Friday the 13th: The Game (Review)

Being a horror fan comes with the acceptance that your genre of choice will never really be taken very seriously. After all, no critic in their right mind wants to be caught giving praise to schlock that does nothing but appeal to our reptilian brains. Of course, the major flaw of that sentiment is that the audience is all too aware of what they’re getting into; a cathartic escape into a world where all preppy snobs get machetes to the face. Part of why Friday the 13th has endured is because it wraps that formula in a combination of sex, death, and a bit of a morality play – where the villain is somehow both a catalyst for fear and someone you can root for. Jason is a force of nature. He never truly dies and nothing in his universe happens without him first acting upon it. On paper, he’s the definition of a video game character.

Which leads to the natural follow-up question as to why he’s been practically nonexistent in the medium outside of one very poorly received NES game. The failings of that title are probably as good of an answer as any; playing an awkward side-scroller that eventually leads to a Punch-Out match with a 7 foot killer, you can almost hear in your head the developers trying to parse exactly how the movies and the character itself were supposed to translate. Jason Voorhees isn’t particularly complex. He only really ever does one thing, and if he does it to you, there isn’t much of a game.

Friday the 13th: The Game is, if nothing else, a sincere attempt at answering those questions, breaking the movie formula down to its most basic elements – a battle of one versus all, the Unstoppable Force vs the very movable, stabbable objects. As you’d imagine, this creates the new problem of how to make playing as a camp counselor fun. The results are… mixed. Every game starts you at a random point in the map, and, unless you specify ahead of time, with a random character. It is then up to you to fulfill a number of objectives in hopes of escaping, either by repairing a vehicle, calling the police, or going through the very complicated process of actually killing Jason. Since every game is random, there is always a chance that you will be the very first victim, captured so early that there’s no possible way you could have survived. This then leads to you spectating the rest of the match, which could take another 20 minutes or so. If you leave at any point before the match actually concludes, you get zero XP, regardless of what you did. Of course, if you die early on, that amount would likely be be insignificant anyway, so you will very rarely see Quick Play matches end with all players still hanging around.  I can see the reasoning, wanting the slain players to watch on as if they were sitting in a theater and cheering on the final girl’s last stand, but that’s a feeling that very heavily depends on the vibe of your particular group.

To somewhat combat the RNG element, each counselor has a bit of variation in their stats and an assortment of perks to equip. The problem here is that most of them are actually quite useless. The only stats that really matter are stealth (so you can’t be detected) and stamina (so you can run away for longer periods of time) and because you can simply choose which counselor you prefer every game, you will often get into matches with three or four of the stealthy goth girl, who are most likely wearing the exact same clothes because color variations require an absurd amount of leveling.

If that doesn’t break your immersion, there’s a chance that the community likely will. As with any multiplayer game with random strangers, it’s a roll of the dice every time, though the chances of you getting into a match with a particularly shouty gentleman or someone that’s clearly overacting for their stream seemed like a safe bet in the opening week. The game is sort of self-correcting when it comes to these people, making it entirely possible to survive and win without actually having to work together. It’s also equally likely that they will be the same people that get the car running and laugh as they pass you by on the road. Though this initially annoyed me, with time it became almost an element of some deeper strategy to consider. Maybe these counselors aren’t all friends and are more than willing to stab each other in the back to make it out alive. Suddenly it clicked. We were all role-playing characters, even if not consciously, and if the Jason player is even the slightest bit committed to the role, he will make the cocky loud guy one of his earliest kills.

As you’d imagine, the highlight of the experience is when you actually get to play as Jason himself, traveling all over the map, listening to folks freak out as you chase them down. Sadly, it’s also the one thing you find yourself doing the least. There is an in-game setting that allows you to say if you prefer to play as Jason or the counselors, but it didn’t seem to make a difference, presumably because everyone made the same obvious choice. In my 30 hours of gameplay, I got to play as him a grand total of 11 times, which averages to about once every 5 or 6 matches. After some time, it became tempting to leave counselor matches early when it was obvious I got a bad draw and didn’t spawn near any useful items, if nothing else so I could try to jump into another match and get Jason again. Through a combination of Kane Hodder’s motion capture and attention to little details from a dev team that are clearly fans of the source material, everything about Jason just feels right. There is a weight to every movement he makes. Every kill is practical yet stylish. Players panic at the mere suggestion that you may be nearby, and it makes playing with them all the more satisfying; breaking windows to startle them, setting traps under windows you know they’ll try to escape from, and teleporting behind them when they least expect it. It’s clear that more time and care were spent into getting Jason right than anything else in the game, which was a good priority to have. It’s also why making the single player campaign something to be played from his perspective the absolute correct decision.

Unfortunately, I’m talking about a mode that doesn’t actually exist yet, and I have my doubts about it ever making it into the game at all. Gun Media is a very small team and Friday the 13th is a game funded entirely by Kickstarter. Ever since launch, they’ve been very transparent about the series of fires that they’ve had to work on putting out as it regards the servers. I seem to have been one of the lucky ones, as I only ever ran into major issues a few times, leading to odd games where the counselors automatically won because the Jason player disconnected. Many still haven’t be able to play the game at all.

Even in ideal online situations, there is another problem in that there simply isn’t that much content – a grand total of three maps, six Jason variations (no Jason X, much to my chagrin), and a handful of counselors. Every match starts with the exact same short cutscene that will be imprinted into your brain within a few hours and then it’s a lot of doing the same things over and over, relying almost entirely on the group you’re playing in to supply any new surprises. You can earn badges (which do nothing) and XP to unlock new clothing colors or Jason kills, and… that’s about it. There are “Pamela Tapes” which are in the menus but don’t appear to actually be in the game yet, though it’s clear that they’ll just be audio logs of some sort. Though the first week has been very active, I do wonder what the future holds; if there is more content coming and if anyone will be playing Friday the 13th after a few months. By that point, so many players will have unlocked higher level perks and likely worked out a perfect winning formula as to make the game trivial. It’s why ongoing support is essential for a game of this type, and, for various reasons, something that does not seem possible with the framework that they have.

After all, Jason only ever does one thing. Eventually the movies grew stale as well for that same reason. In that regard, the game is maybe a little too authentic, beholden to the same creative limitations. When Friday the 13th: The Game works, it can be tremendous amounts of fun, and as far as capturing the spirit of its source material, it’s an absolute success. It is, quite possibly, the best a Friday the 13th game could ever be, but in this context, that is both a compliment and a curse.

@DamienWilkens

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