The Final Station hit upon something that few games manage: it had a message.
The train at the game’s heart was a potent symbol for our need to press on, to cling to order and mechanism and structure, even in the face of complete chaos. In setting its players on a man-made trajectory, it injected purpose into a de-railing world. The Only Traitor, its DLC chapter, has a different focus; sadly underneath the freedom it proposes, there is plenty of empty constraint.
A young man wakes up in an apartment complex. He is gruff, panicked, and eager to move. Waiting in the basement garage is a mustang-type two-seater with a yellow go-faster stripe slicing down its flank. You’ll step into his hurried shoes and drive across the same landscape you did in the main game, peppered with deviations to new places. You also have a wooden bat with nails driven into it with you at all times. Time to hit the open road… well, sort of.
The differences are at first striking. You’ll no longer need to find blocker codes; the car presents a level of freedom that the train couldn’t; and you’re not running errands for anyone but yourself. These don’t end up meaning much though. Gone are the codes, yes, but in their place is a checklist of three things you’ll need per stop: water, food, and gasoline. You won’t have to look after a carriage full of murmuring passengers because there’s only one spare seat in your car, and although it’s nice to be able to read through a full conversation without needing to dash about, you’re inside a glorified cut-scene – able to craft and heal, or just listen and wait.
The symbolic restraints of the main game’s train track may be gone, but you are bound now in a meaningless and merely mechanical way.
But the mechanical, fortunately, is where The Only Traitor shines. There’s an ample few volts of challenge charged through it for starters – the first time I died was a shocking jolt to the system, one I was glad for. New enemies are mingled in with the old: a green-eyed walker that gobs acid at you from afar, a shuffling ghoul that crawls along the floor after it’s been downed, and a foe that amps up its aggression when hit or shot enough – its red eyes aglow. Not only do these add variety to combat, but some of them are real bullet-sponges, giving you a need – albeit a relatively weak need – to keep half an eye on your ammo.
The bat, too, is a quiet revelation. Satisfying in the hand, it sends foes careening across rooms on a charged-up swing; it feels empowering, allowing you to control distance and crowding more effectively than with your bare mitts alone.
Levels spill outwards from where you park the car, and the gear you need will be littered left and right, breathing a non-linear feel to the exploration. You’ll come across stranded people just as in the main game; only here, you can choose to take or leave them – that two-seater means you’re going to have to be choosey. The folks you come across have bars indicating their ability at crafting, making med kits, and how talkative they are – those car rides can get awful lonely. Mind you, the protagonist doesn’t do himself any favours in this department.
For a silent character, The Final Station’s train conductor communicated a lot. One particular moment where he alights at a payphone is, in hindsight, beautifully sad and poignant. Here your man is vocal, but he falls flat: he’s rude, abrasive, and doesn’t care for anyone else. You, in turn, are coerced into not caring much for folks, deconstructing them into what they can give you – this has the potential for a cracking bit of dissonance and moral hardship, but with the hero’s flippant lack of compassion, it feels hollow. These things would be forgivable but he commits a far more heinous sin: he isn’t interesting.
Fortunately, with the aid of the car’s radio, you can tune in and drop out to some wonderful ambient music. The one character to return in all its glory is the landscape; in this regard, the return journey doesn’t disappoint. Those metal spires spewing pollution into bleak skies, the rain-slicked asphalt under your wheels – it all makes a surreal return and at times, I let in-car conversation run its course so I could soak in the moving stillness.
When you’re digging around in buildings and towns, there is far more of an archaeological bent than there was before. Notes are lengthy and plentiful; there are more computer terminals to read; conversations run on for longer and contextual scraps trickle in from all angles. The delving into post-world politics and power struggles carries neither the clarity nor complexity it would need to have any real impact; more than this though, it pokes little holes in the mythic fog of ambiguity that shrouds the main game. The Only Traitor illustrates the perils of getting what you wished for. Some questions are best left unanswered, and although this expansion does cloud over in its own enigmatic way, it muddles more than it intrigues.
In the absence of a meaningful message, it merely iterates on the gameplay of The Final Station – which, while satisfying, was never its biggest draw. While these additions are welcome improvements, they are just more, which ironically makes The Only Traitor feel a lesser offering.