Hello Neighbor is an interesting and engaging conceptual game brought to us by Dynamic Pixels by way of tinyBuild. The game is, at current time, still very much in the alpha stages, but it’s started making waves with the Twitch and YouTube audiences thanks to early access and good communication between streamers and the developers (and publishers). Being a huge fan of tinyBuild, I had to get my hands on the game and see exactly what was up.
You’re given a pretty basic setup to drag you into this brand of madness. You’ve just moved into a new town and live across the street from your neighbor, who’s never given a name. He seems like a nice enough dude, but there’s something…off about him. Strange sounds and lights appear to be coming from his basement, and you’re apparently deviant enough that you simply NEED to find out what it is without asking him. What goes from there is a crazy game of cat-and-mouse, where necessary objects to unlock the puzzle of the house are scattered about and your neighbor is, naturally, keen to get you off his property ASAP. While there’s nothing earth-shattering about the premise, it’s amusing enough and the air of drama keeps you coming back for more. And you will need to come back for more many, many times.
We are currently in the alpha 4 of Hello Neighbor, introducing several newer items and areas to access in order to progress as far as possible. The core mechanic is that the Neighbor’s AI is supposed to learn and adapt as you continue on in the game. For example, if the Neighbor catches you trying to come in through his back window, you might find a bear trap waiting for you at that same entrance. He attempts to adjust to your patterns as far as movement around the house and even guesses where you might head next. He’s faster than you, can jump further and carries a supply of glue jars that he can hurl reasonably far in order to trap you till he catches you. To his credit, he never calls the police or harms you: just sends you back to your house and waits for your next round of home invasion.
The game itself fluctuates wildly between survival horror, stealth horror and broken logic puzzle (horror). Getting your initial bearings is terrifying and has a very steep learning curve. There isn’t a tutorial or an introduction beyond “see that house? Go there!” The trial and error portion will create plenty of jump scare moments and utter frustration that resulted in me restarting the game twice so that the AI could scale back down and give me a fighting chance. Having said that, I did really start to enjoy myself once I fully understood what I could and couldn’t do. Almost every object serves a triple purpose: it can break any window, it can slow down the neighbor if you throw it at him, and it also has it’s own individual purpose. There is a blank picture frame that I had on me which I activated in panic as the Neighbor cornered me. I smashed it over his head like a Looney Toon’s moment and was able to run away. There’s innovation and some clever reasoning that happens, and I like seeing the game challenging players to try new things.
The AI is it’s own downfall at times, however. Using a series of boxes (inspired by some YouTube videos when I was feeling lost), I was able to get up on the roof area before I had cleared all the doors that would normally lead up. The Neighbor then was forced to just spin in circles out in the yard, which really took some of the pressure off figuring out the next move. In fact, I had a grand time just perusing the rooms I could reach, careful not to accidentally make a way for him up to me. It seems silly that he couldn’t even figure out a way through his own house without me creating it for him, but there is some craziness happening that justifies this level of thinking.
At the current time, the “ending” is just a further glimpse into the minds of the developers. The house quickly turns out to be more than it appears, though it’s still not exactly clear what it is. Various scenes that almost seem to be nightmarish hallucinations culminate into a dead sprint to a white light that just shows you back in your own home, ready to step out and face the day. There’s a lot of chatter online as to what it could all mean, but I appreciate Dynamic Pixels giving fans plenty to talk about.
The weirdly pop-art style of the game gives it the exact right vibe Hello Neighbor needed to pull off the right atmosphere. It’s surprisingly colorful and bright, at least in the daytime, and the afternoon glow gives a good amount of shadow and mystery to rooms that have windows. I take a bit of umbrage with the night time, however, because it’s simply too dark. Even if you have a flashlight on hand, you bumble around and knock over things you could easily avoid in the daytime, and it just feels like you’re wasting time trying to accomplish anything by moonlight. Currently, there isn’t a penalty or reward for when you play, so my approach was to get caught as fast as possible at night so that the sun would rise on a new day and I could get some stuff done.
The Neighbor himself is perfect in design. He really resembles a 1950’s caricature of a fine, upstanding citizen with a dead look in his eyes that perfectly conveys fear. It’s scary because we let ourselves be scared by it: my children were giggling every time he caught me instead of screaming, which really felt like a step in the right direction. Also, don’t play this game with your kids, they start to fear mustaches.
There isn’t a lot to comment on here. In stark contrast to many modern horror games, Hello Neighbor is incredibly minimal on any noise whatsoever. There are sound effects for various objects, which can seem jarring when you’re far away from the Neighbor and trying to explore quietly. The only music occurs when the Neighbor is nearby, and then you’re treated to a Jaws-inspired baseline, growing louder or softer as he approaches, and finally a dynamic riff as he catches you. It makes its own jump-scare every time, though the effect is lost when he’s been chasing you for a while.
I rather like the light approach to sound. It lets the player create their own inner monologue as they work their way through the maze, and, like the graphics I mentioned above, really shapes the game in the direction that makes it more memorable.
Hello Neighbor is both blessed and cursed by revealing itself in the alpha stages to a wide audience. On the one hand, fans can see how the game evolves as it moves forward. Indeed, alpha 4 is a huge leap forward, with a brand new area and ending, better implementation of fan suggestions (adding some platforms, tweaking the placement of necessary items) and generally making the game less taxing on systems. However, and I say this as best as I can, but the game is glitchy as all hell. The massive tower of boxes I built? That only worked because the Neighbor was just standing in the backyard, staring at me, not even attempting to chase me down. He’s hurled jars of glass through walls to stick me, gotten stuck in his own bedroom, and I managed to pass through a locked door once despite not having a key. It’s not detracting from the game overall, but it does make a part of the experience seeing what bugs will occur today, and that, obviously, will not be part of the final presentation.
What we see here, however, is indicative of real potential. It’s already fun to play and especially fun to watch. The concept is novel and the execution is being handled well. It’s hard, it’s scary, and, at times, I got motion sickness from the camera. But this really is all headed in the right direction, and I’m excited to see where Dynamic Pixel brings us as we rocket towards the anticipated Summer 2017 launch. I’ll give another peek behind the curtain when alpha 5 premieres!