Unlike most game critics my age, videogames were not a childhood passion of mine. While I received a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas when I was 6, just like most kids in the neighborhood, I never had more than a few games for it, namely Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. As I grew older, videogames were pushed aside for what I deemed more important activities like sports and girls. It wasn’t until a medical disability in college sidelined my middling aspirations towards professional baseball that I gave the prospect of virtual entertainment any more thought. Having skipped the Super Nintendo entirely and the first several years of the original PlayStation, I really had no idea what I was getting into when a friend gifted me his Nintendo 64 and a copy of Ocarina of Time back in 1998. Suffice it to say I was appropriately blown away, and a new passion was born. It’s been exceedingly rare, in the years that have followed, where a game has captured my inner child’s sense of adventure the way Link’s first 3D adventure did. Hob is one of those games.
A Brave Old World
Developed by Runic Games, creators of the hit PC ARPG series Torchlight, Hob is the answer to a question I never realized I wanted to ask – what would happen if Nintendo created a modern Zelda game on an indie budget? Set in a world with no dialogue and no exposition of any kind, Hob’s story unfolds entirely through exploration and visual cues, a daring take on the common, silent protagonist trope that games have mostly left behind. It works, though, simply because it commits so fully, leaving you alone in a vast, beautiful but frightening and ever-changing world with only your wits and determination to see you through.
This isn’t your normal world, though. It does not take long to realize that you’re in a very strange place, neither fully organic nor fully mechanical, all of it constantly shifting and adjusting as you progress. Indeed, the very earth itself seems to be one giant mechanized meta puzzle, an enormous Rubik’s Cube that must be ‘solved’ if you are to prevail.
Most of the puzzle solving revolves around clearing the land of a nameless corruption that has spread throughout the world. Corruption will block your path at every turn, requiring clever solutions to dispel it. Many of these environmental puzzles revole around a simple "get from Point A to Point B" premise, but actually doing so often requires a good deal of ingenuity and perserverance, requiring you to track the lay of the land in your mind as well as through the map, as you often lose line of sight with your destination and any possible avenues to it. Hob walks a fine line between puzzles that are too straightfoward and simplistic, and the those that make you want to tear your hair out, so opaque and frustrating they are. Once you've reached your goal, you may interact with the mechanical components and shift the world back into its proper configuration in order to continue. Doing so restores the natural order of things, creating beautiful, sweeping vistas to take in before departing to the next area.
You’ll want to linger at these vistas longer than you might think, as Hob is an exceptionally beautiful game. With its mix of cel-shaded, geometric-minded geography, Hob presents a unique visual take on the adventure genre, colorful and vibrant. At once reminiscent of games such as The Wind Waker, Diablo III and even Terraria without embracing any of them fully, Hob looks as though you’re moving through an acrylic painting come to life, often with breathtaking results. This, combined with the ever shifting aspects of your surroundings and the open world nature of the layout, creates a world that feels remarkably alive and engaging.
The Wonderful Sounds of Silence
It also feels, paradoxically, incredibly lonely. The world is constantly moving, changing, even rising up beneath you. Peaceful animals roam the uncorrupted hills and valleys and swim through the lakes and rivers. Then there’s Hob. Just Hob, seemingly the last of his kind. And the game never lets you forget that. In fact everything works towards creating a sense of beautiful emptiness, like being alone in a room full of crowded people. The minimalist soundtrack is used to enhance this effect, popping up briefly during moments of temporary triumph with orchestral swells, only to fade away just as quickly to reinforce that sense of isolation.
Other games have created beautiful, desolate worlds to explore, such as Enslaved or The Last of Us, but they go a different route by pairing you with AI teammates so that the dystopian nature of your environment can be discussed at length. Hob needs no such contrivances, instead relying on subtle audio cues and your own sense of solitude. The occasional wind whispering through the trees, or your footsteps echoing through cavernous underground chambers only serve as reminders of just how alone you really are despite wandering through a world that must have been rich and full before. It is most effective after intense, cacophonous fights with several enemies that end abruptly with their last gasps before the silence envelops everything once again.
Step Into the Workshop
Shortly after a brief but poignant opening sequence, our titular Hob finds himself in possession of a powerful, modular mechanical arm called a Glove, which provides the backbone for most of the gameplay. Unlike a typical Legend of Zelda game where you receive a new gadget or weapon for each dungeon, Hob's Glove is constantly being upgraded to meet new challenges. Throughout the course of your journey you will use this arm to smash through walls, forge new paths, traverse huge spaces in the blink of an eye and swing across a vertically fragmented landscape like a tiny, adorable Tarzan. Your Glove has three core components, or Armaments, each of which can be upgraded and augmented throughout the course of the game: Smash, Warp and Grapple. In addition to using these to complete the various platforming segments, they are also handy in combat, combining with Hob’s sword and shield to create powerful combos as you face off against enemies that are numerous, large, and very angry.
Enemies fall into 3 basic groups, ranging from the common small, scurrying foes to bigger and more formidable armored brutes to giants who roam the land with clubs taller than most trees. Combat in Hob is surprisingly challenging, as most games in the genre are content to let you hack at foes any which way you choose before going on your merry way. Not so, here. Even smaller enemies can take you out, particularly early on, if you’re not paying attention. Larger enemies can turn you into pulp with one mighty swing of the club. You'll quickly learn to roll and dodge, and string together your various abilities, eventually unlocking the ability to perform devastating combos while deftly flitting from monster to monster.
Thankfully the world of Hob is as generous as it is daunting, with an open world full of secret treasures to bolster your health, upgrade your Glove and sword, and increase your energy, which is used to power all your abilities. Finding them isn’t always easy, and acquiring them is even more difficult, but they give you the advantage you need to eventually gain the upper hand on your enemies. In the best traditions of Metroid and Castlevania, Hob’s treasures only give themselves up to those who have not only the right tools, but the willingness to backtrack and hunt them down. The most powerful of these upgrades are more complicated than others, requiring you not only to locate a schematic to build them, but a requisite number of spare parts from which to assemble them, after which you can return to your centrally located workshop to complete your upgrades, forge new, more powerful swords and select new cloaks that you may have unlocked.
Watch Your Step
Even deadlier than the various monsters roaming the wilds is the environment itself. The world of Hob is a dangerous place, with huge pitfalls around every corner just waiting to punish the clumsy or careless. Like most platform-heavy games, a key aspect of the gameplay is learning to safely traverse the environment with grace. Hob, for the most part, does this well, but you’ll find yourself falling prey to more than one unearned pratfall throughout your quest thanks to some odd camera angles that rob you of the necessary perspective by which to judge a jump. Runic Games has used isometric cameras like the one in Hob to great effect in their Torchlight series, unsurprising given their roots as the original developers of Blizzard’s Diablo franchise, but their success with it here is limited somewhat, and while understandable it’s also occasionally frustrating. It’s also quite difficult to get a hang of the grappling hook’s mechanics, particularly when trying to chain together multiple swings covering large areas. For the most part, though, provided you’re paying attention, Hob’s environmental challenges are fair and consistent.
An Unforgettable Journey
It’s hard to sum up a game like Hob in a way that properly addresses what makes it so captivating, primarily because it’s counterproductive in a game like this to try and break it down by its component scores. Hob is definitely larger than the sum of its parts, which come together almost perfectly to create a truly singular adventure. Hob may not have the AAA budget and polish of the franchises it draws inspiration from, but it has lots of heart and something to say, which is impressive for a game without a single spoken word.
9/27/2017 Ryan Hartmann