Reviewed: June 12, 2006
Released: March 22, 2006
Woody’s back! The merry prankster has returned and so has his nameless neighbor for another season of gags, gaffes, and booby traps in this sequel to the reality TV-inspired puzzle game Neighbors From Hell. This time Woody takes his show on the road, following the odious Neighbor on an international cruise to dish out the abuse on a global scale.
If you enjoyed the first game but maybe found it too easy, Neighbors From Hell: On Vacation boasts greater challenge, more innovative puzzles, new obstacles, and a revised “ratings” system that allows more room for the player to prank. So grab your rotten eggs and laxatives – it’s time to love thy neighbor…with a vengeance!
Like all good puzzles, the concept of Neighbors From Hell is simple. Woody is the star of his own reality show in which he torments his slovenly neighbor by pulling pranks on him. The more pranks you pull the higher your ratings will go, allowing you to advance to more difficult levels demanding more pranks. Using a dirt simple point-and-click interface you help Woody collect everyday items like barbeque tongs or a length of wire and use them to turn your environment into a minefield of pitfalls and practical jokes. Do it all without getting caught and you’ll be rewarded with good ratings and can move on to your next “episode”.
The challenge lies in figuring out how to use the items at your disposal to turn out the maximum number of tricks. Ultimately you want to link all the pranks together into a chain of pratfalls that will drive the Neighbor into a boiling rage. Plan your pranks correctly and he’ll blow his stack entirely, earning you big bonuses. Each new episode demands more pranks be completed before you move on, and the possible tricks (and potential uses for the items you collect) become less obvious over time.
If you’re new to Neighbors From Hell, worry not. The original game is included in this package so you can catch up on Woody’s first adventure. There isn’t exactly a story to follow here, but it’s helpful to play the first season so you can appreciate the changes made for the sequel. The original “Neighbors” really played up the reality show angle, complete with audience applause and an actual ratings percentage you had to meet and exceed. But it was also a very claustrophobic game, confining Woody to just the Neighbor’s house.
“On Vacation” all but abandons the notion that you’re on TV, but it also gives the player more to look at by moving the action around to different environments such as a cruise ship, an Indian tourist trap and a Mexican beachfront. You have multiple lives to complete your pranks this time instead of only one (so you can get caught but still win the level), and no time limit. New challenges in this game include “dexterity tests”, a pain-in-the-butt feature in which you need to move the mouse around with a feather touch to fish useful items from tiny crevices, and the addition of the Neighbor’s witch of a mother, who will bull-charge poor Woody and kick him in the crotch several times should she spot him. The Mother is a double-edged sword, however, as she can also be an unwitting participant in Woody’s shenanigans.
As puzzles go, “On Vacation” isn’t terribly challenging. Simply hovering the mouse over various objects will clue you into what their use is, and Woody is even kind enough to drop you a blatant hint or two should you want another lead. If you still can’t figure it out Woody will actually tell you immediately whether a trick will work or not, making each level little more than an exercise in trial and error. If the spiny sea urchin won’t fit into the conch shell the Neighbor keeps putting to his ear, maybe the snapping crab will work instead. Once you gather up every clickable item it’s just a matter of observing the Neighbor’s pattern to play every joke and avoid getting caught.
It’s fun, and the animations for some of the more elaborate pranks are definitely worth the effort, but it doesn’t cross the threshold to full-on addicting, nor does it ever become head-scratching hard. I played close to 20 levels in two sittings and only once – briefly – did I find myself stymied by a potential prank. It’s gratifying to figure out every joke the levels have to offer but it’s not necessary, and easily bored players may want to just do the bare minimum to succeed and move on.
The “ratings” system has been replaced with a slightly different method of gaining points, and it seems like a step back instead of an improvement. Players now earn gold coins, one for each successful prank. But in the original game your goal was to get your ratings as close to 100% as possible, starting from 0. The fastest and best way to do that was to puzzle out the functions of all the items available, then rig all the pranks at once so that the Neighbor would stagger into them one after another, Chevy Chase-style. Doing this would earn bonus ratings and send your numbers through the roof in no time, plus make the Neighbor keel over from an anger overload.
