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My Friendly Neighborhood's Steam Next Fest demo is a refreshingly grown-up take on old horror tropes

Nightmare on Sesame Street

It's no secret that I love horror games, but lately I've been going through a bit of a dry spell when it comes to finding upcoming titles to get excited about. I picked up the My Friendly Neighborhood Steam Next Fest demo to kill half an hour without many expectations, but what do you know, it's shot right to the top of my indie horror wishlist.

My Friendly Neighborhood is the tale of a derelict children's TV studio menaced by chipper puppets, who've decided to take matters into their own felt-covered hands to get their show back on the air - and, unlike a lot of recent indie horror offerings, it allows your character to fight back with gusto. It doesn't necessarily break any new ground as such, but it's the combination of influences I find so intriguing. The overall vibe of its setting and theme will no doubt appeal to fans of Five Nights At Freddy's and the recent Poppy Playtime, but as someone who never really got into either of those games, I was put in mind more of Bendy and the Ink Machine. I actually think that might be a more apt comparison in terms of both the threats your protagonist faces and his response to them.

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The weapons themselves have a surprisingly BioShock-y feel to them, if BioShock was just a little bit more whimsical with its steampunk influences. In this demo, you get to wield the Rolodexer, a pistol that shoots letters of the alphabet off of index cards. Not only do the metal letters hit with a satisfying chime, they serve to indicate how much ammo you have remaining, adding a weird humorous tension to clip conservation as you edge ever closer to Z. Later on, you get a shotgun that fires cloth-bound children's books that's called, aptly, The Novelist.

Pull up your map, though, and you'll suddenly be put in the mindset of Resident Evil, as MFN uses the same helpful red/blue highlight system to indicate rooms cleared and rooms that still have unclaimed items. As I said, there's very little here that feels really new, but that pedigree is outstanding.

The player character wields the book-firing shotgun The Novelist in My Friendly Neighborhood

Of course, none of this would be enough to merit a recommendation if the game itself didn't hold together, but based on the demo, at least, there's lots to like here. As someone who greeted Poppy Playtime with the feeling that maybe I'm just too old for "kids' characters gone wrong" to really grip me any more, I was genuinely surprised by how refreshing I found MFN's take on the concept. There's an Avenue Q feel to this game that seems to want to welcome older members of its audience as well. I'm not a parent, but some of the characters felt aimed at players around my age who might have spent a bit more time in the company of Elmo and co lately than they'd prefer, and would quite like the opportunity to blast Ernie in the face with a nailgun and see him satisfyingly ragdoll over a safety barrier and into an abyss, err, for example.

A map with Resident Evil-style colour-coded annotations in My Friendly Neighborhood

MFN doesn't rely on creepy character designs or a sudden flash of metal teeth in a cute plush face to unnerve; the puppet enemies you encounter look and behave exactly like you'd expect from the cast of a children's TV show. By which I mean they never, ever stop their high-pitched babbling about such exciting concepts as friendship and bedtime, and they deal damage by bowling you over with what amounts to enthusiastic hugs. Hearing their cutesy voices echo through an area you've just entered is very effective at setting you on edge, but there's no gore here at all, which developers John and Evan Szymanski confirm is very central to their vision for the game. Plus, from what I saw in the demo, cheap jumpscares take a back seat as well.

A room full of decommissioned puppets hang eerily from the walls in My Friendly Neighborhood

The overall effect was honestly not so much scary as tongue-in-cheek funny, with a tense but fair evade-or-confront approach to combat that never felt frustrating (and I have a particularly low tolerance for janky stealth in horror games). You also encounter one or two friendlier puppets along the way, whose wry commentary on the situation with their deranged cohort allows your character to fire off a few good one-liners. It's all very promising.

As the cherry on the cake, this game is being published by DreadXP, the indie horror collective whose last game was the equally offbeat Lovecraftian dating sim Sucker For Love: First Date, which I very much enjoyed when I reviewed it last month. Their output seems to be running directly counter to the trend of horror games taking themselves just far too seriously, and after checking out this demo, I'm more excited than ever to see what else they have in the pipeline.

My Friendly Neighborhood doesn't have a release date just yet, but you can try the demo out for yourself over on Steam.

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