Occasionally the art direction of a game is so striking, so inspired, and so beautiful one cannot help but be awed while playing. Hob, the newest adventure from Runic Games, embraces this notion and around every corner is a new canvas for the player to marvel. But does the rest of the game live up to the stunning art? Let’s dive in.
Hob is an action-adventure game that will feel familiar from the onset. If you have played any game starring a pointy-eared, floppy green cap protagonist, you will be able to grasp the fundamental aspects of navigation and combat. While it may be easy to dismiss much of what Hob does as wrote at first glance, there are a few interesting tweaks to the gameplay that become apparent the longer you play the game. For instance, the platforming/adventuring seems more inspired by games like Uncharted and Tomb Raider than it does Zelda. Daring jumps over deep crevices to platforms that seem just a bit too far away only to grab on and dangle at the last possible moment are the norm. Add in a grapple mechanic, the tell-tale reach out with a hand while climbing to direct players, and the occasional misdirected jump leading to instant death, and you have a game that nicely bridges that gap between the exploring of yore and what more modern games have brought to the table.
Combat is a smooth blend of sword swinging, robot arm punching, shield blocking, and dive rolling goodness. Enemies seem to either pose a significant threat (i.e., one or two hits and you will be respawning) or are a minor annoyance where a bit of button mashing will do them in. Occasionally you need to take enemy armor into account, but having a more robust middle-tier of enemies would have felt more balanced. Thankfully, even when upgrading your sword and abilities, the challenging enemies will still punish you if you are lackadaisical in your approach, so the game maintains some difficulty throughout the journey.
All of this exploring and combat is in the name of, I think, vanquishing a plague that is overtaking the world. I appreciate Hob going for the wordless narrative, but I am not sure I always fully grasped what was going on. I pretty much grasped what I needed to do, and I think I know why I needed to do it, and I think I understood what the end meant, but I am not entirely confident. The beauty of art, some would say, is what it means to the observer is what matters. While the creators have an intent and a story they are trying to tell, they cannot tell someone how to experience the work or what to feel as a result of the experience. From that perspective, I appreciate the story. However, the practical side of me just wants to know if I understood it all correctly.
The real star of Hob though is the world. Stunning art direction, a minimalist but beautiful soundtrack, and a map the opens up in dramatic ways caused me to want to explore every nook and cranny. The most significant achievement of this game is how seamlessly everything pieces together and how exhilarating it is to unlock new portions of the map. Massive chunks of land either rise from far below or come crashing down in a beautiful terraforming dance. I am still amazed at how wonderfully the map weaves together and how unlocking new portions felt uniquely rewarding. The game gently guides you on where to go, and once you arrived, the puzzles intuitively presented themselves. There are bushels of secret areas to discover, often hidden right under the player's nose, that made me feel brilliant for finding them. This is a world I wanted to spend time in. Even after completing the game, I immediately jumped back in to see what new secrets I could uncover.
There is a joy to be found just being present in the world of Hob. Unfortunately, there is a flip side as well. The game crashed three times on my adventure, causing me to have to restart from the PS4 home screen. Thankfully, a forgiving auto-save and respawn system meant I never lost more than a minute or two of progress. Additionally, the framerate would chug if I was running across expansive parts of the map, more so if there were numerous enemies on screen. Finally, on a few occasions, I would fall or otherwise find myself stuck between objects in the game. While these technical issues pulled me a bit out of the game experience, my disappointment would wash away because of a desire to hop back in and experience more of the world.
Hob reminds me why new IPs and independent developers are crucial to gaming. The wordless narrative might be a challenge for some, and technical issues hold it back from its full potential. However, in the end, Runic Games has put together an extraordinary adventure in a stunning world that is easy to recommend.