Gaming

Review of The Excavation Of Hob’s Barrow (Switch eShop)

Shot on Nintendo Switch (pinned)

“Hey adventurers! Do you dream of predatory adventures reminiscent of Indiana Jones? But would you like the action to take place in Yorkshire, where stunning Inca ziggurats are traded for rainy swamps? Well, we have a game for you!

Hob Mound Excavations puts your finger in the shoes of Thomasina Bateman, itinerant archaeologist and writer. The book she is compiling is an overview of the burial mounds of England – mounds that are mounds. The final clod of mud featured in this breathtaking tome is the in-game named Hoba Mound, located on the outskirts of the simple Yorkshire village of Beaulay.

And Bewley is, without a doubt, the shining star of the game—or the dull gray sky of the game, if you will. Its muted hues grow richer as fog and rain subtly filter scenes as night begins to draw in and darkness deepens. The lone railroad that connects Bewley to the world is suspicious to most of the locals, as is Thomasina, who comes from London with a well-spoken look and borrowed breeches. The locals come alive with great voice acting while avoiding the trap of a Yorkshire accent.

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Shot on Nintendo Switch (pinned)

From the very first moment, Hob’s Barrow performs its play in the retro style of a low-budget horror film. Dark scenes in dull gloomy colors jump from one to another. Different tastes of silence shockingly jump from one to another. There is a silence demarcated by the even chirping of birds, the silence of an aggressively over-produced, repetitive wind whipping across an empty train station, and the silence of a surreptitiously constructed monotonous electronic score.

These layers of sound accompany a slideshow of suspiciously calm vignettes, pounding the screen in an unrelenting rhythm, like a by-product of some evil, invisible, unstoppable machine: a sudden, sharp close-up of an agonizing face, rapturous, unblinking as shadows flicker across it. It; such innocent children playing with perfectly normal dolls, their harmless laughter echoing through the forest from all sides; sheep. Everyone in the opening act teased us well, with one toe always brashly plunging into the twilight zone. Were these creatures the emaciated and terrifying Yorkshiremen they seemed to be, or just harmless zombies? It was impossible to tell, and we weren’t sure we wanted to know.

But the power of the game’s framing device is that it pulls you along whether you’re brave enough to explore the mystery of Hob’s Mound or not. Telling her story in retrospect, Thomasina Bateman proves she’ll go through with all her plans and show up on the other end, though judging by her hollow voice and worried expression on the title screen, she didn’t have her happiest time.

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Shot on Nintendo Switch (handheld/without dock)

The horror that Hob’s Barrow produces is absolutely palpable. The biggest jump fear here isn’t a screaming ghoul jumping in your face from a creaky attic, but a sudden train whistle in the field. Instead, alarmism is delivered through hints, rumors, the connection of past events with the present and future, and, as a result, the inevitability of a doomed fate. (Though we won’t pretend the train whistle in the field didn’t make us jump.)

equipment of the creepy, rustic horror film genre that Hob’s Barrow borrows from are so well filmed that if it were a movie, it could almost be formulaic. However, as a game – as a way to experience these details through interaction – Cloak and Dagger Games deserve credit for taking apart and analyzing the formula before recreating it in a new medium. This is truly a horror movie that you can immediately immerse yourself in.

On that note, it is worth pointing out the degree of interaction proposed here. The game is narrative driven and linear, with the story unfolding through dialogue, voice-overs, and some interactive flashback scenes, but no choice. The puzzles are relatively sparse – and in the early segments, when there aren’t any at all, it can feel like a clickaton to push the story forward.

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Shot on Nintendo Switch (pinned)

However, there is, fortunately, little filler here: for example, no “puzzle” quests have been added. Hob’s Barrow shows confidence in its minimalism. When the puzzles do come up, there are some extended logic chains that will have you manipulating other characters in a subtle way, reminiscent of LucasArts in its 90s heyday. So fair and well-structured were the mid-game puzzle chains that we couldn’t stop questioning, for example, the wisdom of trying to steal the ingredients for an arthritis ointment so we could milk a goat. If the game can handle this, its puzzles are fine.

All these signs of a magical game, unfortunately, disappear in the third act of the game. There is nothing scarier than imagination, but modest allusions to something nefarious happening at the beginning of the game eventually become concrete, and the mystery is blurred. Puzzles also find themselves in the territory of the end-section freaks. There are environmental manipulations that don’t make any sense from a storytelling point of view. This pushes the game into semi-comedy Indiana Jones territory – a boulder rolling behind a minecart wouldn’t be too out of place. This change in mood seems to be more accidental than deliberate.

Thankfully, even the wildest puzzles are pretty easy to solve, so we didn’t get lost looking for what to do in the midst of the absurd. Cloak and Dagger managed to build up enough momentum in the first two-thirds of the game to get through the silly low-resistance puzzles at the end and achieve a pretty neat landing for the story.

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Shot on Nintendo Switch (pinned)

Since we keep mentioning “click”, we have to touch the controls. It’s that rare Switch game that supports the mouse, which is a delightful way to play. However, we didn’t miss it too much when we played it on handheld devices as the controller implementation is great and the touch screen is also supported.

Conclusion

At best, The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow is reminiscent of LucasArts’ serene point-and-click days. Some of his puzzle chains are compelling, addictive and have just the right difficulty. In the third act, things get a little confusing, but not enough to negate the fine staging and plot complexity that precede it. Khoba’s mound might limp due to its subdued furnishings; instead, it brings a host of supernatural chills.




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