Each round of Friday the 13th: The Game is a one act improv play. One player is cast as classic drowning victim turned murder guy Jason Voorhees, while seven camp counselors scramble to escape gruesome deaths at his giant hands. Have your head squished early on and you become an audience member, sometimes for several minutes while Jason stalks the other players around a darkened summer camp, tearing them apart for Mother.
I get mad at Rocket League, and mad at Overwatch, but I don’t mind having my head stomped on in Friday the 13th all that much—it's just my role in the play. And after death, the solidarity I feel for the other campers keeps me flipping through the spectator cameras, cheering for them as they repair a car, only for Jason to smash the hood and rip one of them out of their seat while the other bolts into the woods. And then the fleeing survivor stumbles across my decapitated body, automatically shrieks (there's a fear system), and Jason materializes behind him. Even in death, I’m still part of the show—I wish there were a corpsing button that let me break scene to laugh at my costar for losing his arms.
When I play as Jason, meanwhile, my goal is not just to catch all the campers, but to appear at the worst possible moment, to startle a group and snatch away their hope of escape, to chase them into cabins and taunt them through axe wounds in the doors. Friday the 13th’s local voice chat is vital to its fun. I once overheard Jason taunting a counselor who he’d backed into a cabin. I bolted in just before he made his kill and whacked him on the back with a wrench, stunning him long enough for us to escape. “Ooooh, shit!” he squealed as my fellow survivor sang, “Laaater, bitch.”
Without laughter in the darkness, Friday the 13th feels creepier, but also meaner and more frustrating, and so a lot of its appeal relies on the players in the round. It’s built for streaming, and is a rare game that’s more fun to play with streamers. I’m excited when I see a Twitch URL in a fellow counselor’s handle, because I know their goal is to entertain, to shout as they’re chased around—sometimes in irritatingly exaggerated shrieks, yeah, but mostly to the benefit of the game. If I die early, but someone fun is still playing, I get to watch their livestream with camera control.
Salute your shorts
The counselors are a crafty bunch with a lot of options for self-defense and preservation: shoot a flare in Jason’s face, or smack his head with a baseball bat, or lock a cabin door and leap through a window while he’s busy smashing it down. And if Jason does grab you, there’s a small chance you can kick out of his grip and keep running, or that another survivor will smack him for you.
The most common escape method is to repair a car or boat and putt away, which requires finding multiple (randomly scattered) items in the cabins and completing timing-based minigames—clicking the left or right mouse buttons when prompted to successfully install a car battery, for instance. These are fine: not special, but they add the tension they're meant to, simulating the horror victim fumbling with keys.
Getting the car running usually takes teamwork, as one player can’t carry a battery and a tank of gas at the same time, and it’s unlikely that they’d find both on their own anyway, along with the car keys. With seven counselors at the start of a match, players tend to split off into groups based on which items they come across first. Maybe two go for the boat, three for the car, and the rest creep around looking for the phone box—the only way to escape on foot is to fix the box, call 911, wait for the police to show up, and run toward the flashing lights.
On one hand, whoever’s playing Jason is likely going to stalk vehicles extra closely, putting escape groups in added danger. On the other, being in a group means more people around to whack Jason and stun him, and the less friendly truth that there might be time to escape while he impales a former cohort.
The campers have a loose alliance, then, which can be fun or disheartening depending on how you end up fitting into the group. The loneliness of hitting Tab to see that you were left out of an escape plan—two got away on the boat already—is the low end. Somewhere in the middle is the relief and guilt of fleeing Jason while he disembowels someone else. And the height of the game is taking part in a daring group effort to beat Jason down and drive away.
When no one’s talking, and no one’s working together, rounds can be painful—just hide and wait for the inevitable. As Jason, I once had to stomp through a cabin smashing every armoire to finally murder the final survivor, who I could hear whimpering with each axe swing in adjacent rooms. In that case, at least from my perspective, it was a pretty great horror movie reenactment. But that isn’t a fun scene to repeat in every match. Jason vs Everyone is so much better than Jason vs One, alone, doomed.
