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Computer Killer Klowns From Outer Space: The Game Review

Illfonic is no stranger to making interesting games based on popular movies, and Killer Klowns is just the latest success in the studio's run.
 

General Information

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I don't believe in "so bad, it's good." If a movie is especially bad, I'd sooner not waste my time since I don't find especially bad movies interesting on any level. So I've not seen the cult budget horror movie Killer Klowns From Outer Space in probably 25 years, when I was a horror-loving kid who didn't yet know he didn't like "so bad, it's good." That means I initially wasn't excited about a game based on this movie, despite my appreciation for the burgeoning asymmetrical horror multiplayer genre. As it turns out, Killer Klowns is a surprisingly nuanced PvP horror game with enough sugary silliness to not be taken too seriously. Rather than "so bad, it's good," it's simply good.

Killer Klowns follows games like Dead By Daylight, Friday The 13th, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, pitting players versus players in a familiar horror landscape. In the case of this game, players are split into lobbies of three murderous klowns versus seven survivors trying to outlast them and escape the map within a 15-minute time limit. Though each asymmetrical horror game has carved its own path, Killer Klowns actually looks and plays much like Illfonic's Jason Voorhees game, which I find to be only a good thing. It's not a clone, but where it's similar, it's welcome, and where it's different, it usually works out, too.

Survivors will need to scrounge for tools like melee weapons and health kits while, more importantly, locating and activating one of several exits across one of multiple sprawling maps, each of them built with intricate shortcuts to discover and routes to learn so that a skilled survivor can get some distance between themself and the squeaky shoes of a klown on their heels. Meanwhile, the klowns are tasked with patrolling the map and killing all humans, either by directly attacking them or hanging them up as human-sized cotton-candy cocoons until they wither away.

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There's strength in numbers in Killer Klowns, but that's true for both sides.

This format means victory and defeat aren't all that important, really, as the klowns may kill several survivors while others escape and the final tally may award one side or the other what's called a "modest" or even "poor" victory. Sure, a perfect victory can be achieved, but in my 15 hours with the game, the community has not seemed too invested in this, which is actually a nice change of tone from the ultra-competitive Dead By Daylight. Survivors surely want to escape, but I found because the rounds are so unpredictable and yet the stakes never so high--I'm being chased by a goofy klown, after all, not Leatherface or Jason--it remains fun even in defeat.

I owe that consistent fun to many facets of the game. Chiefly, it's a joy to run and hide from these cartoonish villains. Ducking into the thick bushes or a dumpster, peeking out as pursuers pass by, is thrilling time after time. And though the melee mechanics can feel janky and button-mashy, it works that way for both sides, so it's funny to get into a close-quarters brawl with a klown and maybe even live to tell the tale.

When klowns are defeated, they're sent to a respawn screen that takes about 45 seconds to get them back into the game, so it also pays to be an aggressive player--or simply a group of players sticking together. You can clear the map of one or more klowns for a limited time and make lots of progress with in-game tasks, such as finding gas, spark plugs, key cards, and destroying cotton-candy barriers that are lining each exit, some of which may have been fortified by the klowns mid-game.

One thing I don't enjoy is the game's movement speed, or perhaps it's really an issue with the animations. Playing as a human, I can crouch-walk to make no noise, walk to make a little noise, or sprint to make a lot of noise. Because the walk speed seems so slow, I find myself consistently wanting to run, but knowing it isn't smart to do so leaves me walking through a situation that, in real life, would at least have me speed-walking or jogging. I think even just changing the walk animation to a slow jog would psychologically feel better, as instead what players are left with just looks too lackadaisical for what the game affectionately calls the Klownpocalypse.

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The game launches with five large maps, each with its own aesthetic, and all are enjoyable.

On the other hand, one of the game's best innovations is how it treats you after you die or escape as a survivor. Rather than sit idly as a round takes perhaps another 10 minutes to finish, you can opt into quick-time-event minigames that reward you with items you can then bestow to allies still trying to escape--dropping them directly into their inventory like a gift from an unseen benefactor, or you can pocket them for yourself in case a survivor is able to use the single-use respawn machine that brings back all dead humans.

