Gaming! Yes, I’m still finding time for it. Actually, I’d like to think I might have found more time to game recently than in the last few years. The pull of single-player games has become fairly strong lately and I expect I’ll continue to look at those kinds of titles going forward rather than continuing to play MMOs and other so-called “social” games. MMOs have their place, and I do like spending time with my gaming buddies out there in cyberspace…but there’s something about immersing one’s self in a game that tells a specific story, and journeying with the characters through that story, that MMOs just can’t replicate. It’s a very specific itch, like wanting to get lost inside a good book, or a favorite movie…except you, as the player, get to be the hero, with no other players to interrupt your adventure. (And often, after a hard day’s work, I just want to be a hero!)
One game I recently spent time in to scratch this itch is Hob. Hob is a single-player action-adventure game developed by Runic Games that was released for PS4 and PC just this past fall. I’d had my eye on this game via Steam for a while and when my friend Mat gifted me a copy for Christmas, I was excited to give it a go. I’m glad I did, and if you’ve been thinking about picking it up, you should!
Note: This article is reasonably spoiler-free.
The Steam profile for Hob states a controller is strongly recommended for this game and I completely agree. I own a few (older) consoles but these days I only buy games for PC and generally prefer to KB+M my way through. With Hob? I wouldn’t have enjoyed it hardly at all without a DualShock 4. The PC version expects an Xbox controller but other than having to remember that a blue X on the screen was actually the pink square in my hand, or the yellow Y was the green triangle, I didn’t have any problems using a DS4 (smaller, so more comfortable in my little lady hands) to navigate the world.
Hob is beautiful. Not breathtaking by any means like other games, but still beautiful in its own right. I liked the art style. The outdoor areas remind me of certain areas of Super Mario 3 (it’s the trees, I think, though mowing down grass with the sword to find hidden strawberries for health is so very very Zelda), while other areas manage to blend technology without it seeming completely out of place with the otherwise simple, natural world. I finished the game after twenty-two hours and wish there had been more of the world to explore. The vistas sometimes hinted at other locations that I hoped I could eventually get to that turned out only to be tantalizing backdrop.
It’s a peaceful world, which makes it a peaceful game. There’s no dialogue, though some of the characters do “speak” to you—just not in a way that you can understand based on the audio alone. Instead, the game asks the player to fill in the blanks through observation of character actions, intonation, and reasonable deduction. There’s no narration either, so figuring out what has happened and why you, as the main character, should do anything at all…is up to you. Some people might find that frustrating, especially since the player’s purpose or goal (beyond the immediate obvious) is left so ambiguous. I liked it, but maybe that is due to my enjoyment of puzzle games like Myst and Riven… I don’t necessarily mind if something big isn’t handed to me on a silver platter.
A puzzle is certainly what Hob is. The world is quite literally in pieces and part of the game’s challenge is to put it back together. It’s clear early on that something in this world is amiss, and you are shown what effect the bad stuff is having, so the immediate goal is to make it right. If you’re observant, and sufficiently curious to explore enough, there are clues you can discover along the way that hint that maybe something more has transpired too.
It’s not all brain games. There’s quite a bit of combat and I was amused by the “gore” effects. No, it’s not gore like in M-rated games, but seeing poor little Hob get completely exploded for the first time (while the bad guy stood there and laughed in triumph) was still rather epic. Likewise, the first time (and every other time) I accidentally killed an innocent animal and saw its blood splork everywhere across the grass I was guilt-ridden for hours. (Sword is for bad guys! Animals are for petting!) Not all of the combat is easy, either. I died, a lot—an embarrassing number of times, actually, though after I upgraded the sword all the way most of my deaths ended up being due to, ahem, fall damage or self-inflicted injury. The devs at Runic Games seem to have had a sense of humor about players who get themselves killed multiple times in rapid succession, as more than once upon respawning, Hob slumped out of the respawn pod and immediately faceplanted on the ground before groggily getting up. Very funny, guys.
I never found the combat stressful, even when a particular boss was able to mop the floor with me. There aren’t complicated combos to master or much equipment to keep track of. This made it easier to just enjoy the challenge of finally chopping that enemy into little pieces so I could move on to the next puzzle or area to explore. Hob is a game I looked forward to playing after working all day because of how relaxing it was overall. There is music, though it’s unobtrusive to the point I sometimes wondered if I was hearing soundtrack or just ambient world sounds. The soundtrack is available for purchase and makes a decent addition to the library for chill or background filler purposes—though I would caution not listening to the very last track until after playing through the game, as there is a particular and very recognizable sound effect in the last track that can prematurely spoil one of the blanks the game leaves in the story. I listened to the soundtrack partway through the game, heard that sound, and had a lightbulb moment that I wish I hadn’t had until later.
For what the game is, and what it costs, I would say its length is decent. In twenty-two hours I explored 99.9% of the map and managed to get all of the achievements except three that it was possible to get on this particular playthrough. The 0.1% of the map I missed is where the three things that I need to unlock those three achievements are hiding. There are four additional achievements I don’t have: one for completing the game with fewer than five deaths (I can’t imagine ever being able to get that one, I’m so clumsy), one for speedrunning the game in under five hours, one for completing the game with zero upgrades of any kind, and the last one can only be obtained by getting the previous thirty-six achievements. Worth replaying for? Well, I want to get those three achievements I missed, because I’m anal that way, and I can use my current save file for that. The remaining four? I can probably do without, though trying to complete the game without any upgrades could be fun. (Hob on hard mode.)
My biggest complaint is that Hob doesn’t give you as much of a chance to get to know the other characters as it could have. There are only three: the helper you meet at the very beginning; the mysterious cloaked figure; and the entity you meet at the very end. In some ways you get to know the forest sprites and the animals better, although the helper tags along the longest. I wanted to know more about why the mysterious cloaked figure did what she did during the mid-point of the game considering what you then see her do at the end. I especially wanted to know more about the entity. For that character, the game seems particularly one-sided and that doesn’t seem especially fair given the choice you immediately face upon meeting her. Getting more emotional investment, whether for good or ill, through having just a bit more information about these characters could never be bad.
Depending on the ending the player chooses, there is a circular aspect to the world that fills in a particular blank and maybe even explains something about the mysterious figure as well as possibly giving the player an explanation for what happens to Hob (the character) after the credits roll. For me, seeing both endings combined to provide a moment of Oh now I get it. It’s kind of like the Matrix: once you see the end, and then go through the story again from the start, all those comments and references that seemed innocuous are suddenly laden with greater meaning. Hob is the same in that both endings help inform the player about what was really going on at the start, and so on. That was reasonably clever of the devs to do while still leaving much open to interpretation, so that each player can go some way toward making the story their own. It also makes me wonder if there are other clues embedded in the world that might only fall into place after multiple playthroughs.
I would like to see a Hob sequel, even if only to get more information about the big picture (how things got started, what certain clues really meant, what happened after the events of the game). Regardless of which ending might be considered “canon”, I think there is room for a sequel where the entity, or something related to it, could present another challenge. Sadly, Runic Games was closed shortly after Hob was released, so the chances of anyone getting to explore more of this pretty little world are slim. :(