Wot I Think: Hob

Hob [official site] is immediately striking in its lovely decorative design. Torchlight was pretty in its own way, but here Runic have struck upon a gorgeous aesthetic, something that looks like it could be a Zelda spin-off (as in, not like any of the previous Zelda games, but could easily be the next one, complete with chopping grass). Your character, a hooded creature with glowing blue eyes, is accompanied at the very start by a large protective, gibberish-intoning robot, who very quickly sacrifices one of his enormous arms after yours is lost to a creepy purple infection. Equipped with a bloody great robo-arm, you’re then far better ready to charge about its ever-expanding lands.

Here Hob echos Zelda once more, with a semi-open world, your space to explore growing larger as you gain new abilities, combining third-person puzzle solving with sword-choppy combat, all with the great purpose of… er… huh. It’s not exactly a game that sweats the details when it comes to the whys. What you do is often tremendous, big-scale world-shifting mechanisms at the press of an elaborately switched-on button, through often very well delivered yet traditional third-person exploration. It’s just why you’re doing it that the game isn’t very fussed about.

Hob’s attempts to deliver wordless communication end up mostly delivering communicationless communication. Rather than feeling like an effortless delivery of the game’s features by experience, it feels like, “Oh, this game is trying to do effortless delivery of the game’s features by experience.” Absolutely nothing would have been lost for the game throwing up a few “Press A to…” windows, since it puts contextual key/button prompts on the screen anyway. And, perhaps rather more significantly, when you can’t do something you’ve absolutely no idea if it’s because you’re not supposed to be able to yet, or you’ve just failed to interpret its ambiguous environmental gesticulations.

Thus it was I spent a pretty miserable couple of hours near the start, running to every point of the map I could reach trying to work out why I couldn’t progress further. Should I be able to interact with those raised golden cylinders yet, or am I missing a component that would let me? If I’m missing something, then where should I be going to find it? If I’m not, then why didn’t it demonstrate the item? And why did the robot ‘guide’ wave his arms around at some grassy hillock with a metal object inside when there’s seemingly no way for me to interact with it or others like it?

It turned out it was the former. I couldn’t do anything with these ambiguous objects, and I’d missed the tinist detail – a crack on the ground in a distant region, far from any of the previously set goals. Smash that crack and I found what would usually be a cave with a bonus item, but this time was a progress-critical button. And that’s fine, I found it, I carried on, but I didn’t feel satisfied about it.

Doing it opened up an enormous sequence of events that involved finding means to switch on enormous machinery, moving vast chunks of the game world up and down to find new paths, everything looking so grand and impressive. The complexity with which the world is built is something to wonder at. However, at no point did I know why I was doing any of it. Completing the above-mentioned section took a couple of hours, a lot of exploring, and a great deal of getting buttons powered so I could press them, but at most points there was no indication what that button would actually do. Oh, pressing that moved this section of the level to align with that section, huh. Oh, pressing that rotated that platform, huh. Oh, pressing that made a ladder appear out of the ground, huh. So you move the giant robot to the adjoining section, you run across the newly arranged platform, you climb that new ladder, but only because it’s there.

I’ve enjoyed Hob, but I’m never felt satisfied with it due to that missing sense of purpose. The process of unlocking progress through its world is enjoyable, and the way the whole game world moves about, interlocks, raises and lowers is phenomenal. But I never feel connected to it.

I just kept feeling like I wanted to be playing the version of this game where I was intentional. Where I could see, “Ah, there must be an underground section of grassland that I need to raise up to interconnect these two regions, and to do that I’ll need to get that machine, that machine, and that machine working – right, let’s go!” But Hob is a game in which you say, “Oh, I guess I’ll get this machine, that machine and that machine working since that’s what there is to do,” and “Oh, that made a section of grassland appear, which I guess interconnects me to some place I didn’t know existed.” It’s a subtle difference to describe, but a significant one when playing.

