High school reunions are almost as awkward as high school itself. The great thing is that you get to hang with friends that you haven’t seen in years, all while avoiding ex boyfriends/girlfriends like the plague. However in Mighty Rocket Studio’s Final Exam, the return to high school is crashed by horrific monsters who want to do more than dance. It’s up to four lifelong friends to survive this monstrous invasion and hopefully pass this one last test.
Final Exam is a sidescrolling brawler full of creatures, cliches, and caustic horror. Originally slated to be the next game in the Obscure series, Final Exam spawned after vicious fans cried out that it wasn’t following the exact same blueprint of the predecessors. Because it was a 2d beat em up, the hardcore Obscure fans weren’t having any of it so the developers decided to change the project name. So we’re now presented with Final Exam, which holds thematic ties to Obscure. Now that the history lesson is over we can move on to the real test.
The theme constant throughout Final Exam is one of horror mixed with humor. The monsters are gruesome, but they have a very Pixar feel to them. Everything is done with a little tongue-in-cheek, from the witty characters to the splattering of monster guts on the wall. I was getting a Shoot Many Robots vibe from it, minus the backwoods and banjos. The style oozes out of Final Exam in both the environments and character models and you can tell that there was much care and attention given to the look of the game. Playing on the PC version everything was smooth as silk and edges were crisp, even when there were hordes of enemies flooding the screen. The lighting and parallax effects across the 2.5D plane will have you digging in every corner and mopping up each monster that comes your way. Final Exam is a damn fine looking game and is one of the smoothest brawling experiences I have had in a long time.
Story wise, it’s quite simple - four friends go back to visit their old high school for a righteous reunion party but soon find that monsters have crashed the party. Final Exam supports 4 player online co-op (2 player local co-op) with each player selecting their favorite character of the bunch. Each character has their own traits and abilities and through some interesting progression, can become skilled in several different disciplines. Melee lovers may opt for Brutal Joe, the typical jock whereas someone who wants to sit back and toss out explosives may be better suited for playing as Nathan the nerd. Each character begins with set attributes for health, strength, precision, and explosives. These can be increased as you wish, so in theory each character can do everything but keep in mind they may not have the skills to compliment the way you build the character. But hey, if you want a berserker nerd, by all means you can build one.
There are eight very different levels to complete, each with their own unique environment. You start in the subway, but somehow end up in an abandoned carnival and go on from there. The monsters aren’t themed for each level and stay pretty consistent throughout the game, but the objectives add the spice of variety to Final Exam. The missions ultimately break down to either fetch quests or ‘hold back this wave for a set period of time’ but since the environments are so carefully crafted, you want to go and explore to see everything. Missions are open ended and the environments are non-linear, which a huge bonus as we have become so used to the linear formula the most beat-em-ups follow. The game will frequently throw in some mini-game style challenges to break up the combat, and boss fights add a nice ending to missions. Both are challenging and do a good job to not only keep the game flowing, but change the pace just enough to keep things interesting. It is quite novel how Mighty Rocket Studio integrated the co-op into mission objectives. Since the difficulty scales with the number of players, teamwork is essential to completing the tasks at hand (like finding gas for a generator). Decisions have to be made: do you roll as a group, sticking together to ensure safety? Or do you split up and hope that you can retrieve the items before the horde comes a running. Both ways lead to success, but in order to hit that high score the divide and conquer method is the best bet.
Since Final Exam is a brawler, it would probably be best to speak to the actual combat. You would think that being on a single plane would limit the combat, but there there is a significant amount of creativity that can be applied to how you dispose of enemies. Swapping between melee, projectile, and explosives all while dodging enemies is an art form. This combo based combat resonates so well on a 3-dimensional scale with games like Bayonetta and Devil May Cry, the 2D brawler cousins often get overlooked. You can slice and dice on the ground, take to the air and chop them down. It is really all about keeping your combo going and looking good while doing it. The focus on co-op heightens the brawling experience with new options being unlocked with more players. Friends who slay together, stay together. You can juggle monsters, cover team members as they reload, and protect each other when you are moving objects to the next objective. There is nothing quite like tossing a limp monster to your buddy and having them knock it out of the park. Needless to say co-op combat brings more monsters, which means more fun.