Take four cliché characters, level design similar to a Castlevania title, beat’em up action, skill trees and upgradeable stats – with points earned not by experience but through exploration and good ol’ scoring, a tongue-in-cheek presentation; and then throw it into a blender. The resulting and delicious product is Final Exam. Feel free to yell about how ready your body is and prepare to drink deeply.
Final Exam is a beat’em up with little plot and excellent gameplay. Four high school buddies with really no reason to be together are heading to their alumni party when they are off-roaded by a local horror infestation. The four get out of the car, gear up and work their way through the levels. The plot is presented with comic book-style pages between levels and in-game cutscenes during levels. The story is loose and not meant to be thought about. Brawlers with great gameplay and a good story are like cupcakes with filling and icing. Final Exam misses the icing but hey – there’s still a delectable cream-filled cupcake.
Fighting in Final Exam forgoes the ¾ levels of traditional brawlers and limits players to a single plane. Combos are of the 1-2-3 variety, and each character can jump and dodge enemies. In addition to a melee weapon each character has a gun with limited ammo and grenades. The setup is simple and enjoyable, and this is before the stat upgrades, skill tree, and level design come into play.
Each character has the same four stats pertaining to melee damage, HP, grenade damage, and firearm damage. However, each character’s maximum stats are different – Cassy is completely well rounded, but the other three characters excel in one of the damage stats and have a penalty in one of the other stats. Increasing a stat requires CP, which is obtained by exploring levels and finding pickups and weapons. Once a weapon is found it is added to the inventory and can be switched out between levels. Obtaining all CP in the game will max each character, but a reset option is available if a player wants to start over.
The skill tree uses SP. One SP is obtained by clearing each level, but further SP can only be gotten by meeting score goals within a level. SP is spent to unlock Special, Passive and Combat skills for each character. Specials are skill unique to each character tend to hurt or distract enemies. Passive skills fill the special attack meter and restore more health, but each character has one unique Passive skill. Combat skills are the same for each character, but really change up how the game is played. For instance, the dodge can be upgraded to cover more distance and thus get around packs of enemies. It also works in mid-air so now players have more movement options available to them. Unlocking air combos allows better juggling of enemies.
Every now and again a whole pack of enemies will descend on players until fought off. This not only brings a lot of chaos to the combat, but unlocked skills allow players to switch up fighting styles depending on the type of enemies attacking them and the skills available. This also explains why the game is a single plane – the pack attacks would lose some of the edge. It also helps fuel the games Combo system. Not the aforementioned 1-2-3 punch, but the successive number of hits a player can get in on enemies. At the default setting, if there is more than a second or two between hits the combo will register and players will be allotted points based on accumulated hits. Pretty standard stuff – except Final Exam allows players to turn off the automatic registration in favor of a manual input. Until a player gets hit, the combo will keep going in order to rack up the score. This simple change in gameplay not only raises the potential for a huge score but also adds to the chaos when 10 or so enemies are on the screen and you’re doing your best not to get hit. Remember a higher score not only nets you leaderboard and bragging rights; higher scores net more SP to unlock more skills.
Levels are huge and multi-tiered. There are seven pickups and two weapons per level to net players more CP and add to the armory. Exploration may net more CP, but taking too long on a level diminishes the score multiplier at the end of each level. I once racked up a respectable score killing enemies and was reduced to 25% due to taking too long. Enemies can come from the background, from ladders leading to other parts of the level, or running up stairs to smash players in the face.
Levels have objectives to complete. Sometimes the objectives are merely to find an object, but there are a few pickups which prevent combat while the player is holding them and escort missions. Unlock other games, not once did the escort mission become annoying since the escorted target is immune to damage. In fact, objectives can be often completed rather quickly or lead players to the level’s pickups. If there is a problem with the levels, it is the lack of variety after the third stage. Six out of eight stages in the game technically take place across two levels. The large level design and the game locking down different areas in different levels helps break up any monotony, but a larger selection of locales would have been a little better.
Final Exam has both a local and online multiplayer function which plays almost exactly like single player with more enemies and objectives to complete. A fair bit of warning; multiplayer is focused on competition and not co-op. Online, players can only see their health bars and inventory, which is detrimental to trying to help others players by saving pickups for the, since you cannot tell if they need it or not. There’s no way to communicate in-game, and the game does not seem to support headsets. Scores displayed at the end levels favor the winner over the rest of the team; for instance a player was unable to see their earned CP and SP because mine was in the way. The focus of local multiplayer is player one. If player two walks too far off screen they are teleported back to player one after a couple warnings.
Beating the game unlocks a time attack mode where players are thrown into a small level and must defeat all the enemies the game throws at them. Each wave gets a little harder or different from before. Beating Final Exam also unlocks the hardest difficulty. Harder difficulties greatly increase the point value of the combo system at the expense of tougher, more powerful enemies.
In closing, Final Exam is fantastic fun. Brawlers tend to be easy to get into but there were times I sincerely had trouble putting down the controller. While writing this review I kept going back to play is a little more “just to be certain”. While the levels could have used some more variety and the multiplayer has some odd design choices; the various attacks, fulfilling score and skill tree, great levels and overall package are an absolute blast to play.