Keep yourself alive in an underground facility full of murderous mascots.
PC Release: October 7, 2016
By Ian Coppock
Well-played, Scott Cawthon. Well-played.
Early last week, the creator of the Five Nights at Freddy‘s series announced that Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location would be delayed because it was “too scary”. Scott Cawthon went on to say that he felt the game was not “kid-friendly” enough, and that he would need a few more months to make the game alright. The PC gaming press, myself included, took the bait hook, line and sinker, but it turns out that Mr. Cawthon was just joking. Sister Location has been released on schedule, with all of its spooky parts and pieces included. It’s time to see how this game stacks up to its predecessors, and what innovations, if any, it contributes to the Five Nights at Freddy’s formula.
Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location is the latest installment in Cawthon’s twisted universe of demonic mascots. In the original Five Nights at Freddy’s, or FNaF, as it’s commonly abbreviated, players are challenged to survive five nights in an old pizza restaurant while fending off intrusions from garish, bloodthirsty animatronics. The challenge gets more difficult with each passing night, and the game is lost when one of the ghoulish golems pops up on the screen to devour entrails and soil trousers. This fixed-defense mechanic was tweaked and toyed around with in three subsequent FNaF games, all of which were released in the 24 months following the first game.
Just as FNaF has won fans over with its admittedly spooky world and surprisingly rich lore, the series has its detractors. Critics have posited that FNaF‘s flash-based jumpscares are a one-trick pony that, despite being monkeyed around with in the sequels, are not all that innovative. They’ve also pointed out, perhaps fairly, that Cawthon is milking the concept by releasing a new game every 10 months or so. FNaF has sparked a fierce debate in the horror games community about the nature of “true” survival horror. Is it an intoxicating, slow-burning atmosphere, or the split-second shocks that FNaF trades in? This debate is at the heart of Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location.
Sister Location is the first FNaF game released in over a year, which is an eternity for the series’s rapid-fire development schedule. Even though it’s set in the same universe as the previous four FNaF games, Cawthon has stated that Sister Location is a spin-off that stands apart from the main, numbered games. It features plenty of spooky content, but none of the animatronics from the previous four games (Freddy Fazbear, Chica, etc.) make an appearance. Just like the four main FNaF games, Sister Location is loaded with references and secrets to the series’s dark subject matter, but it also contains some new surprising new mechanics and material.
Sister Location takes place in Circus Baby’s Pizza World, a family entertainment company and the sister entity to Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza. Players assume the role of a nighttime mechanic named Mike, whose name is mistaken by the facility’s klutzy computer to be Eggs Benedict. Eggs has been hired by CBPW to perform maintenance on the company’s animatronic robots, designed by the one and the same builder who put together Freddy Fazbear and company. Unlike Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, Circus Baby’s Pizza World rents out its robots for kids’ parties during the day, and stores them in an underground facility at night. It is this facility that players are challenged to spend five nights in.
Despite some mildly helpful advice from Handy, the comically inept AI in charge of the facility, it doesn’t take long for Eggs to realize that all is not well down here. After Handy causes a power outage that unlocks all the doors, the animatronics are set loose to roam free throughout the facility, in search of their human prey. In a first for the FNaF series, the player befriends an animatronic named Circus Baby, who agrees to help the player survive five nights in her titular Pizza World. Circus Baby doesn’t tell Eggs why she’s helping him against her more violent brethren, but her advice does seem to save his life, and so the two form a fragile alliance. Even though Circus Baby is on his side, Eggs still finds plenty to worry about in the facility’s other robots.
So begins a chilling new tale in the Five Nights at Freddy‘s universe, one that manages to stay true to its source material while experimenting with some new concepts. If Sister Location is any indication, video games benefit from a longer development cycle and the innovations that they can produce. Eggs’ journey is testament to this as well, both in terms of increased production value and exploration of horror mechanics outside of filling the screen with noise and light.
The first and most obvious benefit Sister Location gained from a longer production cycle is its visuals. The graphics look a little hazy and distorted, as in many Flash-based games, but they’re by far the best that the FNaF series has yet produced. Each environment is well-detailed and replete with ghoulish colors, like sickly yellow lamps. Cawthon also did a good job at making the environments look dated; not to say that previous FNaF games weren’t, but this design element is strongest in Sister Location. For anything else that can be said about this spin-off, its visuals are far and away the sharpest of any Five Nights at Freddy’s game.
