By now, the concept of a horror game where the player is stuck sitting behind a large switchboard has been explored rather thoroughly. That helplessness as a creepy monster edges ever closer makes for a tense atmosphere, drawing out a jump scare to its most effective moment. I personally found one iteration of the jump scare formula was more than enough: By the time the Five Nights at Freddy’s trend wound down, my startle reflex was thoroughly worn out. The initial locked-office setup has a lot of potential for other forms of horror, however, which is beautifully explored in Killer Frequency.
Created for a game jam by members of Team17, this free comedic horror puzzler puts players in the shoes of Forrest Nash, a late-night radio show host whose callers are being chased by a crazed killer. Will his silken-toned advice lead his listeners to safety, or is his expertise in all things music no use in the face of a knife-wielding monster?
Killer Frequency begins near the end of Forrest’s shift. The clock has just ticked over to midnight, and the radio host’s smooth voice betrays just a hint of tiredness. Flicking over to the last news segment of the night, the revelation of a killer stalking the streets of the small town comes as quite a surprise. The police are no help as they are all busy celebrating the retirement of their sheriff, so it is up to Forrest to take calls from the public and guide them to safety. Armed with a town map, notes for the traffic broadcast, and other clues hidden around the station, saving the station’s listeners will prove to be Forrest’s greatest career challenge yet.
Gameplay in Killer Frequency is roughly divided into two sections: operating the switchboard to talk to callers, and wandering around the station during musical interludes in search of useful information. The two play styles flow together smoothly: Forrest may answer a call from a girl who is stuck in the library and wants directions to the hospital to hide with her sick brother. In the interlude, Forrest can take a closer look at the map or perhaps find an old appointment card that gives information on the hospital’s opening hours. Back on the radio, the player is presented with multiple choices in how to advise the scared girl. Choose correctly and she will flee to safety, but if the proper clues are missed, the girl’s chances of survival are slim.
This interplay of systems work well. While the horror setting makes exploring around the office quite nerve-wracking, the inspection sections of gameplay are not timed, so the player has plenty of time to pore over evidence before picking up the phone once more. Saving callers is tough, and it may take more than one attempt to rescue all three. Forrest’s nervous mutterings give a helpful clue most of the time, but on certain occasions the right response is hard to determine.
One of the callers is from out of town and desperately needs petrol. I carefully located the gas station on the map and studied the street descriptions of the traffic broadcast, but when the driver called once again he wanted to know which house he should hide in. I imagine the other information I collected would have come in handy had I chosen the right house, but he died well before I could access the other parts of his puzzle.
The clues for helping out the callers in Killer Frequency require a nice variety of puzzle-solving skills. I was initially concerned that the town map would be overused, (I am terrible at directions in real life.) but each listener’s plight was solved with different items in the studio. Cracking a code for a padlock, talking to the killer himself through the radio, and figuring out Japanese numbering from context all made for satisfying puzzling.
I did have one incident, however, that was quite frustrating due to the awkward physics system. Forrest can pick up just about anything in the office, which can be held by constantly pressing the left mouse button. Having fun with this functionality, my station was littered with upturned chairs and loose folders when the power went out. I found a key for the supply closet where the circuit breaker is, but when I bumped the key against my mess of physics objects it went flying off into the night, never to be seen again. Try as I might, I could not find the key in the darkness and had to hard-reset the game. My second attempt went much smoother with a clean office, but inserting the key into the door was still far more awkward than it had to be. Perhaps a solution to this clumsiness would be to make held objects intangible, so they cannot bump into the walls, or alternatively a simple inventory system could be implemented.
Much of Killer Frequency‘s appeal comes from the stellar writing and voice acting. Each of the characters are infused with a great deal of personality within the short playtime. Forrest’s producer is only invested in assisting the callers to help her failing career. A clerk at the radio store automatically launches into a spiel about his excellent products, muscle memory overtaking his sense of danger. The performances made me invested in the fates of the three callers, and I always felt terrible when one was stabbed due to my poor decisions. I would have liked a way to skip through the text in subsequent playthroughs, as each chatty section takes a while to get through when trying to achieve a different outcome.
The aesthetics of the radio station also add a lot of character. A calendar on the wall puts the date at 1987, but much of the furniture looks a lot older, implying the radio station is not particularly successful. The musical choices, which were all custom-made for the game, add a quirky vibe, cheerful ‘80s tunes contrasting with the desperate search for life-saving information.
Killer Frequency is a really fun spin on the limited-interface horror game. The puzzles are just the right level of complexity for trying to quickly help someone out of a dangerous situation, and the performances kept me invested from beginning to end. Team17 is pretty busy with Worms Rumble right now, but I would love to see a sequel or longer version of this horror puzzler some time in the future.
Next week we will be playing The Change Architect, the third game in a series about the experiences of an illegal immigrant in the UK. The game can be downloaded on itch.io, and the first two episodes are also available on the site. If you would like to share your thoughts, discussions are happening in the Discord server.