Do My Best's very first game is now boarding on Nintendo Switch with The Final Station. From afar it might look like a mere curious train simulator/zombie shooter hybrid presented in a retro pixelated wrapper. However, once you board this train you will quickly realise you are quite unable to stop this journey through the end of the world until the final stop.
The game casts you as an anonymous train conductor who wakes up and heads off to their daily shift. Little do they know that instead of another relaxed point A to B voyage, they're actually working during the last day of civilisation. The prologue gently nudges you into realiaing that something is seriously wrong, dropping hints that not all is well by way of character dialogues, messages left on computers and other subtle yet brilliant ways the pixel world conveys an increasingly palpable sense of dread.
Despite making a few regular service stops, the military will commandeer your train and task you to deliver very sensible cargo to the frontlines. But the frontlines… to what? By gathering tidbits of information you eventually realise you are in the middle of ‘The Second Visitation’, a cataclysmic event that is turning the entire population into mindless, savage monsters, and the fight is not favouring your side. Far more than ferrying passengers from station to station, you train is now carrying the last, desperate hope for survival of your entire race. No pressure.
You will spend your journey through the apocalypse in two distinct phases: the exploration phase will see you rummaging through whatever horrors await on your current stop, and the train itself while moving between stations. There are over 30 of these and each will need to be ‘solved’; every time you train stops in a place, it will be under lockdown. Your first priority is to discover the four digit code that will enable you to release the blocking mechanism so you can continue on your journey. Some are as simple as walking to a still normal human being and asking for the code, while further devastated zones will task you with finding the battery that will need to be manually carried back to the train besides the four digit code to unlock the whole thing.
These exploration parts are very well designed, making sure there is always something new for you to stumble across for the entirety of the journey. The secondary objective of these sections is scavenging for ammo, supplies and human survivors whom you take in the safety of your train until you find a safe haven to drop them out of your care. These safe havens - zones still controlled by the military and with human populations - also enable you to buy new weapons and supplies if you can pay for them. Most of the early game will be spent with your mighty fist and a peashooter pistol - these are adequate for a little while, but not exactly crowd control material compared to the trusty pump-action shotgun. Bullets are scarce so make sure they count: one headshot will save you time and ammunition, but having the discipline to aim while being rushed by a dozen walking nightmares is another subject altogether.
The second slice of gameplay will be spent doing your actual job: conducting the train. It was in this section we were surprised with some incredibly complex choices making us realise that far beyond a train conductor, you are a god and the train is your holy kingdom. You are in control of the life and death of every survivor you collect along your journey. Every one of them will require both medicine and/or food, two commodities you have limited amounts to dispense between stations, something directly linked to how much you can scavenge in the exploration bits. If left without care, their health will deplete and they will become a corpse in your passenger carriage.
Basic human decency means your instinct will be to take care of them all, yet limited supplies will eventually lead to very harsh decisions. Will you give the last of your medicine to the nice old lady who will reward you with $10 if she makes it alive to the station, or use it on the corporate douche bag that constantly reminds everyone that he is a priority because he is paying you more to make it out alive? The way these survivors express these distinct personalities is another example of the brilliant way Do My Best delivers narrative elements using very simple tools. You could simply ignore these people, let the passenger’s carriage fill up with toxic gases due to negligent maintenance and then loot their corpses for money to ensure your own survival. But what does that say about you as a player and a human being? Surely by the end of the day, even gods must have a conscience.
The minimalist graphic style strangely suites the whole package very well. Every desolate and eerie landscape you travel between tells the whole story without words regarding the downfall of your world. The soundscape is minimalist as well, enabling you to get further and further enthralled by the plot, aided by small but very well implemented touches such as being able to instant message other employees from the train company while on your train engine, effectively perpetuating the illusion of events happening beyond your current location.
The controls are a little awkward at first, with the right analog stick used to aim in arcs but it soon becomes second nature and you will be spending most of the time playing with both sticks and the LZ and RZ buttons to grab items and fire weapons respectively, switching it up with R (or B) for your melee attack. Everything is tight and pixel perfect as it should be, so accidental deaths will always be due to poor player choices rather than clumsy controls. Respawns will send you back to your last important action, so in case you were wondering frustration never gets a chance to settle in, unlike the desire to see what is ahead. A true triumph of the old ‘less is more’ mantra of video game design.
The Final Station is a unique journey among the current Switch library you will not want to skip on, especially if you managed to stay away from the original PC release up to this point. World building and plot is brilliantly delivered by numerous little details of which we have rarely seen developers explore with such efficiency to deliver so much tension and sense of urgency from the player. Despite linearity, when you do reach the end game you can immediately jump into the ‘The Only Traitor’ DLC included in the Switch version, which will enable you to experience the same events under a new character. Make sure you don’t miss out this train ride.