The second design improvement that quickly stands out is Sister Location‘s sound design. Rather than a few canned sound effects and Cawthon himself fulfilling all of the voice roles, he expanded the game’s repertoire of spooky effects and hired a full cast of voice actors. Sister Location contains dozens of hair-raising sound effects and the voice work provided by each of the characters is surprisingly strong, particularly that of the actress who voices Circus Baby. Her creepy yet empathetic performance is even more unsettling than the actual jump-scares. All of this is evidence that video games stand to benefit from more time in development. Sometimes they can be left to cook for too long, like Duke Nukem Forever, but players will be far more grateful for more time spent on one good game than two sloppy efforts rushed out in the same period.
Even more than the visuals and the sound effects, the gameplay in Sister Location has received a full refit from that of its predecessors. Rather than completing the same incrementally more difficult challenge five nights in a row, players have to complete a completely new puzzle each of the five nights in Circus Baby’s Pizza World. The first night is a tutorial that acquaints players with the bare-bones basics of the game, but subsequent nights each contain their own conundrums… and perils. From hiding in a Springtrap suit to crawling quietly across an office floor, each night presents its own flavor to the experience. It’s a welcome deviation from Scott Cawthon’s usual gameplay formula, and it also keeps Sister Location feeling fresh. Each night is also longer than in previous FNaF games because of this element, adding value to the game. Though these elements are new, the inevitability of the animatronic jumpscare is not. Remain frosty.
The only problem with this new approach to FNaF‘s level design is that the difficulty in Sister Location is poorly balanced. Previous FNaF games simply ramp up the difficulty with each passing night, but in Sister Location, there is no sense of progression. The first night is easy. The second night is ludicrously hard. The third night can be passed in one try, and the fourth night is by far the most difficult level that the game offers. The fifth night isn’t a breeze, but it’s still a far cry from the fourth. It makes the game’s pacing feel pattern-less and schizophrenic, which can make its first few hours very frustrating. Scott’s already released a patch making the fourth night slightly less impossible, but Sister Location needs some major re-balancing. It’s also got a small but potent slate of bugs to watch out for, like occasionally being unable to close a desk door on the second night.
Sister Location stumbles badly in the gameplay department, but its narrative is the most substantive offered up by a FNaF game thus far. The narrative remains completely separate from those of the four main installments, but it sheds some light on elements preceding all of them, like who built the animatronics. The game is also replete with little subplots, like the origins of Circus Baby and why she wants to help Eggs Benedict instead of scare him silly. There’s not much character development to be had from the mute Eggs Benedict, but Sister Location does an admirable job filling in some of the bigger FNaF universe’s backstory. It doesn’t quite answer some of the most burning questions, like why these animatronics are so evil, but Scott Cawthon gives just enough fuel to keep them roaring hot.
Sister Location also explores FNaF‘s long-neglected potential for comedy. Sure, Phone Guy provided a few chuckles, but the ludicrousness of evil animatronics in a pizza store was never really toyed with in a comedic way. In addition to its scares, Sister Location serves up an ample and surprising helping of humor. Most of it is concentrated in the monologues of Handy, the AI overseeing Circus Baby’s Pizza World, who chimes in with surreal or unhelpful advice the same way that the Announcer did in Portal 2. Handy might be a bit too derivative of that Portal 2 character, but the dialogue in Sister Location is some of the funniest video game writing to come this way in a while. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it makes Sister Location a horror-comedy, but the writing strikes a good balance between being silly and being scary.
Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location undoes some of the stale repetition that plagued the series in its main installments, but its journey to being the best FNaF game ever made is cut short by its severe difficulty imbalance. Any joy to be had and scares to be shared from the game’s lore and writing is stunted by its immensely frustrating progression and cadre of bugs. It’s still a much deeper, more polished horror experience than that offered by previous FNaF games, but that damn fourth night is a killer. Hopefully, Scott Cawthon will continue to respond to feedback from the game’s community and rebalance the game to be a bit fairer in its learning curve, but until then, FNaF and horror fans would do well to hold off on buying Sister Location. It’s got good production, and it’s got good potential, but it’s not quite there. Ironically, it probably would’ve made the game a bit better had Cawthon’s hoax been real.
You can buy Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.