I'm terribly conflicted about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. On the one hand, it effectively remedies a handful of key flaws in the asymmetrical horror genre, and yet it commits a number of sins even less forgivable than the spelling of "chainsaw" as two words in the game's official title. The result is a bloody, beautiful hodgepodge of genius and tomfoolery, making for an experience that's equal parts fresh and frustrating.
Release date: August 18, 2023
Platform(s): PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One
Developer: Sumo Digital
Publisher: Gun Interactive
Born from the ashes of publisher Gun Media's doomed Friday the 13th adaptation, whose servers are going offline in January 2024 due to outstanding licensing issues, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre pits teams of three killer family members against four victims, eschewing the traditional one-versus-many formula popularized by Dead by Daylight and Friday the 13th: The Game. I like this a lot. Playing the killer in other asymmetrical horror games is devilishly fun, but inherently lonely. Texas Chain Saw Massacre not only fixes that by adding more killers, but it manages to make the dynamic feel perfectly balanced so that there's a roughly equal challenge on both sides.
Controlling a victim is as frantic and terrifying as it should be, and playing as one of the family members likewise feels calculating and exhilarating. There's an inherent struggle in being an outnumbered and relatively powerless victim that demands a little more caution than, say, lumbering around with a chainsaw waiting for an unfortunate soul to cross your path, but it feels like a design choice that complements the experience instead of a balancing issue.
Before we go any further, it's worth lingering on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre's astonishing art design. It doesn't take a fan of the movies to appreciate the staggering attention to detail that's present in each map. Whether cast in the painterly pinks and oranges of dusk or basking in the moonlight, Family House, Slaughterhouse, and Gas Station are utterly macabre works of art.
As an appreciator of the '74 classic, still regarded as one of the best horror movies today for good reason, I feel like a kid in a candy shop wandering around the remarkably faithful locations and exploring areas never before seen in the films, the latter baked in the same yellow hues and painstakingly crafted with just as much horrific detail as those created with established blueprints. All three maps hugely benefit from an absolutely hellish atmosphere that makes every second feel doomy and oppressive.
The customization options, from alternative outfits for the family and victims, to new finishing moves, and a laundry list of perks and abilities, are all loving odes to the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and it's hard not to smile catching reference after reference. Your mileage may vary, naturally, depending on how much you like this franchise, but it's clear the developers have a deep love for Leatherface and co.
Another thing I adore about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is that it removes the players' ability to hold matches hostage by camping out in a closet or perpetually running from the killer. One of the ways it accomplishes this is with a tweak to the hiding mechanic, a common feature in multiplayer horror games that lets survivors sneak into a closet or under a bed to evade killers. Here, you can only hide for so long before your fear meter tops out and you're forced from cover. It's such a simple yet effective mechanic that I'm surprised it isn't more common.
At the start of each game, victims have to free themselves from a hanging position just to begin moving around the map, and being suspended upside down for that long takes a toll on your health. That means if you don't escape in time, you'll eventually succumb to your wounds and collapse, adding a sense of urgency to your situation and removing the potential for games to drag on and on.
Out of gas
Unfortunately, as much as I appreciate many aspects of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, I do have a few big issues with the game in its current state. The most immediate is the lack of clear direction for both killers and victims. There are 46 tutorials, none of them are playable, and only a few were selected to have voiced dialogue. I watched every one of them and I was still totally lost playing my first few matches, to the point where I was often begging for a family member to find me, or for all of the victims to escape, just to end my miserly shambling. Mercifully, the aforementioned in-game timer, i.e. the blood constantly draining from victims' bodies, will often bring about that sweet relief.
Now that I've had a good couple of weeks with the game, I'm much more accustomed to the maps and my objectives, but that doesn't excuse the nightmarish onboarding process for newcomers. Compare it to Evil Dead: The Game, whose tutorial is fully playable, actually quite enjoyable, and still not a fraction of the time sink as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre's. Even after the tutorial is over, Evil Dead: The Game still gives you clear quest and map markers letting you know precisely where you should be and what you should be doing, because why the hell not? You could argue that a feeling of disorientation adds to the tension, which I suppose is true in some dubious way, but it's a tension that doesn't feel earned.
