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Killer Klowns from Outer Space Is a Total Blast

Clowns don’t tend to scare me, and certainly not the ones in “Killer Klowns from Outer Space,” the new video game adapted from the 1988 film of the same name. But I suspect that’s sort of the point; the latest movie license to get the asymmetrical-horror treatment feels like it’s aiming for a wider audience than just the slasher crowd.

Games like “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and the long-running “Dead by Daylight” deliver plenty of scares, and some pretty intense violence. But “Friday the 13th: The Game” — still my favorite example of the asym-horror genre — has really always been about the laughs. Like “Jason Lives,” “Creepshow,” or “Critters,” the “Killer Klowns” film understands its audience is on board for a bit of silliness, and the game nails that aspect of the property. The “Friday” video game always had its share of problems, but it got you laughing even at the most competitive, do-or-die moments.

If you made a list of every complaint that you ever heard from another player in “Friday the 13th: The Game” (whose original developer, IllFonic, handled this one as well), “Killer Klowns” would seem to provide some kind of experimental solution for each of them, however successful. Where a skilled Jason Voorhees was generally overpowered and difficult to deal with, a Klown’s fairly easy to take out as long as you’ve got a good weapon or two. The counselors in “Friday” were often a little passive, hiding and running out the clock in hopes of escaping to the police; here, the clock fully favors the Klowns. And, as a human, there’s not a bunch of downtime spent spectating other players in the event of your death; you can either respawn with the help of your teammates or help them out with a series of minigames, delivering useful items to the living through the clever Hand-of-Fate system.

The pace of play feels faster and livelier than “Friday” because there are three killers, plural — three Klowns and seven humans — plus plenty of objectives to keep you busy when you’re not in a fight for your life. If you’re a Klown, you’ve got four Lackey Generators to get powered up. Each of these holds four hot-pink “cocoons,” which you can find scattered around the map or create by zapping your human prey with a weapon like the Cotton Candy Raygun. As you power these machines up with more and more cocoons, you’ll spawn computer-controlled Lackeys, which patrol the map and act as a kind of alarm system — or a living trap if a human gets close enough to one. If you manage to fill up all four machines, with a total of 16 cocoons, you’ll trigger the Klownpocalypse right away. Normally, this is what happens when the clock hits zero; a ball of dark energy appears in the sky at the center of the map and expands outward, killing any remaining humans caught in its radius.

For the human team, looting is the name of the game. A sharp weapon or two can kill a Klown, a sparkplug or gas can will help you activate one of the escape routes, and there are even cassette tapes like the collectible audio logs in “Friday.” (The one time I found one of these, a bug prevented me from picking it up.) There’s an underground bomb shelter the humans can escape to, a locked gate that leads to a bridge, a teleportation portal, and a motorboat. In the last couple minutes before a Klownpocalypse event, the ice-cream truck from the “Killer Klowns” film — called the Terenzi Truck in the game — will crash through a barrier on the periphery of the map, creating a fifth, last-ditch exit point.

Once killed, all is not lost. The human side has access to a Resurrection Machine that can summon their dead teammates back into the fray just once per match. If you die as a Klown, you’ve got a 45-second respawn timer, so long as your other two pals from the circus in the stars survive.

Where other players would often get you killed in “Friday” or other asym titles by luring the killer to your location, “Killer Klowns” takes the strength-in-numbers approach in nearly every scenario I’ve encountered. If you run into two or more humans as a Klown, you had better be careful; there’s a good chance they’ll stab you to death. If you’re a human and you see two or three Klowns headed your way, the only move is to hightail it in the opposite direction. They may not scare you, but they are a death sentence.

If you’ve ever felt annoyed by the guesswork involved in fighting Jason (or another powerful killer), you might be relieved to hear that the weapon durability is always clearly communicated on-screen in “Klowns.” Every wrench, knife, or baseball bat has a set number of uses, and the meter even changes color to show how much each item has been depleted. So you’ll almost always know whether it makes sense to swap for something new or keep what you have. Special items like a compass (which shows you where the exits are), food and drink, keys and keycards, and an airhorn (for stunning the Klowns) round out the wide range of items you can find as you loot every box and drawer in Crescent Cove.

And this is a charming little world, for what it’s worth. I didn’t see the film till after I’d spent a significant number of hours with the game, and I find myself warming to the “Killer Klowns” milieu more and more with every match. Its colorful, campy, ridiculous amusement park is the ideal setting for this type of game. In the movie, the Klowns come down from outer space in a craft disguised as a circus tent. They can murder people with shadow puppets and hide in pizza boxes; they fire weapons that shoot popcorn and cotton candy. Every kill in the film operates on the kind of cartoon logic that governs the exploits of Wile E. Coyote.

I was braced for disappointment. I didn’t expect to be charmed or wowed by a game starring murderous clowns. But this is a polished, smartly designed experience that iterates on the asymmetrical-horror formula in some impressive ways. It leaves room for improvement — the inputs for opening and locking doors, for example, are needlessly complicated and unwieldy compared to the tap-or-hold scheme in “Friday.” And I’m sure the Klowns’ weapons will get reworked as players uncover different meta builds and weed out the worst of the loadout options. But there’s plenty to unlock as you progress and level up, and your individual performance and participation matters more than a simple win-or-lose outcome. You earn experience points for every cabinet you search, every blow you land on an opponent, every cocoon you hang, every repair you make to the various escape routes. The Klowns have ample opportunity to sabotage their prey using the cotton-candy substance their rayguns fire; you can gum up machinery, barricade exits, coat the boat’s motor, and so on.

I can’t wait to see what happens when all the streamers, and the folks in my old “Friday the 13th” crew, get to try their hand at this lovingly rendered, neon-soaked arena. There’s always the matter of what the larger culture makes of it, not to mention the etiquette that develops among a small group of friends. It’s great that the game decides who’ll be human and who’ll be a killer at the start of each match, so everyone gets a turn in the clown shoes. IllFonic looks to have a real winner here.

The Publisher provided a review copy of this game. It will be released for Steam on June 4th.

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