“Hello Neighbor” Sucks

There are literally dozens of Switch games that I’m eager to play–physical and digital, across a variety of genres, some exclusive to the console, some universally available, and even some older titles getting remakes and re-releases on Nintendo’s joyous little console. Yet I’ve been trying to take it slow, attempting to get through the bulk of a game before moving on to the next; with single-player titles, I’m making more of an effort to complete the main campaign. With my limited time spent on video games, this significantly slows down my interactions with newer titles.

All that said, Hello Neighbor was not on the top of my list, but my wife has been interested in this game for a while. There are some games she likes to watch me play, even if she doesn’t want to play herself, and this was toward the top of her list. So, that’s what I picked up.

I’ve regretted that more or less since the first day. I’ve tried telling myself that I hadn’t given it a fair enough shake. Then I tried telling myself that I just wasn’t much of a puzzle enthusiast, that I was the wrong audience. Eventually I was telling myself that glitches happen in games, even game-breaking glitches. Now, I think I’m done. I’ve only played for maybe a dozen or so hours, most of that time spent struggling to counteract poor controls, puzzles spread out over a wide space with little intuitive connection, and bugs that failed to trigger events. Despite all that bullshit, I’m still squarely in the middle of Act 3 (with a Finale level to follow, apparently). So it’s a short, poorly constructed game.

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Hello Neighbor is marketed as a colorful survival horror/stealth puzzler game with bold visuals, in which you compete against your antagonistic Neighbor, to probe a dark secret stored in his basement. Selling points of the game are the sandbox interactions with the house and the neighbor’s adaptive AI.

I’ll allow that the game, at the least, does offer an AI (however rudimentary it actually seems to be in execution) that attempts to counter your actions, and it appears (from the walk-throughs I’ve scoured in frustration) that there are actually multiple ways to get through each level of the game (even if they’re almost all equally convoluted). I found, however, that the sandbox elements feel dampened severely when your goal is to end up in the same few spaces, and when environmental manipulation is so limited.

Controls are twitchy and imprecise. Your targeting is indicated by a minuscule dot. Even when you lock onto something, clicking the controls does not consistently deliver the desired response. There are only a few controls that do anything, and yet it’s not always clear which control is appropriate for a given outcome. Mostly, you can turn things on or off, pick things up, and throw things. A lot of the game requires some combination of stacking objects and jumping. This is as imprecise as everything else, made worse by the fact that “dropping” objects is more like lightly tossing them. Dropping an object in front of you can be affected by slight changes in viewing angle or even apparently random chance, making it difficult to consistently replicate an outcome. It’s just as variable as to which items you might be able to pick up; some are scene dressing, but it’s not clear why, say, an end table is off limits but a large dining chair can be tucked into your inventory like anything else. “Using” special items to perform a particular action is also limited; the magnet, for instance, only attracts metal objects that the game wants you to be able to grab via this method. Not to mention that, when you’re running from a child abductor, it’s frustrating that hurling a metal object at best slows him down, and there’s no option to strike said abductor with your handy wrench or crowbar (that last complaint, I recognize, is more a personal objection to the limiting confines of this particular style of YouTube-era tween-scream “horror” game–although at the least, these games usually try to be horrific, or at least jump-scare worthy, and this game is mostly just annoying).

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Hurtling through the air. A+ physics.

While I might have seemed a little more forgiving of the AI than the limited sandbox, I still wasn’t fond of it. Sometimes it worked well. Sometimes (like with Alien: Isolation), the neighbor seemed to become attached to me on a tether, racing back and forth between the same couple of rooms, maybe never bothering to check out my obvious hiding place (e.g., tucked into a partially cracked dresser or behind a pile of boxes) but nonetheless unreasonably convinced that I must be inhabiting a room with no sign of my presence. Sometimes the neighbor would set a truly hindering trap or knock away a prop I’d relied on, and sometimes he’d stare dumbly at the same window I’d jumped through half a dozen times or simply fail to reset the same trap I’d triggered just as many times before. Sometimes the neighbor would pursue me unshakably, even in the dim of night; sometimes I could run circles around him or run up on him from behind without detection; sometimes he’d be able to “catch” me by touching my feet while I was on a higher platform; sometimes I’d be able to dash past him less than an arm’s length away.

