The scariest part of The Excavation of Hob's Barrow - an evocatively-named game full of delightful horrors - is when the credits roll and you see how small the development team was. There is precedent for small teams making wonderful point-and-click games using Adventure Game Studio, but by the time those credits rolled I was immersed in the game to such an extent, so impressed and captivated by it, that it felt impossible that this was the work of so few people. Digging into it further, it seems that no one was on the project full-time, either: this is a passion project, realised with a level of polish and sheen that obscures the limitations it was made under.
The more I think about it, though, the more it makes sense. The Excavation of Hob's Barrow is the realisation of the kind of vision that is perhaps best carried through by a small team working together in pursuit of a collective best interest. Developer Cloak and Dagger Games have channelled the vibe of movies like The Wicker Man and Midsommar - classic "person goes to curious place, has weird time" horror films - but have ultimately crafted an experience that feels unique and distinctive, and which does not live in the shadow of its influences.
The Excavation of Hob's Barrow is the realisation of the kind of vision that is perhaps best carried through by a small team working together in pursuit of a collective best interest.
The Excavation of Hob's Barrow casts players as Thomasina Bateman, a young woman with a keen interest in antiquity. She's writing a book about the barrows of England - burial mounds that often contain interesting curios - and at the game's opening she has been drawn to the small town of Bewley to meet with one Leonard Shoulder, a local who has assured her that a legendary local barrow requires her attention. As you might expect, things don't go to plan - Leonard doesn't show up for their meeting, the townspeople deny all knowledge of Hob's Barrow, and there's a general sense that something is off - a sense that gets dramatically amplified each night in Thomasina's dreams.
Thomasina, as well as Bewley and its residents, are realised with some truly gorgeous pixel art. This is a game made in Adventure Game Studio and published by Wadjet Eye Games, and if you're a fan of the genre that's possibly enough information to explain a lot of the game's look and feel - more "classical" than "retro", with flourishes and details that render out the image more fully in your head than the environmental fidelity can account for. The art of Hob's Barrow really got under my skin; a repeated cutscene motif that suddenly renders the pixelated environments and characters in much greater detail is particularly smart, lending specific moments a feeling of hyper-reality and suggesting a deeper world than the one we're seeing in most screens.
Thomasina is a hugely compelling protagonist, too. She's clever and charming but also focused to a fault, often pointedly missing or hand-waving away the red flags that players will keenly see. Her journey to Bewley is shown through several hours of creeping dread, followed by, thankfully, wicked payoff with an excellent final act. Hob's Barrow is a tonal exercise, a game about giving in to your worst impulses and eventually following the false promise of destiny. That's always been part of the fun of the adventure genre - guiding characters through bad decisions, finding solutions that create more problems, causing mischief and mayhem to progress. It's been interesting playing this and Return to Monkey Island back-to-back; the new Monkey Island game has fun poking at the implications of genre conventions, but Hob's Barrow is more subtle in how it needles your sense of duty to the characters and the world they inhabit.
The art of Hob's Barrow really got under my skin; a repeated cutscene motif that suddenly renders the pixelated environments and characters in much greater detail is particularly smart, lending specific moments a feeling of hyper-reality and suggesting a deeper world than the one we're seeing in most screens.
Aside from nailing the tone, this is also just an excellent traditional point-and-click game. There's no attempt made here to rewrite the rules - you examine everything, you gather objects, you use X on Y, you visit everywhere and talk to everyone several times hoping to trigger new dialogue options. This is not a particularly difficult game, nor are there any really wild solutions - there's a clear chain of logic that you can follow from beginning to end. The game is good at letting you know what your objectives are, even if the bigger picture of how they fit together often isn't clear until you've completed them. Adventure games can be very stop/start, and Hob's Barrow isn't immune to this, with a few chains in the middle that grow a bit shaggy as puzzle solutions grow increasingly protracted; still, it managed to get me into a flow state at several points, where I felt challenged but not frustrated, able to progress the story at a pleasant pace while still needing to think through the solutions. It's a hard genre to balance, but the folks at Cloak and Dagger gets it right here more often than not.
I'm talking around a lot of specific details here. This isn't necessarily one of those "don't read anything before you go in" games, but the feelings it evokes are best arrived at naturally, and the questions it raises early have answers that I don't want to spoil. I was hugely satisfied by this game, and my affection has only grown since the credits rolled. Cloak and Dagger Games have been crafting adventure games for some time now, but Hob's Barrow - by far their most high-profile release - feels like an arrival, a team that has taken their expertise to a new level. It's thrilling and inspiring to see a game from a small, passionate studio come together like this, one that feels so fully-realised as a creative vision. It's well and truly under my skin now - not just because it's an effective horror game with a memorable story, but because I'm madly jealous when I imagine how pleased everyone who worked on this must be with themselves.
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