Final Exam is a gritty, flamboyant, and…wait, what? Gritty and flamboyant? You got it. Mighty Rocket Studios has developed a side-scroller that wraps up its multiple personalities in a pretty package and slams you in the face with it like Christmas morning. The best part? Campiness and brutality seamlessly meld together in a game that will have you and your friends laughing, panicking, and smashing your way through the night.
As with most games in this genre, the story is all but non-existent. Four buddies bathe in the would-be glory of partying at their old high school, but end up in a predicament where they bathe in the blood of monstrous creatures instead. Along the way, they meet quirky survivors of this outbreak, and aid them in the most outrageous and random ways: from finding lost children in a theme park to chasing down a cowardly mechanic. The “story” never feels old, but instead, somehow feels important to the journey.
Aside from the loose plot, each of the four characters you can choose from are fully realized and stand apart from one another. They don’t say much, but their designs and quick and quirky blurbs project ample personality. For instance, we have Brutal Joe, the star quarterback whose bulky physique and broken teeth match his brute strength and anger management issues; Cassy, the spunky dancer whose tomboy appearance alludes to her balanced style of combat; Nathan, the geeky and awkward token who exudes his fondness of explosives; and Sean, the slick guy with laser focus, which can only mean he’s trigger happy and proud of it. After playing with all four, I grew extremely attached to Sean only because his style of combat matches my own personal preferences, and because no one else matched his expertise in ranged combat. Kudos to Mighty Rocket Studios for actually differentiating the cast.
In terms of growth, each character has a skill tree of sorts with only the special attack branch being unique. You can increase the amount of health that a kit heals, learn new physical attacks, and even increase your special attack bar gain. Speaking of the special attack bar, while killing enemies the bar will slowly fill. Once enough of it has been topped up, you can activate one of four special attacks that allude quite well to each of the characters’ personality traits and combat prowess. On the skill tree, each character has a total of four specials they can learn; moves that can easily clear an entire screen of enemies.
The gameplay is pretty much what you’d expect for a side-scroller, except each and every single button is used. You have your physical attack button, which changes based on the analog input; the all-mighty jump button; the shoot button, which can be aimed; the dodge button; the grenade button; the special attack button; the pick-up button; a heal button; and an interact button, which can allow you to change layers on the stage. It’s almost too much take in and remember at first, but the more you progress, the more you realize that mashing the physical attack button will only result in becoming a punching bag for the monsters.
Final Exam gives each button an opportunity to be used and be useful. Since most of the game has you beating up monsters, the combat itself is simply infectious. Yes, for the most part, you will indeed be mashing the physical attack button, but there’s multiple ways to go about that. Do you want to send them in the air followed by a seemingly never ending air combo? Do you want to slam them to the ground and beat them to a pulp? Or if you’re like me, you might prefer starting with a ground combo, hitting them in the air, smashing with an air combo, then ending in an exhilarating shotgun blast. The ability to chain attacks is extremely gratifying and will make fighting game veterans drool. Hell, I know I did.
You know what else made me drool? The impressive innovation of some of the design elements of an already limited genre. Final Exam always keeps you on your toes and challenges what you perceive a side-scroller to be. I won’t spoil any of it, but a simple change of the control schematics is enough to make your jaw drop.
Coupled with the stellar gameplay, the ambience of Final Exam feels fresh in its cinematic approach. The comic-like narratives that bookend each zone transition so well into actual gameplay, which in itself is sprinkled with elements of the whole movie experience. You hear a monster screech in the distance, the music changes, the objectives completely shift, and you find yourself journeying through your own horror movie, complete with guts galore — which are not overly gratuitous, might I add. The ambience has a lot to owe to the comically creepy art style, which deserves praises on all angles. The dark stages splashed with bright colors and swirled with black create the aforementioned gritty yet flamboyant vibe.
If there was one thing I can confidently criticize when it comes to the design, it would be the variety of zones. As there are only eight in total, not including the tutorial, it doesn’t take long to complete the game. As a party game of sorts, this isn’t a bad thing especially since everything reeks of fun. However, when one environment can take place in multiple zones, it’s a little disappointing. True, the abandoned subway is pretty much a horror game staple, but after completing one zone, finding out the next locale is the same subway station is rather disheartening. Thankfully, though, each environment has enough personality to keep it from being completely stale, such as a wild, swerving train in the background of the theme park.
With that said, any amount of nitpicking is immediately forgotten once your eyes are glued to the fantastical world of Final Exam. Nothing negative that I point out should dissuade you from checking out this game, so do yourself a favor and at least tinker with the demo. You won’t regret it.
This review is based on the PlayStation Network version of the game, which we were provided with.