Bringing Up the Average – PC – Final Exam – 2013

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Final Exam
PC
Mighty Rocket Studios/Focus Home Entertainment
2013
Genre: Action Platformer

Much like the most prolific horror series’ have, some games need reboots.  Castlevania saw one with Lords of Shadow in 2010, as did Silent Hill when 2009 brought us Shattered Memories.  On a less established scale, under-the-radar horror franchise, ObsCure, found itself requiring a reboot after Hydravision, the original developer of the series, had announced that it had closed its doors in 2012.  Shortly after, they corrected that they were rebranding as Mighty Rocket Studios.

Having marginal success with the ObsCure series and a few other games as Hydravision, the company decided to go in a different direction with the series by establishing Final Exam.  While there had been rumor that a third ObsCure game was in the pipeline, the game that was talked about and the game that Final Exam turned out to be were pretty different and initial reviews of Final Exam didn’t play well as the third game in the series (hence the unrelated title).

Given my mixed feelings between the first and second games in the ObsCure series, starting up Final Exam brought up some concerns: would I enjoy the game universe?  Would I just be mildly offended? Would I even finish if it followed in the second game’s footsteps?

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Gimmicks like this “Space Invaders” style level are a fun time.

Plot Synopsis

There’s a huge party coming up at Leafmore High, and all of the alumni have been invited.  Four friends decide to drive to their old school to take part in the party- Big Joe, a burly football player whose taken one too many hits to the head; Nathan, a bespectacled nerd with a knack for gadgetry; Cassy, a stylish street dancer with attitude; and Sean, a no-nonsense jock with a penchant for weaponry.  Everything is going swimmingly.

Until it isn’t, of course.

Upon arriving in a small town outside of Fallcreek, their old hometown, a series of incidents winds up with a crashed car and the four friends surrounded by grotesque creatures clouded in a dark aura.  The four of them have to survive long enough to get to safety and, after realizing the magnitude of the situation, they decide to figure out how to stop it so that the dark aura can’t spread any further.  Through eight ‘chapters’, the four will travel through a train station, an amusement park, and even back to their old high school to put an end to the catastrophe that they have become immersed in- or die trying.

As fans of the series will notice, a lot of terms and places are used in this synopsis.  Leafmore High acts as a central plot point, as does the town of Fallcreek, revisiting the settings of the previous games throughout the story.  The ‘dark aura’ also returns as the driving force behind the creatures rampaging throughout the area. There are a few other callbacks that come up, but one thing is for certain: this game has ObsCure written all over it.  All the while, the game maintains a much more tongue-in-cheek tone (that ObsCure: The Aftermath honestly could have used) and feels much more like it’s having fun with the player rather than entertaining itself while the player is along for the ride.

Mechanics

Final Exam is drastically different in play style from the games it was born from.  For one, it is no longer a survival horror adventure game. Likened to a platformer Left 4 Dead, the game plays across a 2D field to explore each location.  Primarily, your characters have three forms of attack- melee attacks with an equipped weapon, ranged attacks with a gun, and another ranged attack with a grenade or other lobbed ‘explosive’.  While this sounds simple, the game’s mechanics get a bit more complex as you get used to them, though mostly in melee combat. For example, by holding up or down while you attack, you can respectively pop an enemy into the air or slam an opponent into the ground.  This becomes especially effective when the moves are used in conjunction, giving one form of crowd control among many. Your ranged attacks are also easy to juggle, holding down one button to aim and pressing another to shoot or lob your grenade becomes second nature pretty quickly.  In general, combat can get hectic but it is almost always a satisfying frenzy of blades, bullets, and bombs.

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Running around with three of your friends is the high point of the game.

As you explore, there are plenty of goals to be had that vary up the action.  In one level, you have to gather parts from different points of the map to create a vehicle which you will then ride and control in the next part of the chapter.  One set of objectives has you finding lost kids in the amusement park, but there are different methods to acquiring these kids and having them follow you back to a safe place.  Thankfully, this keeps the game interesting and never feels too overwhelming or monotonous. Every so often, there will also be a swarm of creatures sticking you to an area teeming with dark aura until you defeat every last one of them.  These, along with the boss battles, are where the real meat of the combat comes in, and while the swarms are pretty straightforward brawlfests, the boss battles employ a number of tactics and methods that bring back a lot of the trial-and-error of older platformers from the 16-bit age.

As you advance through the levels, your characters will rack up skill points which can be allotted to perks and new moves as well as basic statistics like strength, weapon proficiency, and health.  Not only do you gain these by finishing chapters, but you also get them by exploring and finding new weapons and collectible energy drinks throughout. If you miss any of these, the chapters are immediately replayable so there is no worry about permanently being stunted stat-wise.  Racking up these skill points also lets you spend them on ‘ultimate moves’ which can be unleashed after enough creature slaughter. Building in four tiers, the longer you store up your combos, the better the moves you can use. For example, my character of choice, Sean, utilizes a first tier move that will unleash a line of bullets to each side, damaging everything on level with him.  Waiting a bit longer, though, give him an ability to unleash unlimited bullets for a short time. These can be game changers when used at the right time, and they are easily accessed by holding down a corresponding button to open the menu on-screen and tapping the correct key to enact them. This menu also opens up use of health items and other boons, and is a very easy to utilize function, even when fights become frantic.

