Everybody needs GOOD Neighbours
Game: Hello Neighbor
Developer: Dynamic Pixels
Reviewed on: Xbox One (Review code provided)
Hello Neighbor has a fascinating premise – you play as a young child who has spotted his neighbour across the road being very shifty through a window. What follows is an Alien Isolation-like series of stealth chapters, where you are tasked with infiltrating the house in question, solving a set of quasi puzzles, and finding out just what shocking mystery is hidden behind the creepy locked doors. All the while, your scarily voiceless, expressionless neighbour stalks around his home, ready to pounce on and grab any intruders – like the Xenomorph in the aforementioned Alien video game. This is all wrapped up in a day-glo, otherworldly aesthetic, which is almost like something out of sixties television mystery The Prisoner, which somehow makes everything seem even more sinister.
This puzzle-cum-stealth title proceeds across three acts – each featuring more complex buildings and mazes to explore and get lost in. What is really disorientating – whether this is intentional or not – is that there are no tutorials or instructions given at all. Whenever you step foot into the house, you are left at the mercy of the titular neighbour, as he holds all of the cards. You don’t even know what is and isn’t possible, so much of the game becomes a somewhat tedious game of trial and error. Knowing what items you are and are not able to pick up or manipulate is very hit and miss – and most of those which you do need to make use of are nonsensical and reminiscent of the kind of bad logic that once plagued the puzzle games of the eighties and nineties.
You can squat, smash through windows, use items as distractions and more, as you try to enter the house by whatever means necessary, and find door keys or other important items. For instance, finding an old radio and placing it on the front porch will lure your neighbour into unlocking the front door, giving you future access through that portal. This neighbour is very alert however, meaning that you will be repeatedly caught and flung back outside of the house. There are no game over screens here, but whenever the neighbour grabs you, you will be taken back outside the house. Thankfully, any progress you make or items you find will be kept after a fail – assuming you still held them when you were caught. Doors that you have managed to unlock stay unlocked, but this is where the famous AI comes into play.
The real thrust of Hello Neighbor is in the adaptive and learning artificial intelligence, which allows the neighbour to analyse all of your past actions, and make changes based on that. For instance, although you may have unlocked the kitchen door, if the neighbour sees you enter through that method, he might put a bear trap beneath the window to slow you down next time, or place CCTV cameras nearby to alert him to your repeat presence. Windows can be boarded up, meaning you have to locate a crowbar to regain access to the building, and other changes at each attempt make you have to rethink your plan of attack at every attempt.
This sounds like a great idea, however all-too-often instead it leads to dead-end scenarios, such as the neighbour constantly hanging around a point you need to get past, or appearing nearby instantly upon your respawn. This just becomes an irritation, and doesn’t feel like clever design at all. When you do succeed and get to the next stage of your sneaking mission, it often feels more like a stroke of luck, rather than something done intentionally. You can see that you are meant to unlock a fire escape to access the roof, however taking a leap of faith that looks like it really shouldn’t work can also do the job. True, this shows that there are a variety of different formulas to the puzzles on offer – which is a nice option to have in any game, but it never feels like real choices – just solutions you could stumble into.
To add to that, the control system is so glitchy, it makes some of the inch-perfect jumping and careful sneaking nigh on impossible. Too many times will your jumps not move where you thought they would and dropping items flings them off into the entirely wrong direction. On the odd occasion when you do find that elusive item you needed to move further through the game, it is too easy to fling it off into the dark, accidentally – sometimes dropping through the floor, becoming inaccessible and halting your progress full stop. Despite Hello Neighbor having been in Alpha and Beta testing for several years – and a lengthy delay being given to the retail release to allow more polish to be applied – this still feels like an unfinished title.
The sound design is very simplistic, but it does provide the only early-warning sign to players that your would-be-captor is nearby. A rumble in the control pad and a sinister theme play to let you know that he is approaching, acting like the blip of the famous radar in the Alien films. Sadly this is hardly ever warning enough, as usually the neighbour will be upon you before you have time to think. Hiding in cupboards or flinging items at the neighbour can slow him down or throw him off your scent, but even when he doesn’t see you enter a cupboard – if he has seen you do it before then he will automatically check in nearby cupboards – this is both one of the real successes of the AI system, but also something that again makes things rather tricky. If you have endless patience and don’t mind blindly groping around for any semblance of something that will help your plight.
Without guides and watching Youtube videos, it will be near impossible to make much headway with Hello Neighbor. Its puzzles are too obtuse and its controls too picky to allow for reasoned deductions to be made. The title is obviously supposed to be like this to an extent, but more often than not it is the clunky gameplay that causes you issues rather than the smart AI. Just simple additions such as a control tutorial and list of objectives for each area would help give some guidance and provide direction to the game. The adaptive AI is definitely the clear strong point of the entire experience, but it just feels like it hasn’t been applied to a fully-rounded game yet. Despite its long gestation time, it still simply feels like Hello Neighbor needed more testing and refinement to make it into the game it wants to be.