In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, you're greeted with an absurd list of exceedingly dull videos to watch and then thrown into the action without any in-game cues as to what the stacks of bones on the ground do, or where to find the fuse for the fusebox, or how to unlock this box, or the utility in feeding grandpa vials of blood. Which killers can squeeze through the tight spaces? How do I access my teammates' health meters to know if they need to be healed? Some of this, but not all of it, is included in the tutorials, but who has the time or patience to watch and memorize all 46 of them? Again, for the sake of my Texas Chain Saw Massacre review, I tried to do exactly that and it still took some time to get into the swing of things.
The Cook is described as a killer with an intimate understanding of every nook and cranny of the area, and yet without an in-game map, I feel about as familiar as the victims who've been blindfolded, abducted, and trapped there. At the very least, a very basic map laying out the major landmarks would be incredibly useful whether you're playing as a killer or survivor, but alas, you're left to learn the lay of the land through trial and error.
It doesn't help that the maps are needlessly intricate, littered with chambered basements, shortcuts, barricades, sheds, barbed-wire fencing, and wells that lead to giant underground areas. The sheer size and complexity of the maps make them near-impossible to navigate until you've played enough times so as to memorize them. The thing is, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre's maps aren't considerably bigger than those of its contemporaries, but they are infinitely more annoying due to the simple fact that they lack any guidance whatsoever.
Matchmaking sucks, frankly. You need exactly seven people to start a quick match, while four will suffice in private matches. And while the revving of Leatherface's chainsaw is a constant delight whether you're on his side or running in terror from the iconic killer, it's absurd that every match needs him there – as in, if no one picks him, which happens all too often, everyone's booted from the lobby after waiting for several minutes and forced to start from the beginning. On that note, why is there a timer at all? I think I speak for a lot of players when I say it should be up to each person's individual patience whether they stick it through a lengthy lobby to wait for one more player or abandon the operation altogether.
I hate to keep making comparisons, but bots are a fantastic way to improve matchmaking but also the tutorial experience, and it's a feature Friday the 13th: The Game, Evil Dead: The Game, and Dead by Daylight all benefit massively from. Granted, two of those games added bots post-launch, so there's still time for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to catch up in that regard.
The 20 hours of Texas Chain Saw Massacre that I've played have been plagued by near-constant technical issues, from frequent server disconnects to bugs, some entertaining and others game-breaking. One particular thorn in my side is one that makes the lockpick mini-game spasm uncontrollably, making it difficult to unlock doors that are imperative to my escape. Another would randomly flip over character models and plunge them headfirst into the ground, leaving only their limbs to flail around chaotically. Funny for the first few times, but eventually just immersion-breaking.
There are some smaller gripes I feel are worth mentioning too, like the awkward animation of Leatherface flailing around by himself that plays at the end of every match whether you're a family member or victim – an apt reference to the original film but one I don't feel needs to be seen after each and every game. There's also the fact that every killer, with the exception of Leatherface, looks too much like a victim to be clearly identifiable from a distance, meaning I constantly have to tolerate attacks from members of my own team. There's no friendly fire damage here, but it's irritating nonetheless.
Finally, and I'm not sure if this is a bug or just unfortunate RNG, but all too often as a victim I'll untie myself in the opening mini-game only to find that a killer has already found their way to my location, leaving me at a huge disadvantage for the rest of the game – provided I'm not slaughtered in the first few seconds.
Leatherface brings with him an iconic presence that puts Dead by Daylight's take on the chainsaw-wielding psychopath to shame, as well as truly ingenious refinements to the genre, but he's accompanied by a matchmaking system that frequently makes you wait five minutes or more for a game, a host of bugs and server issues that will sink a good percentage of matches you do manage to successfully enter, and an utterly sorry excuse for a tutorial. I can see a lot of the game's problems being rectified in future updates, but as it stands, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a hard recommendation for all but the most diehard Leatherface fans.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was reviewed on PC, with code provided by the publisher.