Hello Neighbor wants to do two things. The first is that it wants you to play head-to-head up against a malevolent AI kidnapper/murder man in a high-stakes game of cat and mouse. The second is that it wants you to solve puzzles in tightly constructed environments. The combination of these two game design ideas should, in theory, create a very exciting scenario. Hello Neighbor is meant to be a more reactive Alien Isolation or a more dynamic Amnesia. The reality, I am sad to report, is that Hello Neighbor fails at those things. It is a fickle, arbitrary experience that demands you be a mind reader, an expert in level layout, and a master of a fumbling control scheme.
Hello Neighbor opens with a horrible scene. A child is screaming and you, a young boy who is running down the middle of the damn street playing with a ball, sneak up to a window to see what’s going on. There’s a man, and he’s locking a door. You can still hear the screams. He nabs you, but that’s not the end. You need to get inside of his house, unlock the door, and see what’s up.
The game is almost 100% hands-off from that point forward. There are no hints, no tips, and very few visual signifiers about how to move forward or respond to the stalking, grunting, kidnapping Man. I can imagine that in the design process, or at least in the conversations about how the game might make its way out into the world, that this could have been talked about as a positive. It might mean that hardcore players will commit, solve and then share their solutions on YouTube or streaming platforms. Putting players in the world and saying “well, get to it, buster” forces people to seek out help.
If that isn’t confusing enough, there is an all-seeing, all-knowing entity stalking the levels. The Man, who will chase you, throw glue at you, smack you with some sort of red substance that blurs your vision, and ultimately strangle you so that you need to restart the level (with your progress and items saved, of course) is hard to deal with. He’s existentially terrifying. I have no idea how he operates or how he is controlled. Sometimes you can walk right past him and he doesn’t see or hear you. Sometimes he’s got a laser target on your forehead when you step on a baby blade of grass. It is unpredictable, and that lack of predictability is frustrating.
Up against this cat and mouse simulation are the puzzles I mentioned before. They are right out of a 1980s Sierra adventure game. In the opening map, the “true” solution appears to be: stacking boxes to break into the second story of the house, getting a car trunk key, opening the trunk to get a magnet, using the magnet to steal a lockpick, using the lockpick to open a door, and getting a wrench from the newly opened door to climb a giant ladder that just happens to lead to the exact room where the basement key is located. It is purely via an act of God that you might discover that pathway to the solution (and, to be clear, that’s the most barebones and unhelpful way of describing it).
The puzzle design feels like a case of over-familiarity. The designers are incredibly competent at understanding the rules of their own system, and so are the QA testers. The community of YouTubers or Twitch users who have been playing the game since the alpha are also enfranchised to the way this game models its world. This led the design team to take this level of skill and commitment for granted, and it feels like they designed the puzzles to appease those players rather than a novice. This is, to be clear, only speculation on my part, but I honestly can’t think of another situation where this kind of designed obtuseness could come into play. It isn’t a mistake, it’s a choice, and it feels like it was the wrong one.
When the AI and the puzzle design smash into each other, it creates scenarios where the player is more often fighting against the controls and the game’s limited physics system rather than the puzzles or the AI itself. For example, in that first map, part of the solution is climbing onto a roof. I knew what I had to do, so there was no puzzle to be solved. I was not working on something that would be rewarding. I was performing a rote, boring action, and my jump kept bumping me off my stacked boxes and onto the ground. The Man would inevitably hear me, come running, and strangle me, forcing me to start over.
So here’s where I was: I had solved the puzzle, and the AI kept getting in my way, forcing me to restart. There is no punishment, nothing lost, in restarting. I just had to start my bad platforming over again. It was a pointless time sink. The AI system and the puzzles clashed in the most horrible, bad-feeling way. It broke me.
Hello Neighbor is the kernel of something great, but it feels like it should have cooked for longer. I am the biggest supporter of weird ideas and new game concepts, and this legitimately is one. I can imagine a game of this type entering into the lineage of Dishonored or the aforementioned Isolation, but it would require some significant retooling and reformulation, and it would require a choice between AI vs. player contests and player vs. environment puzzles. Currently, Hello Neighbor tries to have its cake while eating it too, and everyone goes home disappointed when that happens.
Hello Neighbor was developed by Dynamic Pixels and published by TinyBuild. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for Xbox One.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.