Survival horror and indie games have had it good in the last few years, and this year alone has seen some absolute bangers. The likes of Dredge, The Outlast Trials, and Amnesia: The Bunker are all terrific, and show that indie is where horror really does thrive. But this year also saw the release of a game I had been waiting for since I checked out the original Steam Next Fest demo last year, and have been patiently wondering and waiting to see if My Friendly Neighborhood delivers on the concept of Sesame Streets meets Resident Evil, and it surely does indeed friendo!What is My Friendly Neighborhood?
My Friendly Neighborhood is the latest in first-person survival horror titles, which feature murderous muppe … I mean puppets while brimming with serious Resident Evil vibes. It’s brought to us by John Szymanski, and Evan Szymanski, the brothers of renowned indie developer David Szymanski, who brought us Iron Lung and Dusk.
My Friendly Neighborhood is set in the 1990s with the lead role being a down-on-his-luck repairman named Gordon, who’s facing the sack for a string of workplace failures. He’s given one more chance to redeem his career and keep those paychecks coming in, by investigating a rather strange incident at an old abandoned Studio for the hit, but now cancelled 80’s tv show My Friendly Neighborhood. The show after a decade of being off the air, has suddenly started to broadcast again, and it’s up to Gordon to venture to the old studio, find the source of the transmission, and shut it off. But it’s simpler said than done.
It appears to be the puppets of the once beloved TV show have come to life, and are trying to relive the glory days, singing songs, playing around and of course, stopping Gordon whom they see as a huge threat. Gordon must traverse his way through the studio, comprised of various areas including stages, gardens, offices, sewers and more, to reach the antenna and shut it off for good. Gordon will have to solve puzzles, collect weapons to fend off murder puppets and defeat all manner of monstrous foes one way or another.Imagine the Spencer Mansion but on Sesame Street
Now I already made the comparison, as have many other people when seeing/playing My Friendly Neighborhood, that it’s a beautiful combination of Sesame Street and Resident Evil. And it’s very easy to see why, as there are countless references, and elements from RE and many classic survival horror games present here. But all of it has been brought together to bring a thoroughly fleshed-out, and immersive horror experience which is quite different from the rest in some regards.
I know a lot of people will look at MFN (easier than writing/reading My Friendly Neighborhood for sure) as just another mascot horror, in a sea of other mascot horrors. But there are moments of parody, mocking the idea of making a spooky mascot for marketing purposes, and above all, the gameplay loop is incredibly enjoyable and has depth.
Taking the role of Gordon, players will be exploring the massive studio with the single goal of shutting off the antenna. However, to get there is a whole heap of smaller tasks to complete, that will see you exploring for key items, weapons and resources to stay alive long enough. The environment is highly detailed, and maze-like, looping back on itself via shortcuts and locked accessways which you can open.
In one section, you’ll need to escape the sewers underneath the studio, and this requires powering up various doors with fuses, obtaining strange keys, solving puzzles, and fighting big bad puppets which stalk you in the darkness. But there’s plenty of backtracking, unlocking shortcuts and venturing back with new key items to unlock rooms for resources and other important items. Keeping that classic world design formula, made popular by the likes of the original RE and Castlevania: SOTN.
The studio itself, and the world design are fantastic and well-constructed, with plenty of thoughtful level design to maintain of good sense of pacing, tension and discovery that will keep you invested throughout. Each section is quite distinct, meaning you never feel lost and the layout of the environments never resorted to too much needly backtracking or confusion either. Nothing is pointed out directly or hidden so much you will find yourself lost.
The game trusts you to find your way around, be able to locate key items and resources and reward you for taking risks. There feels the right amount of lateral challenge and enemies, with some neat little ideas thrown in add a sense of tactics to the survival gameplay (more on that later). Plus, it’s generally a very pretty-looking game, with the world having a cool 1930s art deco style, feeling something reminiscent of Bioshock at times.
One of my pet peeves is the multitude of cutting between most areas, which did kill the pace a little from time to time. I’m sure it may have been possible to link various rooms in one area seamlessly, like in RE Village or RE 7, but there are quite a few smaller areas with breaks that result in a short loading screen. Not a complete game-breaker of course but having more seamless transitions would have been nice. Also, there were a couple of puzzles which were annoying, particularly a moment where you needed to play a board game … it was agonising and brought flashbacks of the horrible mini-game “Dragon’s Eye” from Fear Effect 2 (for those who remember … they will understand).
