Co-op beat-em-up games are often safe bets. It’s hard not to have fun running back and forth while button-mashing enemies into oblivion, particularly when accompanied by a pleasing aesthetic like the one found in Final Exam. But while this is a game that comes off as charming, and certainly thrills on occasion, it is ultimately crippled by a stat-reset bug and questionable design decisions.
Final Exam is the story of four teenagers who head to a party at their old high school only to find it overrun by monsters. They decide to investigate, and button-mashing glory ensues.
This title is advertised as a “pure 2.5D side-scroller,” but there’s not much “.5” to speak of. There is some depth to the visual aesthetic, but virtually all gameplay takes place on the same 2-dimensional plane. As such, much of this brawler will be spent walking left to right and mashing the X button until all enemies are dead, particularly early on. With an endless amount of monsters pouring in at every turn, you’ll be doing this quite a bit.
There are some nice hooks included to vary the experience, most notably the character progression system. Final Exam offers four different playable characters, each with a strength of their own – one character is adept at explosive weaponry, while another prefers the up-close-and-personal melee battle. These attributes are complemented by individual skill trees where special abilities and passive traits can be unlocked with points earned during gameplay.
In order to earn as many points as possible to unlock some of the more useful abilities, you’ll need to discover the collectibles in each level: seven drinks and two weapons, the latter actively improving combat effectiveness when found. However, while Final Exam offers non-linear levels with a slight Metroidvania vibe (some areas aren’t accessible until completing certain objectives), it also makes exploration feel like a chore.
In most areas, you’re only given about 30 seconds to breathe between enemy hordes that respawn endlessly. As each foe can soak up quite a beating before defeat, taking a detour also means stopping every few steps to button-mash more enemies for a while. Once your destination is reached – where you may or may not have found what you were looking for – expect the same grind on the way back. It feels like padding, and it’s largely why each of the eight levels can take upwards of 45 minutes to complete if you’re trying to be thorough.
Taking a friend along for some co-op questing makes this gameplay much more entertaining. There’s something joyfully bombastic about a screen full of enemies charging from both sides with two players joining forces to beat them back. Thanks to the restrictive 2D plane, though, it gets quite crowded. Still, some of the skills unlocked later in the game make plowing through hordes an aesthetic treat.
Unfortunately, I ran into a frustrating bug that invalidated the payoff in local co-op play. On two separate occasions during my playthrough, my partner’s stats were inexplicably reset between stages – back to square one with no new traits or skills, and no new collectible weaponry. All the work that we had gone through together to earn new skills was a waste. Sure, the next levels remained unlocked and we could progress through the game, but losing those hard-earned abilities brings back the less-than-stellar method of mashing X until you win, and makes the game a lot less fun to play.
Final Exam puts a big emphasis on score. Completing a portion of a level reports back each player’s point progress for a little friendly competition. However, scoring is not always fair in the co-op environment. Whereas combat combos go a long way to boost your numbers – stringing together hits while avoiding being hit yourself – co-op partners share in the same combo pool. No matter who is contributing more to the counter, both will benefit equally. On the other side of the coin, if either player gets hit, it ruins the combo for both.
Furthermore, while there’s an enjoyable “escort” vibe to co-op play when one character is carrying an item and the other is holding back the horde to protect them, only the character who delivers the item gets awarded a point bonus for doing so – all that grunt work on the front lines doesn’t pay in the end. The same can be said for the player who is fortunate enough to deliver the finishing blow to a major enemy, earning a big bonus while the other is left out in the cold. Point totals mean the difference between earning or missing out on Skill Points at the completion of the level – so they do matter beyond leaderboards.
If you want to bash some monsters with more than two people, there’s an option to go online and play through a level with up to four players. At the time of this review, I was not able to find any active matches to sample this sort of madness, but I was unfortunately able to determine a couple of drawbacks to the online experience regardless. For one, you are not able to bring a local co-op partner into an online server – a slight, nitpicky complaint. But more frustrating is that playing through a level in the online mode does not advance your offline quest. I started an online session and played through an entire level on my own, but the offline progression acted as if I never had. It takes some of the buzz out of desiring to jump into a four-player co-op experience from the get-go.
The presentation of Final Exam is quite attractive. The character animations are smooth as silk, and the cel-shaded art style conveys a pleasing personality. The lighting helps give a brooding vibe to the otherwise cartoony mood, but there are moments where the bloom is so intense that you can lose your characters in it – though these are few and far between. The comical sound effects and dark-rock soundtrack feel right at home, topping off an excellent atmosphere.
The only complaint in this area is with the size of the UI elements, which do not scale well on higher resolutions. Playing the game at 1080p causes the player’s life bar and inventory icons to shrink down quite a bit, making them very difficult to read when sitting at a standard distance from a TV. I found myself opting to downgrade the resolution just to increase their size.
VERDICT: Final Exam is undoubtedly an attractive game with a lot of fun in store, particularly with a friend, but the chaotic brawling is unfortunately countered by frustrating drawbacks in many areas. Requiring that players share in a combo pool feels unfair, and random character stat resets can suck the wind out of your co-op partnerships. The sheer amount of enemies is a joy to disassemble, but can also feel like punishment for exploring. If you’re looking for a co-op beat-em-up at a bargain, bring along some buddies to help you take your final exam – just be prepared for some bumps along the way.
DECENT. A 6/10 indicates that, while this game could be much better, it still has a fair amount to offer the player. It might be an interesting title sabotaged by its own ambition, or a game denied greater praise by some questionable design choices. Don’t avoid it outright, but approach it with caution.