It’s always interesting to see when two games are held as direct competitors, even if they don’t want that. Ever since the Genesis supposedly did what Nintendon’t in the 90s, there’s been a whole history of “my X is better than your Y”. Mario versus Sonic. Call of Duty versus Battlefield. Fornite versus PUBG. It’s even more painful to watch when the winner is obvious, such as when Overwatch did to Battleborn what a hungry fox does to a baby rabbit.
And one of the more recent sudden slapfights in gaming memory was between Dead By Daylight and Friday the 13th: The Game, which on the surface does make some amount of sense, both being asymmetrical multiplayer games in which a bunch of teenagers try to sneak around a hungry murdered controlled by another player, all until they either escape with their lives or end up as a small aperitif.
And though having played both before, it was only in the wake of the last Steam Sale that I found myself in possession of both titles, curious to see which was the superior time-killer (no pun intended). I’ll admit right away that I wanted Friday to be better, partly because Jason has always been my favourite movie slasher, and also because the internet seemed to have collectively given up on it, and I’m nothing if not a stalwart contrarian. Either way, let’s put them in a series of arbitrary competitions in order to see which one is the fresher kill.
I know nobody cares about plot in a multiplayer game except for me, who as ever is determined to find context where none exists and frame the ever-looping cycle of butchery as something more profound than a constant grinding of in-game resources, but for what it’s worth both games do have something of a backstory, though take very different approaches to it. Dead By Daylight is a nigh-incomprehensible jumble of vaguely Lovecraftian lore assembled to explain the contrived nature of its own gameplay, focused around some sort of spider god and multiple serial killers with way-too-long text boxes in the menu explaining their particular origins, histories, motivations and favourite pet, as well as the victims’ different thoughts, fears, relationships and preferred show to binge watch…
… Whereas in Friday the 13th, there are a bunch of campers by a lake, and Jason would rather they not be there, so he decides to murder them.
I said it was different approaches, didn’t I? Neither is great, either eschewing detail or bloating on it, and in both the gameplay barely seems informed by the plot in the slightest. Sure, Dead By Daylight can go on about how Punky Tank-Top secretly likes the Dresden Files or how Snivels Stumblebum once got his tongue stuck to a lamppost, but none of the survivors really play any differently but for a few minor perks. And even despite not having a proper plot, I don’t think Friday really needs one, with over ten movies establishing the franchise and the basic movements for three decades in advance. So all Daylight can do is regurgitate prose at you in the waiting lobby and hope some of it sticks, which it doesn’t.
But why doesn’t it? I think part of the reason is Daylight seems very low on truly original ideas. All the playable killers have obvious one-to-one equivalents in the world of horror: knock-offs of Leatherface, the Ring girl, a Bioshock splicer, the Silent Hill nurses, even a Jason duplicate, and when they ran out of new ideas they just gave up altogether and started putting in famous horror characters via DLC, like Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers; this all leading to the odd realisation that both Leatherface and his dopey, just legally-distinct clone both share a game. Even the game’s title is a barely-changed reference to the Evil Dead.
The result of all this rampant “homage” is that there’s nothing new left to sink your teeth into, and you don’t think about the plot the moment the game stops actively showing it to you. Give this one to Friday, and next we’ll do a category that people actually care about.
So I fired up Dead By Daylight, slid into the shoes of one of several murderers and sat for about five minutes waiting for a match and twiddling my thumbs. Turns out when half the world wants to be a character type only permitted in ratios of 1-to-5, the waiting times can also be bloody murder.
Nonetheless I finally broke through into slasher central, set loose on the world with axe in hand, and immediately realised that this wasn’t going to be as much fun as it should be. Daylight’s murderers vary in powers and strengths, each one affording a somewhat different experience, but still all have one goal – chase and knock down the squishy humans, then pick them up and drop them onto any nearby hooks so Spider-God can have a nibble. They can be rescued by nearby friends, but if they spend too long waiting or get hooked too many times, they’re goners.
It’s a simple, carefully-refined system designed to have a certain amount of variation while never straying too far from a core set of mechanics, which is all good. It’s also not that fun to play, which is… well, less good.
