Star Wars: Battlefront II may have been 2017’s big PR disaster, but the game itself was mostly functional, assembly-line AAA pablum. The award for general, all-around “Trainwreck of the Year” goes to Hello Neighbor. I’ve certainly played worse games, but they were all obvious hack jobs made with no effort – the kind of product for which a review could be replaced with a screenshot and the caption, “Just look at it!” This project had passion behind it. It’s clearly aiming for the YouTube streamer market, but it doesn’t cheapen itself with easy jump scares, nor does it talk down to or attempt to monetarily exploit its audience. It seems to have had the purest intentions, yet somehow, everything that could go wrong did so consistently and catastrophically.
The game is part of a burgeoning sub-genre of ostensibly family-friendly horror – games that bypass a strong ESRB rating by avoiding violent content that young children explicitly shouldn’t see, but are still the sort of thing you probably shouldn’t let them play. Think Five Nights at Freddy’s, but less immediately startling. In this case, the universal creepiness of suburbia replaces the universal creepiness of animatronic mascots, as the game opens with the protagonist hearing an inhuman scream coming from his neighbor’s house, seeing him lock something in the basement, and vowing to sneak in and solve the mystery. Like FNAF, much of the gameplay feels fittingly like the logic of a nightmare, and as someone who has recurring nightmares about getting caught sneaking around somewhere I shouldn’t be, this premise should terrify me. Instead, it just irritates me. Constantly.
The “Neighbor” is an irredeemably obnoxious antagonist. Every description for this game boasts about his “advanced” AI, and whoever wrote that is clearly using a different definition of the word from the rest of us. “Advanced” AI is usually either realistic or smart, and this character can see and chase the player instantly from any distance and isn’t programmed to drop off ladders prematurely, even if the player has done so. That second point is the most reliable method of shaking him off, as he runs just as fast as you and can only be hidden from by hiding in cupboards, which are rarely placed in convenient locations. His non-aggressive behavior is erratic as well; when he’s not just sprinting from room to room, he’s falling asleep and being inconsistently awakened by player actions.
Not that he would have been frightening even if he had been appropriately implemented. His appearance and behavior are highly visible at all times, his “alerted” noise sounds like he’s afraid of you, and his method of disposing of you is to…return you to the other side of the street. There isn’t even any animation when he catches you – he either stares blankly at the screen or continues running on the spot. His one claim to competence as an AI is his tendency to board up windows and place traps and cameras in response to your movements. It’s an interesting feature, especially when its executed mid-gameplay. Unfortunately, no one thought to limit its use, so it quickly spirals out of control, culminating in clusters of cameras around every entrance after only a handful of failed incursion attempts.
And there will be many failed attempts, because the steps required to access the basement are astonishingly obtuse even by adventure game standards, and you’re expected to figure them out even with the all-seeing Neighbor prowling about. Some of them border on nonsensical, but equally frustrating are the ones that require following pipes and wires through multiple areas, and the occasional non-puzzle, the most egregious of which was finding a wrench inside a fridge for no apparent reason. The game actually takes place over three acts, each with increasingly complex houses, and the third one is probably closest to the game’s ideal state. It’s there that the structure becomes a sprawling, surreal landscape with enough wiggle room to turn the Neighbor into an occasional obstacle rather than a perpetual annoyance. However, it also contains the most dead ends and circuitous paths of a game filled with them, so it’s still thoroughly unenjoyable.
The wrench in the fridge is the most memorable logical lunge because it highlights how terribly unclear and inconsistent the game is. You can open every drawer and container in the house, but that fridge is the only important one. Sometimes, vital objects are just lying in a nondescript room, while other times, difficult discoveries reveal nothing but junk. Even the controls aren’t safe. Hello Neighbor’s Unreal-backed physics are too accurate for their own good; crawling across jagged pipes and constructing unreliable box platforms evokes the glitchy, unstable feeling of sequence breaking experimentation from early 3D platformers. In fact, there are several places – particularly when climbing atop a pixel-wide chainlink fence – where I honestly don’t know if I was following the intended solution or not, because it felt so wrong, but hey, it worked.
Non-verbal communication in video games is often praised, but Hello Neighbor demonstrates that that’s mainly because most developers who try to use it are good at it. The story here is especially ineffective in that regard. The best part of the whole game is between acts 1 and 2, because a) the Neighbour is nowhere to be seen, b) it’s got a genuinely creepy atmosphere, and c) it blows the door open for all manner of narrative directions. However, the remaining acts steadily drain that hope, doing nothing with the established intrigue, introducing what I’d charitably call an irrelevant subplot involving mannequins, and closing with the most clichéd cop-out ending imaginable. Additionally, getting caught occasionally drops you into a playable flashback of the Neighbor’s life, which is woven exceptionally poorly into the overall plot and is, once again, totally irrelevant.
Not that I’d want any of these characters to actually speak; the sound design is dreadful enough as it is. The Neighbor’s constant vocalizations are both annoying and uninformative for gameplay purposes, the cacophonic “proximity warning” sound gives no indication of direction, making it useless noise, and I’ll be hearing the simplistic chase theme in my nightmares – and not for the intended reason. The visual design is similarly flawed; I appreciate the heavy stylization over attempted realism, but the lack of distinction between useful and useless objects is likely a result of bad stylization. Additionally, animation is poor and occasionally nonexistent (the Neighbor throws objects to impede his prey, and they appear to just launch spontaneously from his head). Strangely, elements like lighting and plant life actually look worse than in the old beta builds.
Hello Neighbor’s sorry state can probably be blamed on its bizarre development cycle; there were over half a dozen playable versions of this game prior to its “full” release, and I’m willing to bet the publisher finally got sick of this process and forced a release of whatever build was currently available. This final version thus feels like a jumble of ideas from the various alphas and betas smashed together without any logical introduction or conclusion. Act 2 institutes a day/night cycle whose only purpose is reducing the Neighbor’s vision a third of the time, even though darkness in general has no similar effect. The protagonist has a fully modeled and explorable house that serves no purpose. And most confusingly, certain rooms teleport you to frustrating and unsettling minigames, which are never mentioned again.
Writing all of this out in succession makes it sound completely ridiculous, but that’s honestly why Hello Neighbor had potential. Its mechanics and presentation are often enormously creative, and the seeds of an excellent stealth, adventure, or horror game, as well as an intriguing story, are all present. But every one of them failed to come to fruition in spectacular fashion. Each decision that went into the design only makes the game more frustrating from each of its genres’ perspectives. If the story has any deeper significance than what I’m aware of, it’s communicating it terribly. It’s not the worst game of the year, but it’s definitely the one that fell farthest from its target.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which we were provided with by tinyBuild.
Hello Neighbor is incompetent and barely playable as a horror, stealth, or adventure game, in addition to being incoherent as a narrative.