Version Played: Xbox One (via Game Pass)
Horror games are massive at the moment, fuelled in part by the rise of YouTube reaction videos. Horrific, graphic content doesn’t seem to be the draw for these types of game – jump scares are where it’s at.
It’s this category – the jump scare game – that Hello Neighbor falls into. I’d seen the game a number of times on various digital storefronts as well as physical formats in actual stores (remember those, kids?) and it always looked intriguing. The sinister design of the neighbour as well as the excellent art style really appealed to me, but I’d heard very little about the game in general.
From the ominous title screen of a creepily deserted living room with an appropriately spooky soundtrack, it seems that you’re in for a very scary time. When you start the game, you’re put in charge of a kid who goes to retrieve his ball from in front of his neighbour’s house. Witnessing the creepy guy locking his basement, you’re then left to your own devices to investigate his house and see what you can find.
There’s a number of issues that quickly become apparent. The game gives you absolutely no clue where to go or what to do next and the environmental puzzles are simply far too obtuse to be of any fun. Your kid can jump such a ridiculously small height that making your way around the outside and inside of the house becomes a real chore and even picking up or interacting with objects is needlessly fussy, imprecise and inconsistent to the point where it feels buggy.
If you’re caught on your neighbour’s property, he’ll grab you and you’ll be deposited outside your own house, which is…right across the street, so it doesn’t feel like much of a hindrance (except that it’ll be happening over and over again). You’ll know when he’s near, because the screen trembles and when he sees you, the game does try to make you panic using a combination of the screen vibrating and the scary soundtrack.
The problem is that – once you’ve been caught a few times – you know that nothing more than being dropped outside your house can happen. Saying that, on rare occasions you’re briefly in control of the kid in a dark corner of the house, with everything at a weird scale. When you get caught in one of these brief, dream-like interludes, you’re then deposited outside the house again.
The neighbour himself is supposedly an advanced AI that learns from your actions and takes steps to protect his property accordingly, but in practice all this means is that he’ll occasionally set pretty harmless traps for you (such as a bucket of water balanced above the street door), add locks to a door or board up a broken window. His behaviour seems less like an intelligent creation and more like one that simply cheats to find you; you’ll spend an awful lot of time being ejected from the house or running from him in the garden when his back’s been turned and he’s as far away as he can be. Other times, when he’s walking back into the house, you can be walking behind him all the way and he doesn’t notice.
Sometimes he’ll see you across the street while in the house and will smash through the window he’s behind in order to come and warn you off, leaving you with a way in, in theory (I’ve never seen him board up a window after he’s smashed through it himself). You’re not given enough information from the game to know where your neighbor is at any one time and he seems to be able to hear or see you even when that should be impossible. The viewpoint isn’t wide enough to give you any time to react when you’re in the house most of the time and you’ll often be ejected before you even realise what’s happened.
It’s frustratingly inconsistent. Inconsistent, too, are the rules governing what you can and can’t interact with or pick up. Some objects can be picked up and thrown – to cause a distraction or to break a window and enter the house, for example – but this is limited. There are switches to flip and levers to pull, but – as with the objects you can pick up – actually getting these to respond to button presses is an exercise in frustration.
With little to interact with and absolutely no hand holding or signposting whatsoever, you’re quite often left scratching your head as to how you can proceed. Even when I finally caved and resorted to finding a walkthrough in order to find out how to proceed through the first act, it was clear that the actions needed in order to proceed were so obtuse and unclear that I don’t think I ever would have worked it out without assistance, which the game flat out refuses to give you.
Not only that, but even having a step by step guide still wasn’t enough to guarantee that I’d complete the task, as the steps required to proceed are so disparate, unclear and reliant on physics that don’t always play ball; throwing an object too close to a window seemed to ensure that the object passed through the glass rather than smashing it, for example – and this happened on multiple occasions.
It’s a weird one. Hello Neighbor tries hard to be scary and sinister, but with the complete lack of in-game information and the fact that the neighbour doesn’t really do anything of interest or harm, it completely fails in this regard. The gameplay itself is let down by the lack of assistance and its annoyingly patchy physics. It’s a genuine disappointment, given how strong the art direction is in general – though even this comes across as quite flat at times in the game itself, with the in-game area you roam around feeling extremely lifeless and devoid of any other characters (except the odd moving car).
With a little handholding to assist you to at least the first objective, there would at least have been an idea of what the game designers expect of you and what logic you’ll need to use to proceed, but this is nowhere to be found. Hello Neighbor shows a lot of promise on first glance, but unfortunately feels really half-baked and impenetrable upon playing. Less Hello Neighbor and more Goodbye Neighbor from me, sadly.
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