"We've had people coming up saying "where's that horror game?" and I have to tell them, it's this one."
That's what TinyBuild's Karrie Shirou told me of the deceptively vibrant Hello Neighbor, being developed by Dynamic Pixels and due this December on Xbox One and PC. The game's color palette and art design are deliberately deceiving, with a lead villain that would feel at home as the bad guy in a Pixar movie, but don't be fooled. Hello Neighbor is much more suspenseful than any movie-going family would be okay with watching. He hides something in his basement and I found myself determined to find exactly what's down there despite the immense challenge the cunning AI presented.
Hello Neighbor, if you haven't heard, is billed as a first-person stealth horror game. You play a nameless, voiceless protagonist trying to snoop on your neighbor whom you suspect has skeletons in his closet — maybe literally. The AI neighbor adapts to your every move and does very well to think on its feet. You'll be penalized frequently if you can't keep up, as was the case during my time with the game. The build I played was called "beta 3", although whatever changes it brought to the game were lost on me as I was entirely new to the game.
After a brief tutorial where I learned how to search for items, manage my inventory, and manipulate the environment, I was ready to try and break into my neighbor's elaborate home. Stacked vertically were additions, new rooms, and multiple entry points. Because I made the mistake early on of getting caught in the front door and, on a subsequent try, getting spotted on camera, Kerrie told me the neighbor was behaving especially vigilantly. Early successes lead to later ones and likewise, early failures can cascade into more and more challenging infiltrations.
Each time I snuck in with the neighbor often exercising or, later on, patrolling, I was given choices of how to proceed. The labyrinthine house had many hallways, doors locked or not, and hiding spots to utilize. With some less than subtle hints from the producer, I eventually made my way upstairs without being seen and saw a switch through a small opening on the other side of a locked gate. Here I could aim a small object of my choosing at the switch to open the gate, or delicately parkour to a wall lamp then onto the bannister on the other side of the gate. Either scenario felt cartoonish, somehow still appropriately given the always lurking neighbor. I chose the latter and made it successfully. Failing either manner of puzzle solving may have made enough noise to tip him off to my sneaking about. Thankfully it didn't happen that way.
Don't tip him off and the neighbor will continue about his day rather than start patrolling for an intruder.
Soon after I failed to clear a hallway without a floor and dropped back outside to the first floor beside large bedroom windows where the neighbor happened to be patrolling. That was enough for me to be foiled again. When he is close, the music ramps up tipping you off to be on your guard. When he spots you, the audio breaks into an intense chase track that leaves no doubt as to what you need to do — get the hell out! He closes in quickly and most of the time caught me, although sometimes I was able to escape to the front yard and cross the street only to turn and see him cursing me from his sidewalk. He won't give chase past his own yard and after a moment he'll retreat indoors, but the more you're caught in a single playthrough, the more alert and vigilant he'll become.
For each counter he makes to your effort, you can then counter again yourself. If he catches you in a particular doorway, he may set a bear trap there, but you can disable that trap by dropping an item into it. If he's spotted you on his surveillance system a few times, find an alternate pathway to approach the troublesome camera and deactivate it. Of course, then he'll come inspect that too, but by then you may be hiding in a closet or sneaking into a different room.
With the only fail state being that you start over in your house when you're caught, it seems it can be sometimes advantageous to accept failure, knowing his house is as you last left it. Windows broken for distractions will remain open, puzzles solved earlier won't need solving again, and any inventory stashes you had previously built up will be where and as you left them. But all of those benefits have to be weighed against the detriment of the neighbor being more and more tireless in his searches each time you are busted. Who is more persistent: the cat or the mouse?
If it's already known online what truly does lurk in that highly guarded basement, I don't care to find out before seeing it for myself. Piecing the maze together through a combination of successes and failures is one of the coolest carrot-on-stick moments I can recall from any recent game. The game could build on its premise with more opportunities for this cat-and-mouse gameplay — more entryways, more tools at your disposal, more ways for the neighbor to spoil your strategy — but I'm also certain I didn't see much of what there is to see. I look forward to giving it more time when it launches simultaneously on Xbox and PC on December 8th.
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