Version Reviewed: 1.0
App Reviewed on: iPad 2
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Anyone above a certain age probably has at least one childhood memory of a birthday party at a Chuck E. Cheese's or Showbiz Pizza Place buried away in the dark recesses of their brains. And it's the high-octane nightmare fuel of those jerky, eerie, eternally staring animatronic critters that powers the engine of Five Nights at Freddy's.
Players are cast in the role of a night watchman just starting their new job at Freddy Fazbear's Pizza. It's not until their first night on the job, however, that a phone call from another employee discloses that the establishment's mechanical mascots are wont to engage in some, shall we say, “quirky” behaviors. Little things like wandering around at night in “free roaming” mode so their servos don't freeze up. That's fair. Oh, and they also see any human they encounter as an animatronic endoskeleton without a suit. Don't worry, though. They'll more than happily help jam you inside one, regardless of the flesh-shredding armatures and gears contained therein.
The core is reminiscent of old FMV classics like Night Trap, with a bank of cameras being the player's only means to monitor the darkened environs. Likewise, a pair of emergency doors flanking the control room are the last (and only) line of defense against a horrific “early termination” of your employment. So what's to keep players from just slamming the doors shut and reading a book until morning? Very limited power.
Everything the player does - checking cameras, turning on lights outside the control room, and closing the doors - consumes a portion of finite electricity. Should the reserve run dry before 6 a.m., the restaurant goes dark and you're left to the tender mercies of Freddy and crew.
The actual gameplay is quite basic, even near-rudimentary in its simplicity, but as these simple elements stack up they eventually increase the atmosphere and tension by orders of magnitude. The game never tells you exactly how much power is drained by specific activities, leaving players eyeballing the ever-decreasing power gauge. The clock only shows the hour and not how many minutes or seconds are left until the next one. The feeling of exposure and vulnerability from multiple directions in a control room that you can't leave leads to a pathological fear of blinking as you rapidly shift from one grainy security feed to another in an attempt to keep tabs on these demonically leering automatons. It's an excellent use of limited developer resources to craft a singular experience, and there's really very little like it out there right now.
As the survival horror genre evolved, prevailing trends shifted from careful management of resources and prioritizing threat evasion, toward a more conflict-oriented “action horror” model. Gone were the split-second fight-or-flight decisions and any actual horror gave way instead to a perpetual grim tension caused by being always ready to unleash hell on the next inevitable wave of enemies. Games like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and Amnesia (where fleeing and hiding was not just optional, but required) began to swing things back the other way and Scott Cawthon's low-fi take is both fundamental and frightening.
While it's extremely easy to be hyper-critical of Five Nights at Freddy's, dismissing it nothing more than an interactive collection of cheap jump scares, that reductive analysis crucially sells short one of the things the game does so very well: inspiring a creeping sensation of true vulnerability and helplessness. And that, my friends, is from whence good horror is born.