Review: Welcome to Hanwell

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Review copy provided by developer via Curator Connect

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First-person horror games have developed a bit of a reputation, at least on the indie side. You can’t throw a virtual rock in the horror genre without hitting some no-effort walking sim with bad lighting and a stiff monster bashed together in Unity or UE4. Welcome to Hanwell is definitely not no-effort, and that should be apparent the moment you step out onto its wide-open streets. On the contrary, I think the developer of this title put quite a bit of effort into realizing the horrors of this mysterious town in a way you can freely experience. But effort doesn’t guarantee quality, and it doesn’t take long to lose whatever benefit of the doubt you can give this one.

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You awaken on a mortuary slab, NOT after being geeked by Lone Star but rather as a victim of the shadowy Doctor. The town of Hanwell which you now find yourself confined in has become the Doctor’s playground, and all manner of horrible creatures are infesting the deserted streets. Your salvation lies with the Council of Hanwell, the city’s ruling body before everything went all monster-mashed. To gain access to their chambers you’ll need the citizen’s ID of a ranking member, which just happens to be chopped into pieces and left strewn throughout the town’s major landmarks. Funny how that happens.

It’s an odd, video-gamey premise for a horror game, and the structure is even moreso. After a short tutorial that introduces you to the controls and a very angry, ‘roided-out fellow that will break you, you’re set free on the streets of Hanwell. I mean that, you’re free to wander wherever you want in town, up into the neighborhoods or down to the power plant, through the graveyard and into the church or across back alleys to the school. There’s a certain element of Silent Hill to this, the sense that there’s an entire world to explore and divine the secrets of, and that makes for a pretty powerful motivator starting out.

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Your goal in trekking across Hanwell is to find the five or so pieces of the ID card you need, and each of those is in a different notable location like the church or the prison. These tend to be the setpieces of the game, the only buildings you can enter and a locus of notes and collectibles. You’ll have to solve a few puzzles to reach your goal, but you may notice a certain lack of danger in your way as your search. I’ll try not to spoil too much about this but the locations are going to be a very mixed bag in terms of how threatened you feel, and that’s not a good thing. Even when you are threatened, it’s by the kind of inept, scripted thing that’s easy to avoid or even ignore altogether.

That right there is the core problem of Hanwell, the monsters. This is supposed to be the site of some metaphysical curse or disaster that’s loosed a grab-bag of horrors on the town, but you can meander for ten minutes or more without encountering a single threat. Then when they do appear you’re sure to find them more annoying than anything, teleporting or leaping around and smacking you around while you try to finagle the stiff melee combat into saving your delicious human bacon. The net result is not a terrifying game but a tedious one, a game that threatens to bore you away in the first hour of essentially nothing happening.

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The monsters are far from the only problem, either. The level design is amateur at best, featuring undetailed rooms and confusing architecture that takes you right out of any immersion you’ve mustered. You’ll find loads of collectibles scattered about like glowing canisters of the Doctor’s DNA (don’t think about that too hard) and witch eyes, just laying all over the place to give you a pittance of a reason to explore. Movement is sluggish and sticky, and your inventory likes to bug out and become unreadable with its luminous text. Honestly I’m sad Welcome to Hanwell didn’t live up to its promise, because I could really use a good open-world horror game in the vein of Silent Hill. This one tries, it really does, but I think that effort would have been better spent on more interesting and polished content.

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