mention this only worked while jumping. The use of B as a contextual button – both to activate environmental actions and also to pick up items – was shown to be clunky from the very first level when rather than picking up much-needed health my character kept trying to press a switch because the hitbox of the power-up intersected that of the switch.
Collectibles are dotted around partly in plain sight and partly hidden at the end of long, empty corridors which turn exploring into a chore, and come in two types – sets of items are collected for experience points in a binary situation of either all or nothing, while levels also have hidden weapon upgrades. Some of these are quite missable, almost necessitating replaying in order to keep up with the heavily inflated enemy hit-points.
Conversely, while some are straight linear upgrades, other weapon unlocks are a step back in usefulness – the first grenade upgrade creates a fire effect which both causes immense friendly fire damage but also ignites enemies, increasing their contact damage. Similarly gun upgrades may be more powerful or fast-firing but they also use up ammunition more quickly and take longer to reload.
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