Jason Voorhees, one of the most iconic murderers in movie history, is an unstoppable, unkillable force of evil. But that’s not as good a starting point for designing a fun game as you might think.
Friday the 13th: The Game started life as a concept on Kickstarter. Pitched as an asymmetrical multiplayer game that puts players directly into one of horror movies’ most famous universes, it was successfully funded. The developers at IllFonic even plan to add a single-player story mode later this year, though the game’s current, initial release focuses solely on the multiplayer mode it was sold on.
That multiplayer mode doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on what it wants to be. Friday the 13th: The Game feels torn between its competing desires to be a horror game, a balanced, competitive and fun multiplayer experience, and a wish-fulfilling Jason Voorhees simulator.
Each match in Friday the 13th takes place on one of the game’s three maps, each modeled after a location from the films. Seven players take on the role of counselors and one is randomly selected to step into the shoes of series bad guy Jason.
Jason’s goals are fairly straightforward: Kill the counselors however you see fit. Counselors have a variety of means to avoid this, including items and weapons in the environment that can be used to stun Jason — or kill him if you can pull off a nearly impossible series of events. Counselors can also escape the map completely if they find the correct items to repair either a car, a boat or a telephone line that can be used to call the police. The matches end when all the counselors die or escape, or the 20-minute time limit is reached.
While escape happens on occasion, the intention of the game is clearly to give Jason all the tools in the world to kill off the counselors. In the vast majority of matches that I played, almost all of the counselors inevitably died.
While Jason has a wide variety of gory ways to kill counselors in Friday the 13th: The Game, the film series is more than the sum of its violence. The game’s presentation is desperate to evoke the films wherever it can, but it misses one of the series’ most important elements: the tone. The movies blend together horror and humor; though ultimately doomed to die, characters never lack for ridiculous things to say. At Camp Crystal Lake it was never the wrong time for a campy joke.
Friday the 13th: The Game, by comparison, is nearly devoid of actual dialog. Characters look like rubber action figures held over a campfire for too long, and they cycle through a mere three or four benign exclamations when you complete an objective. Maybe the lack of chatter is meant to build tension, but all it accomplishes is sapping the onscreen personas of any kind of personality.
It all makes for an airless world. The creative, over-the-top kills in Friday the 13th have always been its spark, but when the rest of the world is lifeless the violence seems out of place, an overly sadistic extravagance in an otherwise banal game.
While Friday the 13th: The Game provides exciting moments on occasion, they’re infrequent and all too brief. In one match, I tried to escape in a car and narrowly swerved out of Jason’s way as he teleported in front of me. In another, I dived through a window to dodge a fatal blow from his machete at the last second — a scene that felt like it was right out of one of the movies. These intense bits felt great for a few moments, but many of the matches stretch close to the game’s 20-minute time limit
Outside of these instances of excitement, matches become agonizingly boring. After the confusion and disorientation of running around facsimiles of familiar movie sets wears off, the patterns start to stand out.
On the counselor side, I wandered from house to house looking for the right combination of randomly spawned items, which mostly means opening an endless number of drawers. Occasionally, the monotony of searching will be broken up by a swell of music indicating that Jason is nearby.
In theory, the confrontations between Jason and the counselors should be the high point of Friday the 13th: The Game, but in practice they’re often just dull and repetitive. When this unstoppable supernatural force came across me during my tedious scavenger hunts, it almost always played out the same way. I would wait in a house with the door barricaded until he started chopping the door down. When he walked inside, I would jump out of a window and move to the next house. This cycle would repeat until the player controlling Jason got bored or I ran out of cabin doors to barricade. I wanted these showdowns to end not to relieve the tension but because I got tired of doing the same thing over and over.
The relationship between different counselors oscillates somewhere between competitive and cooperative. The likelihood of finding everything I needed to escape on my own was incredibly low, but the game provided no real motivation to help my fellow counselors. Even if I managed to survive, I never had much in the way of rewards waiting.
Progression in Friday the 13th: The Game is measured by way of level-ups, which unlock new counselors and different versions of Jason. You also earn currency that can be spent to unlock new execution animations for Jason and randomly rolled perks for the counselors, like faster driving or longer stuns. These bonuses are noticeable, but they didn’t significantly impact how I played and certainly weren’t enough to make the game built around them any more fun.
The biggest problem with progression is that the XP rewards are meager for things like surviving or fighting back against Jason, or even killing counselors if you assume the role of the masked killer. The only sizable reward is gained by staying in a match until it ends, which grants 500 XP — which is more than almost anything else you can earn in a match combined. This means that no matter when you escape or die, you have to stay until every single counselor has met their fate or the time limit expires.
The decision to lock this largest reward behind the end of a match is one of Friday the 13th: The Game’s most baffling choices. Because the spawns in each match are random, it’s possible to end up within the clutches of Jason within the first couple of minutes. If I wanted the full XP reward in these unlucky situations, that left me waiting out the rest of the game simply spectating other counselors.
You have no idea how long 12 minutes can be until you have watched the last survivor stand in a closet for every excruciating second of it.
Sadly, things don’t get much more exciting when playing as Jason. The first few minutes of each match felt like a flurry of activity as I searched for the first sign of counselors and tried to catch them off-guard. But as the second kill gives way to the third, it’s easy to fall into a rhythm of slow, steady pursuit and sudden, violent murder. The only time I had to change up my strategy was if my prey happened to get a car working.
Friday the 13th: The Game offers a variety of different kill animations for Jason, each inspired by a kill from the films, but I quickly found myself sticking to the simplest ones. The more elaborate kills also feature longer animations, and I wasn’t willing to watch them for a third or fourth time in a single match. Every Jason I played against tended to find one special kill that worked for them and stick to it, and I followed suit.
This constant push and pull of one side’s boredom versus the other’s made even the shortest matches feel eternal. Sometimes when there were only one or two counselors left, and things felt particularly hopeless, the survivors simply ran toward Jason when they saw him in a desperate attempt to speed the match up.
One consistent presence, no matter which side I was on, was the game’s laundry list of random bugs and mechanical inconsistencies. More than a few times I found myself trying to close a door after I entered a house with Jason in hot pursuit, only for the game to kick me back outside because I wasn’t far enough in, as I closed the door on myself, putting me directly into Jason’s open arms. Or I would swing at Jason with a weapon only to have my hit pass directly through his body, or play his stun animation and sound effect but still allow him to grab and execute me. I never felt like I could rely on the game’s most basic mechanics to work the way they were supposed to.
Friday the 13th: The Game is also plagued by constant crashes that seemed to happen every four or five matches. This happened consistently between several different people and groups that I played in.
The most fun I had with Friday the 13th: The Game is when I played with a full premade group of eight friends, and we focused on laughs and having a good time rather than actually competing. In many cases, we ignored the core design of the game altogether, coming up with our own weird modifiers. In one match, we decided counselors couldn’t escape and had to wait out the 20-minute time limit. In another, we decided Jason could only use each of his different types of kills once in a match leading to increasingly complex and silly traps laid for counselors as Jason’s options got more limited.