Did you ever see a trailer for a comedy that you thought looked hilarious, but when you watched it, you realised you’d already seen all of the genuinely funny moments in the trailer? That is, in essence, the problem with Hello Neighbor.
(Well, that and the fact Hello Neighbor is spelled the American way, without a ‘u’ in neighbour. That drives me up the wall every time I write about it.)
But back to the issue at hand: tinyBuild released a number of alpha builds for Hello Neighbor, to get people excited and invested in the idea. It was a solid plan, except the early alpha builds – effectively the game’s first act – were the most enjoyable part of the experience. It’s like the trailer spoiling all the best bits of the movie.
The first act, all Pixar visuals and chirpy sounds, sees our protagonist, a small boy, lose his ball down the hill in front of the titular neighbour’s house. Upon retrieving the ball, the child notices the neighbour is behaving suspiciously, hiding something. And channelling the spirit of McCauley Culkin – not that he’s dead, but he’s sure as hell not Kevin McCallister anymore – the child endeavours to uncover the neighbour’s secret. By breaking into the house and finding his way into the basement.
The elevator pitch for Hello Neighbor is that the titular neighbour learns from how you play. If you keep breaking in through the same window, he might leave a bear trap under it. If you keep sneaking in the front door, he might position a security camera there. While not exactly ground-breaking, emergent artificial intelligence, it’s a neat idea that necessitates variety, and one that works well in the above-ground sections of the game.
The fact the neighbour learns your favourite tricks keeps you on your toes. You’ll need to change your approach to get in and out several times to get various coloured keys, for example. One key unlocks a room, which contains a car key; the car boot contains a magnet; the magnet can be used to retrieve a tool to access another key; and so on, until you eventually unlock the basement to progress to act two.
When you get down into the basement – complete with unsettling hints to what the neighbour may be hiding – gears shift from light-hearted caper to psychological horror. Reverse Home Alone becomes that bit in the basement from Silence of the Lambs in the blink of an eye. And it’s not very nice. There are monsters, too, in addition to the monstrous figure of the neighbour.
Gone are the bright colours and playful sounds. Gone is the sense of whimsy and charm. Gone too, is the variety of approach. The improvisation and creativity of the above ground segments are replaced with a tense, more traditional first-person stealth motif, like Thief, or the stealth sections of Metro 2033. What Hello Neighbor doesn’t have, however, is the ability to fight back if you screw up. Punitive stealth is the worst kind of gameplay, and it’s infinitely worse if you can’t bludgeon your way out of an error (like in Metal Gear Solid V, or The Last of Us).
Act three returns the player to the neighbour’s house, above ground, but things have changed. The house has grown. It’s surreal, multi-tiered, serviced by a miniature railway. Where this should serve to reinstate the first act’s creative sandbox, however, works only to frustrate further. The biggest issue with Hello Neighbor, that really becomes apparent in the third act, is how fiddly the controls are. When you were wrestling with them in a normal sized house, it was fine – irritating at times, but manageable – but relying on imprecise platforming and item management while being chased around a ten story M. C. Escher painting of a house? It’s a nightmare.
Combine that with bizarre dream sequences and an increasingly obtuse series of puzzles – think 90s point and click adventure, but more arbitrary – and you’ll wonder why you’re still trudging through Hello Neighbor at all.
Is the payoff worth it, when you get to the end and find what the neighbour is hiding? Not really. There’s a surreal boss fight (yes, boss fight) and a few sequences that don’t explain adequately any of what’s taken place. If you get to the end of Hello Neighbor and you’re any less than baffled at what’s gone on, we salute you.
Is it worth playing the newly-released Hello Neighbor Switch version over other platforms, then? No, not especially. While the portable nature of the Switch would be ideal if the game were a dip in and out sandbox, there isn’t enough meat to justify playing act one – the good act – over and over. It’s also a game that is fiddly to the point of frustration if you’re not using a mouse; quite why they couldn’t have implemented tilt controls for precision aiming (like Splatoon 2, or Breath of the Wild) on this version is beyond us.
To add further insult to injury, the Switch version of Hello Neighbor can judder and grind, usually at the most inopportune moment. This one might be proof – if ever it were needed – that not every great idea makes a solid game, and not every game needs a Switch port.