When I was a kid, I had a pair of creepy, reclusive neighbors who lived next door and greeted everyone with a sneer. My imagination spent a lot of time constructing what kind of weird stuff might actually be going on in their shuttered, suburban home – so the premise of Hello Neighbor was enticing because it was practically out of my autobiography. As the plucky, unnamed child protagonist, you hear and see some disturbing things through your strange middle-aged neighbor’s window and take it upon yourself to investigate. Unfortunately, the most disturbing thing you find within ends up being the puzzle design.
Hello Neighbor is essentially a stealth game in which the ultimate goal of each of its three acts is to find a way into the neighbor’s basement and uncover what he’s hiding while he roams around trying to catch you and kick you out. However, because the house’s floor plan gets larger and more elaborate across each of the acts, it creates some pacing issues and a strange inverse difficulty curve where stealth is much harder to maintain in the beginning. Act 1’s modest cottage, for instance, was a pain to infiltrate due to the sheer lack of space between me and the neighbor. He was always practically on top of me, and getting caught was very common, even with cabinets to hide in and the ability to slow him down by throwing objects in his path. This served to really dull the tension – a good horror game makes you afraid of getting caught but avoids having it happen too commonly, lest you lose the fear of failure.
The later two acts felt better from a stealth standpoint thanks to more room to maneuver, but they featured some of the most bizarre and frustrating, “guess what I’m thinking” puzzles since the days of the ‘90s adventure game boom. In fact, they’re worse in that the combination of items and actions needed to progress often don’t make any logical sense whatsoever, which turns it into pure trial and error. Solving a puzzle usually didn’t give me a sense of satisfaction. It made me say, “THAT was the solution? How would anyone have ever made those connections?”
To give one example, I had to freeze a pool of water by putting a globe recovered from an obscure corner of the house (which was its own illogical adventure) in the neighbor’s freezer on a completely different floor, then placing it on a random pedestal. That definitely shouldn’t work. Furthermore, reaching the final boss requires you to get a double jump ability that’s hidden away in a secret area you’re never encouraged to visit, and I spent about an hour trying to figure out how to access the area by other means. The arcane voodoo that underpins the world is never explained, and I frequently had to resort to community guides from the early access version to figure out what to do.
This is really Hello Neighbor’s biggest failing: it does an abysmal job of teaching you what kind of interactions are possible within its world and nudging you toward progress. I can only imagine how long it would have taken me to complete in total isolation, banging every item I could round up against every combination of appliances. Weeks? Months? If I hadn’t been playing it for review, I’m certain my patience would have run out before then.
There are rewards for navigating this labyrinth. The basement segments at the end of each act are effective at ratcheting up the creepiness and even presenting some outright horror. The overall mood and feel – you’re in normal old suburbia but something is always just a little bit off – is well-constructed in terms of graphics and audio. And the way the neighbor learns your favorite routes through the house and sets traps and cameras to trip you up was a cool touch.
Perhaps Hello Neighbor was always intended to be more of a “cooperative” experience among a group of people playing in parallel. Its complexity and oddball internal logic suggests some kind of byzantine enigma box intended to be pecked away at by a community sharing discoveries on a forum or Discord server until someone finally reaches the end, like the notorious Mount Chiliad mystery in Grand Theft Auto V. But if that’s the case, anyone who hasn’t already played it has missed the boat, as the puzzles have been solved ahead of release. They’re all up on YouTube. And your chances of going into this as a solo experience and actually finishing without consulting outside sources are incredibly slim, unless you have a tremendous well of patience and more than a little luck.