Hello Neighbor is a strange game. It’s also a game I had been meaning to play for a while, but put off after a string of let’s plays and reviews warned me that the bugs are just too much to bear. Sadly we’re not talking bugs like Amnesia’s insects — rather, the graphics and gameplay glitches that are the bane of gamers everywhere. The question with the PS4 release of Hello Neighbor, therefore, is whether the bug squashing and quality of life improvements have helped cut the diamond out of the rough.
Like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Hello Neighbor is what I would loosely describe as a survival puzzle horror. You have all the nail-biting suspense of a first-person survival horror, but with the extra fun of having blocked paths, keys masquerading as magnets and wrenches, and a frustratingly poor item management/use system. The game has also been described as a stealth horror, but there is more trial and error with the puzzles than stealth, so if you’re hoping for something like Thief or Dishonored, you’re going to have a bad time.
The premise of Hello Neighbor is very simple: you are a young boy, probably aged 10–13 years. As you jovially kick a ball down the street, you hear a blood-curdling, frankly inhuman scream coming from your neighbour’s house. A little bit of cut-scene snooping reveals a struggle with an unknown victim, who is then locked away in the basement. From here, it is your job to do what any self-respecting kid would do: break in and find out what the hell is going on.
Breaking and entering puts an interesting spin on the survival horror genre. Unlike most games where you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, in Hello Neighbor you are actively breaking your neighbour’s windows, destroying his boilers and draining his swimming pool. Now, you might think that you have what’s coming to you for being a little reprobate, but the neighbour goes to the extremes to catch you. He installs CCTV, he boards up the windows you break and leaves bear traps below them to catch you in the act, and he puts a shark in his swimming pool. As the game progresses, these traps, along with his house in general, get more and more elaborate. Likewise, what the kid sees as reality gets increasingly questionable. In a couple of places, this feels like the kid is having PTSD, having escaped the neighbour’s basement at the end of Act 1 after living there for an unknown but substantial length of time. This is a fantastic level of depth that I did not expect, and kudos to Dynamic Pixels for raising mental health in such a subtle and unexpected way.
Adding to this are the strange dream sequences that the kid lives through — seeing the neighbour in a car crash or riding a rollercoaster through the neighbour’s house; whether these are nightmares based on fact or something else entirely remains to be seen. These sequences happen when you get caught enough times, which really isn’t a problem for the completionist — you get caught an obscene amount of times. I know you’re a kid and your neighbour is an athletic adult who possesses some terrifying intellect, as seen by his architectural skills, but it’s disconcerting how efficient he is at catching you. His intelligence and ruthlessness is akin to the alien from Alien Isolation. Yes, you can hide in a wardrobe when your vision starts to darken as draws closer, but that’s about it. You run at the same speed as him, but he doesn’t take fall damage and cannot die; you can throw items at him to slow him down, but the aim (and the controls in general) are so poor, you’re more likely to wind up throwing away the key you need to finish the level than anything else. Since you can’t cancel a wound-up throw, you’re better off dying than risking item loss. The icing on the cake here is the obligatory underwater section. This is the only survival horror game I have ever played where the protagonist can’t drown and the water has no physical properties beyond a visual filter. So the game has that accolade, I guess.
The item management and your ability to lose key items is my biggest contention with Hello Neighbor. Towards the end of the game when trying to juggle multiple keys, a crowbar and an umbrella (because this follows similar logic to 90s point-and-click adventures like Sam and Max), I discovered that the four-item max inventory was a real hindrance. If you’re weighed down by four keys, you can’t move a chair out of the way or pick up a tennis ball. Naturally, I’d drop a key so I could pick up something to break a window with — only to get caught and lose the key in the grass. After several attempts at finding it (you can easily get caught within 15 seconds of respawning), I loaded an old file to see my items mysteriously missing. This happening once is a frustrating bug, but this happened multiple times, which is unforgivable. I have always felt that the save feature should save everything — not just your inventory — but Hello Neighbor doesn’t even get this right. Loading files and losing items is the ultimate gaming feel-bad. When the save file itself is betraying you, you know it’s time to walk away.
There is more I could say about Hello Neighbor — the enemy being able to see your shadow is cool, but the rest of the physics in the game are questionable at best. It’s fascinating that the written text in the game is similar enough to English that I strongly suspect the kid is dyslexic — again, kudos to the developer — but no matter how enticing the plot and backstory are — and I genuinely want to know how it ends — the bugs are game-breaking: the neighbour walked through walls to get to me more times than was funny. The visuals and world design are creepy as all hell, with cartoon horror that will pull me in every time, but the soundtrack is bland and forgettable.
That’s not to say that Hello Neighbor is bad. I played it spine-tinglingly close to the end, but alas, the bugs got the better of me in the end and I just couldn’t bring myself spend any more time playing it.
With some quality of life improvements, Hello Neighbor could be the thing of beauty that I had hoped it would be. At the very least, I can say that when the player puts down the controller to read the ending on Wikipedia, the designers got something right.
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*
- Enticing plot with a unique twist on the genre
- The game incorporates things like PTSD and dyslexia without making a song and dance about it — if nothing else, this deserves notice
- Some quality of life adjustments could make this game an easy
- It’s buggy to the point of rage-quitting
- The soundtrack is bland and forgettable
- The item management and use systems are very poorly design