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The sometimes-this, sometimes-that nature of things made it difficult to get a feel for the game’s rules, such as they were. It made it difficult to figure out how exactly to approach problems. It made it difficult to understand if the game was being intentionally challenging, or if something was poorly thought through, or if something had broken again. Whenever you’re caught, you’re returned to your starting point at your house (or, in the middle act, in the neighbor’s basement), but you (normally) keep any of the four items you had in your inventory, while any environmental changes are completely up in the air. Will boxes be where you left them? Windows still broken or not? You won’t know until you get there!

I would have given up a lot sooner if not for the scant guides available online. I’d hop between them, looking for the least-tedious option to progress through a level. With virtually no clearly articulated goals (other than to ultimately get in or out of a locked basement), and with random objects hidden away throughout the house that will trigger inscrutable outcomes in other sections of the house, typically only discovered in turn with further searching, it’s amazing to me that anyone ever put in enough time to figure it all out. Literally one section of the game required breaking into an attic from the roof and going down a ladder into another room, then discovering and using a key to open a doll house, then selecting the small profiles of doors in the dollhouse to unlock rooms in the actual house. All without any explanation or any obvious input/output from your actions. Adding to the “fun,” the Neighbor suddenly decided to start scanning the rooftop for my presence, then raced to apprehend me and set a camera trap, making my future completion of any objectives up there incredibly tedious.

When things are so disconnected as is, it’s infuriating when the game just breaks. Walk-throughs taught me how I should have been able to acquire a wheel, by activating a series of pipe junctions, but when I did so, nothing happened. I had to load an older save and repeat the actions to get the wheel valve to burst from its mooring appropriately. In the third act, there’s a tram looping around on a roller coaster circuit (the third act is rather fantastical), and this tram can be boarded, and this tram will also consistently kill you when going down a slope–I guess the game thinks you’re free-falling. The tram death will reset you in the tram again at a different time of day, which says to me that the designers knew about the error but, rather than fixing it, just made it so that resetting didn’t disrupt your progress too badly. Except that I’ve noticed that if you let yourself die on the tram enough circuits in a row, it will reset you back in your house, only now without the ability to move forward(??), only to the sides, requiring a reset to fix. The tram is also the easiest way to get on the roof of a particular section to get to a wrench to open another area, but you’d have to be able to stop the tram just right. I’ve seen YouTube videos in which people freely control the tram. But I’ve tried every combination of buttons I could think of (including of course the usual use button), but nothing happens with the tram control lever. The tram continues on its own preset route, inevitably killing me in “free-fall.” There are places where I could jump on the tram, but the game chooses to treat me as immobile, standing in midair atop it as the tram continues to glide forward, leaving me to eventually fall. It’s this bloody tram, in fact, that finally killed my will to soldier on.

I don’t feel like I’m missing much. The story’s not interesting. First act: your boy protagonist sees evidence of the Neighbor committing some horrible act, so he goes to investigate, infiltrating the basement only to discover that it’s a dungeon apparently set for him. Second act: after capture, the boy must escape the dungeon and the grounds of the house, which has been expanded and is now ringed by a colossal fence. Third act: the boy, now a young man, returns to his abandoned home, observing the dilapidated Neighbor’s house; he begins to hallucinate, and after apparently being woken from a nap, he sees the most elaborate version of the house yet. He decides to infiltrate it again–presumably working through a dreamscape to cope with the traumas of his past. The dabbling in the surreal would be more interesting if it didn’t feel so narratively predictable, or if it didn’t result in ever-more-opaque game mechanics.

To add to the surrealism, whenever you are caught by the Neighbor, there is a chance of playing through one of several dark dream sequences that present an abstract glimpse of the Neighbor apparently losing his wife and daughter. The implication that the Neighbor was driven generically “mad” by his grief and now abducts children to attempt to fill the void in his life is offensively disconnected from any real psychological examination and did nothing to make me regard the Neighbor as more sympathetic. (Not that the boy’s coping with his childhood trauma in the third act feels any more realistic or profound.)

The novelty of the game and its colorful aesthetics don’t make up for its many, many structural flaws. This isn’t anything new to say; there are plenty of professional critic and consumer reviews that all reflect similar concerns. Metacritic reports an aggregated score of 39 for the Switch and 38 for the PC. It’s been out for about a year on the Switch, almost two years for PCs. I should have known better. But it can be hard to tell when a game is mediocre but still offering an interesting mechanic or story to make it worthwhile, and when a game is just outright bad. And of course, it’s more than a little bit of a subjective measure anyway. But I would add to the chorus of voices saying that Hello Neighbor is a plain old bad game.

Don’t make my mistake. Don’t ignore the overwhelming critical consensus here. There are plenty of games on the Switch. Choose something better. Choose anything else.

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