Sometimes, it’s fun to whale on the slimy, disgusting legions of darkness while ignoring thoughts about more-productive things to do with your time. Final Exam, a brawler that tells the story of a high school reunion gone horribly wrong, lets you do precisely that. Over the course of your nocturnal adventure, you and your friends ride an out-of-control subway, navigate creepy tunnels, and get to the root of the monster problem that has made your night so very interesting. It’s an old-school ride, a mix of dozens of retro games you’ve probably played many times before, and mostly it works out fine. Just don’t expect a crash course in innovation.
At its heart, Final Exam is a basic brawler. You choose one of the four heroes–each with differing stats and an individual skill tree–and then you start running and jumping through a series of indistinct environs that include the sort of fare you’d expect to see in a low-budget horror flick. Inevitably, you find yourself beset upon by small groups of nasty humanoids, at which point you need to respond with wrenches, pipes, chainsaws, and such, or else eat a slimy knuckle sandwich.
This is gonna get wild! It must be so if the game tells you.
The fighting is somewhat interesting, thanks mostly to combos. You can take turns exchanging punches with the slobbering hordes, or you can dash or cartwheel around to remain a moving target. As you knock everyone else about without taking hits–assisted, perhaps, by air juggles and the like–you build up a higher combo count, and that in turn produces a higher score. You gain stat points if you beat benchmarks for each zone, which makes you more lethal still, so it definitely pays to master the skills that take you from a featherweight to a heavyweight.
Basic melee abilities you have access to from the very start are complemented by projectile weapons and explosives, which you use more effectively once you assign stat points. You can expand your inventory of melee weapons, guns, and explosives by finding crates secreted throughout the various locales. Items are plentiful, since every other humanoid slimeball you eradicate seems to leave behind a box of shells, a Molotov cocktail, or a health-restoring value meal. Fights aren’t interesting if you’re just mashing buttons, but when you get into the spirit of things, it’s a fun challenge to keep combos going and scores rising as you mix together a collection of melee attacks, bursts of gunfire, and well-timed blasts.
As your character improves, you also find yourself making frequent stops at the skill tree between levels. What you can unlock depends on what you’ve already accessed, and also on the percentage of the game you have cleared. It’s possible for the jock to throw up shields so that he can withstand a few hits without taking damage, for instance, but only after learning more basic skills that lead up to that point. Early on, it’s difficult to decide what you want the most (there are only so many points to go around), so building the ultimate warrior out of your washed-up quarterback, or nerd, or cheerleader (Hello, stereotypes!) is an involving exercise.
Final Exam doesn’t limit itself to the brawling, though, which is where it runs into trouble. Stages routinely require you to complete basic chores, and those get old quickly. In the first proper stage, you’re required to find fuel canisters so you can coax a generator to life. Later, you need to collect the members of a scattered elementary class that is inexplicably late returning to the school bus from a visit to the ghoulish theme park. Sometimes, you have to escort a fat mechanic or a scientist, while whaling on beasts that accost you. These segments are all more or less the same, and don’t work as much of a diversion because they force you to plod along lengthy corridors that are mostly unremarkable except for nicely drawn backdrops. You can look for hidden items along the way, but that’s only interesting the first time you tackle a stage. Visiting again later, when the area is stripped to its bare bones, is downright tedious.
Final Exam often feels a bit too much like homework for its own good.
Fortunately, you can play cooperatively with friends, either locally or online. This is the best way to enjoy the game, because it introduces potential for conflict that doesn’t exist if you’re going alone. Everyone can work on separate objectives at once, competing to gather the most goodies, and performances are ranked at the end of each stage (as well as on leaderboards that taunt you even when you’re doing things alone). Scoring adds an additional incentive to play well, and joining other players makes dealing with some of the bosses–particularly the perilous final foe–a great deal more manageable. If one player loses his last life, he isn’t out of the action: another player can revive him. Less-skilled players can also make nice targets to distract a brute so that you can deal him a load of pain.
The crowds are restless.
From beginning to end, Final Exam’s campaign lasts three to four hours, and you can play through it again with each of the four separate characters. There are additional difficulty settings, as well, but any interest you might have in clearing everything is tempered by the monotony that serves as filler between the occasional highlights. The game looks good and has a sweet rocking soundtrack accompanying the action, it could have benefited from a greater variety where its core components are concerned. More-distinct objectives and enemies would have gone a long way.
Final Exam often feels too much like homework for its own good, but it still proves enjoyable in between the monotonous fetching and the too-long corridors with nothing to see, particularly when played with a friend or three. If you’re looking for a competent but unremarkable trip down a familiar path, you should find enough to be a happy student for at least a few hours.