Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Final Exam (XBLA) Review

The four main characters of Final Exam were making their way to their high school reunion when they discovered monsters.  Now it is your task to survive in this side-scrolling co-op action game.  The story is told in the same style as motion comics, so there are mostly still images with voiced dialogue on top.  It looks good and the scenes are succinct enough to not get in the way of playing.

The first objective of the game is to fight the monsters in an effort to survive.  Attacks are done with the X Button, and are broken up into a standard combo, a launch attack and a smash (knockdown) attack.  You can get an air combo too, if you want to be fancy after launching an opponent.  Enemies attack frequently, so you will need to make use of your dodge.  This is done with the Y Button, which took me a while to get used to, since I don't think any game I've played had the Y Button as a dodge.  The Right Stick aims your firearm (Right Trigger) and explosive (Right Bumper).  The B Button is your multi-purpose button, allowing you to climb staircases, grab mission objectives or place objects.  To round out the controls, the Left Trigger will pick up objectives (or enemies) and the Left Bumper is used to activate your special moves, once the corresponding upgrade has been purchased.

The controls all worked fine, once I got used to the Y Button for dodging.  At first I would try to be fancy and launch enemies so I could combo them in the air, but this was not necessary.  It was far better to just combo them normally.  Yes, you get less points for not being fancy, but it was easier to just keep it simple when there are numerous enemies around, all trying to kill you.  Enemies will roll out of your combo when they get the chance, so you need to pay attention and stay on them.  The air combo and smash are very useful on the airborne enemies.  Shooting enemies didn't always stun them, but it's great for the enemies that like to hang on the ceiling to attack you.  The enemies are also really aggressive, and frequently ignore being shot and on fire to run up and attack you, so keep on your toes!

The secondary objective of the levels is to find your way to the exit.  This can involve escorting people, finding items that people need or finding switches for doors.  You'll do this while enemies come at you a few at a time, with an occasional horde of enemies to halt your progress.  Even though the enemies will continuously spawn throughout the level, it's worth fighting them.  Not only will this increase your score, but running away won't help, since baddies will re-spawn near you if they get too far away.  It can get frustrating when you are being hounded by monsters while trying to carry a crate to a location, or have a horde spawn while you are grabbing an objective.  Usually it's not too bad, but on the occasion that there are multiple types of enemies mobbing around you, it can be hard to see where you are, and even harder to avoid it all unscathed.

The levels themselves are pretty expansive, with lots of room to explore.  Every so often the game will mix things up with something new.  One section has you atop a subway car, dodging signs, while another has you riding on a flying enemy, mimicking a shoot-em-up (shmup).  These sections are fun diversions, but they do tend to last a little too long for my liking.  The shmup section in particular was my least favorite.  It's just too long, and you use your equipped gun.  They do give you ammo during the section, but not enough to actually be a shoot-em-up, so it's really more of a fly and hit things (faht?).  When playing co-op on that section, you also can't revive someone that dies, making it harder than it should be.  That was kind of a let down, since I really enjoy shmups.

While collecting weapons has an obvious positive effect, finding both them and the cans scattered throughout the stages also levels up your character.  Finding all the cans and both weapons in a stage will each grant 1 CP, which is used to upgrade your stats, like health and damage.  Completing the level grants you 1 SP which can be used to purchase passive and active skills.  Your score at the end of the level will also grant up to 3 SP.  Obtaining all of them in a particular level will get you the "golden glove" rating for that stage.

Getting a high score is where the best mechanic in the game comes in.  Your combo will help determine the amount of points you get.  Getting hit breaks your combo, so dodging is very important if you want get high scores and the associated SP.  However, there are times when there is a lull in the action, or if you want to guarantee the large bonus from a combo.  Manual validation is used to get the most out of these situations.  Your combo counter and bonus score will remain until you are hit or decide to cash it in by pressing down on the D-pad.  This is a great mechanic.  You can play it safe, go for broke, or somewhere in between.  Just make sure to turn it on in the options, and you should see your score soar!

Not counting the tutorial, there are 8 different levels to play, and they each run about 30-40 minutes each.  There are also four characters, each with different skills and max stats, so you can find one that fits your play style.  If you are a completionist, you will likely go through each level at least twice so you can get the collectibles and the CP from the score.  If you want all the achievements, you'll want to find all the collectibles, weapons, get all character points, complete every level on hard, and play a level in both co-op modes (local and online).  The game can get pretty challenging even on the regular setting, so you will want a maxed out character and probably some friends if you hope to tackle the "rock hard" difficulty (especially the last level).

Of course, the game is centered around the co-op experience, so I would be remiss if I didn't explore that as well.  Being revived instead of losing a life is great, as is getting protection for the sections where you must carry items around.  The game makes up for this by throwing more enemies at you, but you don't seem to get more item drops.  Also, local co-op shares the bonus counter, so either player getting hit will break it.  The trade off is that it does increase faster, but is a lot harder to maintain.  Online, however, is much better.  Without being tied to a single screen, each player can run off and do objectives separately, making the levels much faster and less tedious.  Bosses will have a lot more health, though, so be careful on those parts.  Other than that, playing co-op, especially online, is where the game is the most fun.

The single player experience of Final Exam was enjoyable enough, but had frequent frustrations.  It can be easy to lose where your character is when swarmed with enemies.  However, pulling off impressive combos and getting a big bonus is a lot of fun, and was playing online co-op.

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