REVIEW: Horror gets cute in “Slayaway Camp”

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  • reviewed on PS4 / rated M / $16.99 / released October 2017
  • PURCHASE LINK: PlayStation Store
  • FINAL: You WANT this game. 4 out of 5 stars

It looks like “Minecraft” fan art and acts like a horror movie, but “Slayaway Camp: Butcher’s Cut” is one hundred percent puzzle game.

Presented with a lovingly low-fi VHS aesthetic, “Slayaway Camp” starts out with an homage to the film classic “Friday the 13th.” Controlling a cute li’l murderer named Skullface, you have to kill all of the campers in each level and then escape. The game starts out straight-forward and quickly ramps up by adding in ever more complications, like land mines, water traps and electric fencing.

Each level is a small grid, filled with obstacles and victims. You – as the killer – can only move in straight lines, and you always move as far in that line as you can until something blocks you. Imagine a Chess rook that can’t stop. And also wants to kill things.

The trick, then, is to figure out a particular path of moves that lets Skullface kill all of the level’s victims without getting stuck in an unescapable loop or running afoul of a run-ending hazard. “Slayaway Camp: Butcher’s Cut” has over 300 of these brain teasers, collected and categorized as if you’re watching a 1980’s horror series that overstayed its welcome and had to venture out into holiday specials and “Jaws” parodies.

This kind of maze-like puzzle-solving is predominantly trial and error, which “Slayaway Camp” enables with an easy “undo” function that lets you step backward through your moves at any time. Many puzzles have only one solution, so be prepared for a lot of moving, a lot of undo’ing, and then a lot of moving again. What makes many of the puzzles particularly challenging is that you have to consider when victims will get frightened and run away from you – thus changing the dynamics of the puzzle – and when they will not. Not to mention other complications like falling bookcases and cats that end the level immediately if you kill one of them.

The structure of “Slayaway Camp” means you’re going to run up against a puzzle that you just can’t figure out. If you don’t feel like looking up the solution on YouTube, the game allows you to buy your way into solutions using the coins you’ve collected along the way. Unfortunately, the price is a bit steep: 125 coins (not real money!) to see how to solve a tricky puzzle, but you usually only earn 50 to 70 coins on every successfully completed puzzle. The economy seems a little off given the game also wants you to spend 1000s of coins on buying new characters and kill animations.

“Slayaway Camp” offers an uninspiring solution for this problem in the form of a button-pressing mini-game that generates a hundred or so coins at a clip. You can play this as many times as you want, but it has a tendency to turn your mind to mush.

Also, for some reason it is possible for the auto-playing solution to get confused and screw itself up. I had multiple occurances of this glitch on PlayStation 4, where the solution doesn’t actually solve the puzzle and instead just plays out a few moves and then resets itself. So much for the 125 coins I spent!

Despite characters that look like toys for preschoolers, “Slayaway Camp” doesn’t mind leaning into horror gore. It’s difficult to consider the cartoony visuals as truly graphic violence, but the game definitely happily and repeatedly animates decapitations, stabbings and the like. You can hit the options menu and turn much of the violent visuals off, so the little block people will not explode in showers of pixelated blood. The game will still be about a stalking murderer, but it will not necessarily be as upsetting, if you can believe that. Here’s a comparison of one of the game’s scenes in both “PG-rated mode” and “R-rated mode.”

That shovel attack is one of the tamer examples, but overall the visuals never stray from the realm of “torturing Minecraft people.” If you want to just get into the puzzles and not be assaulted with, well, assaults, it’s nice that the “PG” option is there.

The game features dozens of unlockable killers, most designed in loving homage to pop culture scaremasters and horror film tropes. The likenesses and names are changed just enough to protect the guilty, but you can be anybody from a Gremlin to Swamp Thing to Bob from “Twin Peaks.”

There’s nothing particularly terrifying about a sliding puzzle game, but “Slayaway Camp: Butcher’s Cut” goes to great lengths to honor the era of cheesy, low budget horror movies. The sheer number of challenges on offer make it a great buy and a grimly enjoyable time-sink.

“Slayaway Camp: Butcher’s Cut” is available for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. “Slayaway Camp” is available for Steam, iOS and Android with different pricing and included content. This review is based on product supplied by the developer. Images courtesy Blue Wizard Digital.

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