Review: Hob (PS4)

Well, this is a lovely surprise. Seemingly out of nowhere, Runic Games have come up with a title that’s easily one of the best of 2017.

All I knew about Hob before I received the review code was that it was by the same developer as Torchlight. And after I booted up the game, I didn’t find out much more. In fact, the big appeal of Hob is that it keeps its cards close to its chest – it’s up to you, the player, to work out what’s going on.

There’s no dialogue in Hob, no laboured cut scenes, and barely any text whatsoever. Whereas most games will shotgun blast you with a hail of plot exposition right after you press ‘Start’, Hob just lets you get on with things and try to piece together what on earth you’re meant to be doing. There’s no tutorial, no manual and not even an explanation of what the buttons on the controller do, save for an occasional button prompt when you stand in front of something that you can manipulate.

It’s all rather refreshing.

For one thing, it made me sit up and really pay attention to the world around me. In most games, it’s easy to nod off during hand-holding tutorials and breathless bouts of passionate if meaningless plot detailing. But here, the only way forward is to carefully study the environment, picking up clues about what may have happened from the details contained within it, and always looking for the switches and hidden paths that can unlock the next chunk of gameworld.

Whereas Torchlight was a procedurally generated rogue-like RPG, Hob feels like a direct descendant of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. There’s that same isometric viewpoint (although the game is in 3D, the camera remains at a fixed viewpoint and there’s no option to look around) and the game is based around puzzling and fighting, with plenty of ‘dungeons’ that essentially play out as an enormous and intricate puzzle box. Speaking of puzzles, none of them are overly taxing, but they’re wonderfully satisfying to solve: you’ll find yourself scratching your head over how to get over there, and then half an hour later, after lots of looping about, block pulling and monster slaying, you’re overcome with a smug satisfaction over finally finding yourself there, looking back at how far you’ve come. And of course there are plenty of secrets to find along the way.

I’m happy to report that this is a game that does collectibles wonderfully well – there’s no ‘find a hundred flags for the sake of finding a hundred flags’ here. Every pick-up is useful in some way, and the huge gameworld is utterly packed with them – sometimes perched tantalisingly out of reach, inaccessible until, Metroidvania style, you find the right upgrade that will allow you to come back and nab them. And because there are so many useful collectibles scattered around, exploring is a pure joy – it’s always worth it to take a detour and explore branching paths, as you’ll almost certainly be rewarded for your efforts.

And not only is the gameworld utterly huge, it’s also stunning to look at. Everything is built up in bold colours and pleasing curves, and it’s delightful to peer into the far distance and watch animals frolic in a field that you’re puzzling over how to reach. (Having said that, I encountered a few frame-rate issues, although these have since been mostly patched.) Some of the visual elements bear a strong resemblance to the Studio Ghibli film Laputa: Castle in the Sky – but if you’re going to be inspired by anyone, it might as well be by the best.

Combat is the only area that’s a bit of a letdown – at least at first. Fighting can feel a bit scrappy as you flail your sword around at the wildlife until it or you falls over. But gradually you upgrade your weapons and acquire a formidable range of offensive moves, so fighting becomes more and more tactical and exciting. Enemies become cannier too, requiring a range of techniques to defeat, and gradually appearing in more tricky combinations. So although combat is initially underwhelming, by the later stages it’s an utter delight as you bob and weave around large groups of highly armoured bad guys.

I haven’t said much about the plot for the simple reason that it’s best if you discover it for yourself. There’s a dialogue-free prelude comic on the game’s website that sets up the opening moments, so that’s a good place to start, but learning more and more about the strange world you find yourself in is one of the game’s great pleasures. After tens of hours of gameplay I’m around two-thirds of the way through the game – and following several revelations, I can’t wait to see how everything pans out.

Hob is available on PS4 and PC. We reviewed the PS4 version.

Disclosure statement: Review code for Hob was provided by Runic Games. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.

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