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Killer Klowns From Outer Space: The Game Review – Clownin' Around

I don't believe in “so bad it's good.” If a movie is particularly bad, I'd rather not waste my time on it, as I don't find particularly bad movies interesting on any level. So I haven't seen the cult budget horror film Killer Klowns From Outer Space for probably 25 years, when I was a horror-loving kid who didn't yet know that he didn't like “so bad it's good.” That said, I wasn't initially excited about a game based on that film, 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 cute silliness to not be taken too seriously. Rather than “so bad it's good,” it's just good.

Killer Klowns follows games like Dead By Daylight, Friday The 13th, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre by pitting players against each other in a familiar horror landscape. In this game, players are split into lobbies of three murderous clowns and seven survivors, trying to outlast them and escape the map within a 15-minute time limit. While every asymmetric horror game has gone its own way, Killer Klowns actually looks and plays similarly to Illfonics Jason Voorhees game, which I think is only good. It's not a clone, but where it's similar, it's welcome, and where it's different, it usually works too.

Survivors must scavenge for tools like melee weapons and first aid kits, and more importantly, find and activate one of the many exits on one of the many sprawling maps. Each map contains intricate shortcuts and routes to learn so that a skilled survivor can put some distance between themselves and the squeaky shoes of a clown on their heels. Meanwhile, the clowns are tasked with patrolling the map and killing all humans, either by attacking them directly or by hanging them up as human-sized cotton candy cocoons until they wither.

The Killer Klowns' strength lies in numbers, but that goes for both sides.

In this format, victory and defeat aren't really that important, as the clowns can kill multiple survivors while others escape, and the final tally can give one side or the other what's called a “modest” or even “poor” victory. Of course, a perfect victory can be achieved, but in the 15 hours I spent playing the game, the community didn't seem too interested in it, which is actually a nice change from the ultra-competitive Dead By Daylight. Survivors certainly want to escape, but I've found that even after a loss, it's fun because the rounds are so unpredictable and yet the stakes are never that high—I'm being chased by a goofy clown, not Leatherface or Jason, after all.

I credit many facets of the game with this consistent enjoyment. Most notably, running and hiding from these cartoonish villains is fun. Ducking into thick bushes or a dumpster and peeking out as pursuers pass by is always a thrill. And while the melee mechanics can feel wonky and tricky, they work for both sides, so it's fun to get into a melee brawl with a clown and maybe even live to tell the tale.

When Klowns are defeated, they're sent to a respawn screen that takes around 45 seconds to get them back into the game, so it pays to be an aggressive player – or just a group of players that stick together. You can clear the map of one or more Klowns for a limited time and make great progress on in-game tasks like finding gas, spark plugs, key cards, and destroying cotton candy barriers that line each exit, some of which may have been reinforced by the Klowns during the game.

One thing I don't like is the game's movement speed, or maybe it really is the animations. As a human, I can walk crouched to make no noise, walk to make a little noise, or sprint to make a lot of noise. Because the walking speed seems so slow, I constantly want to run, but knowing that's not smart, I go through a situation where in real life I would at least walk or jog quickly. I think even just changing the walking animation to a slow jog would feel better psychologically, because instead what players are left with just looks too listless for what the game lovingly calls the Klownpocalypse.

The game starts with five large maps, each with its own aesthetic, and all of them are fun.
The game starts with five large maps, each with its own aesthetic, and all of them are fun.

On the other hand, one of the game's best innovations is how it treats you when you die or escape as a survivor. Instead of sitting around idly while a round has maybe 10 minutes left, you can opt for quick-time event minigames that reward you with items you can then pass on 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 can use the one-time respawn machine that brings all the dead people back.

This is a great addition not only to the game, but to the genre, as it solves the common problem of having died or fled before your allies and then usually just… sitting there. It wouldn't always work, but the Killer Klowns IP allows your gifted items to magically appear in front of players, and it's all handled with a fun tone and colorful graphics that all scream “video arcade circa 1988.”

