We will never know how my life could have gone had I never been introduced to mobile puzzle games. Over the persistent draw of just one more round, assignments were left unfinished, books unread and emails unanswered. I spent endless hours of procrastination determined to prove that I had the smarts it took to solve games that wanted me for my brain and not my reflexes. Even though I’ve since moved to YouTube as my favourite method of procrastination, Friday the 13th: Killer Puzzle makes it clear that deep down I haven’t changed.
In this isometric top-down puzzler, you take control of the one and only Jason Vorhees and kill your way through a variety of levels by sliding Jason across a grid until you literally bump into your victim. After getting to all targets, a final mark will appear. You end each level using a finisher move, a particularly grizzly and over the top kill in which limbs fly and blood flows freely. Kill enough people with this move by clicking/tapping at the right time and you fill a bloodlust gauge. Once it’s filled you gain new weapons – who knew you could slice through a person with an acoustic guitar?
As horrible as that sounds, surprisingly it isn’t. Killer Puzzle features super-deformed characters with big heads and tiny limbs, and while their screaming will definitely have your potential company raise an eyebrow, killing these tiny guys won’t cause sleepless nights. It feels weird to admit that it seems okay because the characters are cute and chubby, but everything is just that far over the top that it’s fun rather than gruesome. Should the splatter prove too much there is always a “PG-13” option in the settings which removes the blood and censors the finishers. If you really enjoy the finishers however, there’s the Murder Marathon, a mode with the sole purpose of ramping up your kill streak.
The Friday the 13th theme is a nice idea especially for genre fans. In homage to classic horror television, Killer Puzzle is made up of individual episodes, each featuring a different location such as the classic summer camp, an apocalyptic wasteland or… the beach. Each episode consists of, you guessed it, thirteen levels. The Easter eggs I spotted made me laugh more than once, and the severed head of Jason’s mum easily makes my list of favourite video game companions.
Most importantly, behind the bloody exterior there’s an intuitive and clever puzzle game. At the beginning of each level Jason will pop up somewhere on the board and you can take stock of the layout at your leisure. You quickly note the positions of people, traps and obstacles and then confidently make your first move. An optional top-down view helps to put things into perspective. After covering the basics of how to slide around to get to people, Killer Puzzle continuously finds new ways to make your killing spree just slightly more difficult.
Each level introduces something new: people start running away from you, obstacles keep you from your victims and traps such as holes and bodies of water can harm you as much as they harm them. As the board fills up with more targets, the order in which they are dispatched becomes another important element in successfully finishing a level, since they act as movable obstacles that stop you just as much as fences, trees and other items do.
Since Killer Puzzle gives you time to understand its mechanics and shows rather than tells you what to do, it doesn’t become overwhelming. Upon encountering something new, you first get to play around with it in an easily solvable level before it’s used it in combination with all the other pieces you already know, constantly building on existing knowledge. In a way it feels like slowly learning how to play chess, if the end goal of chess was to kill people while wearing a hockey mask.
The more intricate the levels become, the more often the game tries to lure you into a false sense of security. Many times the solution seems instantly clear but turns out to be just that much more complicated. An X mark on the board is meant as assistance in early levels for example, as it tells you either where you are supposed to land at some point or which row you need to go through. As you move to increasingly trickier levels however, even this will eventually be used against you.
Killer Puzzle isn’t a difficult game. Levels rarely take longer than a few minutes. Should you get stuck there are a couple of options to get you back up on your feet. You can either redo a few moves by literally rewinding the episode, ask Jason’s mum for a hint or even watch the complete solution in fast forward.
By staying absolutely fair, Killer Puzzle deals with its addictive mechanics in a responsible manner. Even though it is a free-to-play game clearly designed with the people in mind who just want to play a few short games on their phone and then end up getting sucked in, progress never depends on power ups or any other item that many mobile games not so discreetly offer for real money. Here, re-entry is easy and the consequences for losing yourself in the game will never extend to your wallet. You can buy up to four additional episodes for real cash, as well as a handful of gimmicky new costumes for Jason, but that’s it.
Another method to keep players coming back is the Daily Death mode. In it you can solve a different puzzle every day, set in what’s likely an office full of gameplay developers so overworked they simply didn’t see Jason walking in. For solving puzzles thirteen days in a row you gain a new weapon to use in the main game.
This no strings attached approach is probably a deliberate choice: Killer Puzzle’s developer Blue Wizard was founded by PopCap alumnus Jason Kapalka, who has worked on Peggle and Bejeweled, someone who knows ways in which fun games can be misused and who had a hand in the very games responsible for the near-death of my academic career. Fast forward a few years and Kapalka and his team still know how to drive me to distraction. At least this is my job now.