My Friendly Neighborhood is probably one of the strangest and most uniquely enjoyable games to be released in a long time, especially among titles with a first-person shooter-like interface. The premise behind it is truly bizarre, and yet also surprisingly believable as video games go. There was apparently an old Saturday morning puppet show called The Friendly Neighborhood, which was canceled some time ago, with the show’s far too massive headquarters building and studio shuttered. However, as the game begins, a transmitter on the roof of one of the buildings starts to power up, broadcasting new episodes of the show once more overtop the news and other entertainment programs throughout the city.
You play as Gordon, a technician who works for the property management group charged with looking after the abandoned buildings. Gordon gets the call to investigate the old studio to shut down the antenna. His bosses think that the issue is simply a technical one, as does Gordon when he first arrives at the complex. Gordon complains about the job to himself, frustrated that he will need to go all the way up to the roof to disable the wayward antenna. But he is apparently on thin ice with his employers because we get to see a note lying in the bottom of his work truck among the many food wrappers and other trash that have piled up there. The note says that Gordon is on probation for being surly with clients and will be fired if he fails to complete any more jobs. So, he has little choice but to follow orders and make his way into the old hotel that served as the headquarters for the show.
It isn’t long before Gordon realizes that something is amiss. The elevator which could take him to the roof is jammed up with purple glue. Stranger yet, a sock puppet at the front desk tells him not to worry about the transmitter, but eventually gives him a keycard which will allow access to the old studio, where Gordon can eventually find a way up to the roof. Gordon probably thinks that the puppet is just some sort of animatronic robot that is trying to be helpful, but the truth is that the puppet is likely sending Gordon to his doom over in the chaotic studio.
Once you get to the studio, which is just one of the buildings in the massive complex, you will encounter your first man-sized puppet. That puppet looks exactly like Ernie from Sesame Street, and this one you first encounter (there are hundreds) is loudly beating his head against a door while spouting what seems to be an insanely twisted script from the old television show. Gordon still does not know exactly what is going on, and probably assumes that the puppet is a guy in a costume, so he tries to talk with him. The puppet seems excited to see someone and charges at him, arms flailing. When he gets close, he hugs Gordon so tightly that he loses about a third of his health, depending on the difficulty level. Gordon, who does not have any weapons at this point, has no choice but to run away. Thankfully, the puppets won’t chase you through loading screens, so simply backing back out to the other room by retreating through a nearby door, which triggers a load action, will let you escape.
By now, players should realize that My Friendly Neighborhood is not simply an exploration title. Players probably knew that going into it, but Gordon finally realizes what is up. The truth is that My Friendly Neighborhood is not purely a shooter either. Yes, there are shooter elements and even gun-like weapons, but it is more accurately described as a horror survival title (albeit a humorous one) or maybe even a puzzle game since you will need to solve quite a few of them as you travel.
The first weapon that you find is a wrench, which like Half-Life’s crowbar has unlimited uses but very short range. I found that the wrench was pretty unreliable as a weapon because there is no sneak mechanic. Whenever I got close to a puppet who, like the first one encountered, was facing a wall or giving a monologue to empty space while looking in the other direction, they would instantly snap to attention, spin around and attack me long before I could get a swing in. As such, I almost always relied on ranged weapons.
Keeping with the theme of the game, the guns in My Friendly Neighborhood are all comical in nature, like a shotgun called “The Writer” which is made from an old typewriter. But the first gun that you will get is like a small pistol, but made with an index card holder where letters are written on each of the cards. The really funny thing is that the “clip size” is 26, which is how many letters there are in the alphabet. As you shoot, the letters peel off in alphabetical order, so if you look down and see the letter D, you know that you have fired three shots so far. If see an X or Y, it means that you really need to reload.
Combat with the puppets is extremely fun, mostly because they scream in comical ways as they get hit. And when you make the final shot, they often fly off in a random direction for impossibly long distances, screaming the entire time. This is especially funny if you are blasting them off the side of a building or a piece of scaffolding so they have a nice long fall to the ground. But don’t worry, because the puppets can’t actually die. If you put them down, they will stay “dead” for a long while, but will eventually get back up and start their insane mutterings once again. The only way to keep them down permanently is to use duct tape to tie them up. That makes duct tape one of the most valuable items in My Friendly Neighborhood because it takes an entire roll to incapacitate a single puppet – although I would have liked to have just one lighter or a couple of matches. Anyway, because of the lack of duct tape, you will probably want to only tape up puppets who block well-traveled areas so you don’t have to waste ammo gunning them down every time you traverse that spot again. There is a lot of backtracking in My Friendly Neighborhood, so you will likely very quickly learn where your limited tape will do the most good.
In addition to the handful of regular puppets that you encounter, there are also several bosses, which are either really huge or exceptionally dangerous members of the puppet family, or both. But in one of the cleverest moves that My Friendly Neighborhood makes, you can eventually either reason with or even make friends with many of those bosses if you keep an eye out for what they might want or need. For example, the first boss you will encounter very early on is a Big Bird-like creature named Pearl who is running around the old studio set. Pearl will cause damage to you if you get too close. However, the old neighborhood stage looks like a city block and has multiple levels, so if you go up to a roof (and clear it of any normal puppets) then you can safely watch her as she goes about her routine.
While I watched her, she kept stopping by a big dressing room-like desk behind the set and looking into a huge mirror while making sad noises. I figured something was wrong, and when I eventually found a big set of pink glasses hidden inside an anchovy box – don’t ask – I figured that they would look good on her. I offered them to her, and she gratefully accepted them. Later when I went by the mirror, Pearl was nice to me and even let me pet her. Thereafter, she was no longer hostile, which made completing that level much easier because I only had to deal with the handful of normal insane puppets. Several of the bosses in My Friendly Neighborhood are like that, so keep an eye out for ways to make new friends.
I mentioned that My Friendly Neighborhood is basically a puzzle game, which is true because it is basically one giant puzzle where you need to find various objects and keys to continue to new areas. Trying to sneak past or avoid insane puppets while you search for puzzle objects to put together or use is kind of like a puzzle in itself since you have limited ammo and an even more limited duct tape supply to stop them from being a permanent threat. Every level is filled with puzzles, mostly involving retrieving or finding objects. The insane puppets are just kind of like the guardians of those puzzles. I mention this because not all shooter gamers enjoy puzzles, and there are lot of them in My Friendly Neighborhood.
And while My Friendly Neighborhood is enjoyable to play, it’s also lacking a few features that many other shooters have. For one, as Gordon you can’t run, although your speed increases for a bit when you eat a candy bar. So, you kind of have to fast walk away if being chased by puppets. Thankfully, you are just a little bit faster than them, but not by much. Also, you can’t jump, which is something that can take some getting used to since you are stopped by low walls or counters that you should be able to easily leap over. Again, the emphasis is on exploration and puzzle solving, so not having the full repertoire of shooter skills is somewhat forgivable, if annoying.
My Friendly Neighborhood is entertaining to play. Unlike other comical shooter games like High on Life, the humor in My Friendly Neighborhood is more subtle. It comes from seeing our childhood puppets acting aggressive and somewhat insane (let’s face it, My Friendly Neighborhood is basically Sesame Street with just enough changes to not get sued by Big Bird). If you are looking for something completely different in the shooter and survival horror genre, then My Friendly Neighborhood will certainly scratch that itch in the most colorful and crazy way possible.