HELLO NEIGHBOR Review
Indie games are risky business; they’re proportionally workload-intensive and struggle financially due to being . . . well, independent projects, all while competing in the same arena as their AAA brethren. Fortunately, the past few years of the indie scene have been rapidly improving in quality, to the point that the mindset that tells us indie projects can’t compete with corporate products has all but disappeared. 2017 has been one of the best years for the development and reception of these titles, with the best of the bunch far exceeding the soulless enterprises of your mainstay companies like EA.
Horror games are similarly risky business, due both the niche nature of the genre and the definition of “scary” being fairly subjective. While Let’s Plays have breathed new life into the horror genre, these games have always had a smaller player base, with seldom few maintaining any kind of relevance or staying power after the initial month or so of release. So when an indie developer, whose resources pale in comparison to a major studio, tries to tackle the riskiest genre, success is far from guaranteed. Sometimes, these attempts at indie horror have proven to be phenomenal and warrant all the praise and success they can get, as seen with HELLBLADE: SENUA’S SACRIFICE and DARKWOOD. Teams of limited caliber end up making their case with some of the most intriguing releases of the year, and continue to support the notion that indie games can rival (or surpass) the mainstream in quality and character. And other times, you just get HELLO NEIGHBOR.
Me, upon realizing I wasted 30 dollars on this
I don’t think I have been more aggressively disappointed by a game’s release this year than I have with HELLO NEIGHBOR’s. Back when the game was spouting out its various alpha builds, I was pulled in by the early-Pixar-esque visual style and the narrative concept of sneaking into your neighbor’s structurally-ludicrous home to find out what the creepy fucker’s got kicking around in his basement. However, as the timeline of the game edged closer to the final release and the alpha builds subtly managed to get gradually worse in quality, my intrigue for the game dissipated. And, upon seeing where the game is now in its “finished” state, I can say with great disdain that HELLO NEIGHBOR is somehow even worse than its alphas.
There are a slew of issues I take umbrage with in HELLO NEIGHBOR, the most egregious being the eponymous Neighbor himself. While the game’s description and promotional material seem to tout his “advanced AI” as being the star of the show, my experience saw the Neighbor’s intellect jumping between “omnipotent god” and “a ton of fucking bricks.” The Neighbor seems to switch between these two ends very sporadically. Sometimes he’ll exploit glitches, grab you through walls, or intercept you from the other side of the house with no real indicator as to why he was able to detect you. In other cases, he’ll just fall asleep in random locations like a narcoleptic and ignore you, even while you noisily break in through one of his windows or smash his furniture.
Or just sit and contemplate where his life went wrong. I would
Additionally, while promos promise that the Neighbor “adapts to your actions,” in practice, he does little more than change his patrol route to cover the area he last caught you in. This is probably the game’s worst failing in terms of AI. The Neighbor is very easily exploited by your antics to an almost insulting degree (when he’s not inadvertently breaking the game), and forces me to ask the question of whether the developers just got tired of working on his “adapting” or purposely left it unfinished. Need to get upstairs, but the Neighbor is in the way? Just get caught by him in the kitchen a few times, and by the third attempt, he’ll ignore the stairs altogether and allow you to just sprint through without a second thought. Worried he’ll catch up to you when you’re running up those stairs? Fret not, the Neighbor always runs at the same speed as the player, but has quirks like being unable to quickly descend ladders or cut corners like the player can, which makes him very easy to escape.
Any legitimate challenge that the Neighbor’s AI might have posed is immediately lost due to his crippling level of incompetence. The few examples of the AI working as intended involve planting security cameras in various access points and boarding up windows upon repeated attempts to break in. However, the former (especially if you get caught enough times) makes the game less of a challenge and more just gumming up the already-inconsistent slog to a frustratingly-pathetic crawl.
“I can smell you.”
Speaking of inconsistency and frustration, let’s talk game and level design. HELLO NEIGHBOR’s narrative is divvied up into three acts, with the Neighbor’s house progressively changing from a quaint little cottage to a multi-story menagerie of disparate add-ons and perplexing rooms straight out of WHAT REMAINS OF EDITH FINCH. In theory, this aspect should be the most interesting and enjoyable part of the experience, with players taking in the odd, Seussian logic of the house and concocting ways to solve elaborate visual/cognitive puzzles to progress, all while avoiding the Neighbor. Infuriatingly though, the puzzles are lazy, inane, and/or require constant backtracking. Thanks to the game’s obsession with randomized values, the keys to puzzles tend to have improbable or outright stupid spawn locations. (“Oh, I need a wrench to loosen up this ungodly big door? Better check the fridge!”) Which, as a result, makes the trek to acquire these items even more obtuse and frustrating than it has any right to be.
Adding injury to insult, the game’s stealth and platforming controls are unrefined at best, unusable at worst. There are multiple instances of needing to stack multiple items and scale them in order to climb up to another room. These actions require so much effort to attain passable results, yet due to the instability and inconsistency of the physics engine, tend to glitch out half the time regardless of accuracy or effort.
“Maybe I should hide in the fridge. I’m sure I’ll find some ham that’ll help me solve some bullshit later on.”
Lastly, the game calls into question whether it can really be considered a “horror” game. Horror typically entails some level of helplessness on the end of the player. I’m an anxious, blathering mess whenever I play horror games, but outside of the occasional jump scare, I was calm as can be when playing HELLO NEIGHBOR. That’s bad. Neither the Neighbor, nor the things in his basement, were all that terrifying. Even when the Neighbor runs after you and his dramatic sting flairs as he gets alerted to your presence or catches you, there’s no impact, no sense of danger. He simply stares at you, blank, before carrying out the grisly act of . . . putting you back outside his house? There’s no punishment for failure, not really, when the penalty is basically being placed on time out. There’s not really even a loss of progress. You simply just have to deal with those goddamn security cameras for the 50th time.
HELLO NEIGHBOR is just one of many games this year that has floundered in so many different ways, it’s baffling. What’s most disappointing is that HELLO NEIGHBOR had a great concept with loads of potential. Instead of delivering, though, it results in a hollow derelict result following years of effort. If you enjoy living vicariously through Let’s Players and want to watch someone emote wildly to this, then by all means go for it. But this game is nowhere near worth the 30-dollar down payment.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend
Reviewed on PC, also available on Xbox One