Along with the highly detailed world are things like inventory management, which is reminiscent of RE4’s attaché case, where you can move items around freely and place them in order like a game of Tetris. There are funny-looking keys, save rooms, limited resources like health and ammo, and even a pair of bolt cutters, which has become a new staple of the survival horror genre. But there are other staples here which have that demented children’s show quality, which is both hilarious and unsettling. Such as a puppet in a bathtub of water, which has a key at the bottom, or a room filled with paintings you need to interact with in the right order. Sounds familiar right? (Vietnam flashback to many crows attacking me …).
While there are elements of horror here, is nowhere near as sinister or depraved as many other horror games, and this makes MFN stand out for good reasons. What is one of the most interesting aspects of the gameplay and story overall is the fact you have to do some good deeds and make friends with some of the more scary puppets to progress to the end. I won’t spoil much more, but MFN has quite a wholesome angle in the plot, and scenes later in the game did feel sincere and quite sweet, making what is an otherwise generic formula for a survival horror story, into something much more meaningful.
It is like a survival horror game you could let your kids play, as a nice way to introduce them to the genre and not give them nightmare fuel for bedtime. It’s still spooky, but rather charming and brilliantly thoughtful horror game, compared to any mascot horror game in recent years.Words can be hurtful, and used as weapons against puppets!
Now the key aspect to stick out with MFN is of course the puppet enemies. We have a few games with animatronic baddies of course, with the likes of Freddy Fazbear. But what we get here is closer to something you would see on a children’s TV show. There are no torn-up, bloody and depraved-looking critters here, but baddies you would easily see on a show playing at 7 am for children. And again, it’s a great way to feel somewhat humorous and terrified about being chased and cuddled to death but cute, colourful characters.
They’re often tall, with stringy limbs and shout various catchphrases or spew menacing dialogues to keep you on edge. But the random chatter when they’re idle is a great way for you to track them and potentially avoid them as much as possible. However, you will need to deal with them at one point, and while the weaponry is not massive, it is effective. There are three main weapons in the game, along with a few bits of gear to help you out, such as grenades to tackle the puppets head-on.
All the weapons aren’t your traditional pistols, shotguns and rocket launchers, but instead shootout letters of the creatively odd alphabet, yet fit perfectly for the setting. All weapons were useful, and I did like how one of them was hidden away behind a neat side mission. And of course, this weapon was the most devastating taking the form of a chaingun.
Interestingly enough, you won’t actually kill the puppets but instead stun them and hope they don’t get back up for a while. This adds in a nice layer of tension and tactics as you have to judge which enemies to take out, when and whether you need to backtrack past them at some point. You can get tape to secure downed enemies, but this is very limited, so you have to decide when to use it. Again, it’s a great way to add tension and important decision-making, but never felt overbearing to me, as you can avoid many enemies by sneaking past them or unlocking safer shortcuts and routes later on.
But what keeps things fresh throughout the campaign is the variety of puppets and the other sadist tricks they have up their sleeves. You have your standard enemies, which are cuddly and scary enough, but then some of them will split into multiple more enemies, some of them are much bigger and tougher, and others will lurk in the shadows and wait for you to pass by. But what MFN manages to do with its enemies, limited resources and other engaging mechanics is create a survival horror that will truly test even veterans of the genre.
MFN executes beautifully the notion of “Pick your Battles”, whether you fight or flight in any given situation, and yes some players will find this frustrating, but that’s the point. And the developers have done a great job at producing an incredibly intense and intelligent survival horror game.Master of Puppets!
MFN is a great example of survival horror done right and goes beyond that by having some great aesthetic and artistic choices, along with some dynamic gameplay mechanics. It does a fantastic job at crafting an engaging, dense and memorable survival horror world, filled with great discoveries and rewards, but also plenty of interesting challenges and dangers.
But above all, MFN does what so many games fail to do, and add in content for you to enjoy once you’ve watched the credits after your first playthrough. Including new difficulty modes, unlockable cheats, and now with a recent patch, a horde mode which is pretty darn excellent. MFN has an immense amount of replay value, to get you to dive right back in straight away.Overall?
It’s incredible to see how the indie horror scene has evolved over the years, and finally seeing something as amazing as MFN (developed by mainly two guys) come to see the light of day. It’s a brilliant twist on the classic survival horror formula, with plenty of charm, heart, intense decision-making, engaging lateral elements and of course, plenty of wholesome replay value.
I’m so glad I discovered MFN back in the Steam Next Fest and can easily say this is one of my favourites of 2023. It’s a shining example, among the likes of Amnesia: The Bunker, and Dredge, that horror games, especially indie ones, can break the mould and outdo even the biggest of AAA outputs. My Friendly Neighborhood gets the highest of high recommendations from me as a horror fan!
++ Engaging and thoughtful survival horror gameplay
++ Great world-building and level design
+ Some neat horror dynamics
+ Cool story elements which make it differ from other horror games
-- Some irritating puzzles
- Too many needless area transitions