Hello Neighbor is among the worst games of 2017
Hello Neighbor won’t be the very last game I review this year. I can only pray that it will be the worst. As of now, the first-person stealth puzzler is the worst game I can remember covering in a long time.
That’s a shame, because the premise is promising enough. It’s like a suburban take on Rear Window set in the world of Psychonauts’ Milkman Conspiracy. Empty, twisted cookie-cutter houses embody a cartoonish paranoia. The player character, a young boy presumably native to the breezy street where the game takes place, sees something he shouldn’t. His titular neighbor has shoved a shrieking somebody (or something) into his basement. It’s your job to learn who or what.
All of this is implied through imagery. It has to be, since there isn’t really any dialogue in Hello Neighbor. There’s also no tutorial or anything like a basic breakdown of the controls, either. That quickly becomes a problem as you realize nothing works as it should, from avoiding your pursuer to stacking crates to sneak in through windows.
The box and the breaking point
Hello Neighbor is nominally a stealth game. You need to dodge the clutches of the mustachioed neighbor or face being teleported back to the beginning of a given level. But it’s really a puzzle game—one where you poke around for the right objects to open the right doors or flip the right switches at the right times.
It all feels terribly uncertain. There’s no option to drop objects you pick up, for instance, only varying degrees of hurling them. That becomes an issue almost immediately in the game’s very first puzzle, which calls for careful crate stacking. Maybe you’ll huck a box as gently as possible into a wall or the ground only to have it phase through solid matter thanks to the game’s serious clipping issues. Or maybe it’ll bounce so hard it flies 30 feet in the air. Or maybe it’ll hit you so hard that your character does the flying! The physics are so world-class wonky, on top of the imprecise item control, it’s hard to know what to expect.
Around these obstacles is the inscrutable neighbor. The penalty for being caught by him isn’t too rough; you just restart a level with some or all of your progress intact. But it’s not always clear how much progress is lost. Sometimes broken windows and stacked crates stay that way. Other times, they don’t.
Likewise, and even more frustrating, it’s next to impossible to map the neighbor’s behavior. Sometimes he can hear you tiptoeing around him through walls or 50 paces over his shoulder. Other times I could sprint up behind him and not be heard. Whatever the case, it’s incredibly difficult to plot an escape if and when his sharp alert music does sound off. You can fling debris into his face to slow him down or try to hide in cabinets, but otherwise your means of escape feel paltry compared to your frustratingly unstoppable assailant.
You can’t peek around corners. If a door opens inward, it’ll clock your character’s face unless you approach it from just the right distance and angle (which is just the most exquisitely frustrating thing when you need to beat a hasty retreat). You can’t actually move objects out of the way without picking them up, either, so you need to clear out inventory space just to shift some debris that’s blocking a story-critical door. Oh, and lining up your reticule to interact with objects in the first place is fiddly as all get out.
A series of unfortunate problems
If this review seems like an endless list of grievances so far, that’s reflective of how Hello Neighbor feels moment to moment. The game is all about reaching some puzzle—a door that needs opening, or window that needs breaking-—and remembering every glaring technical problem in sequence. Then it’s starting all over again if the physics break in just the wrong way to reset your progress to zero or if the neighbor boxes you into a corner.
You can’t even save scum or easily restart levels if things go completely sideways. As with getting caught by the neighbor, “restarting” a section doesn’t actually reset anything. It just teleports you back to the beginning of the level; your inventory and progress remain unchanged. So when I accidentally chucked a critical flashlight in a pitch black basement, I figured it would be easier to just start over rather than trying in vain to retrieve it. Nope, the flashlight remained lost, forcing me to fumble around for the necessary button in the dark for a half hour. Restarting was only really useful when I reached an otherwise game-breaking bug that trapped me between two fences.
Incomprehensible, unsatisfying, forgettable
Even without the technical problems, you’d still have to puzzle out Hello Neighbor’s quite unintuitive puzzles. The tutorial-free first level does at least imply you need to get into the basement. But the actual first step in the mission is to reach the attic, collect a magnetic doohickey, and use it to snag an innocuous piece of jagged metal that turns out to be a lockpick. Things only get more obtuse from there as the game’s loose plot turns more surreal.
That surrealism is enticing, but it’s just not enough to make up for the game’s panoply of issues. Even well after its public release, Hello Neighbor still looks and feels unfinished. A few bug fixes and additions (like an easy setting for your opponent’s AI) haven’t shored up the core gameplay issues, much less the general lack of polish. The neighbor still shivers and skids across the ground. The audio still pops when the alert music abruptly cuts out as you escape…
While there’s a promising premise here, Hello Neighbor is an increasingly surreal mess. Its visual storytelling, which strangely mostly plays out in scenes after you get caught, can’t stand up in a deluge of bad design. Here’s hoping I won’t have to play another game like it before 2018.
- A surreal premise blending Rear Window and Psychonauts
- Infuriating, ham-fisted controls
- Buggy, uncertain physics
- Nonsensical puzzles
- Inscrutable enemy AI
- Game-breaking bugs
- Pushing a story-critical object through a wall and having to figure out where it wound up
Verdict: Hello Neighbor is the worst game I’ve reviewed all year. Skip it with prejudice.