Who hurt you?
Turning beloved children’s characters into horror monsters isn’t something new. I think “nightmarish Alice in Wonderland” has been done roughly a bajillion times. So, My Friendly Neighborhood’s idea of murderous Sesame Street puppets may not seem that novel. Except that’s not what it’s about. I know. It kind of took me by surprise.
I’d also say it’s “My First Resident Evil,” and the argument could be made, but that’s selling the game short. My Friendly Neighborhood wears its inspirations, sure, but it’s more than just a horror game made friendly for a younger audience. Its themes of non-violence, its goofy characters, and its approach to horror all convey much more depth than you — or certainly I — might’ve expected.
My Friendly Neighborhood (PC [Reviewed], PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S)
Developer: John Szymanski, Evan Szymanski
Released: July 18, 2023 (PC), TBA (Console)
In My Friendly Neighborhood, you play as maintenance professional, Gordon. For the last job of the night, he travels to a derelict television studio to disconnect the transmission tower on the top floor. It has spontaneously started airing a canceled children’s TV show over the normal TV broadcast.
Upon arriving, Gordon doesn’t look too surprised to see that the puppets are alive and hungry for deranged hugs. In fact, rather than feeling horrified at his situation, he seems mostly just annoyed and inconvenienced. He just wants to finish the job, go home, and watch TV. The puppets have other ideas.
Your expectations may be that this is a hide-and-seek kind of horror game where you navigate the studio while avoiding confrontations with murderous puppets. That’s not the case. Instead, as I mentioned earlier, it has more in common with Resident Evil. You have weapons that fire deadly letters, and the puppets mostly just inhabit the halls, waiting for you to alert them. You then have the option to take them down with your alphabet or just avoid them and conserve your ammo.
If you choose combat, however, they won’t stay down. They’ll be back up the next time you enter the room. You can make sure they stay down by duct-taping them, but tape is in short supply. In a way, it’s sort of like the Crimson Head zombies in the Resident Evil remake, except you won’t be spared kerosene with a chance headshot.
The Neighborhood is coming to town
It’s largely a non-violent affair. The puppets, when hit by projectile letters, react like puppets and make a cute comment as they fall into a heap of inanimate fabric on the floor. When you’re attacked, there’s no real indication that Gordon is suffering any permanent bodily harm. Sometimes he comments that he’s “going to feel that in the morning,” but otherwise, he just sounds annoyed about the unwanted affection he’s being subjected to.
Likewise, the horror aspect feels somewhat understated. There are some attempts at jump scares, and the atmosphere can be a bit spooky, but there’s no grotesque imagery. In the dark, the puppets natter away to themselves about nonsense that might seem goofy to most but merely unsettling otherwise. It’s a good horror experience for younger people or those who can’t handle the gore and danger of typical horror.
With that said, your expectations might be on a low-calorie “Resident Evil,” but really, My Friendly Neighbor doesn’t pull any punches. I played on normal difficulty, and it still included concepts like limited saving and sparse supplies. There are also multiple unlockable difficulties above Normal and Survival.
I never found any of the puzzles to be taxing, and there are clear signs of it being a smaller production than any big-budget horror, but I never felt like I was playing a lesser product.
Really, though, the non-violent angle has more to do with the game’s overall message. It takes place in a different world, in a city that once waged war against its Northern Neighbor in a parallel to the Vietnam War. There’s a lot about corporate overreach, humankind’s collective obsession with negative media, and the resultant need to dull our pain.
The whole climax of the game is, unfortunately, a bit of a stumble. The last act of My Friendly Neighborhood is visibly less polished than the first parts of the game. Certain parts of the plot aren’t as fleshed out as they should be. There’s a moment right near the end where you can viscerally feel the message of the game, but rather than knock it out of the park, My Friendly Neighborhood chooses to bunt.
I think it would be less disappointing if My Friendly Neighborhood had fewer ambitions and was merely average throughout. Instead, you can absolutely see where it’s going, it’s exciting, and then when it pops instead of booms, it leaves an empty feeling. Agh, my heart.
My First Horror
On the whole, however, My Friendly Neighborhood is a terrific experience. It’s designed with a cohesive vision, and aside from a disappointing last act, it largely succeeds in achieving it. It’s the sort of game that gets me more excited as a critic than as a player. I find it difficult not to appreciate all of its layers. It’s also about five hours long, which makes meeting deadlines easier.
Where it succeeds best, however, is in being a terrific introductory horror game. Whether or not you’re a youth whose parents disapprove of gore or if you’re just one to hide beneath a blanket when a zombie appears on screen, My Friendly Neighborhood provides the depth of the Resident Evil experience without any of the violence. Not only does it fill an important niche, it proves that this sort of horror game can stand on its own without any of the blood.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]