This doesn’t change the fact that I just adore how it looks. Not just the stunning cartoon graphics, nor the intricate and lovingly crafted animations, but also the way this peculiar world works. It’s like a vast, bucolic circuit board, jagged runs of metal along the ground joining together machines and lights, that in turn power enormous mechanisms that, as I’ve mentioned, see entire plains and quarries rise up from the world factories below, astoundingly slotting in to the previous world, hills and platforms rising and falling in columns, great arms of ground rotating and intersecting, in the most breathtaking fashion. It’s something that happens to you, rather than something you do, but it’s undeniably enjoyable.

Less enjoyable is the camera. They’ve made an odd decision, presumably for their own very good reasons, to keep the camera fixed and unmoveable, which is deeply unusual in a modern third-person action game. And it’s bloody annoying, most especially when trying to run along narrow bridges of stone and make difficult jumps between jutting outcrops. Where usually you would rotate the camera until it was an angle comfortable for you and your controls, here you’re left having to awkwardly guess-judge the direction you need to jump because you can’t gain the perspective. It also therefore does rubbish things like have your character go behind objects where he/she can’t be seen, or glitch and have you half-seeing through a mountainside. It’s important to note it’s not a deal-breaker, and it’s testament to the game’s design that somehow it’s not, but it will annoy on occasion.

There are some issues with framerate stuttering. It frequently jaggedly skitters between 60 and 30 in specific areas, in a way that would be fine if it’d settle at either, but is infuriating when it judders between the two. And bloody hell, the ladders. They’re as awful as game ladders get, your character either refusing to grab them and wandering off a ledge, or refusing to let go of one you’re just trying to walk past. Bah.

But as much as I’ve moaned, I’ve enjoyed. It’s a big, ridiculously beautiful world, and while it’s not particularly original in its puzzles, it delivers some familiar standards extremely well. The non-violent creatures that populate the world are ludicrously delightful, the combat surprisingly brutal for such a cheerful place, and the setting completely stunning. At the same time, it’s testament to how wordlessness isn’t an easily imported nobility. Some words, here, would have done the world of good.

Hob is like a beautiful example of how to make a third-person action game. Like a filmmaker who has learned every detail of cinematography, direction, lighting and set dressing, but never thought to care about the script. In that, I found it impossible to escape the sense of lack that pervades its beauty, both in an overall motivation (beyond “because it’s there”), and in the “why?” of everything you do. It’s fun to play, it’s often extremely clever, but – well – it lacks at the same time too.

Hob is out now for Windows for £15/$20/20€ via Steam, Humble and GOG.

21 Comments

  1. Chaoslord AJ says:

    “…I’d missed the tinist detail – a crack on the ground in a distant region, far from any of the previously set goals. Smash that crack and I found what would usually be a cave with a bonus item, but this time was a progress-critical button.”

    Sounds charming to me. That’s exactly how the games of old like the first Zelda would have done it. Metroid games had those unhinted secret walls. All those classics had completely obscure puzzles and switches.
    That’s also the reason why we could play games for weeks when they were just a few hours long really.

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      Phasma Felis says:

      You’re confusing nostalgia with good game design practices.

      • Jim Dandy says:

        And you’re confusing ‘current’ with ‘good’.

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        • Marr says:

          No confusion about it. Modern game design standards have come to be standards because we’ve tried a bunch of ideas over time and they proved to be the best ones. Early games got away with bad design because everything was new and unique, there was nothing to compare against and you had to just deal with it to get at the good parts.

          • Kinsky says:

            Not entirely true. Modern game design standards have come to be standards because they make the most marketable games. There’s a fair bit of intersection there, mainly in the works of indie/smaller development outfits, where “good” often has the same or greater priority than “marketable” (sometimes resulting in games that cop old design paradigms that were left in the dust due to megapublishers swarming whatever sells games); but look at, for example, the shooter genre, which spent a decade being smothered by mediocre Call of Duty titles and their mediocre clones, and is only now experiencing some revitalization due to a reclaiming of old design sensibilities. Lesser-known titles notwithstanding, last year’s wretched chimera they insisted on naming DOOM is the quintessential example of this.

