Hello Neighbor taps into a childhood moment one or more of us might have experienced while living in the suburbs. There was always at least one house that for some inexplicable reason emanated a mysterious and creepy vibe that led the neighborhood kids to come up with all sorts of wild, baseless stories: “That’s Old Man Smithers’ place where they say he killed his wife.” “That house over there? A satanist cult lives in the basement!” Dynamic Pixel’s video game puts you in the grubby sneakers of a young boy who has moved into a house across the street from another where something strange has definitely happened. Only through Dennis the Menace-like hijinks will you figure out why your neighbor is acting so suspicious and why screams seem to be pouring out of a locked basement door. Hello Neighbor combines disparate gameplay styles into something that sounds cool on paper. It’s a shame, then, that this game feels like it barely made it out of the oven.
Presented in acts, the goal is to infiltrate the house and move from room to room looking for keys that will unlock the basement door while evading the gaze of a twitchy neighbor. There is no straight route to the basement and instead, you’ll work your way through a series of convoluted situations and logic puzzles ripped from the LucasArts adventure game playbook. In order to reach the basement, you’ll have to find tools and create paths to help you navigate obstacles and hard-to-reach places while finding shortcuts along the way (though jumping out of a window is also a perfectly good means of escape). You’ll do all this while avoiding the Neighbor, programmed with an intelligent AI that reacts to your behavior. Apart from hunting after noises or giving chase if you cross his line of sight, the Neighbor will adapt to your meddling by laying out traps and patrolling areas and entrances you frequent. Blending together intelligent AI and adventure game logic is certainly a unique direction to take a stealth game, but I wish Hello Neighbor was more transparent about it. For the first fifteen minutes or so, I had no idea what I was supposed to do. In that confusion, I would easily get caught by the Neighbor and sent to the front of the house to try again. I like how the mechanics encourage exploration and experimentation, but a nice little nudge or tap on the shoulder as if to say, “Hey, this is what you have to do,” would have been helpful. I’d also like it if there was a tutorial or a help screen that told you the things you can do (for instance, you can look through keyholes--and I discovered that on accident).
Confusion with what to do and how to play is the least of Hello Neighbor’s problems. Frankly, I’m shocked that this is sold as a complete game. There are so many issues that plague its release, from a halfway-functional control system to physics engine annoyances, that I’m surprised it’s not early access. Let’s begin with the most serious issue: the controls. The game seems to have difficulty interpreting the controller’s inputs and doesn’t convey enough information to the player on how to interact with the environment. Pausing, which can only be done by holding down the start button, displays how to pick up, drop, and throw items, which I was lead to believe to be the only controls needed. You can sprint, crouch, and jump, but I didn’t know that was possible until I found out how to do so on a separate screen. This screen also doesn’t tell you that you have to hold down the trigger button to pick up an object. Pressing the same button when an item is in your hands is supposed to drop it but that didn’t work. At all. I was then left to toss items on the ground where I needed them to be, and because the physics engine wasn’t entirely reliable, this caused a lot more frustration than necessary.
You know something isn’t working quite right when you toss a box at a window to breach a room from the outside only to see it bounce right off the surface and go careening in the opposite direction. After the third attempt to break in, the window finally shattered and allowed me to climb into the room. As I walked across a lounger that had fallen over on its front, I was somehow launched up in the air and into the ceiling, causing enough of a ruckus to alert the Neighbor. There were moments when I felt like stability was hanging on by a thread, that any errant collision with an object would be enough to create a bull in the china shop situation. This is especially problematic when you have an enemy that gives chase after the slightest sound.
More annoying than the broken controls and weird physics are the bugs and glitches that plague inventory management and the Neighbor. One trick I discovered to avoid being caught was to simply sprint out of his house and across the street to mine. The Neighbor won’t cross your threshold and simply turn back to his domicile after wagging his finger at you. The thing is, it looked like he had some trouble getting back into his own house after this encounter. I watched as he got caught on the environment and exhibited odd and erratic behavior. At one point, it was clear that the AI was telling him to walk along the porch and look around and after a few seconds of doing this, he struggled with getting back inside, jumping up and down several times before getting back inside.
The disappearing inventory glitch was the straw that broke the camel’s back. When I finally reached the basement in Act One, I found a flashlight that made the way-too-dark area easier to navigate. After repeated failed encounters with the Neighbor, there came a point where the flashlight had been unceremoniously taken away. I went back to where I found it the first time, thinking that it might have reset to its original location, but it wasn’t there. The basement is way too dark to walk around without a light source and normally, I would take this opportunity to go into the settings and increase the brightness to make things easier but the pause screen lacks such options. At this point, I decided to stop and walk away.
In its current form, I simply cannot recommend Hello Neighbor to anyone until all of the problems are fixed. Again, I am shocked and disappointed that publisher tinyBuild would charge $30 for a product that clearly needs a lot more work. It really sucks because this game has a few things that work well, like its unique mechanics, a great art style, and good, measured horror. There’s a glimmer of something neat but right now, it's best to treat this as Hello Neighbor Game Preview Edition.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.