Everyone can relate to that feeling of being a young child and hiding under the covers out of fear of the imaginary monsters under your bed or somewhere in the house. It’s that paradoxical feeling of both power and vulnerability that made such experiences so memorable; you were ‘safe’ as long as you were under the covers, but the slightest gap in the fabric surely left you at the mercy of the monsters. That baseless paranoia has led to countless sleepless nights for many a child, and – in a notable pivot away from series tradition – Scott Cawthon decided to build Five Nights at Freddy’s 4 entirely around the concept.
Here, the dingy security rooms and brief phone calls have been replaced by a dark and slightly messy bedroom, occupied by one very scared kid with a flashlight. For the first time, there are no security cameras to check with rising exasperation, nor is there any depletable resource that could certainly spell your doom once it's empty. The best you can do is peek your head out to check the dark hallways on either side of your room and hope that something nasty isn’t waiting for you on the other side. And if it is? Well, you’ll just have to hold the door shut and hope that it moves on.
As you’d now expect, the core gameplay of Five Nights at Freddy’s 4 simply revolves around making it through 8(-ish) minute nights without getting your face eaten by horrifying animatronic abominations. The main change here, however, is that your defence focuses far more on sound, rather than sight. Instead of flipping between camera feeds looking for activity, you must now have the volume dialled up just about as far as it can go so you can hear tiny sounds that signal movement from your assailants. The soft shuffling of feet. The low, laboured breathing of something in the hallway. A light chuckle. Each night becomes a routine of you checking the doors and your bed for these telltale sounds, hopefully catching them soon enough that you can ward off whatever’s lurking with a flashlight or a quick door close.
The good news about this set up is that it delivers a wonderfully tense experience that easily makes this the most frightening game in the series so far. That dead silence – punctuated by the odd, definitely unnatural sound – does a lot of legwork in building up the anticipation for a jumpscare that you know will come one way or another. There’s something to be said, too, about the almost dreamlike quality that each night exhibits. You know that there are not, in fact, real murderous animatronics wandering the halls of some kid’s house, but the fact that the kid thinks there are creates some terrifying illusions that feel no less real than the actual things.
The flipside to this, however, is that this feels like perhaps the most hamfisted and blunt application of the jumpscare concept thus far. Yes, the silence and telltale sounds are great at building up the dread, especially because you need to be really listening for things, but that just makes each jumpscare that much more jarring. In many ways, it feels like the terror is unearned. When you’re straining to listen for the barest noise, and are suddenly assaulted with a deafening shriek and a screen full of metal teeth, of course you jump out of your chair.
Then again, perhaps that’s the point. Five Nights at Freddy’s never presumed to be an in-depth and all-encompassing horror experience, and as limited as it may be, Five Nights at Freddy’s 4 does a good job of building a tense atmosphere and keeping you at the edge of your seat. The short length and simple concept keep it from having much staying power, but it’s a thrilling experience if you’ve got a night to yourself and feel like giving yourself a good scare.