At some point in time, mainstream media gave up on the innocent girl next door trope and decided it would be better if we began to question whether our neighbour’s trimmer was more commonly used on hedges or heads. Films like Disturbia (2007), Kept Woman (2015), and The Neighbor (2016) do little to soothe that societal Geitiphobiea (yes, there is a word for having a fear of your neighbours) and are enough to make anyone suspicious of a house with a basement. Seriously, what do people keep down there if not broken tools and severed heads? In 2017, however, developer Dynamic Pixels aim to expand upon this fear even further by adding to the library of neighour-based stealth survival horror media with their upcoming game, Hello Neighbor.
The game begins with the protagonist (you) moving into a new house in a new suburb. Instead of the usual welcome baskets cliché, you are greeted by screams coming from across the street and the visual of a man dragging something across the floor of his American-style double-story home. The logical next step? Sneak in and investigate. Phone calls to the police are apparently highly overrated.
The premise of Hello Neighbor stirred the detective (some would say trespasser, vandal, stalker…) within me, and after having watched a couple of trailers and a playthrough of the alpha build, Hello Neighbor was my most anticipated game coming into 2017 (which I wrote about here). It was intended to be released in August of this year but was pushed back to December 8th due to issues with bugs. So, instead of a full review, I thought I’d share some first impressions of Hello Neighbor (based on hands-on experience with the beta 3 build).
The neighbour’s house is a work of art. What began as a classic double storey home in the first alpha build, has turned into a Willy Wonka inspired monstrosity in this latest build. The house is vast and surprising – each room is like an homage to modern art, but with a door and a chair to give the façade of functionality. As you delve deeper into the depths of the house, or rise up to the roof, the player’s environment becomes quite surreal – almost like some kind of freakish toybox nightmare. Honestly, this guy needs to be on Grand Designs. He has a working train running through the interior and around the exterior of his house.
To witness the weirdness to its full extent, you’re going to have to solve puzzles all over the neighbour’s house. Many, many puzzles. Some require adept timing, others lateral thinking, and all involve the use of household items in isolation or combination. Almost anything you find in and around the neighbour’s home can be picked up and thrown – I solved puzzles using everything from a piece of cake to a shoe that resembled a Dunlop Volley. There are so many different items to interact with, I often found myself picking something up simply to answer the question “what does this do?”
However, you have little time to ponder life’s mysteries when there is a potential serial killer hunting you down. The neighbour has booby-trapped his home with sensors, security cameras, bear traps, and other clever systems in order to prevent you from discovering his secret. So while traversing the house looking for items to unlock THAT door, or switch THAT lever, you constantly have to be aware of the neighbour’s location, and your exit points. Stealth is key.
When (not if) you’re caught by the neighbour, you respawn at your house across the road. It seems like a harmless punishment… until you realise that the neighbour now knows your tricks. If you use the same strategy too many times, the game responds by setting a trap where you previously could walk, or sending the neighbor to your exact location. It’s an ingenious piece of AI that forces the player to develop a range of strategies to solve each situation. Dynamic Pixels should be applauded for this feature of the game (quietly, so the neighbour doesn’t hear you).
Unfortunately, Hello Neighbour is let down slightly by its visuals as well as the character and camera controls. At times, throwing an item (a necessity to complete many puzzles) can feel quite clumsy. This is largely because the first person view and large polygon graphics make it difficult to orient yourself in the space. This also becomes an issue when jumping and is particularly frustrating when trying to solve puzzles or evade the neighbour at pace.
Hello Neighbour is an inviting game (despite the security cameras and locked doors) that is improving with every build. Framed within the serial killer neighbour context, the absurdity of the physical environment allows for a range of entertaining and challenging puzzles. It is even better when you realise that evading the neighbour is a puzzle in itself. I’d say that Dynamic Pixels are on to a winning formula – and they would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those pesky… controls and fairly ordinary graphics and animation. Regardless, Hello Neighbour is fast becoming a fan favourite, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it earned another alliterative accolade once it all comes together – cult classic.