1974's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a horror landmark. It's gritty like no other, unflinching in its brutality, and downright terrifying as often as it wants to be. Bringing those same qualities to a video game adaptation of the movie milestone would be paramount, which is exactly what Gun Media and Sumo Nottingham have done. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (TCM) is every bit as nauseatingly tense as the classic movie, all while cleverly gamifying its scares in ways that are satisfying and built for the long haul.
Asymmetrical horror multiplayer games have been experiencing a golden age for several years now, but TCM is already my favorite of them. In TCM, a unique 4v3 setup allows each round to play out like an actual horror movie. What I didn't realize until I played it for review is that to properly balance this particular game, creating an even playing field isn't necessarily the best approach. Each round is a horror story, and its team of "victims" intentionally have the odds stacked against them, often coming down to just one Final Girl (or Guy) who might limp off the property to salvation. The high-stakes game of hide-and-seek is better for it.
A cast of five victims and five Slaughter family members, including two newly created characters who fit right into the world, make up the roster. While those playing the family have what are essentially class-based villains to pick from, the victims are closer in performance to each other, save for a special ability they each uniquely possess and starting stats that make up their various but customizable builds. As the victims start out in the basement impaled on meat hooks, the goal is simple and exciting in horror movie terms: Get the hell out of there. That encompasses first needing to climb off the hook, then unlocking an escape route, then traversing a labyrinthine and treacherous outside section no matter which of the game's three maps they're on, all while being hunted. Needless to say, survival is never easy.
Leatherface always starts in the basement with the victims, meaning every round begins chaotically fast, and when you hear that chainsaw revving, it's like nothing else in horror, no matter the medium. It's enough to set off someone's fight-or-flight response, and I've even played with people who voiced their wish to just die and "get it over with" because the terror is too much to bear.
Meanwhile, two other family members start upstairs and outside, each with their own tasks to perform. Maybe the hitchhiker needs to set traps, or the cook needs to fortify exit doors with extra padlocks, or one of the new villains, Sissy, needs to poison consumables or key items. These skills play off each other well. For example, if the hitchhiker puts a trap in front of the generator, while the cook double-locks the related gate, it creates a multi-layered blockade for victims to overcome. These layers feel like walls closing in around the victims in a classic horror movie way, as undoing these stoppages takes time and sometimes makes noise.
For the survivors, time is always running short, as they're slowly bleeding out for the duration of any round. They need to stay quiet, so they're not pinged for the enemies, but also move swiftly, as the longer a match goes on, usually the more things start to sway in favor of the sadistic family. That's because an immobile grandpa NPC villain can be fed blood collected from the map and from melee damage done to victims, which then allows the villains to routinely ping the entire map for survivors. This in itself becomes an exciting minigame, as victims have a few seconds' notice that the skill is about to be used, so they must stop in their tracks to stay off his figurative radar. Naturally, it's not often a good time to simply stop moving when you're trapped in a horror story, so this aspect of the game creates more signature moments where suddenly all three killers may descend on a victim who was spotted by the old man.
The audio and visual elements help carry this game to greatness, as well. An original soundtrack built on an instrument the team at Gun Media calls the "Apprehension Engine" allows the music to adapt to every situation, culminating in a pulse-pounding number that plays whenever a player is the last victim left on the map. Every sound feels purpose-built, from the generator running in the distance, telling a player they'll need to shut it down to advance past a related gate, to the little drips in the basement that sometimes can resemble a victim rummaging for an unlock tool, or hiding in a dark corner. I also love how the teams will communicate at times, like when the cook casually chats with Sissy as the two players pass one another, or when a killer spots a victim and automatically taunts them.
A visual cue also tells players when a killer is nearby, but this winds up being as scary as it is helpful, as oftentimes victims may not have known they were so close to danger. One of the best aspects of the game is the tall grass. In TCM, it's so effective that killers are liable to pass right by victims hiding in it. This is even truer on the nighttime maps. Given the victims are not really expected to survive--not all of them anyway--this is one small way of aiding the plucky kids in their escape efforts.
Though the number of maps seems low--just three, or six if you count their nighttime variants--in practice it works really well. Naturally, they each take place in the same region of Texas, so their outside sections end up feeling similar, but not without offering unique elements. In one map, for example, tall sunflower fields offer both visual variety as well as a unique escape route, giving victims more cover outdoors than other maps offer. On the slaughterhouse map, there's a portion that has felt under-patrolled by the killers, making it a good place to attempt an escape, but getting there is perhaps more difficult than other spots, as the backyard feels tighter and seems to have more locked doors than other maps.
