Unhappy Trails – A Final Girl Review

Final Girl is widely considered Van Ryder Games’ best title. This was evident with the ‘Series 2’ Kickstarter campaign crossing the two-million-dollar threshold earlier this year. That’s wild capital for a game that is parted out in $15 slices of content. Supremely wild.

The energy behind this second Kickstarter campaign was immense. The game was being discussed everywhere. Most everyone adored it. I was intrigued.

I first mentioned this title in my Best Games of 2021 article. I was curious about Final Girl and imagined it could have made the list if I’d gotten a chance to play it adequately. I spend a large amount of time playing solitaire board games, nearly as much as I do playing with other individuals. The horror setting and the Final Girl trope is of particular interest to me. It looked the complete package.

There’s been a lot of film theory discourse on the final girl interpretation. There are two intertwined and conflicting views on what the single lone female survivor represents. From a particular angle, she appears to embody a tough and independent conservative position that is nearly sexless. From another, it’s noted that males identify with the strength and bravery of the protagonist which allows for femininity to be smuggled in unknowingly. This is a pretty fascinating dichotomy that touches on several cultural topics while appearing rather tame and simply shallow entertainment.

But back to this Final Girl.

I’m trying to convey that I was initially excited about this design. The more I heard about the game and the further I was exposed to it, the less enthusiastic I became. This is because Final Girl is an overt derivative of Van Ryder’s previous release, Hostage Negotiator.

Hostage Negotiator was a disappointment. I found aspects of the game interesting – particularly how it evoked the undulating tension and stubborn stalemates of trying to converse with another human being at their wit’s end – but ultimately the experience was repetitive and bland. I still held hope that the transition to the Final Girl setting would evoke a sense of wonder that Hostage Negotiator couldn’t capture.

Alas, it wasn’t willed.

Hostage Girl

While Final Girl presents itself as a narrative design, the Hostage Negotiator system is highly mechanical. The addition of a board is fruitless. It’s strongly abstract, and the main consideration is really simply positional distances between the protagonist, the killer, and the victims scattered about. Individual spaces have little flavor or meaning. Even items are segregated into different search areas, but the items placed in those stacks are random and are not informed by the location itself.

The experience of playing this game is expressly rhythmic. You spend cards from your hand to perform actions, roll dice to measure success, and then acquire more cards. All cards are one time use, cycling back to the purchase row after consumption.

There’s a flow here which defines the feel of play. I find my focus on squeezing efficiency out of my dwindling time, deciding whether to discard or keep cards, and then managing horror and card acquisition. The board gains my attention in spurts, like an extra you forgot was still alive and waiting to for screen time.

This rhythm of card play, however, is highly repetitive. This system has great modularity. It reminds me of Street Masters and Cthulhu: Death May Die in how various spheres of content can be combined in various ways. But it doesn’t harness that variability to mix up the central aspect of play. Instead, the modularity only has a minor effect from the protagonist vector, an odd decision given the final girls are the titular focus in this design. It feels an enormous missed opportunity not to alter the card pool based on the specific heroine.

Meeples gunna get murdered

My issues with the card and dice system also extend to the death spiral. To be clear, I very much appreciate the actual difficulty level of the design. I’ve won far fewer times than I’ve lost, and this actually leaves a more favorable impression than if the opposite had occurred.

The criticism lies with the game state when things are going poorly. Everything grinds to a halt. If you fail to manage the horror track and are reduced to rolling a single die, you will find yourself in a hole that only gets deeper and never shallower. It’s brutal, not because your evisceration is imminent, but because play becomes exceedingly tiresome. It feels like everyone’s time is being wasted and you should just concede when threatened this severely. That is a rather large flaw. A game shouldn’t punish you with tedium.

This troublesome position occurs because you have to roll for everything in this game. You can manipulate the odds somewhat, but with the cascading failure it’s very difficult to gain more dice or manipulate the results when you’ve been gob smacked by the horror track. You can’t move. You can’t search. You can’t fight. You just sit there, sometimes skipping your turn due to the locked game state.

I find it odd how the game pushes you towards extremes. You’re either stuck in a rut with minimal chance of success or rolling a bounty of three dice and getting ever richer. A more common design practice is to push outcomes towards the middle in order to ensure a smooth pace of play. It’s an interesting twist to indulge the outliers, but the player in this instance needs to be rewarded with wild outcomes in the game state or an equally cascading dramatic narrative. Here, it simply allows you to slip outside of the expected cadence of card play and accomplish a touch more with less resources expended.

Competent play can avoid the death spiral, most of the time. It’s a highly variable game, dependent not only on dice with a low success rate, but also on randomly drawing the right equipment or lucking into softer event cards or randomized enemy powers. Reaching a level of competency does take a while. Your early plays will be murderous. It gets unimaginably easier as you explore the game and gain tactical insight, but that was never quite enough to overcome the inherently uninteresting central loop of playing and re-buying cards. This process chokes the life out of the game, overshadows the somewhat abstract narrative, and becomes the very identity of play.

Some may take issue with the abstract limitations on actions determined solely by card play. There’s a vocal crowd who detest this quality in Combat Commander for instance. I find this quality of action restriction perfectly acceptable. Here, it does much to simulate the lack of full control over your emotions and state of mind. It’s a horror game and it’s appropriate to take some of the agency out of the player’s hands. It’s a strong tool. I just wish the system of card play was more loose, unpredictable, and less staid.

There is an area where I found Final Girl remarkable. As a product, it’s singular. The board you play on is actually the interior of the game’s cover. You snap the front off the box – it’s adhered by magnets – and place it on the table for play. The back cover of the box is the antagonist board which houses their cards and displays their stats.

This is a brilliant piece of engineering. It works well to save space, which is of importance when you consider all of the ‘feature films’ available. These are combinations of killers, settings, and final girls packaged together as a single $15 product. All of these are interchangeable, so there’s incentive to acquire the whole slew of them.

That is, if you enjoy the game.

I unfortunately didn’t connect with Final Girl. I find this type of solitaire experience better captured in titles such as Camp Grizzly and Space Hulk: Death Angel, which capture stronger dramatic narratives with less narrow systems. The premise here is stellar, but the central card play is dire. It’s obsessed with process and devoid of life. Even at the climax of the film it can’t manage a crescendo, play devolving into back-and-forth swipes until either you or the murderer succumb to attrition. Instead, I’ll choose the sensible option and tap out.

 

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  2 comments for “Unhappy Trails – A Final Girl Review

  1. Adam Fernandes
    December 8, 2022 at 4:31 pm

    You’ve perfectly summarized my issues with this system! Ive had some fun with hostage negotiator but the swings to the extreme caused me to hesitate into committing into this system…thanks for saving me a bunch of money!

    Liked by 1 person

    • December 8, 2022 at 5:04 pm

      Glad I could help out. Thanks for reading and commenting, Adam.

      Like

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