I can’t think of a single asymmetrical horror game that really nails the sensation of being chased by a seemingly omnipotent horror movie villain. After playing a match for myself at PAX West (and watching many more), Last Year: The Nightmare might be the closest attempt so far. Last Year pulls from ‘80s slasher movies for its setting, pitting five teenage archetypes against one player as the bad guy. It might sound a touch lopsided, but the killer gets the next best thing to god mode.
The killer can despawn and respawn as one of three awful murder men as long as they’re not visible. Worse (or better), as a despawned and super speedy ghost the killer can spy on the teens, lay massive bear traps, and open trap doors strewn around the map.
Dubbed predator mode, the ability to dash around the map and plot attempts to separate a band of gangly teens as you pick them off one-by-one allows for much more insidious creativity when it comes to murder and mayhem. It also sets Last Year apart from Dead By Daylight: you're more horror movie Dungeon Master than you are the Jason-like killer whose shoes you can step into. Here’s a couple examples of what I mean.
As the teen team, your goal is to explore a high school at night in search of gasoline. You need the gas to drive a motorized cart with a raising platform across the gym floor in order to get into the rafters and escape. It doesn’t make much sense, but whatever, it’s a goal, and most ‘80s slasher logic is totally nonsensical anyway.
If you manage to find the gas containers hidden in the empty classrooms, the cart takes a minute to pilot across the gym floor. It’s a slow sequence that feels right out of Left 4 Dead’s climaxes, but instead of hordes of zombies coming your way, a killer with cheat codes is the only threat. A common tactic I saw the killer use during this sequence was to lay bear traps all around the cart, then spawn in as the brute, a terribly slow, terribly strong man in pale Hulk cosplay to pressure the teens to jump off the cart and into the traps below.
With one or two teens incapacitated and the other two distracted, forced to help the others out of the traps, it makes for the perfect moment to shoot some hoops as the brute.
The big guy can charge up a powerful tackle, but his most satisfying ability is the teen toss. Get close enough and he can pick you up and throw you all the way across the gym. Most killers tossed their teens at the basketball hoop, where they’d make contact with a sickening crunch. It’s a great way to separate the group while getting a bit of exercise.
The hallway surprise
It’s something you see in old slasher movies all the time. A teen will run down an empty hallway with the killer in pursuit, they’ll hide, thinking they’ve lost the killer only for the mad man to miraculously leap out in front of them or their place of hiding. I played Nick, the geek medic class teen, and as I sprinted down the hall away from the killer who’d just downed my teammate, the jock douche assault class, I thought I’d found respite in a quiet, darkened corner behind a garbage can.
A Jason-like axe-wielding maniac was on my tail a few moments ago, but I couldn’t hear them anymore. And yet, when I stood up and walked around the next corner, there they were. The axe came down on my face. Done for.
It felt like a scripted moment, but knowing human was behind that mask heightened the spook-factor. They were one step ahead the whole time, probably spying on me in predator mode, giggling like a crazed killer might.
While the teens are looking for gasoline in the darkened school hallways and classrooms, they’re given plenty of incentive to do the classic horror movie thing and split up. Giving the killer more time to set up traps and observe doesn’t feel great as a frail nerd who can’t run down a hallway without getting winded. And if the teens split up, it gives them more opportunities to gather crafting materials to make helpful tools like tasers and molotov cocktails. Smart kids.
But plenty of the best crafting materials are located right next to trap doors, which aren’t very easy to see in the dark. In disembodied predator mode the killer can open these at will, dropping one or two players down a floor, further fragmenting the group. I’d often see players get dropped directly onto a bear trap the killer had placed below, then the killer would run around a corner on the same floor and spawn in as the strangler, a frail creep who can lasso players with a massive hook at the end of a chain and pull them in for a nice stabbing session. If anyone started helping one player out of the trap, they’d pull in the other.
The strangler was also great for pulling players from the rafters and back onto the gym floor. Following up by dipping out and spawning back in as the brute to practice hoops was common practice for the killer.
It may sound like the odds are always against the teens, but the killer's physical form can also be killed, which comes with a respawn penalty that increases in time with every death. The speedy, ghostly predator mode is incredibly empowering, but it’s designed to be used with plenty of forethought and cunning. Spawning as a killer and charging into a group of teens without attempting to separate or distract them is a sure way to get taken down fast.
But when an impromptu plan works and the killer pulls off a combination of traps and quick, successive murderer spawns, not only does the fantasy of playing in a dopey ‘80s slasher flick come to life, the potential for high competitive play comes to the fore. With clever enough level design and more time playing around with the teen class synergies, Last Year could be one of the biggest multiplayer surprises this year.
We’ll see how it all comes together soon, too. Last Year: The Nightmare releases exclusively on Discord’s new store sometime this fall.