Playing as a clown is very similar to playing Jason in Illfonic's previous work. You're equipped with multiple abilities, some of which are exclusive to certain classes and each of which has a cooldown, as well as weapons like a cotton candy ray gun that traps survivors, a popcorn shotgun that makes its targets make noise for a short time, and a giant hammer (of course) used for close-range beating, to name a few. As with the humans, it's beneficial for the clown team to work together and have a plan, as a few aggressive humans can take down a single clown like a roving gang of baseball-bat-wielding thugs looking for red noses. The maps in Killer Klowns feel larger than in Friday The 13th, so tripling the enemies doesn't feel jarring, but just right.

No matter what team you're on, there's a lot to learn and the game does a poor job of explaining these things. The tutorial is limited to text and static images in the main menu and while it does provide some tips that go beyond the surface level, none of it is really as helpful as a live demonstration. This makes the initial learning curve quite steep as you may not fully understand what purpose the game's many different elements serve. At first, I was just clown bait at times. It's fun to get better at the game and see strategies develop for both teams, but the starting point feels hostile to new players, even if they've played similar games before.

Experimenting with builds is strangely limited for both teams at first.Experimenting with builds is strangely limited for both teams at first.
Experimenting with builds is strangely limited for both teams at first.

The game was also a bit rocky from the start. In addition to the wonky melee combat, the challenges in the game are currently being reset due to an unspecified issue in the backend that is erasing all players' progress on challenges they haven't completed yet. Offering players a limited tutorial and resetting some of their in-game progress days after they paid extra to play the game earlier than most is not a great first impression, but hopefully this is just a short-lived issue.

A more lasting problem might be parts of the metagame. On one hand, the slow but steady unlocking of new cosmetic items and weapons is normal and makes for fun hunting for new rewards. But oddly, character builds are also locked behind levels, meaning that a lobby with 10 new players only offers two different builds – the three clowns as the starter build and the seven humans as the starter build on that side.

Since each human is a kind of blank slate visually—in classic '80s fashion, I can make them a jock, a nerd, a popular girl, etc.—it feels unnecessarily restrictive to force them into stat silos where they have the same stamina, strength, and other attributes until they level up, the latter of which are only unlocked when you hit level 42 for humans and 50 for clowns. While the clunky combat and lack of a tutorial seem more forgivable and sometimes even charming, it's harder for me to understand how the game prevents me from optimizing my build. In Friday The 13th, the game this is most similar to, human characters had unique starting builds and were instantly available, meaning more variety in playstyles each round. Here, the game has removed that variety, and I can't see how that's supposed to help.

The maps feel bigger in Killer Klowns than in Friday The 13th, so tripling the enemies doesn't feel distracting, it's just right.

Still, the game survives even this drawback, as it never feels as sweaty or competitive as some other games in this genre. It's as if its flaws aren't as numerous or severe, but also easier to stomach because the game is reliably fun. Regardless of what map I load up or what team I'm randomly assigned to, I expect something interesting and even fun to happen every round.

The game has a great sense of humor, for example allowing for chaotic proximity chat and muffling the voices of people encased in cotton candy. The Klowntalities – killing animations that appear when you eliminate downed players – include scenes like a pizza delivery trap, a fairground-style hammer game, and a scene where the clown grows into a giant and squashes the human. These things are rarely graphic, so while it's suspenseful, it's not really scary and mostly pretty funny. Running for my life from a six-foot-tall clown with blue hair and squeaky shoes is such a silly but joyful subversion of the usual touchstones of this genre.

Killer Klowns seems to have a steeper mountain to climb than some of its counterparts. While other asymmetrical horror games benefit from iconic killers at their center, this '80s cult classic turned game doesn't have the same level of name recognition – did anyone think we'd get a game based on Killer Klowns? Before A nightmare on Elm Street? What it lacks in sadistic leads, it makes up for with a thrilling but silly core of complicated maps, varied weapons, and a looser PvP atmosphere than the genre is known for. There are issues with the metagame, and like some of the team's previous horror games, it's all a bit rough around the edges. But it's the game's fluorescent, squeaking heart that makes this circus a worthwhile part of the experience.