Here’s the thing about Final Exam: it has perfectly smooth melee and ranged combat with enough room for tactical play; it has a decent art style that imbues its side-scrolling levels with bold strokes of comic-book colour; it has a variety of enemies that force you into using each of its combat systems, and it has myriad upgrade systems in place to ensure each 4-player co-op play-through has multiple level-up rewards, new skills and goals in mind.
It’s a side-scrolling combat game in the style of a Guacamelee or a Shadow Complex, tasking its players with running through a variety of locations that loosely resemble the sort of sets you might find in a teenage slasher movie. There’s the church, the disused factory, the fairground, the secret underground lab, the tunnel network dripping with radioactive goo; and you probably get the idea.
Set pieces break up the routine a little
Various glowing beasties have been let loose in each of those locales, and it’s up to your band of miscreants to dispatch them into the ether, gradually unravelling a tail of mad scientists and experiments gone awry. The stages are laid out in a complex fashion with most completely open to exploration from the very beginning, while the monsters funnel themselves through doors and outlets with a frequency that means you always have to be on your toes. You can only clear an area for a matter of moments before newcomers arrive, providing plenty of fodder for the points-based scoring and levelling system.
Each of the playable characters can be levelled independently over the course of multiple sessions, and each has their own skill tree that allows various ranged, melee abilities and buffs to be unlocked at your own pace. The unlocks take the familiar form, providing the option for increased damage output, better grenade capacity, or various special attacks and combat moves that bolster the hand-to-hand combat options. The majority of those can be unwrapped through the campaign storyline alone, but others - such as permanent health increases and weapons - can only be found through judicious searching of every nook and crannie for collectible items.
Combat itself is swift and fluid, although it has to be said the majority of enemies in Final Exam take a few too many hits before going down. There are all sorts of creatures to pound on throughout the campaign, some of which are purely aerial-based and others require swift reactions to roll or jump out of the way and strike from behind. There’s a good flow throughout, with ground-based pounding linking nicely to airborne melee attacks and grenades, whilst your gun can be fired from any position on land or in the air.
Fetch quests are for people or objects
It’s a sort of Devil May Cry approach, and it works well. Dispatching a room full of enemies without being hit is a hugely rewarding experience, and there’s real flair in the manner in which each of the characters and enemies are animated. There’s good combat feedback throughout, and - although there are a huge number of enemies on-screen at any one time - Final Exam never feels particularly cheap when it knocks away that last sliver of health.
Here’s the other thing about Final Exam: it doesn’t really work as a whole.
Despite a combat system that allows for flair and speedy tacticians to do their thing, the overall experience of playing through each of the stages becomes pretty boring, pretty fast.
Part of that is the level design itself. Although each of the stages is laid out in such a fashion as to encourage exploration, there’s little meaningful reason to do so besides picking up those previously-mentioned collectables, which are in no way necessary to complete the game. There’s little in the way of MetroidVania style progression here, pretty much everywhere is unlocked from the start, and each of the mission goals effectively boils down to a simple fetch quest to bring an object from A to B, occasionally stopping to hold off a wave of enemies along the way.
Gun emplacements are a rarity
There are moments when Final Exam does try and stretch its gameplay into different arenas (shoot-em-up territory for the most part), but those are too few in number and too poorly executed to really break up the monotony in any meaningful fashion. Aside from the occasional cutscene introducing a new NPC or boss, there’s little in the way of storyline or anything else to get players invested in the tale, which - in conjunction with the repetition on offer throughout - makes the whole thing come across as a little too shallow for its own good.
FINAL EXAM VERDICT
As a series of systems then, Final Exam is actually a whole bunch of fun, but it fails to harness those into a coherent whole and inject enough variation to keep things fresh. Playing in co-op increases the entertainment factor (in the manner in which playing with friends always does) but Final Exam ultimately amounts to little more than a relatively short diversion that nevertheless overstays its welcome.