Sometimes you can just look at the title of a game and know exactly what you’re going to get. When you see the name Battlefield 1942, it’s pretty obvious the game is a World War II first person shooter. Additionally, how could something called Dragon Age: Origins be anything other than a fantasy role playing game? However, sometimes the nature of a game isn’t quite so obvious based on the title alone. Take for example Final Exam, from developer Mighty Rocket Studio. What type of game would you guess it is based on the title? A school management sim? A point and click adventure game starring a college professor? How about a hardcore pencil sharpening simulator? Well, it isn’t any of those things, it’s a actually 2D combat focused cooperative sidescroller, and a pretty good one at that.
Final Exam begins with a group of friends returning to their old high school for a party, only to find the town overrun by monsters. Other than a brief intro video to set up this premise, the game is largely without story. The closest the game gets to narrative are sporadic scripted vignettes during the levels, though it is entirely without dialogue and doesn’t have any proper cutscenes. Luckily, the lack of story isn’t much of a detraction because the game puts its focus squarely on solid gameplay, which is for the most part more than good enough to carry the game.
On its surface, Final Exam may seem like a standard 2D brawler, but digging into the combat system quickly reveals it has far more depth than the typical beat ’em up. In fact, the game shares far more in common with things like Bayonetta and Devil May Cry than it does something like Castle Crashers. As you fight your way through hordes of monsters and mutants, you’ll get caught up in the outstanding fast paced flow of combat with juggling, air combos, and a frantic mix of melee and projectile weapons. In the beginning the combat may seem a bit too easy, but as you progress to more challenging levels and begin to grasp the many complexities of the combat system, you’ll find yourself striving to achieve high scores and lengthy combos, making Final Exam a prime example of the idea “easy to learn, difficult to master”.
There’s no getting around it, the combat is simply great and is far and away the strongest aspect of the game. The action feels incredibly responsive and you always feel like you are in total control of your character. A key element of what makes the combat so enjoyable is the excellent combo system. By chaining long strings of hits together, you build up a bonus point total which will be added to your score if the combo is completed. Like you would expect from a game that is clearly inspired by the stylish action games previously mentioned, the combo system places an emphasis on variety, which means using a wide array of different moves during a combo results in a much higher bonus point total than if you simply used the same move over and over.
Adding even more strategy to the combo system is the notion of validating your combo. At any point you can press a button and lock in your combo, which confirms the combo and awards you the bonus point total. If you take even one hit while you have a combo going, it ends and you miss out on the bonus points, which makes validating essential. This mechanic creates a very nerve wracking risk reward system whereby you can end your combo and take the points or try to continue for as long as possible to achieve an even higher score with the risk of losing it all.
In addition to fighting enemies, you will also be tasked with completing objectives during levels. These are pretty simple, usually amounting to interacting with the environment or fetching something to return to a specific spot on the map. The level design is of a nonlinear nature and you will often have multiple objectives at once, which is where the co-op comes in. You and your group can opt to split up and each complete an objective on your own, though that will be more difficult than sticking together because the game scales the enemy counts based on the number of players. The objectives themselves aren’t particularly compelling, but they’re a decent enough reason to send you around to different combat encounters. Unfortunately, the nonlinear design combined with the game’s collectible system creates a feeling of apprehension regarding where you should or shouldn’t go. The collectibles are typically hidden off the beaten path, but you’ll often be questioning whether a branching path is a secret or a part of the level you will later be sent on an objective. It can be frustrating to go collectible hunting far off course only to later realize you were wasting time in a core area of the level you just hadn’t been directed to go to yet.
Each of the four playable characters has their own skill tree and unique distribution of starting attribute points in the areas of life, strength, precision and explosives, though these stats don’t seem to make a huge difference. Disappointingly, the standard move-set and the majority of the upgradable skills are the same for every character, though each does have four signature special moves and a unique passive ability. This results in the basic gameplay being identical for each character with only the rarely used special moves adding any gameplay variety between the characters.
In order to upgrade your character’s attributes and unlock new skills, you need to earn character points and skill points by competing levels. A minimum level completion will net you one skill point, but by finding collectibles, passing certain score thresholds and finding hidden weapons, you can earn a maximum of 2 character points and 3 skill points on each of the 8 levels. It can a feel a bit cheap to have character points locked behind collectibles, but requiring certain scores to unlock skill points gives you incentive to learn the ins and outs of combo system to achieve high scores. If you were so inclined you could easily finish the game on the normal difficulty without ever digging deep into the complexities of the combat, but with incentives to do so integrated into the core progression system, striving to get better feels more essential than it might otherwise.
The core gameplay may be excellent, but Final Exam does have serious issues regarding the amount of content. The game will take between four and five hours to complete, with variation depending on how many players your group consists of. While around five hours of core content and the high replayability of tougher difficulties and score chasing would be more than adequate for a $10 game like this, the real problem is the fact that there are only three unique environments over the course of the eight levels, two of which are re-used three times each. The levels themselves look fairly nice, as does the game as a whole, but when the last level of the game is one you’ve already played twice, something just feels wrong. The game also really only has two bosses, one which it re-uses several times throughout to go along with a unique final boss. There’s no getting around the fact that it’s severely lacking in content, and the re-use of content to pad the length doesn’t do the overall experience any favors.
Final Exam is a game that will appeal to a very specific type of player. It successfully takes concepts from games like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta and makes them work in a 2D setting with up to 4 players. By incorporating high scores into the core progression system, the game does a fantastic job of incentivizing higher level play, even on lower difficulty settings. Unfortunately, due to the relative lack of content and the flagrant recycling of what content there is, it’s not something everybody will find a worthwhile purchase. There are better options available for those simply looking for a cheap sidescroller to play once and forget about. Those who can get invested in learning and mastering a deep combat system, however, will find a lot to like in Final Exam.
Version Reviewed: PC