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Five Nights at Freddy's

In a Nutshell

THE GOOD

  • Uncannily terrifying concept
  • Excellent tension and release curve
  • Effective art work and camera angles
  • Good voice-over work

THE BAD

  • Whole game is sitting around waiting for jump scares
  • Feels too random
  • Suprisingly difficult, which leads to repeating whole nights

Overall Impression: C+
Felt like a random crap-shoot with predictable scares

Five Nights at Freddy's - coverart

Developer:
Scott Cawthon

Platforms:
PC (via Steam),
iOS, Android

Original release date:
August 8, 2014

ESRB rating: N/A

Genre:
horror

Player:
single-player

Official site:
fivenightsatfreddysaz.com

Five Nights at Freddy's was recommended to me by some friends a couple years ago. They knew that I was interested in horror games, and that I was disappointed with the stock of horror games that were available at the time. I bought it at the time, but never got around to playing until recently.

The concept for the game is quite a good one. You work as a night watchman of a Chuck E. Cheese-style children's birthday party center. By day, there's four animatronic animals along the lines of Disney's Country Bear Jamboree that dance and sing songs to entertain children; but by night, these animatronic animals come to life, stalk the halls of the facility, and have been known to attack and kill anybody that they find. This is definitely the stuff of nightmares, and if your young child ever plays the game (or sees you playing it), he or she might never want to go to Chuck E. Cheese or Disneyland ever again. But as an adult, the game just doesn't quite do it for me.

I think the core problem is that the whole experience is built around providing semi-random jump scares. It might cause someone to jump the first one or two times it happens, but after that, you get pretty quickly desensitized to it. And once that happens, the game loses all of its effectiveness, even though it doesn't necessarily lose any of its borderline-unfair challenge.

Five Nights at Freddy's - security door
Keeping the security doors closed consumes power, sacrificing your long-term security.

You must spend five nights sitting in a security control room. There's two security doors and a series of camera, but there's also a limited supply of dwindling power. Closing the doors consumes power, looking through the cameras consumes power, turning the lights on consumes power. And if power runs out, you are left sitting in the dark for the rest of the night with no defense against the monstrous mechanical mascots.

The amount of nightmare logic that is required just to establish the setting is actually kind of interesting in its own right. What kind of a place operates with dwindling power? How poorly-maintained is this facility? How does it maintain power during the day? Is it even safe for kids during the day? Why would the doors require power to stay closed? You also get voicemails each night from the former night watchman, who casually talks about the increasingly-complex behaviors of the mascots, new strategies for dealing with them, and so on. These phone messages are very well-acted and well-delivered. All of this contributes to the game's incredible uncanny setting, and everything seems to be in the perfect place to create an incredible horror experience based on powerlessness and creeping tension.

But then the actual gameplay starts, and the excellent atmosphere starts to buckle. There's no real sense of tracking the progress of the mascots as they move around the facility, since half of them seem to be able to teleport from one room to virtually any other room instantly. Knowing where they are right now isn't nearly as important as it seems to be, since they can be literally anywhere else the next time you look. The idea is supposed to be that if you lose track of a mascot, then you're supposed to check the two doorways leading into the security room, which requires that you spend power to turn on the lights and see if a mascot is outside the doorway. If one is, then you need to spend power to shut the door and leave it shut until the monster goes away, at which point you should open the door back up in order to preserve power.

Five Nights at Freddy's - running down the hallway
Only one of the mascots can actually be seen moving. The others teleport to seemingly random locations.

The problem here is that there's no real reason to check the cameras for half of the game. Instead, you just need to occasionally check the doorways and close the door if you see a mascot. In order to counter this obvious strategy, the game has to introduce some contrivances that ended up just frustrating me more than they scared me. The Pirate Cove mascot becomes more active if the cameras remain idle. You're supposed to look at him through the cameras at regular intervals in order to neutralize his movement or force him back to his hiding place. This forces the player to have to use the cameras, since this monster can also sprint down the hallway and kill you before you can react. If you check the camera and see that he's not in his hiding place, then you need to immediately deactivate the camera and close the door, or else you are dead. I can live with this particular contrivance, since it works within the game's logic and acts as the game's way of countering a seemingly-obvious optimal strategy.

Other contrivances are less acceptable. The mascots with the randomized movement also seem able to jam the doorway so that you can't close the door or even turn on the light to look for them. I'm not sure what the game expects me to do in this situation, as it seems to be virtually a guaranteed death with no way to prevent or counter it. The closest that I can figure is that you're supposed to intermittently close the door on your own in order to prevent it from becoming jammed open to begin with. This, of course, costs power. That works as a preventative measure, I guess, but once the jamming has already occurred, you're stuck just sitting there waiting for inevitable death. It seems like a cheaper contrivance than having to keep an eye on the bashful mascot.

Five Nights at Freddy's - Pirate Cove
One of the mascots seems bashful and won't attack so long as you watch him every so often.

The last contrivance is that the game seems to be perfectly balanced so that even optimal use of your power results in some period of blackout at the end of the night. It's either that, or the game is scripted to rapidly drain your power as 6 am approaches. Unfortunately, I think the second explanation might be the true one. At this point, you are left defenseless and can only play dead in the hope that the mascots don't notice you and decide to kill you. Even perfect play throughout the night (or as "perfect" as play can be considering how random and unpredictable everything is) seems to invariably result in this forced crap shoot of a scenario that seems equally likely to allow you to continue to the next night, or to give you a sudden and un-preventable game over. I had a lot of trouble just getting past night two because of this.

The "Game Over" screen itself is a bit obnoxious. After you die, there's a screen of static, followed by the "Game Over" splash screen. Both screens take a long time to finish, and you can't skip past them because the Escape button actually instantly closes the entire game! So you have to just sit there, waiting for the game to give you an extra go at it. Maybe it's masking a loading screen? But this game seems so small that I don't understand why it would need such long load times.

To the game's credit, it does have an exceptional tension and release curve. Those last couple hours of the night seem to last forever as you watch your power supply dwindle away, and it always seems to culminate in those few minutes of blackout during which you're completely vulnerable. Each of the five nights introduces new concepts and ratchets up the difficulty so that the whole game feels like one long tutorial with the fifth night supposedly being a test of all you've learned. I don't really know because - full disclosure - I've yet to actually beat the fourth night. The game is also short, so it doesn't wear out its welcome and become stale towards the end. But that's only true if the majority of your play time didn't consist of repeating the nights because you died over and over again.

Five Nights at Freddy's is a decent little jump scare fest. It would be very effective if it didn't feel so blatantly random, if the game didn't feel like it was outright cheating, and if your own actions felt more like they had contributed to the scenario. But then again, horror is almost entirely subjective. Five Nights at Freddy's didn't quite do it for me, but that doesn't mean that it won't be effective for you. There's a demo, so feel free to check it out and see if terrifies you to the bone.

Five Nights at Freddy's - blackout
Every night seemed to end in a scripted blackout, and survival was a complete crap shoot.

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