Hob reminds me of why we should never let the cruelty of the world prevent us from appreciating its beauty. It illustrates this lesson forcefully just moments in, when the androgynous hero suffers an infection that quickly leads to an amputation, all for the crime of being distracted by a graceful giraffe-like creature and the stunning landscape surrounding them. A robotic golem comes to the rescue, gifting the hero its own arm, which includes a fist even Hellboy could appreciate.
And does our hero sit around moping, having learned the world sometimes punishes the gentle-hearted? Not at all. They jump back into action almost immediately, using the new arm to punch, grapple, and warp the problems of the world into submission. That’s kind of the story of my experience with Hob as a whole, as it kept drawing me back even though it occasionally treated me unfairly and left me confused.
Hob readily evokes the spirit of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, as its 10 or so hours involve solving a host of puzzles, whacking monsters with upgradeable swords, and finding health and energy upgrades stashed in the nooks and crannies of its beautiful world. But there’s also a hint of Journey here, most obviously in the red hood with Batman ears worn by the protagonist. More importantly, though, Hob is a similarly voiceless adventure, depicting interactions between the few characters with emotion-laden gestures instead of words. Even the menus come off as puzzles in their own right, as they explain what items you’ve collected with symbols you must decipher on your own. The approach generally works so well that it’s kind of jarring when text descriptions are used for the optional upgrades of the hero’s rocky hand.
To be sure, the wordless approach allows for touching moments, as when your golem buddy releases a butterfly while our hero looks on in admiration. But it certainly doesn’t work as well as it does in Journey, which is laser-focused on the clear goal of ascending a distant mountain. In Hob, it’s never clear what you’re doing or why. There’s a vague sense that the purple, bulbous plague infecting the world must be stopped, but even that only seems to be the point of what you’re doing some of the time. The lack of written objectives in this semi-open world also makes figuring where to go next a chore, especially in the early hours when your goals are merely pointed out with vague gestures from the charitable automaton.
Hob is more concerned with painting a picture than telling a story, and there’s little doubt that it paints a lovely picture. Much of the joy of playing it comes from just admiring the brightly colored landscapes where nature and machinery intertwine so naturally that it’s tough to tell where one ends and the other begins. Not content to merely give us pretty scenery, Hob serves up a land where the world itself is a puzzle so that, with the press of a button, the landscape alters itself in a way that rugged cliffs and plateaus leap up where there was only sky before. You’ll find some of the most impressive sights above ground, but others hide under the surface in dungeons housing engines so massive they could probably serve as spare parts for the Death Star.
The puzzles themselves are never exactly complicated or even original, being chiefly concerned with dragging and shuffling blocks or rotating gears. Even so, they’re satisfying to complete, particularly when that final “click” triggers yet another reshuffling of the world, activating glowy turquoise lights and often creating new puzzles in the process. I found myself more fascinated by their elegant intricacy than their difficulty, admiring the ways I’d need to delve deep into the earth, rotate skyscraper-sized structures, and teleport like lightning over seemingly endless gaps all just to open a door.
Sometimes Hob tosses light platforming into the mix, too, but these are among its weakest moments. The artsy fixed-perspective camera often doesn’t make it clear if the next jump is going to make you land safely or go hurtling off a ledge. Sometimes the camera will even get you killed, as it’s a little overfond of not showing you what else is behind the ledge obscuring your character. Sometimes it’s a thorny plant that slaps you to death; sometimes it’s a big ogre with a club who paints the landscape red with your blood. It doesn’t help that Hob suffers from substantial frame rate drops at times, which can cause trouble at the precise moment when you need clarity above all else. It’s a good thing respawn points are plentiful and loading screens are short, as these moments threaten to ruin the whole experience.
And yes, you’ll do a little hacking and slashing. It’s not a major part of Hob, though, and it’s fun enough to make up for its relative simplicity. Armed with both the punchy arm and a sword that looks like a key, our hero faces off against everything from trolls who pelt you with explosive gas balls to nasty little minions who drop health-restoring apples after each kill. Combat itself is a fun mix of dodge rolling and slashing at the appropriate time or busting through shields with a meaty punch of the rocky hand. Sometimes, though, I found I had more fun when I didn’t even attack the creatures directly, but rather fooled the reckless big guys into accidentally slaughtering their buddies in their drive to get to me.
All of these elements the voiceless story, the satisfying if moderately challenging puzzles, the just-common-enough combat combine to create a Zen-like experience that’s wonderful so long as you stay focused on the moment and not on where it’s heading or what it all means. Its beauty and composer Matt Uelmen’s moving (if somewhat sparse) soundtrack help create that Journey-like feel, but it never achieves the same sense of purpose or – by extension emotional power. All the same, I won’t soon forget my time with Hob. It ends with a choice that ties back to the earliest moments, at last answering some – but not all – of the mysteries that popped up throughout. With a little more focus, this could have been one of the greats.