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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Game Isn’t Scary, Unfortunately

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre asymmetrical survival horror game is cleverly mapped out and atmospheric, but it isn’t scary. That’s too bad, because down to the birdsongs lilting in the game’s terracotta vision of Texas (as developer Gun CEO Wes Keltner told me earlier this summer), Texas is a faithful interpretation of the 1974 movie. It’s an admirable living shrine to one of cinema’s most indelible horror classics, though in dedicating itself so wholly to its source material, Texas loses out on being an engaging game.

It at least tries to distinguish itself in its story, which acts as a sort of prequel to the slasher series.

“April, 1973. Tragedy and despair have struck Central Texas,” scrolling burnt gold text informs you as you load up the game, just as rolling gold text establishes the premise of Texas the movie. “A young college student named Maria Flores has seemingly vanished […] But any grief or sadness caused by Maria’s disappearance would pale in comparison to the agony and despair [her friends’ search party] would soon discover.”

In my, approximately, one hour of playtime (many more hours were spent uselessly refreshing Quick Match the week before the game officially came out on August 18—there are no bot games, and it was difficult to fill 3v4 matches with only reviewers) this story is barely relevant.

Texas Chain Saw’s asymmetry, dissected

You can enter it in two ways, either by playing one of four Victims (there are five total character options) or one of three cannibalistic Family members (with another five options to pick from). Each character comes with their own unique qualities, defensive, and offensive abilities. From the Victims, I liked Donny Osmond-looking-ass Leland’s full head of hair and brute strength, and from the Family, I appreciated Sissy’s capacity to craft and unleash herbal poisons on her victims, a more delicate way to kill compared to franchise villain Leatherface’s showy skin mask and snarling chainsaw.

When Victims encounter each other in-game, or Family members come across Victims, they automatically issue dialogue that uncovers more narrative. By accidentally running into players in the black, clammy basements where every match starts, I learned which characters were dating, and how little they knew about their bleak situation. Victims also somewhat didactically speak to themselves, surmising that “this looks promising” and that “dang it, gotta pay more attention,” when they bump into a wall.

But, with an average match lasting around five minutes, I never felt like there was enough time to care about the underlayers of what was happening. Match time would undoubtedly improve by all players having more intimate knowledge of each of the game’s three maps (all replicas of the movie set) to allow for more effective strategizing, but since Texas only offers an hour’s worth of dry video clips as a tutorial, it’s impossible to meaningfully familiarize yourself with gameplay before actually engaging with it.

So, in five minutes, you’re stuck with the simplest of the game’s premises. Victims are responsible for getting the hell out of the Slaughter Family’s homestead, and Family members need to slaughter.

While, from their power position, Family members don’t need to worry too much about quicktime-adjacent minigames (though, completing one is required for revving up Leatherface’s twin flame chainsaw), these events determine almost every action for Victims aside from running and hitting.

Sissy runs around the house in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre game.

Screenshot: Gun / Kotaku

Like, to squirm off the meat hook—an obstacle that, by the way, permanently wounds Victims; no amount of healing liquid you gulp will reverse your deteriorating state, though it’ll stave off blood trails from forming behind you like a weird snail—you slowly press a button on your keyboard or controller until a half-circle meter is filled.

It’s the same thing for acquiring tools from locked boxes, or prying crawl spaces open. You have to fill the meter patiently, or else the object you’re interacting with will make too much noise, indicated by frantic red lightning bolts that form around it. Noise potentially alerts Family members to your location (obviously), but it also calls the Family’s withered Grandpa out of his eternal sleep.

When he’s awake, and especially when Family members coax copious amounts of animal and Victim blood down his throat to fortify him, Grandpa acts as a Family buff by highlighting victim locations and unlocking additional abilities. Victims can temporarily incapacitate him with salvaged bone scrap to knock him down a peg, though.

Blood is not enough

Particularly tactical multiplayer fans will no doubt appreciate all of Texas’ moving parts, but as an enthusiast of the Texas movie’s nauseating, skin-breaking, inexplicable terror, I’m underwhelmed. While all of the game’s 1974 facsimiles were exciting the first time I saw them, after a dozen games, the premise feels too narrow. I’ve seen recumbent carcasses around the Family’s property too frequently for them to shock me, and I’ve heard Leatherface, a mandatory character for a match, let his weapon roar too many times to be phased by the sound.

The genre-defining movie works, in part, because it’s self-contained—it doesn’t set up expectations of generativity like an online game does—but also because its story, violence for the sake of generational violence, is fucking scary. It’s visceral; you can understand it, though you may not want to. Texas the game seems caught between embracing its own unsettling narrative and worshiping the movie from far away, keeping its reproduction pristine through brief, predictable gameplay.

That doesn’t work for me. Texas Chain Saw isn’t a movie I value for the quality of its characters or its set pieces, necessarily, but for its willingness to carve open greed and selfishness and leave it on the table like chicken liver.

It’s hard to make that happen in a crossplay-compatible multiplayer when some Xbox username like xFartSupreme1989 pops into voice chat and interrupts your melancholy. Though the game can still be tense and surprisingly beautiful—I played it on PC and PS5 and enjoyed observing marmalade-colored sunsets from both, then gasped when I noticed a Family member watching me, too.

I’m only hoping that future added content and skilled players will help Texas become, as macabre as this is, a bit more fun. Dying and reviving under a searing, neon sun is a rare opportunity; from the safety of my console, I’d like to enjoy it.