Reviewer’s note: The second and third pictures below are saved screenshots of my gameplay experience in Welcome to Hanwell. They were uploaded from my ps4 to my Twitter then saved to my laptop via Windows 10 Snipping Tool and uploaded to AIR for this article. Any loss in fidelity or crispness of images is from the compression/decompression process and not a reflection of the game, which looks buttery smooth and sharp as a tack.
I’ve been following the development of Nathan Seedhouse’s horror title Welcome to Hanwell for close to a year now and its PlayStation 4 release is finally upon us. Unleashed onto the ps4 on May 15 (seven months after its PC debut), this game is majorly ambitious, taking gamble after gamble in hopes of providing a memorable and terrifying open-world survivor horror experience for gamers.
This is the part where the needle drags across the record. Yes, I said “open-world survival horror.” And let’s be honest – for many of us, that’ll make us turn up our noses, since our last open-world horror experiences were probably either the highly problematic Silent Hill: Downpour or the pre-battle royale mode H1Z1. And to be honest, the influence of the Silent Hill franchise in general is clear quite often throughout Welcome to Hanwell. Alone in a foggy town devoid of life except for humanoid and animal-like monsters, armed with melee weapons and a radio that blares static as a proximity detector, you’ll navigate empty streets outside as well as inside several buildings to solve puzzles, find keys and unriddle the conspiracy that cost the otherwise charming municipality its soul. And, much like, dare I say it, Downpour, the outdoors setting is both nonlinear and frequently made gloomy by rain.
I’m happy to report, however, that the comparisons largely end there, and that I’m only mentioning Silent Hill as a jumpoff/reference point to get you in the right head space. This is not an accusation of plagiarism nor implication that Hanwell is a wannabe. Although some other minor elements in Hanwell may ring a bell (e.g. ominous but meta handwriting on walls), it would be pretty far-fetched to cite them as drawing from other franchises. No, on the contrary, this game ends up being its own beast and it’s largely for the better.
After a brief minimalist tutorial section in an underground facility, players are let loose in the cozy little hamlet of Hanwell, a township very much aware of its own monster problem prior to the player character entering the scene. Regular bulletins and warnings about “anomalies” – Hanwell’s pesky creatures – are present throughout the town, as are houses with The Purge-esque lockdown systems and educational slides about the baddies in the local school. Civil defense sirens wail regularly. The entire town is enclosed by high walls. A doctor seems to be at increasingly hostile odds with the city council, either entity pulling strings covertly throughout the town to gain power over the other. And, like in many horror games, you’re just trying to pick up the pieces and put them together.
The game is played from a first-person perspective and features procedurally-generated weapons and monsters throughout Hanwell. This may seem frustrating at first, since there’s a chance you’ll boot up the game and end up face-to-face with monsters and no means with which to defend yourself, causing you to sprint down a street looking for a fire axe or hammer – or even an unlocked door to enter a building – but I found myself intrigued by the challenge as I played and I never lost interest.
As you play through Welcome to Hanwell, you’ll find yourself searching for six pieces of one resident’s identification card that have been scattered throughout town by the mad doctor. Obtaining all pieces of this card will allow you access to confront the mastermind(s) behind the downfall of the town and solve the mystery. Of course, most of the residential doors have been boarded up and a real-time overhead map of the town is provided from the outset, so your search isn’t as desperate and daunting as it may sound. To balance things out, however, there are 165 collectibles scattered throughout town indoors and out that will unlock bonus game content for players who can find them all. Thorough searchers will also find several houses and small locations such as bars to explore as well, offering handwritten notes and recorded audio messages that provide insight into daily life in Hanwell. The locations containing the pieces of the local’s ID card are large and involve some detective work, too; I spent well over an hour in a full-sized school tiptoeing through classrooms and finding keys and clues between having the pants scared off me by sentient doll heads and a slenderman-like creature who seemed to pop in and out of existence at will.
The great thing about the game is that you never feel safe. With limited visibility and monster pop-ins, creeping scares and changing environments and jump scares and blood-soaked corpses scattered throughout town, it’s impossible to let your guard down while exploring this once-lovely little village. So let’s talk about the negative stuff, because it wouldn’t be fair to you to omit Hanwell’s problems.
A lot of the presentation on the game – specifically the UI and menus – are minimal. By minimal I mean not only is there not an options screen in-game or out, but the only choices on the main menu are “Continue,” “New Game” and “Gamma.” The gamma even needs to be set on your TV; there are no adjustable sliders. I wanted to invert my Y-axis like I have in every applicable game since the early 1990s (pulling down to look up, pushing up to look down) but no such luck. There’s no legend on the map, no archive of found materials or goals or story recap, no controller display and no save/load button. The list of buildings to check for the pieces of the ID card are presented once, in the beginning of the game, and if you forget them you’re SOL. I wouldn’t have even known that the ATM machines are save points had I not looked the game up on Steam and seen its last patch/update notes. The map itself appears to be little more than a god’s eye view of the town in real-time with your character locked still – if you zoom up close enough you can even see nearby monsters walking around.
The tricky bit about the minimalism in presentation is that I’ve noticed that as a recurring trend in the industry in the last five years. Titles like Don’t Starve and Elite: Dangerous drop you into their universes with little guidance in the hopes of encouraging you to explore and decide your own role – Welcome to Hanwell‘s Steam page even mentions this specifically – as well as stoking the fires of their communities to reach out and talk tips and tricks. And I can respect that, and in some ways (such as the weapons having different strengths despite going completely unmentioned) I feel that Hanwell is trying the same thing and succeeding. In some other ways, however, it doesn’t work in the title’s favor.
There are also some minor but noticeable coding issues here and there. In my review build of the game, many tombstones in the local cemetery hadn’t been texture-wrapped – they were stark white. I also mentioned the occasional imbalance of monsters vs. weapons, which only seemed intentional about half the time.
So. The open world aspect works, the combat works, the randomly-generated weapons mostly work, the monsters and the story and the environment and the scares work in abundance. Welcome to Hanwell is, for the most part, a success in horror that utilizes some familiar elements and some new in order to set itself apart from the pack. It’s scarce on UI functionality and archival materials, and there are minor coding issues peppered here and there, but generally it’s a haunting and eerie experience that will stay with you long after you turn off your console. I hope Nathan Seedhouse continues to support the title with more patches (one has already been released to address a bug I didn’t encounter) and expands the interface a bit for us old-schoolers. I’m calling this a 7.5 out of 10.
Disclaimer: AIR Entertainment was provided a review copy of Welcome to Hanwell.