With the coin system, however, there isn’t any incentive to link the pranks together (other than for your own amusement). Instead it feels a little more like chores; a laundry list of things you need to do in order to earn the minimum number of coins to advance. Linking the pranks is still possible, and you win an award for causing the Neighbor to collapse, but the award is arbitrary – it doesn’t add anything to the gameplay or give you new prank-pulling capabilities. It’s just something you can do if you’re feeling ambitious. This is unfortunate because you may just lose interest before you work out all the tricks a level has to offer.
What “On Vacation” may lack in incentive it makes up for with visuals. The graphics are a blast, making it almost more fun to watch than it is to play.
The game’s appearance has had a substantial facelift since the original. , losing its flat 2-D look for a (slightly) more 3-D one. The designers even put real photos of the exotic locales in the background for a nice layered effect.
The clay-like character textures are great, looking very much like “Wallace and Gromit” or the animals in “Chicken Run”, all bug-eyed and doughy with humorously deformed features. The artists obviously had fun with the level design too, tossing in tons of cool details like water-spraying elephants, remote-controlled submarines, and Mother’s shaggy little puppy, who breaks loose and has…um…marital relations with a harpoon gun in an early episode. The huge, garish color palate is very eye-catching as well.
The real highlight is the zany prank animations, especially if you link a series of pranks together. Rigging a spring to a diving board so the Neighbor will overshoot the pool and land in an awning is funny, but making the extra effort so he lands on his dozing mother instead is hilarious. It’s good, silly-over-the-top fun, and the spot-on visuals reflect that.
“On Vacation” is easy to listen to and loaded with effects that compliment the cartoonish action. Every singed eyebrow, stubbed toe, and *ahem* intestinal trauma is accompanied by giggle-inducing groans, yelps, and outright howls as the hapless Neighbor falls to yet another of Woody’s traps. Just close your eyes and listen to the action for a minute and I guarantee you’ll go back in time to all those early Saturday mornings in front of the TV.
Dialogue-free (save the Neighbor’s screams), the only other thing to listen to is the soundtrack, which is pretty terrific, with lots of trumpets, drums, and crashing cymbals mixed with some catchy muzak and a little rock, sort of equal parts jazz club and game show fanfare. Like the visuals, it suits the outlandish animated feel of the game and let’s you pull your pranks in style.
The replay factor is the eternal curse of puzzle games, as any player with a decent memory can recall how to solve each challenge and make quick work of any level already completed. That’s the thing about puzzles: once they’re solved they stay solved. The designers knew this and they tried valiantly to make “On Vacation” a price-worthy package. They only sort of succeeded.
You get two games in one with the original Neighbors From Hell plus the sequel on a single disk. This is cool, as I’ve said, not only because you get both games but because playing the original lets the sequel show off all its new features. It is certainly a more challenging game than the original thanks to the addition of the Neighbor’s mom and the more elaborate, labor-intensive tricks. But it’s a single-player only with no online play options, level builders, bonus rounds, or extra features, and for all but the dimmest bulbs in the pack it would likely be a very short game as well.
Unfortunately the puzzle-pranks don’t really become brain teasing until very late in the game. It may take quite some time to pull every possible gag in the final levels, but when they’re done they’re done. A thoughtful feature lets you return to any level you want to figure out any tricks you’ve missed and harvest more coins. This is nice, but unless you’re the meticulous type there really isn’t much need to go back for a second run even if you haven’t seen and done it all the first time. For this reason “On Vacation”’s replay value is pretty low. If you’re a puzzle fanatic with a good sense of humor then this game is worth a look, but for everyone else it wouldn’t be much more than a snicker-worthy distraction.
I had fun playing this game, so it’s a shame I can’t recommend it more enthusiastically. Neighbors From Hell is a cool concept and it’s decently executed, but it never reaches the bleary-eyed, up-all-night level of compulsive, addicting play you find in the best computer puzzle games. The TV show angle never really takes shape and, odd as it sounds, I actually found myself wanting a little back story behind all the pranks. What, for example, did Woody’s poor neighbor do to deserve all this abuse? Is he the neighbor from Hell, or is Woody? Maybe if the designers had played up the “candid camera” reality show idea instead of dropping it they could’ve made the game more engaging.
It looks great, it sounds great, and there’s a certain nostalgia factor with the simplistic gameplay and funky graphics, but Neighbors From Hell: On Vacation comes up short on the challenge and replay factors, leaving me lukewarm on the whole.