Hob is a puzzle platformer from Runic Games and a definite change of direction for the team behind the iconic Torchlight 2. This self-published title is a beautiful new adventure out now on PC and PlayStation 4. When I first found Hob at Gamescom 2016 it had more in common with Zelda than the Torchlight franchise. Now, I can finally return to it and find out if the finished game lives up to my original expectations. This is our Hob review.
While this is unlike the development team’s back catalog, Hob retains an aesthetic that is distinctly Runic Games, and bears the influence of Jeff Mianowski. Developed in the same Ogre engine as Torchlight, Hob is a bolder representation of this art style, while the world retains a familiarity for fans of Runic’s previous games. The main character is just utterly charming, and its diminutive stature makes it all the more endearing when venturing out into the grasslands during the game’s initial moments. In many ways, when looking down on Hob, it has a lot in common with Tequila Work’s RiME or Gigantic. A cell shaded environment, geometric shapes, bright primary colors, a charming character, and a minimalist user interface are all used to build an almost juvenile facade that belies a far more ingenious piece of work than you might imagine.
This illusion is ripped away very early on. A benign tutorial leads to an unexpected turn and the stakes quickly become apparent as the central character looses an arm. The game then proceeds to lead players through a short introduction. Prompts to hit X or Y appear where appropriate but can be disabled entirely if they seem too intrusive. Health and stamina bars are barely present and the map interface hides in the top corner of the screen. Controls in Hob are, like the user interface, designed to be unobtrusive. Combat is intuitive with just a few buttons required to utilize a sword, shield, and commandeered golem arm when slicing through the undergrowth or cutting down adversaries. As players navigate walkways and catacombs it is clear that Hob’s combat draws on the influence of early Zelda outings. Runic has dragged it into the modern stage with the inclusion of a dodge mechanic and a series of responsive controls which ultimately make combat feel fluid and enjoyable. Mobs, however, never become particularly threatening. A wide range of skills, slow enemies, and an upgrade system means that you will never feel that the challenges ahead are anything but a mild distraction.
Combat in Hob tends to be optional and most of the content is, in fact, filled with puzzles. More accurately, Hob is a puzzle. The entire world interlocks in a series of conundrums which Runic weave into a mesmerizing challenge. Players will find themselves sucked into a game that begins with a series of relatively simple tasks. As Hob delves deeper into the fabric of the world, moving a block, flicking a switch, or bashing a button, are built upon to construct larger, and more complex, challenges. New abilities are added as time progresses. Smashing down walls becomes easy, and phasing across ravines commonplace. This ensures that the game always feels well paced and interesting. These larger puzzles can take around twenty minutes to complete and fall into obvious sections. Completing these activates ancient contraptions that lie buried, reshaping the landscape, machines that fizzle with power are turned on, and the scale of Hob becomes apparent. While this is not explicitly flagged, the moment a massive walkway swings across the horizon or elevated from the depths, the sense of achievement is palpable.
Navigating through these areas is, again, an opportunity to wonder at the world. From the odd alien giraffes that amble through the forests to the dilapidated golems that lie scattered across the map, the level of detail in Hob encourages you to explore the environment. The game’s upgrade system also explicitly rewards this behavior. While combat does drop currency rewards, the largest concentration of this can be found squirreled away in caches, found off the beaten track. It is ironic then, that Hob’s maps are deceptively linear.
Like RiME, Hob manages to give the illusion of a massive world. A huge amount of vertical is present. Just sit down at one of the vista points and watch the camera pan out. It is awe inspiring. Yet, there are very few routes to actually get from point A to B when navigating. Exploration might be encouraged, but this generally consists of hidden rooms and minor detours rather than vast sprawling hillsides. Maps feel expansive, but clever use of vertical content and ingenious camera work allow Runic to funnel players in one direction, always depositing them where they need to be. This could be considered a problem, but it really just ensures that the game continues to be a fluid experience.
While my comparisons to RiME have been largely positive, and neither game contains much in the way of dialogue, Hob’s soundtrack feels a little underused at times. Matt Uelemen’s music is a great piece of ambient work when it is present, combining drums, orchestral, and electronic work to emphasize the mix of tribal, natural, and mechanical influences in the world. Some fantastic sound work by Runic does still fill the space between. From the noise of creatures rustling through the undergrowth, the change in footfalls as you step onto a new surface, or the rattle as your arm clangs off a ladder, work like this has to absolutely be commended. It continues to push the player immersion, but yet I still felt like this left plenty of room for more of Uelemen’s soundtrack.
Ultimately though there is little that Hob does wrong. While combat is hardly a challenge and the puzzles are straightforward there is an obvious reason for that. The narrative is very implicit in Hob, but again this simply encourages you to enjoy the world as you explore it. Hob never loses momentum as you dive deeper and deeper into the game. It constantly rewards you by making the game easy to consume and feeling like you can go for just a little longer. As a result, this is one of the few games that I’ve ever had trouble putting down. The gorgeous artwork might draw you in but the content will not let you leave.