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Cameos from the ObsCure series pop up throughout the events of the game.

The Good, The Bad and…

Thankfully, the good outweighs the bad quite a bit in Final Exam, for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, the game knows what it is and knows how to have fun with its audience.  From the get-go, the game comes off as a goofy send-up of the ObsCure series in all of the right ways.  The callbacks in the game are great references for the longtime fans, but the game is still playable without knowing anything about ObsCure.  The action is over-the-top and rarely drops into the ‘too silly’ range.

The game also thrives in its multiplayer component- and doesn’t exactly shrink away from the single player option, either.  While in multiplayer, a few things really help solidify the experience, namely that you always have indicators of where your friends are offscreen.  There is no friendly fire aside from explosives (which also harm you if you throw them or bust open a barrel yourself in single player) so shooting and swinging away at random is completely acceptable and encouraged.  From the beginning, the ObsCure games have felt like they wanted to facilitate multiplayer horror and action, and this is probably the best example despite the ease of being able to do it in a platformer rather than survival horror setting.

Where the game falters is in the bouts of monotony, though they aren’t as prevalent as one might think.  Combat keeps things just on the right side of fresh, but when coupled with having to explore every corner of the maps for collectibles and new weapons- which, as stated, also facilitate getting more stat points so they aren’t just for achievement’s sake- it would have helped to vary up the levels a bit.  In a couple of instances, the player finds themselves scouring a level they already spent a half an hour to an hour covering only to have to do the same to find things hidden in different areas of the exact same playing field. Especially in single player, this can be obnoxious. In multiplayer, it’s still an annoyance considering each individual player has to pick up each of the collectibles for them to be valid.

Plot Discussion and Therefore Spoilers

In fairness, there isn’t a ton to spoil in Final Exam, as it’s pretty straightforward.  What you see in the descriptions is what you get- though you might recognize a few of the themes and references that come up.

Namely, you will see references from the original game, as would be expected from a ‘reboot’ of a series.  Dedicating an entire level to Leafmore High School and staging the climax there is a smart way to conclude the game and tie it to the series.  Leafmore High and the Friedmans feature prominently as the game unfolds. The final boss falls right in line with the bosses of the other ObsCure games: a large mutated plant that needs to be taken down.  Most of the interactions with Friedman appear in dastardly comical cutscenes, so while the nuances aren’t there like they were in the past, he is very clearly the villain to be reckoned with in either the original or the reboot series.

The other strong throwback is when, for a short while, Shannon Matthews appears.  Oddly, she’s the only nod to the second game, as she arrives in her post-Leafmore ensemble, dark aura powers and all.  There is no mention or visual on any of the other past characters, relegating Shannon to ‘veteran hero’ status solely. While she is a welcome sight to those of us who have played previous games, my having to explain her appearance to the other three players and how neat it was kind of cheapened the experience for all four of us.  The references back to the original game in general were kind of tough to fully appreciate given the lack of narrative presented in the game. The connections are there, though, and they are fun connections in an attempt to make Final Exam a part of the ObsCure history.

Presentation

For once, the music of a game in this series is not the high point of the experience.  That’s not to say that the music in Final Exam is bad.  It relies heavily on driving rock to help push home the brutal and edgy action that the game is now trying to promote.  The soundtrack acts more as a side dish than a main course; it helps but it’s not anything you’ll remember once the end credits roll.

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Some of the level setups are ridiculous but definitely entertaining and unique.

As far as looks, the game is incredibly stylistic in its character designs.  While the name of the game here is ‘edgy’, the game’s visuals are so exaggerated and cartoon shaped regarding characters and creatures that it makes for an interesting piece to look at, even if it may not appeal to everyone.  The environments are inoffensive 2.5D backdrops that serve their purpose. They are well crafted but really only shine when the mechanics of the game deem it necessary. Ironically, the character of the game’s visuals lie with just that- the characters.  The vignettes between chapters aren’t to be scoffed at, either, offering up a unique comic book style presentation that lends even more to the ‘pulp’ feeling of the game.

Conclusion

Final Exam is a blast of a game, and it’s a shame that the developers closed their doors shortly after this game came out.  This could have been the start of a very different spin on what the ObsCure series had and so far as cooperative platformers are concerned, this is a solid effort.  As would be expected, it’s a lot more fun with friends than alone, but given the reliance on scoreboards and other arcade trappings, the main attraction is the adrenaline doused action on display at every corner.  If you’re a fan of the format and formula of ObsCure and Aftermath, this game may actually not be for you based on that interest alone.

No, this game is for the Left 4 Dead types, looking for undead-like slaying en masse.  It’s not going to win any awards for originality in the gameplay department, but it mostly serves up some mindless action with a taste of strategy here and there.  It packs a lot of bang for its buck, showing off about a half an hour to an hour of mayhem in each chapter and averaging in at about $10 on most platforms at a given time.  While there are half a dozen elements to Final Exam that would have drawn me in without the connections to other games, I’d honestly recommend it to anyone interested in a game that you can pull a few friends into every so often when you want to just go to town beating the tar out of some monsters and turn your mind off for a little while.

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