Depending on how your teenage years were, a highschool reunion can be an exciting time to catch up with classmates you haven’t seen in years, or a nightmarish experience having to reassociate with people you’d rather not. Regardless, the event would likely be made universally terrible if upon arrival you were greated by a murderous swarm of mutants out for your blood, and a citywide infection that has turned citizens into zombie like abominations. This is Final Exam, a coop focused non-linear brawler with a lot of personality, though not the gameplay chops to make it a classic.
Choosing between one of four characters, which surprisingly all play rather unique, you’re dropped into a level and given a handful of objectives to complete. What’s unique about FE compared to a lot of brawlers is stages are structured like giant rooms instead of linear paths, allowing you to backtrack through areas again searching out collectibles and finding secret passageways that cause everything to connect. This is one of the coolest things about the game, but it’s also one of its biggest weaknesses. Because of the inherent way levels are designed, you’re often forced to do an abundance of incredibly tedious backtracking from one side of the map to the other, which becomes especially obnoxious from the endlessly spawning enemies slowing you down. It’s not as bad in coop as one player can go to each area on the map, but considering you’ll often need more than one person by you just to stay alive while fighting it doesn’t completely fix the issue, and creates a new one.
The objectives also pose their own issues, largely from the fact they repeat themselves almost exactly in each and every level. Go meet someone, fetch some items for them, escort them to a new area, protect them while they do something as slowly as possible, and rinse and repeat until the level ends and you get to do it again in a new area. Except when you don’t, as ontop of recycling objectives FE repeats the same environments for about half of its brief 8 missions (which should take you about 3 hours to complete your first time through)..
The fighting mechanics continue this trend of monotonous repetition, consisting of merely a single melee attack, a firearm, grenades, and special moves unique to your character. Aside from a handful of different ways you can use the single melee attack to hit enemies in various directions, this is a button mashing affair through and through. It’s enjoyable enough for what it is, but when you are fighting hundreds of enemies per level, with minimal variation to the types of said enemies, it loses its appeal rather quickly as you are continually forced into extended fights which seem to drag on for infinitum.
I have to take issue again with the progression system, namely how character upgrade points and weapons are distributed. The former is split into two groups: skill points and character points. Skill points are earned by getting high scores in levels, similar to earning XP in most games just tied to a leaderboard. Character points on the other hand require you to scour through levels for collectibles, or else be stuck with the same base stats the entire game. This is great as a means of making collectibles mean something, but bad for allowing the player to grow as most will likely miss the majority of these on their way through. Another issue is that all weapons have to be found within levels before you can select them, but even after doing this the weapon is only unlocked for whichever character you picked it up with. This basically means you’re required to playthrough the game multiple times if you want to swap characters, which is frustrating and really corners you into sticking with whoever you selected at the start.
One aspect I enjoyed quite a bit was the art design, which makes up for its lack of polygons with a ton of personality and cool character designs. Zombies have been done a thousand different ways, but there is something about the semi-cartoony way they are portrayed in FE that makes them stand out. The few human characters in the game are quirky charicatures and rather entertaining to watch beat the snot out of mutants. The story is as outrageous as you could hope, though it makes all of zero sense in coop as the story cutscenes at the start of mission are all removed, leaving you to wonder what the heck you’re doing.
Final Exam does a lot wrong in the way of injecting variety into a genre so often devoid of it, even in its best games, but it’s not so hopeless as to be wholly written off. As a brawler it’s repetitive and pretty shallow, but when played with friends can still be pretty entertaining (if surprisingly brief). As a solo affair I couldn’t recommend it, so check your friends before heading to this reunion; you’re gonna need them.