If there’s one thing about games that nobody loves, including me, it’s tutorials. Those long stretches of constant hand holding and babysitting only ruin the first bits of gameplay. Sometimes, for games with deep systems, they’re necessary. Other times, for a game that only amounts to a few button inputs, they’re absolutely not. Finding this balance of simple direction and player freedom is sadly where Hob, a new game from the creators of the Torchlight series, struggles greatly.
Upon entering the world of Hob, few things are certain. When awakened by a giant stone computer hybrid, players take control of a small warrior who is the key to rescuing the world you’re quickly pushed into. A combination of bright colors and cute sounds, the world of Hob is a sight which only few can peer into without wanting to investigate further. Giraffe-like animals populate a landscape ripped straight from a child’s dream.
Continuing on this weird road of iron doors and a kind of robotic nature, your character is attacked by one of the many purplish invaders of this new world. This causes one of the cutest moments of the game: a sacrifice given to the player’s character by the robot who originally walked you; his gigantic arm. The result is a charming, physically lopsided warrior who is just as skillful at chopping up enemies as he is amusing to stare at. Combat with the arm feels unbalanced yet oddly fun, each impact when hitting enemies accompanied with a confirming noise and animation. Armed with this new arm, a sword, and a shield, the warrior serves as a conduit of the ancient technology which constantly transforms the environments of this weird world.
Hob is interesting in the execution of this puzzle-light adventure, choosing to let the player loose in a semi-large map. This is where I think its biggest mistake takes the largest toll on the fun. Instead of long paragraphs of tutorials, we are given small steps which slowly increase our knowledge of the way our character can interact with enemies and the world in general. Much of this is done through level design and the hope that dying and repeating a process will encourage players to learn on the fly. While this method of game design works in most cases, it wasn’t quite used to perfection here.
There were areas where I’d forget what ability did what or some where I was never told to use a certain tool at all. This resulted in downtime which only hampered the already dicey rhythm caused by the game’s rarity of difficult enemies. Instead of beholding the attacks of a new monster, I stood in a circular environment waiting for my brain to pick up on the puzzles which stood before me. This wasn’t due to the fact that the puzzles were difficult but more so that I was never told how the mechanics of each puzzle work through either direct words or even clues in the level. Smart level design from truly open worlds would have been a nice addition to Hob’s otherwise fantastic presentation.
The trees didn’t quite sway but buckled. The machines acting as braces for large sections of earth never felt immediately beautiful but proved their worth when they glimmered with the blood of enemies. The art of Hob is from another world, one where nature and ancient architecture are melded to create something unique. Though the same cannot be said for the unoriginal and even confounded characters, they still run among the flowing grasses elegantly. The sounds of this new place were also amusing. Beach waves and desolate whispers of wind kept Hob from feeling too quiet at those long times of puzzling “where do I go?” syndrome. It also kept me on my toes for more exciting instances of combat, which stuck out as the best moments I had with Hob.
Enemies felt good to pummel into the ground. Some were obviously stronger than others, but none of them ever treaded the line of being impossible, which was kind of a fault. In the halfway top-down camera and Zelda-like freedom of Hob, players should have gotten enemies truly deserving of our time and effort. Some simply sat there as I smashed their purple guts into the grass, stopping to attack once or twice in between my own attacks. This stale level of AI programming made me cringe in parts, and more often than not, I found myself wanting much harder enemies than developer Runic Games threw at me. This lack of formidable enemies didn’t even make my progress more enjoyable, it only hampered the belief that I was this chosen hero who could save this weird dimension from ruin with training and hard work. Instead, I felt like a god from the beginning, ripping apart hordes of enemies one by one until none stood in my path.
One legit thing Hob did that not many games can do is the transformation of their world. Midway through, Hob turned its head and exposed its true charm. Through adventuring in the dungeons underneath its world, players will transform the way they traverse through the world’s expansion. While many comparisons to a Metroid game can be made, there’s something a little different here. It’s the way that Hob cleverly tucks these instances of inaccessible gates away. I barely noticed alternate paths while running through an area for the first time, then after gaining a new ability or changing the world above, everything changed. Finding new paths was almost addicting, you actually had to look for them because of your new strength or the world’s new look. Each one gave way to even more findings, which continued to expand upon a seemingly shallow map of enemies and underground caverns. This feature saved Hob from a bad score and ultimately kept me playing long enough to enjoy the game’s finer moments.
Although Hob impressed me with its vibrant, alien-robot universe and stylistically original art, it ultimately amounted to nothing except a clever top-down action game with an ill-equipped pace that fell flat. My time was well spent watching the various routes open up around me, but this time could’ve been spent in arenas of death with better designed bosses and normal enemies. While I appreciate Hob’s attempt at non-tutorial, player-centered learning, they did nothing to guide the player at all, which only made things more frustrating. Its cute but uncoordinated NPCs would make sense if they were all given their own games, but they made little sense in Hob. These off the mark mess ups made Hob an inherently less eye opening title but still made it stick out as an experience worth having if your gaming time is free.
Developer: Runic Games
Publisher: Runic Games
Platforms: PS4, PC
Release Date: 26th September 2017