      • jonahcutter says:

        Reminds me of the “you’re not really having fun, you only think you are” sort of claim some make when another enjoys a game the critic thinks is bad.

        • Ragnar says:

          I enjoyed it when I was 8, had all the time in the world, and didn’t know any better or had better alternatives. I have no time or patience for that sort of crap now.

          You want to a secret in an out of the way place with a hard to spot clue? Go right ahead. But putting a progress-critical point there seems like poor design to me.

  2. Dracofav says:

    Sounds like a shame. Not that the Torchlight games were timeless works of fiction, but I figured the story would be pretty engaging based off of their past work. Between that and the camera issues I’ll probably try it at some point, but it’s pretty low on my list.

    • dkfgo says:

      Thats interesting, cause following the same reasoning I was assuming the exact opposite. Torchlight’s plot feels like it is there just because something has to be there, and I was wondering if this game would be the same.

  3. BewareTheJabberwock says:

    I’ve enjoyed it so far. The framerate thing can get annoying, and it seemed to get oddly worse when I lowered the graphics settings. Looks like it’s a known issue, so hopefully they’ll patch it soon. The world is gorgeous, and the puzzles are interesting. I will admit to being completely at sea at the moment (four hours in), tho, with no clue what I’m supposed to do next… I’m sure I’ll find it before long and slap my forehead with an audible “Duh!”.

  4. dreadguacamole says:

    I’ve had some technical issues with the game not progressing past cutscenes (stays stuck in a black screen). Should be patched out pretty quickly, I’d hope. Other than that I’ve enjoyed the little I’ve played of it.

    The “doing it because it’s there” happens on games with proper narrative, too, usually in between larger story beats. I’ve had that feeling a lot lately while playing Uncharted, of all things. Why am I going this way, since it takes me in a completely different direction than the one I should be going towards? Well, because there’s this tidy chain of handholds, that’s why. Game conventions and the way they chose to guide you visually, if done well can guide you just as well as any story… but if there’s also a strong narrative it can be a bit jarring when you stop to think about it.

  5. Theroux says:

    I hate to be that guy, no really I do, but this game’s lack of plot and instruction reminded me of Rime, which you loved despite its lack of plot and instruction. I suppose if the game was engaging enough the why-you’re-doing-all-this would become unimportant; the design of this game sounds like a lot of find-the-tiny-progress-critical-switch balls which would ruin the immersion as opposed to Rime which was a cakewalk start to finish.

    • subprogram32 says:

      Rime ultimatly did have a very simple premise though: you are a boy washed up on an island, place seems goddamn fasinating, why don’t you explore it? It’s still vague, but a child exploring a magical island is itself a convincing motivation, and the later main ‘goal’ of the game – to reach the top of the Tower – is motivated by the Hooded Figure being at the top of it, so unlike this game, you did have a purpose throughout Rime beyond ‘because its there’, even if a vague one.

    • draglikepull says:

      I had the exact same thought while reading this review (and John’s criticisms of Hob sound similar to my issues with Rime).

  6. spamdangled says:

    So any word on roughly how long an experience is? This is pretty crucial for me when buying indie games. If it’s something I can just finish in an evening, I’m not really interested. 10-15 hours and I’ll bite.

  7. foszae says:

    It’s not really my style of gameplay, but i might pick it up just to wander through its aesthetic journey. I do appreciate Runic Games and twenty bucks isn’t bad for a graphically interesting experience

  8. KwisatzHaderach says:

    Bravo John and thanks! It’s one of the rare WITs that, just by reading, make me feel like I played the game. I’m dead certain that when I’ll get this at a sale yout description will match my experience. Which is a shame looking at the beautiful world and visuals!

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    Nauallis says:

    Neat, thanks for the review. This showed up yesterday on that pop-up window that steam does when opened, and I wondered what it was.

    John, were you playing with a controller? Were the controls intuitive? The store page strongly recommended using a controller.

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