The big problem is the human survivors. I get that developers don’t want to weigh things too far in favour of the killer, but it seems all too easy for players to do the run-around on a bit of wall like something from the Benny Hill Show, hooting and slapping their backside, the killer impotently swinging at them with fury in their eyes. Things get even worse when they find the flashlight item that can be used to blind you and force you to drop any player you’re currently carrying. I admit right now that I wasn’t very good as a murderer – art doesn’t always reflect real life, it seems – but that was mainly because I never enjoyed it enough to keep practicing. The whole experience seems to assume that the survivors are acting cautious, timid and are prone to panic, much like people actually being chased by a psycho, and when that is the case the whole thing is a lot more enjoyable, watching them scatter like mayflies as you come charging round the corner with bloodlust behind you.
But the moment they start acting like douchebag trolls playing a game of “keep-away” with their own organs, the gameplay becomes a lot more frustrating than fun, trying to slap down annoying little titnibblers who wield design flaws as weapons, rather than actually engaging in a stimulating challenge. And of course, half of them just up-and-quit the game the moment they get caught, which is like spending twenty minutes trying to reel in a fish only for it to inexplicably explode when you pull it out of the water. I eventually found myself playing solely as the splicer lady with the throwing axes, purely so I could split some skulls without having to physically catch the bastards.
On the other side of the court, Friday has a similar problem, but in reverse. Whichever form of Jason you pick (and no option to be Cyborg Jason from the tenth film, appallingly), you’re gifted with multiple superpowers and abilities that make dealing with sex-crazed campers a doddle. Teleportation, stealth powers, concealed bear traps, lethal grab moves, throwing weapons, another kind of teleportation, ripple effects on sounds, X-ray vision and a choice of affordable drinks and finger foods, all of which means that when some little twerp gets cocky and starts trying to do the kitchen-table runaround, you have a hundred methods just to end him in the next ten seconds. I’ve seen fighter jets that were less dangerous.
It’s the teleportation and x-ray abilities that end up being the real problem. When Jason picks a player to hound eternally there’s really very little they can do to shake him, as hiding is almost impossible and the only way to get rid of him for good is to lure him to other players and hope they look tastier than you do. You know what they say: if you and your friend are trying to escape a bear, you don’t have to run faster than the bear does – just run faster than your friend. And honestly, I started feeling a bit unengaged after a while, watching Jason hack his way effortlessly through jocks with the bored detachment of a substitute teacher on the last day of school.
So playing Jason is more of a hollow power fantasy, whereas getting shoved into a Daylight killer’s boots is akin to playing whack-a-mole with slow reflexes. Both games have their moments, but usually depend having the right kind of survivors. I like how Daylight’s smaller arenas offer a greater chance of random encounters and have more variation in design, but I also like how Friday’s mechanics double down on fear and constant paranoia. Call it a close thing, but I’m reluctantly tempted to hand it over to Daylight, because spittle-flecked, violent rage is at least more involving than passionlessly pulling heads off.
Even before I started either game I knew the one thing I didn’t want – I didn’t want Jason or Daylight’s butchery brigade to be killable, because I knew every match would immediately devolve into half a dozen knobheads going at one brute like the third-act musical number in Shaun of the Dead.
Thankfully, both games seemed to be very much on the same page, as the emphasis is always on finding an escape rather than putting the villain’s head on a plaque. Admittedly I’m told it‘s possible to kill Jason and end the match prematurely, but I never saw it happen even after half an hour of whaling on him with baseballs bats and shotguns, so either the person telling me that was lying or the Crystal Lake Killer is as hard to kill here as he was in Jason Goes to Hell.
However, the means by which you’re encouraged to escape in each game are very different. Daylight might have lots of maps, but the means of escape is always the same – find five generators spread out over the arena and repair them to unlock the exits, avoiding any murderers along the way via careful stealth and cooperation. Friday, on the other hand, presents multiple routes to victory but bumps up the individual difficulty and randomness associated with each one. Survive for twenty minutes for an automatic win, sure, but you could also try to fuel up a car or fix a boat to get out early, or even just repair a phone and call the cops to come rescue you, scavenging for parts distributed among the map and hoping that you can cobble together some form of exit strategy.
Let’s talk about the latter, which sounds clever on the surface but falls down when it comes to execution, much like how Jason does when one of his environmental kills glitches yet again. The randomness and absence of clues as to where to actually look means there’s no real strategy involved beyond just combing the world for petrol cans and batteries, and the fact that most of these escape plans require some level of teamwork means that you’re really screwed if you’re the last man standing, gormlessly wandering about the forest with a fan belt in one hand and your last will and testament in the other. It’s all a lottery, hoping against hope you’ll happen to stumble upon whichever functionally identical cabin just happens to have stockpiles of weapons and engine parts.
