Asymmetrical survival-horror with a higher body count.
The title of Last Year: The Nightmare may be short on inspiration, but its take on asymmetric survival horror multiplayer has plenty. Those who have played Friday the 13th or Dead by Daylight will be familiar with the premise of one powerful player hunting down several weak ones as they try to escape, but Last Year: The Nightmare introduces a couple new twists that make it among the best of this burgeoning sub-genre thus far. Whether you play as the killer or one of the hapless teenagers, its action is tense and strategic to the end. That said, with only three maps, no progression system, and intermittent glitches, it does have an air of early access to it at the start of its 90-day exclusive period on the Discord Store.
Its novelty doesn’t come from its premise, which is rather cliched within the horror movie genre it emulates. It’s Halloween night and five stereotypical teenagers from different walks of life — jock, nerd, popular girl, cool dude, outcast — have to come together to escape one of three different but fairly generic supernatural evils at their high school within a 16-minute time limit. The time limit feels right, as it allows the teens to move at a methodical pace while accounting for the fact that deaths, which happen often, slow them down from completing the three or four rote fetch-quest objectives. The setup doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but Last Year mostly nails the execution.
As you’d expect from a team-focused game, if you stray away from the pack you’re easy pickings for the killer. The class-based gameplay further emphasizes this truth and helps keep each match fresh, even when you’re familiar with the map and objectives. There’s nothing especially novel about their designs, but each of the four classes felt vital to my team’s success. There were times when my team loaded up on offensive roles (Assault, with a pipe for conking the killer and Technician, who can deploy turrets and barricade doors) and found ourselves without a Medic to heal us after squaring off with the killer, or worse, lacking a Scout to detect the killer or blind him when he caught us off guard. When we had all four classes working together — with a bonus player in one class to give our strategy a tilt in one direction — we stood a much better chance of getting out alive.
Upgrade items tempt you to stray from your group – and leave yourself vulnerable to grisly murder.
There are just three maps — Library, Gym, Bell Tower — but they’re all larger than their names’ suggest and include a good mix of open spaces and confined corridors. For instance, the gym includes multiple wings of the school, with many classrooms and offices to duck into and search. There, you’ll find a nice risk/reward balance around the crafting system, which any class can use. Scrap and kits are strewn throughout each map to create new weapons and items such as proximity mines, flame-throwers, baseball bats, and buffs for starting items that tempt you to stray from your group to collect them – and, in turn, leave yourself vulnerable to grisly murder. Upgrades definitely make things easier when confronting the killer, but I appreciated that collecting scrap didn’t feel completely necessary to success – otherwise it might’ve created a situation where the killer could focus on booby-trapping known scrap locations.
While I came across a number of people who prefer to play as the students, in my experience the killer is by far the coolest of the six playable roles. The killer player (who is randomly selected from those who volunteer, or if no one does, from everybody) gets their choice of spawning as one of three diverse maniacs with significantly different playstyles: Strangler, Slasher, and Giant. The Strangler, the fastest of the three, can whip the poor heroes with hooked chains and drag them across the floor before strangling them to death, while The Slasher has a Jason-style ax and the Giant can pick victims up and repeatedly bash them into the floor like rag dolls.
The gruesome finishing moves paint the floor red and continue even after the shrieking can no longer be heard. It’s certainly over the top, though I found them to be more funny than terrifying because of the cliched characters and cheesy dialogue. Last Year is an ode to slasher movies, but it has enough self-awareness to poke fun at those tropes in a way that reminds me of Until Dawn. As a horror fan, the only moments that made me flinch were when I was caught off guard with one of the awesome special abilities, like when The Strangler latched onto me and pulled me through a vent or when The Slasher leaped down on top of me from above.
Hitting a killer doesn’t cause them to so much as twitch in response.
Unfortunately, outside of the killers’ finishing moves, melee combat doesn’t feel very good, especially when playing as one of the teens. Hitting a killer doesn’t cause them to so much as twitch in response, nor can you build up a chain or combo of any kind. It’s a matter of smacking him then backpedaling to safety to wait for your next opening, and whether you’re attacking with a pipe or baseball bat, it often feels like you’re striking a wall rather than a psychotic killer. The hit detection works fine, but trading blows feels clunky and visually unresponsive.
And Last Year: The Nightmare encourages close-quarters skirmishes thanks to the killer’s Predator mode, which lets them leave their body and zip around the map as an invisible spirit and lay bear traps and disorienting gas bombs inside scrap containers to disorient an unfortunate scavenger. (It’s even more powerful than Jason’s ability to fast-travel in Friday the 13th.) In this form, the killer often crosses paths with and watches the team of teens, waiting for one to fall behind or veer off into a room by themselves. Critically, you cannot spawn in or out of predator mode with the teens in view, limiting its power somewhat. While you can game this a bit by lurking around the corner waiting to pounce, predator mode doesn’t feel overpowered. Rather, it adds to the tension of each match.
It’s easy to find your prey as the killer – which is important on maps as large as these – and being able to effectively vanish and reappear behind the students gives a cunning hunter the means to feel as though they’re coming from everywhere at once and keep a team off balance. But if you aren’t smart and attempt to brute-force your way to victory, the tables can turn. You may have more health, but crashing in on a well-organized team, especially in open spaces, can leave even the incredibly strong Giant vulnerable – it’s hard to hit what you can’t see, and being lured into a turret trap can take a toll on your health pool, which can’t be replenished in a match. There’s a great balance here that rewards smart play and punishes recklessness, regardless of whether you’re a teen or the killer.
Other than the fact that every role is played entirely from a first-person perspective, the most striking and meaningful difference between Last Year: The Nightmare and others in the genre is that death isn’t permanent. Taking a cue from Left 4 Dead, when a student dies they are sent to a closet, where they have to wait to be released by a teammate to get back in the match. This doesn’t make things any easier, since deaths slow the team down in the race against the clock, and the survivors are much more vulnerable to more casualties until they’re able to rescue their friend. And of course, if no one is left alive to open doors the match is over. Likewise, when a killer dies they will come back to life after a 20-second wait – which is a good chunk of time to make progress and regroup for the next confrontation. Students can also change their class between deaths, which lets you change up a strategy that was ill-suited to the kill you’re facing. It creates a good back-and-forth in the gameplay where no one loss instantly dooms either side early on, keeping tension consistent throughout a match.
Respawning creates a good back-and-forth in the gameplay where no one loss instantly dooms either side early on.
The setup of the last leg, though, is an excellent finish that leads to some truly riveting final moments. Once the students complete the final objective they have 60 seconds to escape by navigating across perilously narrow platforms or even jumping toward your freedom. For instance, when the door opens up to the secret library room it’s a mad dash through the stacks, up the stairs, and across a makeshift bridge to the slightly ajar escape door. On more than one occasion, the killer grabbed hold of one or more of my teammates right before they could slide through to safety. At least a few of us lived, but the killer still got to add new faces to their wall.
Of course, like most new multiplayer games, Last Year has its share of technical nightmares. I rarely played a match without experiencing minor lag, but I also played a handful with more serious issues. The screen completely froze in two separate matches, eventually kicking me back to the main menu. On one occasion, a glitch stopped me from opening any doors. In another match, the killer clipped into a wall and couldn’t move. And, though both mouse and keyboard and controllers are supported in gameplay, I annoyingly couldn’t use the controller to navigate the menus.
That said, essentials like voice chat and matchmaking work well. You can either join a quick match to play with random people, search the servers for a specific lobby, or create a private match for friends. And, even though Discord’s an underdog in the coming PC game store war, I never had to wait for more than a minute to find a match, suggesting a healthy population of players.