The jock, the hip girl, the nerd, the creepy kid who’s obsessed with guns… Sounds like the setup for some modern day The Breakfast Club II, but in reality it’s the setup for Final Exam, the crazy retro-styled beat-em-up platformer that centers around a group of friends reconvening for a high school reunion. Wait, did I mention there were these zombie monsters that crash the party? Because there are. So with this recipe for success, one has to ask, does Final Exam meet the passing grade or does it still need to study some of the basics?
Final Exam melds the old-school with the new-school, which is rather appropriate for a game centered around a high school reunion. The game takes the hyperactive action gameplay of classic action games and beat-em-ups and combines it with the genre settings of the team-based zombie assault. Throw in the obligatory leveling-up stat system and four player co-op and you’ve got a setup for some pretty solid gameplay.
The game finds the player taking control of one of four high school stereotypes (though, I can’t think of how many high school dramas I’ve seen that employs the kid who’s fixated with firearms) and sends them on a series of sidescrolling quests in each stage. The quests themselves are pretty flat, with an abundance of go-here-get-that fetch quests and some menial escort missions. Fortunately, each mission is clearly laid out with stage markers guiding the player to exactly where they need to go, so at least the tedium of having to hunt down the goal posts is missing here.
Each task is conflicted by the fact that players are constantly bombarded with attacks from the zombie monster things. The game labels them as monsters, but they also fall into the usual zombie game tropes. You’ve got the standard walker, a beast-like hunter type, zombies with explosive protrusions, and the gigantic hulking tank enemy, to name a few. Taking out any given monster isn’t too hard. Attacking is simple, boiling down to mashing the attack button along with directions to differentiate between lifting strikes or curb stomping smashes. Aside from melee, players also have firearms and explosives at their disposal.
Combos are fun to string together, especially when the game throws hordes of enemies at you, forcing you to manage combos, special moves, and dodging all at the same time. However, the combat peaks once you find that sweet spot for the right combo and after such a point, fights may tend to drag on a bit past their welcome. Most fights will come down to knocking enemies on their back and going on full force with downward smash. It’s this inelegance that can reveal the strings behind the combat for some players.
There are times where the combat and the quests clash with each other, however. Some missions focused around managing escorts or platforming may also continuously throw enemies at the player. While this clearly intended to help keep players on their toes, I found it kept getting in the way of my simply trying to stop and figure out what was going on with any one puzzle. It’s never really overwhelming, it’s just that once the appeal of the combat slows down, I found myself wondering when a fight was going to reach its conclusion.
Final Exam is a pretty stylish looking game. It subscribes to the same “comedy zombie” genre as such staples as Maniac Mansion and Zombies Ate My Neighbors with neon colors and sharp geometric edges to the art style. Characters and enemies are rather tiny on the screen giving a good view of the surrounding stages. Stages are built like an intricate map, encouraging a lot of exploration to find bonus weapons or secret collectibles, both of which add to the leveling up system. As colorful as the stages are, many come down to exploring corridors. Even the stage which started above ground in an eerie carnival eventually moved underground to caverns and concrete tunnels. A few more organically design environments might have been appreciated, but at least the close quarters supports the combo system put in place here, so at least it makes sense.
If you’ve got some friends around and you want some mindless zombie-smackin’ action, you probably ultimately can’t go too wrong with Final Exam. Though the game does suffer from being a bit shallow, it still can be pretty fun at times, and the addition of friends certainly can be a big help. It just isn’t exactly the next big multiplayer phenomenon. There is plenty of good stuff in there, but I think a lot of it would’ve been better suited to a genre that didn’t call as much on falling back on reliable stereotypes as the zombie genre. All the same, this one might make for the occasional “gamers night in” to play through a stage or two, but this is certainly one I suggest taking at a slow, mediated pace. Too much of the repetitive gameplay at one time might just wean players off of juggling zombies with a rusty crowbar, but taken in small doses, it serves as a competent enough way to kill an hour or so.
[+Cool sharp visuals][+Combos are easy to pull off and look cool][+Lends itself well to co-op play] [-Repetitive gameplay and stages][-Some stages drag on a little long][-Why are there still escort missions in this 2013, the Year of Luigi?]