Daylight does the smart thing by taking the power away from the RNG and giving to the players. Generators don’t need anything to be repaired but your own two hands, but there are items to be found to give you an edge or an advantage in any situation. And even when everybody else on your team has gone up to that great big cobweb in the sky, you can still piece together an exit or find the special escape hatch that only opens up for the last survivor – provided the killer hasn’t found it first and sealed it closed.
If it sounds like I prefer Dead By Daylight’s system… yeah, that’s because I do. It feels more tightly designed, making up for a lack of variation with a core gameplay loop that’s easier to engage with, and changes the focus from fingers-crossed scavenger hunts to constant, calculated stealth. Jason nearly always gets his target the first time they meet, making things feel less frightening than inevitable, but Daylight allows you to be recover from failure, to use the environment in clever ways or find hiding spots in crucial places. There’s no tension higher than sprinting round a corner, doubling back into a closet and silently praying as something lumbers past only inches away, eyes glowing with bewildered, hateful anger… Until there’s the distant bang of somebody bollocking up generator repair, and you can almost see the monster’s ears prick up as it launches itself back into the mist, ready to begin the hunt anew.
Let’s get this right out of the way – as alluded to, both games have balancing issues that go beyond the small fry and end up as big fish. In Daylight’s case this is due to certain items and perks that allow the players to treat the killer like matadors abusing an angry bull, whereas Friday makes Jason a truly unstoppable killing machine; and consequently it’s barely worth trying to escape the bugger. Neither is forgivable, but there’s at least two minor mitigating factors in Daylight’s favour: 1) these offending items and perks have to be unlocked and equipped over time, not to mention requiring a bare minimal amount of skill, and 2), the game is still being patched and rebalanced from time to time, giving hope it might be fixed, whereas Friday is apparently trapped in some sort of lawsuit that means only minor alterations are being made to it, if at all.
When it comes to graphics Daylight takes it again – Jason’s victims all look laughably like late-era PS2 models – but I’m reluctant to say it has the better visual and level design. Camp Crystal Lake feels like a real place, artfully designed to be eerie and unnerving, whereas the hunting grounds of Daylight just feel like video game arenas, full of chest-high walls, copied assets and no real logic or sense to the layout or environment. A better designer might’ve embraced a dreamlike sense of surreality, but this just feels fake, and consequently it’s hard to get truly immersed.
Finally, as alluded to earlier, Friday glitches like a cut-price Gameshark. Trying to perform an environmental kill always made Jason freeze like he had a bad case of stage fright, only for an awkward twenty seconds to elapse before the survivor managed to wriggle free of his grip and sprint for the horizon, loading screens would crash, and the world geography kept snagging players so often that it felt like a universe made of fishing hooks. Daylight had no such issues, cheerfully chugging along with proud, workmanlike tenacity, and consequently there’s no contest here.
Like I said at the beginning, I really wanted Friday to win this one, but to pronounce it the superior game would just feel dishonest. It has solid ideas, but feels patchy, like an early beta prototype that somehow made a full release. Daylight feels less ambitious, but better refined, with thought given at nearly every level and lots of nuances built in to make the challenging premise work. Giving the killer a first-person viewpoint and putting the survivors in third-person to emphasise observation versus situational awareness? That’s a good choice. Having sprinting survivors leave a temporary trail of scratches that can be followed to their location? That’s a good choice. Hiring Bruce Campbell to reprise his role as the bumbling, badass hero of Evil Dead? That’s a VERY good choice, and I can’t deny there’s something kind of brilliant about watching Ash “Hail to the King” Williams trying to evade both Freddy Krueger, the Saw killer, and Leatherface. It’s like Smash Bros. for horror icons, though sadly with no unlockable chainsaw hand to even the odds.
All that being said, I still don’t think Friday is without its charms, and also has a few really good ideas that Daylight could learn from. The way the chat volume tapers off the further you are from the source is genius, the environments somehow manage to be a lot more eerie through simple, silent, ominous subtlety, rather than smashing obvious horror visuals together until the whole place looks like an over-budgeted ghost train. Dead By Daylight is the better game, but either one might afford a fun few evenings – provided you can find the right people to play them with.