“Wait, why is it doing that?” This question, posited by a dear friend dragged into a late night playthrough of Hello Neighbor, best summarizes our experience with this train wreck of a supposed stealth-based infiltration game.
Hello Neighbor plays like an amateur game jam release that was fluffed up for commercial sale, minus taking the time and effort necessary to polish up the game to a PS1 platformer level of playability. I made the mistake of getting the Switch version for our playthrough, which is apparently the worst of the lot (but not by much). The sensitivity for the camera and walking was horrendously touchy, and turning it down as low as we possibly could did little alleviate our struggles. Our line of sight jerked from left to right so abruptly I’m amazed our character didn’t get whiplash. Trying to target and click on a target’s hit box was a bit like trying to thread worsted weight yarn through a sewing machine needle in the middle of an earthquake. All the use, drop, and collect buttons for items are permanently mapped to bumpers and triggers, for reasons we could never quite deduce. On top of being clumsy, the walking controls feel like ice skating on slowly-melting butter, unless you’re jumping and your camera freezes in one direction. And considering how heavily this game relies on precision platforming, these design choices are egregious and unforgivable flaws.
To make matters worse, navigating the game was entirely a course of trial and error. Hello Neighbor utterly lacks any sort of guidance, and I don’t just mean there’s no map. There are no tutorials for controls, only occasional button prompts or a dot in the center of your screen becoming slightly bigger near interactable objects. There are no mission goals, only an opening cutscene to hint that your goal should be acquiring keys to unlock doors. Hello Neighbor spent two years in an alpha state, and the final product seems to believe all current players joined during the alpha or saw someone else’s playthrough of the game, and thus don’t need anything more than the bare bones of plot and mechanical guidance.
And when I saw bare bones, I mean that the total amount of story bestowed upon the player wouldn’t even pass muster as an outline for a fictional short story in English 101. You’re dropped straight into the “action” with a brief cutscene of your neighbor doing something suspicious. Before you can properly investigate, he grabs you, screen fades to black, and you respawn at your house. There is no indication for why your character feels the need to investigate the neighbor, or even what that might entail. All that’s been established in the exposition is that there are no consequences to be found in this alleged thriller game. Otherwise, Hello Neighbor is happy to unleash you, sweet and clueless soul that you are, upon this confusing and largely empty world, not unlike a puppy dropped off at doggy daycare to aimlessly mill about for hours on end.
The hunter vs hunted aspect of avoiding the neighbor is so poorly executed that it quickly morphs from a thriller into a nightmare of frustration. There’s no way to track the neighbor’s location, no paths to map, no rhyme or reason to his trap-setting habits. Sometimes the neighbor will be such a constant presence that you can’t even enter the house, while other rounds saw him disappear on us for upwards of half an hour. His line of sight is absurdly long, but so incredibly narrow that you can literally walk five feet behind him as long as you don’t run. And the captures induce no more stress than a childhood game of tag: he touches you, the screen fades to black, and the level resets. Get used to it, because you’re going to spend most of Hello Neighbor getting caught over, and over, and over.
Perhaps knowing how garment-rendingly loathsome their AI is, Dynamic Pixels programmed Hello Neighbor to have the most forgiving save system I’ve ever encountered. Every capture by the neighbor ends in immediately respawning at the starting point of the Act. This includes holding whatever items were in your possession prior to getting caught. Doors you opened remain open, flipped switches are still flipped, and so on. There’s no risk of negative consequences for negligence, disincentivizing the player from properly sneaking about when a brute force method will do just as well. In fact, there’s often lore-based benefits to allowing yourself to be captured.
Sometimes between respawns, the game will give you extra short scenes that need to be walked through before you can return to the main game. For example, we saw the neighbor in a flashback in a hospital waiting room, sobbing, with heavy indications in other scenes that he had a daughter who died horribly. Why hide the lore inside these random scenes? There was clearly some intention to have an overarching story in Hello Neighbor at one point, so why can that story only be accessed when a player fails to meet game-advancing goals?! There’s an undeniable disconnect between the story Dynamic Pixels intended to tell, and the mechanics used to execute that story.
But what killed me slowly about Hello Neighbor was that the overall gameplay design feels less like a game made with traditional mechanics in mind, and more a platformer geared towards speedrunners seeking to exploit and abuse every stray pixel or wayward grabbable item in their immediate vicinity. Jumps are made to fling you across the level, and items are haphazardly scattered as though they truly didn’t intend for anything to be picked up. There’s a key that can, by design, only be acquired via clipping through the case holding it. There are water puzzles, but no water physics, only a filter on the screen. The platforming universally makes no sense, with the best (or often, only) routes to key items involving unprompted jumping onto wall-mounted lamps to breach gates, or precision floating around the house’s exterior to reach a random water spout. There’s no sense of achievement in beating puzzles and moving forward, merely wordless frustration at the circuitous route the game wanted you to take to reach that goal.
Hello Neighbor is an irredeemable mess from start to finish. It sells itself as a game focused on sneakily avoiding a possibly murderous neighbor, but the only stealth mechanic to be found is a button to hide in dressers, where you still usually get caught. There’s no reveal of what the neighbor was actually doing in the end, no answers to the mysterious screams we heard at the start of the game or what happened to the missing children from our neighborhood. The levels are poorly laid out, necessary objects are impossible to find without a guide of some sort, and there’s not even a sense of accomplishment in solving a puzzle because it felt so badly designed. In short, it’s simply not fun. It should tell you something that the overwhelming majority of positive reviews for Hello Neighbor were published during the alpha release and featured comments hoping that the bugs and rough edges would be worked out by the game’s final release. Suffice to say, those fixes and game improvements wholly failed to manifest. Please do not put yourself through the agony of playing it, and spend your time and money doing something more enjoyable, like jamming toothpicks under your fingernails.