Review | Hob (PS4)

A video game moulded in the shape of Zelda: A Link to the Past, set in a world cast from copper and cut from stone, Hob is the kind of unique and yet familiar indie darling that has the potential to sit alongside the likes of Braid, Bastion and Super Meat Boy as an example of how to move the genre forwards. There is no spoken (nor written) story in Hob, so the real star of the show is the suitably massive, ever-shifting mechanical world that the game takes place in and, to a lesser extent, the robot boy that acts as the player’s avatar.

Hob is a world that seems to have been cut from the very fabric of the Earth many thousands of years before the events in the game take place. The grey stone that makes up the majority of its landmasses has a worn look about it and is lined with grass, trees and shrubbery — you know that it is either part of the world or has long since been left to itself. The bright copper mechanisms that run through it, however, look brand new. I personally put this down to the few other remaining robots that inhabit the land, presumably acting as caretakers for the more complex parts whilst allowing some of the basic fabric to fall into ruin. You can make up whatever story you like, really; Hob allows for that without ever imposing on you too much one way or another.

The first robotic guardian we meet seems keen to teach us about the world, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call these early scenes a tutorial. There’s some pointing and it’s all fairly obvious, but Hob let me off the lead alarmingly quickly in an environment that was just a little too indistinct, so I wandered around frustrated for a while before simply backtracking (Metroid style) to use my new abilities to unlock parts of places I’d already visited. In general, that freedom becomes more and more welcome as you progress into Hob and, whilst the game world isn’t quite as broad as a Zelda game, it feels deeper because of the sheer size of the some of the machines that must be climbed or delved into.

Progress is much more about puzzle solving than basic exploration, that’s for sure. You will push the boundaries of the world by using new abilities often, but you’ll also encounter actual environmental challenges that reach beyond the normal level of complexity, without ever feeling unnatural. For example, you’ll often need to use the incredible strength of your boy’s robotic arm to push huge, sliding pieces of scenery into place, connect the inset copper lines and direct electrical currents from their power source to whatever device you’re attempting to power. Such work can take place over long distances (often vertically) but despite the physical distance between each step of the objective, you won’t often be unclear about what you need to do once you get through those first few sections, by which time you’ll have figured out what is expected of you.

There is a fair bit of combat in Hob to slow things down and it can be summarised as straightforward but relatively challenging. The range of attacks is relatively few, with a basic two-hit sword combo, a jump-slash and a dodge-roll being bolstered by additional moves that are unlocked with in-game currency. Enemies range from small and annoying to large and extremely dangerous; a common tactic I employed was to use the sweeping attacks of larger enemies to defeat the smaller ones whilst I darted in and out of combat. Like anything else in Hob, there are no announced bosses, but there are certainly larger, more challenging battles that draw a line under particular areas and introduce new ones.

On that note, considering that Hob‘s world appears to have been made rather than evolved over millions of years, the developers have taken the liberty of building a number of distinct-looking environments to play in. Each of these themes has its own look: variety of enemies, other hazards and so on, yet beneath the service, at a mechanistic level, the world feels like a singular whole. This variation is novel, but if anything it only really serves to increase the drama of discovering and tinkering with new mechanisms within the living world, which I think is an intentional method of creating a slightly linear (but non-restrictive) structure to the game.

And really, Hob is all about the machinery, the mechanisms, the rune-punk world that the player occupies and what it is capable of. I’ve already tried to describe the vertical nature of the place, but I doubt I’ve done it justice. Descending deep below the accepted surface of the world to pull chains and power ancient gears feels daunting — just as it should — and the reward when you push that final button back on the surface? The whole landscape changes before you. Platforms erupt from below, rotate around from the side or pop up, turn and slot back. In the moment when the transition happens, it feels both magical and logical. The scale is magnificent, yet the logic of such movements is hard to fault when you know how it all works below the surface.

I don’t know if I love everything about Hob. I found the basic aesthetic to be a bit flat and I was annoyed by the lack of overt storytelling and even basic instruction, but I can forgive those things. I can forgive them because Hob‘s world is so incredible, so ambitious and so interesting that I will want to experience it again. What little story we see is delivered visually whilst at the same time, the player is expected to figure out a game with many unusual concepts. I reckon if I play it again, knowing what I know now, I’ll see more and understand it better. It feels to me like Hob is worth knowing as intimately as possible, which is probably just about the highest praise I can give any game.

Hob is available right now for the Xbox One, PS4 (which we reviewed it on) and the PC.

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