The sinister neighbour has been a cinematic staple for decades, from The Burbs to Disturbia via Arlington Road. It's curious that few video games have made full use of the concept, though. Hello Neighbor looks to buck that trend with a game that leans heavily on the premise, but it falls well short in a number of critical areas.
You are cast as a curious kid in what appears to a typical (if hyper-stylised) American suburb. At the outset, our mischievous scamp witnesses his strange neighbour behaving erratically. There are blood-curdling screams, locked doors, a crashed car, and a general air of threat. Something's not quite right, to put it mildly. Starting outside Mr Peterson's decidedly ramshackle detached property, with a handy cut-away shot showing where he's keeping the key to his basement, it's up to you to figure out a way to get to the bottom of things.
Hello Neighbor offers a curious blend of components. At heart, it's a first-person stealth game, as you sneak around Mr Peterson's property without alerting him to your presence. But it also has a certain point-and-click adventure feel to it, alongside some physic puzzler components. You need to figure out how to get to where you want to go using only the objects found around Mr Peterson's property.
Stacking boxes, flipping switches, grabbing special-use items and nabbing keys are the order of the day here. Alert Mr Peterson to your presence in the process of doing so, and the spry middle-ager will head straight for you, smashing through windows like the Terminator and throwing whatever he has to hand at your head. You can slow him down by lobbing objects at him, but your main goal should be to get out of Dodge.
The first time you're chased down, complete with heart-thumpingly dramatic music, is fairly traumatic. But then you're finally caught by this raving psychopath and... deposited right outside his house with all of your purloined gear (you can carry four items at a time) still in your pocket. After a while, it robs the game of much of its tension.
What it doesn't rob the game of is a near-constant sense of irritation. Whether you're being caught by or evading Mr Peterson, the outcome is more or less the same, so repeatedly being spotted and chased can grow incredibly tiresome. Unfortunately, given the fact that Mr Peterson is both eagle-eyed and erratic in his movements - and the game's complete lack of any alert HUD - this is a common occurrence.
That sense of frustration isn't helped by some sticky controls and flaky physics. Trying to pick objects up, throw them a certain distance, or use them within the world is the kind of exercise in tension that we highly doubt the developer was aiming for. It might work the way you want it to first time, or it might not. Who knows?
It's also irritating how opaque the game can be. We're all for games trusting in the player's intelligence and refraining from excessive hand-holding, but Hello Neighbor tosses you into its world and offers precious few hints as to how to proceed. If its mechanics were more solid and reliable, then you could maybe make a case for a more experimental 'try everything' approach. But when your sixth successive attempt at building a makeshift set of stairs out of boxes fails, it's all too easy to assume that it's you doing something wrong.
There are moments of genuine suspense and even horror in Hello Neighbor and the storyline evolves and expands in unexpected ways, which we naturally won't spoil here. Yet the lack of consequence for being busted seems to grate against the game's attempts to grow a meaningful narrative. Hello Neighbour's colourful Pixar-style graphics also lend to this tonal dissonance; the subject matter is actually quite dark. It makes for a game that feels quite different from anything else, but also rather confused and unfocused. Ultimately, Hello Neighbour feels like a bit of a mess. Its various components are undercooked in isolation, and they don't cohere into a satisfying whole.
A confused, messy stealth-puzzler with flaky physics and dodgy controls. Hello Neighbor's attempt to do something fresh with a classic cinematic concept is to be applauded, but the execution falls flat. A massive missed opportunity.