I hear asymmetrical multiplayer is very “in” at the moment. Or at least, the number of games released in this category over the past year would indicate as much. Lots of studios are trying their hand at figuring out how to make the formula for “One vs Many” work in a way that feels good, is fun and engaging to play, and keeps people engaged over time. It’s tough to compete with faster paced multiplayer titles, but when done well, the levels of tension and arguably higher level of strategy required to win can make for some really fun and dynamic matches. Unfortunately, most games fail to get the balance right; the “One” is either way too powerful without enough weaknesses, or the “Many” have too many tools at their disposal for them to have a proper challenge. When it was first released, Friday the 13th was notable because it had managed to strike this balance far better than its contemporaries. The source material already lends itself extremely well to the format, and adapting it into something that’s fun to play was largely successful. The question is, can this edition of Friday the 13th overcome the challenges of arriving two years after its peak popularity, and scaling down to run on mobile hardware?
Nightmare in the Dark
I am duly impressed any time a team can get an Unreal Engine 4 game running even at a moderate frame rate on Switch. This goes double for when the game in question strives for photo-realistic graphics, which Friday the 13th absolutely does. In honesty, there are times when this game somehow looks really good. There are also times when some of the pieces fall apart in very noticeable ways, and the compromises being made to keep the frame rate above a “playable” 15-20 FPS are painfully obvious. I’m sure that the tightrope walk involved in bringing a graphically intense game like this to the Tegra X1 chip is a perilous one. Stray too far to the side of maintaining fidelity, and your frame rate plummets; too far to the side of increasing performance, and the visual effects start to rapidly degrade to the point of distraction. I’d say Friday the 13th spends about 40% of the time managing that walk, and the other 60% of the time leaning too far in one direction or the other, and the sway between these states is noticeable. It’s worth noting that at no point does the game become unplayable, but it can get pretty dang chunky, which is less than ideal when you’re being chased through the woods by a six-foot-five, seemingly unstoppable serial killer.
More often, though, the game’s lighting suffers from weird quirks. Most of the time, it’s fine, but when player characters are moving in and out of spotlights, the highlighting on their bodies, faces and hair can start to do some really weird things. Again, these aren’t deal breaking problems by any means, and when everything is working, the visual quality is surprisingly decent, but having your hair suddenly turn to a bright whitish yellow or your face look like a flashlight is being held under it does take you out of the experience a bit.
In general, I’m curious about whether the nighttime setting and the need to make the illusion of dynamic lighting work has a noticeable effect on the game’s performance on Switch. Not that you would necessarily want to play this game during the daytime, but I can’t help but wonder if things would play out just a little bit smoother. The real problem though is simply consistency. In the moments when everything is looking right, the atmosphere is wonderfully spooky and you can easily get pulled into the action. The illusion is just too fragile, though, and breaks often enough that I spent more time thinking about what wasn’t looking right than I was about trying to escape the camp with my life.
Easy Peasy, Camp Counselor Squeezy
Gameplay in Friday the 13th is more or less fully intact, and exactly what you would expect. One player gets randomly selected to play as Jason, and is granted the ability to teleport around the camp at will (kind of a nice nod to horror films in general, in which the antagonist seems to always be right behind you). The rest of the players play as camp counselors, working together or alone to escape or survive. There are many different survival options for players, some of which involve making repairs to vehicles or structures, others simply finding ways to stay alive long enough for help to arrive. In a full game, there’s a whole lot for Jason to keep up with, and players can gain an advantage by arming themselves and staying in groups.
Inevitably, though, somebody breaks off from the pack and will get caught alone. You may very well find yourself doing the exact things you yell at characters in horror movies for doing. You go off by yourself in the dark; you go into a scary looking house; you spend too much time looking back instead of just running. It’s as if the very nature of the situation you’re in tricks you into acting like an idiot, but that’s part of the fun. Jason may not actually come after you; he might be too preoccupied with some other dummy to notice you’re vulnerable. Or he might be very aware of your poor decision making, but finds himself stuck in a bear trap you conveniently placed out of his sight while you jump out the back window and run for your life. Usually, though, if you get caught out alone, and you don’t have your wits about you when the scary music swells, you get choked out or your eyes popped right out of your big dumb head.
The odds for success seem largely in your own hands, then, unless you’re up against a very skilled and knowledgeable Jason who knows how to use his abilities and his presence to trick the counselors into doing very stupid things. Luck can be enough to help you join up with a group of plucky counselors who managed to get the four-person car up and running and tear ass right out of the camp while Jason is terrorizing some other hapless teenager. Or, if you actually know what you’re doing, there are plenty of tools at your disposal as a counselor to stall, distract, and otherwise harry Jason into leaving you alone long enough so that you can save yourself.
All this to say, from a gameplay perspective, most aspects are really well thought out, and you have most of what you need at your disposal to give you a fair shot regardless of which side of the machete you’re on. It’s up to you as a player to dictate which way it cuts.
I do have some quibbles with how things play out on Switch, though. Some interactions feel delayed, like opening doors or picking up items. Nothing significant, but a half-second between pressing a button and seeing your character perform the corresponding action can feel like an eternity in the wrong circumstances. Movement is fine, but when the frame rate starts dropping, your ability to react to things happening around you really drops too, and you can feel the difference in tense moments when being able to fluidly react is the difference between life and death. Much of the experience feels sluggish overall. Still playable, but just not as snappy across the board as you’d like to see.
I’m not really sure whether the Switch port of Friday the 13th was a good idea given the player economics of niche titles, but perhaps the strength of the movie franchise and the game’s promise (if not its execution) is enough to garner sufficient interest. In fact, it clearly must be, as I have been able to find lobbies to play in (albeit with wait times of up to 1-2 minutes), and they’re usually full, so if this is where you want to play this game, you can definitely do so. That being said, Friday the 13th on Switch has the deck stacked against it for a host of reasons. Yes, it is the same game as the one on PC, and yes it “works,” and yes, most of the charm and authenticity that makes the game feel like a proper homage to a much-beloved horror series remains intact (sh-sh-sh-ah-ah-ah!). Unfortunately, much of the magic is lost in the compromises made to get the game running on the Switch hardware, and playing it feels more akin to controlling a lumbering corpse than a spry teenager.
A physical copy of the Switch version was provided by the publisher for review purposes