So I play it for the good rounds and the good moments, such as when a survivor jogged up to me and said, “Find the machete! Let’s kill Jason!” We didn’t kill Jason—it is possible, just very hard—but the sudden camaraderie as four of us ran from his hulking figure together in search of the last puzzle piece turned objectiveless wandering into a proper horror movie.
On the hunt
Playing as Jason means you won't have to spend half the round spectating, but it’s not necessarily more fun. Jason is chosen randomly from the group, though if you prefer playing murderer, you can set a preference to be picked more often.
The most important part of being Jason, to me, is to make what ostensibly should be unfun for the counselors (getting murdered) more fun. I once cornered a player early in a match, and as he protested—”It’s so early in the game!”—we came to an unspoken understanding: knife duel. Rather than going in for a grab, I took a swing at him. I missed, and he returned a swing and stunned me.
He skittered off, and when I came to I teleported away (Jason has a few supernatural abilities which can be used more frequently as the match progresses) to find someone else. There isn’t much joy in ending someone else’s round as early as possible (when it happens I'm usually apologizing as I drive an axe through their face) and on top of that, the pressure is always on—if I’m busy breaking down a cabin door, in the back of my mind I know another survivor is across the map trying to repair the boat. Sometimes I let someone live for the moment because I suspect there’s more important prey to be had.
The best moments tend to come near the end of the match. Three counselors are piled into a car, and I'm chasing them, listening as they yell directions at each other and laughing as they smash the car into a tree.
Even though it gives them more time to escape my grasp, once I do grab a counselor I almost always look for an environmental kill. It'd be a boring movie if Jason killed everyone the same way instead of, say, occasionally ripping their arms off with help from a tree. I typically can't find one, though, which makes them special sights, but perhaps too rare. (Side note: The horror is softened by how goofy the counselors look, but if the brutal violence of slasher flicks upsets you, the game is obviously not going to be your style—Jason has some ugly tricks.)
As you earn experience, there’s lots to unlock. New Jasons, new weapons, and new kill animations are all available to add to your stunt acting repertoire. On the survivors' side, there are several unlockable characters, each with their own stats, and in-game currency can be spent to roll for perks. It’s worth experimenting with the characters and perks, because the differences are significant—one may be great at breaking free of Jason's grasp, while another is easily spooked but a fast runner. It's surprisingly complex, and though I haven't run into any super-coordinated groups, I expect they'll be formed.
Server problems over the launch weekend frustrated many. As of now, matchmaking is working fine for me, though my ping is usually 100ms or more. And Friday the 13th is still buggy. The car jitters along the roads, sometimes I get locked into a run speed even when walking, and it’s generally awkward to orient myself and swing a wrench where I want to swing it. The very low third-person FOV, which is meant to give Jason the sight advantage, can frustrate. Most annoying is that the keyboard controls aren’t remappable.
That clunkiness can be in service of the game, though—it’s scary and funny to make a bumbling deke past Jason, just out of the reach of his unclear grab distance, or accidentally leap through a window when you didn’t mean to. I'd welcome more nuance to the controls, more maneuvers and contextual actions, even at the expense of potentially adding even more bugs. The greater the options for physical comedy the better. Right now, fights are a bit too laggy, and too hard to read to make my maneuvers intentional and precise.
The maps, while they look nice, are summer camps, with cabins and roads and trees. Fresh environments with new escape methods feel essential, as I'm already starting to tire of the three campgrounds, the cars and the boats, which stay true to the best remembered films but are hard to distinguish from each other.
While I can’t review what isn’t there yet, it’s worth noting that the developers did want to add maps at one point: the Kickstarter campaign included unmet stretch goals such as a Manhattan map based on the awful Jason Takes Manhattan, one based on the space station in Jason X, and the option to play as Pamela Voorhees (the killer from the original, when Jason was just a boy in a lake). I hope those ideas make it in.
What’s there now, though, is great fun with the right group. It’s twice the price of Dead by Daylight, but with richer comedic potential and more to do in any given match—I haven't even covered all the tactical considerations, such as managing fear, or turning on radios in cabins to trick Jason's super senses into thinking they contain a counselor. At $40/£30 it definitely isn't a steal, but for chatty entertainers who enjoy multiplayer storytelling over technical perfection, Friday the 13th can be thrilling, stupid, and hilarious.