Movie Review: “Welcome to Hanwell”

Although, as you’ll soon discover, Welcome to Hanwell is not a perfect videogame by anyone’s definition, it’s about everything I could have asked for and something I definitely enjoy being able to write about.

Developed by Steel Arts Software, I first stumbled upon Hanwell when it launched on the PlayStation 4 back in 2018. There’re any number of reasons I may decide not to buy a videogame, whether it be a high price point or a general uncertainty about its contents – Welcome to Hanwell didn’t ask for a lot from the start, and currently can be bought on Xbox One or PlayStation 4 for only $14.99 digitally. I will be honest – I was still leery about buying Welcome to Hanwell. After all, the reviews and audience consensus were inconsistent, and generally speaking, when something is good, you hear about it. It was only after it went on sale for $2.99 on Nintendo Switch (and Steam, as of this writing), I decided to partake in the low-budget horror game.

An 80% discount is harsh, but it is the nature of the beast. As a devout connoisseur of the horror genre, I have been burned more times than Freddy Krueger. Couple that in with an unproven videogame developer on the indie market, and I don’t think you can blame anyone for having cold feet.

Still, buying a videogame is only half the battle in the modern era, and I couldn’t begin to tell you the amount of videogames I have bought and left to rot away in the dreaded queue of despair – that’s why I made it a point to play Welcome to Hanwell from start to finish shortly after I bought it.

You do see a fair few of first-person horror videogames on the indie market, however, it is not often you see one that’s open-world, allowing you to complete objectives at your own leisure. Those awaiting an asterisk or a “but” will be surprised – there isn’t one. Not really. After a tutorial period, you are left to wander Hanwell and make strides toward your ultimate objective of leaving Hanwell.

I was not able to dig up a lot of information about Steel Arts Software. All social media accounts for Welcome to Hanwell have since been discarded of, and, otherwise, they don’t appear to have a overt marketing presence all in all. However, I can tell they are fans of the horror videogame scene and pop-culture, from street addresses paying homage to the Clocktower series and an actual recreation of a certain British detective’s apartment on Baker street. Welcome to Hanwell has a lot of influences. As you wander the open-world environment, filled to the brim with fog and the occasional monstrous creature, you will no doubt be thinking about Silent Hill. Likewise, as your flashlight goes dead, or you find yourself suspending in the air by a burly psychopath, you will no doubt reminisce your experience with the Outlast series. In fact, it is a toss up between which of the two inspired it more, with the final act of Welcome to Hanwell having a setting that feels an awful-lot like the final act of Outlast. The influences are apparent and, perhaps, even, at times, glaring, but it does have some unique things to say as well.

The assessment I originally had of Welcome to Hanwell’s graphics were that they are very low-budgeted and minimalist, but, upon playing through it, I came to appreciate the attention to detail for some scenery, and the environments that were incorporated. Obviously, this is not a Triple AAA title by any definition, according to their website, the founder and lead designer for Welcome to Hanwell originally started the game’s development while working at a bakery, using “a spotlight attached to a camera moving through a grey box”. In other words, this was a passion project by all definitions of the phrase, and, with that in mind, there’s a lot of good stuff to check out.

The setting will go through changes, be it from dark to light, from rainfalls, to even a light storm, and it is with the darker color palate I think the aesthetic works best. Horror has always been an independent creator’s best friend because the absence of something can actually be used as a tool. Less is more, as the saying goes, and with the absent of light, Welcome to Hanwell, ironically, shines brightest. At night, of course, you can’t appreciate the “Silent Hill fog”, but it is a tradeoff I think may have been worth it.

Given that, I both applaud the developer’s ambition and how much they really did accomplish, and wish they would have reeled it in a little more than what they did.

As you roam around Hanwell, that’s when the Silent Hill inspiration feels mostly apparent, but, the longer you spend roaming around Hanwell, the more you realize how vast and empty it is. Welcome to Hanwell can be completed within three hours, give or take, but I know that at least half of my experience was spent either wandering aimlessly or trying to bring our slow protagonist where he needed to be. The area is filled to the brim with collectibles, like D.N.A. and Witch Eyes, for instance, but they feel shallow and, unfortunately, detrimental. I feel the open-world approach led to an instance where you have so much of something you find yourself with less of it, both because of how thin they spread it and because my waning enthusiasm to seek it out.

The puzzle-solving weighs too heavily on finding Item A for Placement A, finding Item B for Placement B, and can eventually become more grating than anything else.

What I enjoyed most about Welcome to Hanwell were the smaller, simpler, more intimate moments I discovered indoors. Like coming across a doll whose head will move whichever way you’re standing (but with no attention drawn to it), or when I looked through the window of a locked door and see a creature standing off in the background.

I also enjoyed actual, more direct moments, ones that may not have landed exactly as intended, but I still appreciated.

The experience is not able to disguise the budgetary constraints. I encountered more than a handful of glitches and software crashes throughout. Some of them were small, like an enemy becoming glitched into a wall, garnering a small chuckle, then, I was on my way. Others, like when the pause menu was stuck, pasted over the gameplay no matter what I did, resulting in me having to restart, losing an hour of progress, was a little harder to swallow.

Audio is sometimes very loud and sometimes very quiet, with no option for subtitles on the Switch (subtitles do appear available on Steam).

Welcome to Hanwell is an example of a videogame that I would not recommend to the average player, but I would recommend to a horror gamer with an open mind. For the price I paid, I am not disappointed (I wouldn’t have been disappointed paying $14.99 either).

By no means am I suggesting it’ll scratch the same itch as something like Silent Hills may have or Resident Evil 8 will, and I am not even suggesting it’ll be a surprise gem like Outlast or Amnesia, but it has a lot of interesting ideas and, occasionally, some of them even work out okay. It is a videogame that effectively puts Steel Arts Software on my radar and makes me wish they could have this one back, be given a bucket of money, and a second-chance, ‘cause I see good things in their future.

Rating: – 1.0 out of 5.0