In the early hours of play, the repeated aesthetic of dry grass, dilapidated sheds, and locked gates can blend in across maps. Over time, the layouts started to piece together in my mind, which definitely helped, but I still don't feel like mentally mapping the distinct areas has tipped the scales back in my favor when playing as a victim. There's knowing the way out, and then there's performing those steps. The latter is always a struggle, as it should be.
The iconic house from the movies is probably the best map, with its long driveway that feels like a terrifying sprint to freedom--provided players have shut off the generator blocking the path with an electrified trap. However, in my experience, all three maps feel well-considered in their construction, and usually a savvy player can wiggle out of an issue if they're smart, quiet, and they pick their spots to move around.
My favorite environmental detail, which is found on all three maps, is how the game uses wells. When outside and feeling cornered, sometimes the safest escape is to jump down a well. It buys more time than any other method, but it leaves you hurting and also essentially resets you in the basement. This design is the lifeblood of horror as a genre, and it works so well as it's translated to a game. As soon as you hit the ground it's as though the first moments of the match are now playing out again, but usually faster. Healing will be more vital as you recover from the fall, the killers may have already eliminated allies by then, allowing them to hone in on you, and now they know exactly where you went. It's absolutely dread-inducing. I love it.
All of these factors--the oppressive maps, the symbiotic skills of the killers, the necessity to be both quick and quiet, the haunting music--add up to rounds of about 10-20 minutes that feel as tense as any classically scripted single-player horror experience. It's also surprisingly rewarding.
When you hear that chainsaw revving, it's like nothing else in horror, no matter the medium.
TCM works really well as I've just described it. But what takes it to another level is the deep and enriching metagame, where XP is doled out both per account and per character. This means that some unlocks, like skill points, are universal. I can play well in a round as Leatherface, level up my account, then apply those skill points to a different character, even among the victims if I wish. At the same time, I'll directly improve the three equipped perks of whichever character I actually use in a round.
Skill trees are lengthy, and though there are many branches displayed, and choosing one over another sometimes blocks off the one not chosen, players can respec at will and to no penalty. All skill points are returned, allowing players to rebuild their character simply and often.
Further enhancing attributes of any character can also be done, such as making the aging cook a bit longer-winded so he can chase down victims better, or to make my favorite victim, the lockpicking wizard Connie, a bit tougher to kill. Whether players solidify strengths or fortify weaknesses, the number of options is surprisingly vast. Two versions of the same character may play very differently after some hours and skill points have been spent. Given how well the game delivers its scares, a rewarding metagame such as this feels like the team understood not just how to make a Texas Chain Saw Massacre game, but also how to expertly put together a multiplayer game, too.
Within the realm of character customization, the only aspect that feels lacking is cosmetic choices. Each victim has several outfits that can be easily unlocked just by using them in rounds, but every option is merely a palette swap. Leatherface does enjoyably have two other outfits from the movie--the Pretty Lady and the Old Woman, but then other killers have no alternate styles at all, too. The game strives to be faithful, so I understand not wanting to let a victim unlock something immersion-breaking, but hopefully with time more varied but era-appropriate styles become available, like they did in Gun Media's previous game in this genre, Friday The 13th. In the meantime, I've taken to simply wearing whichever camouflages me the best.
I have few qualms with the game as it stands today, though one that sticks out is the issue of team sizes. I routinely play with a group of three others, but because of Texas Chain Saw Massacre's 4v3 setup, that means my group will always queue into the victim side of a round, never getting to split up across teams in the same lobby. Thankfully, I find both sides very fun to play and don't have a strong preference, but if ever I am playing with my go-to group and we are itching to hunt down the victims, not play as them, it seems we can only resort to private matches. However, there's no metagame progress to be made in private matches, so it feels like there's no great solution to this, with the best option being to just accept that we'll be the victims, I suppose.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre plays, looks, and sounds like its team holds the source material in the highest regard. Faithfully transposing the film's signature terror into a modern multiplayer game is a feat on both ends. The metagame never gamifies the tension to a degree that feels distracting or dampening, and yet that rewarding gameplay loop means, despite how unnerving each round is, there's a strong pull to play it again and again. As one of the year's scariest and best-designed experiences, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has reset the bar for multiplayer horror games.