This is a great addition not just to the game, but the genre, as it solves the oft-seen issue of having died or escaped sooner than your allies and then, typically just… sitting there. It wouldn't always work, but the Killer Klowns IP allows for your gifted items to magically appear in front of players, and it's all handled with a fun tone and colorful visuals that all scream "video-game arcade circa 1988."

Playing as a klown is a lot like playing Jason in Illfonic's earlier effort. You're equipped with multiple abilities, some of which are unique to certain classes, and each of them on cooldowns, as well as weapons such as a cotton candy-ray gun that traps survivors, a popcorn shotgun that causes its targets to make noise for a short while, and a giant mallet (of course) that is used for up-close bludgeoning, among others. Like the humans, it benefits the team of klowns to work together and have a plan, because a few feisty humans can pick off a solo klown like a roaming band of thugs with baseball bats heat-seeking for red noses. Maps feel bigger in Killer Klowns than they did in Friday The 13th, so the tripling of enemies doesn't feel disruptive but rather spot-on.

Whatever team you're on, there's a ton to learn and the game does a poor job of explaining these things. The tutorial is limited to text and static images on the main menu, and though it includes some tips that go beyond the surface level, none of it really compares to how helpful playing a live demonstration would be. This makes the initial learning curve pretty steep, as you may not well understand what purpose the game's many different items serve. Early on, I found myself existing as mere klown bait at times. It's fun to get better at the game and start to see strategies emerge for both teams, but the starting point feels hostile to new players, even if they were playing similar games before.

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Experimenting with builds for either team is oddly limited at first.

The game has also been a bit rough out of the gate. Besides the janky melee combat, the in-game challenges are in the process of being reset due to an unspecified problem on the backend, which will remove anyone's progress on challenges they've not already completed. It's not a great first impression to offer players a limited tutorial and reset some of their in-game progress days after they paid extra to play the game earlier than most, but hopefully it's a short-lived hiccup.

A more lasting concern may be parts of the metagame. On one hand, the slow but steady unlock of new cosmetics and weapons is par for the course and makes for fun new rewards to chase. But strangely, character builds are also locked behind levels, meaning a lobby of 10 new players will only feature two different builds--the three klowns as their starter build, and the seven humans as the starter build on that side.

Given that each human is sort of a visual blank slate--in classic '80s fashion, I can make them a jock, a nerd, the popular girl, and so on--it feels unnecessarily restrictive to force them into stat silos in which they share the same stamina, strength, and other attributes until you level up, with the last of these not unlocking until you reach level 42 for humans and 50 for klowns. Whereas the janky combat and lack of a tutorial feel more forgivable, arguably even charming at times, the game's way of locking me out of tuning my build is harder for me to make sense of. In Friday The 13th, the game this is most like, human characters had unique starting builds and were available right away, which meant more diversity in play styles in any given round. Here, the game has stripped away that diversity, and I can't see how it helps.

Still, the game survives even this detriment since it never feels as sweaty or competitive as some other games in this genre. It's as though its shortcomings are both not so numerous or severe, but also made more digestible since the game is reliably a good time. Regardless of which map I load into or which team I'm randomly assigned to, I have come to expect something interesting and even hilarious to occur with each round.

The game has a great sense of humor, like allowing for chaotic proximity chat and muffling the voices of anyone cocooned in cotton candy. The Klowntalities--kill animations shown when you eliminate downed players--include sights such as a pizza-delivery trap, a carnival-style mallet game, and a scene in which the klown grows to be a giant and crushes the human. These things are rarely graphic, so while it's tense, it's not really scary, and more often quite funny. Running for my life from a seven-foot klown with blue hair and squeaky shoes is such a goofy but joyous subversion of this genre's usual touchstones.

Killer Klowns feels like it should have a steeper hill to climb than some of its counterparts. While other asymmetrical horror games benefit from iconic killers at their centers, this cult-classic '80s movie-turned-game doesn't have the same brand recognition--did anyone think we'd get a game based on Killer Klowns before A Nightmare on Elm Street? But what it lacks in starring sadists, it makes up for with a tense but silly core of intricate maps, diverse weapons, and a more lax PvP atmosphere than the genre is known for. Issues with the metagame exist, and, like some of the team's past horror games, it's all a bit rough around the edges. But it's the game's fluorescent, squeaky heart that makes this a circus worth joining.

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