Hey, adventure fans! Craving a grave-robbing getaway reminiscent of Indiana Jones? But would you like it to be set in Yorkshire, swapping awesome Inca ziggurats for rainy moors? Well, we have a game for you!
The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow puts its finger in the shoes of Thomasina Bateman, traveling archaeologist and author. The book she is compiling is a study of the mounds of England, mounds which are burial mounds. The last piece of land to take shape in this fascinating tome is the game’s titular Hob’s Barrow, on the outskirts of the simple Yorkshire village of Bewlay.
And Bewlay is undoubtedly the game’s shining star, or the game’s drab gray sky if you prefer. Their muted shadows become richer as mist and rain subtly filter over the scenes, as night begins to fall and darkness falls. The only train line that connects Bewlay to the world is viewed with suspicion by most locals, as is Thomasina, who is visiting from London, sporting a well-spoken air and baggy pants. All the locals are brought to life by excellent voice acting throughout, avoiding the pitfall of emphasizing the Yorkshire accent.
From its very first moment, Hob’s Barrow performs its piece in retro, low-budget horror movie style. Somber scenes in somber, dour tones jump from one to the next. Different flavors of silence move surprisingly from one to another. There is the silence demarcated by the flat chirping of birds, the silence of aggressively overproduced repetitive wind whipping through an empty train station, and the silence of a stealthily constructed monotonous electronic score.
These sonic layers accompany slideshows of suspiciously quiet vignettes, pounding the screen in relentless rhythm as if it were the byproduct of some unstoppable, invisible evil machinery: a sudden, stark close-up of a dying face, absorbed, unblinking. as the shadows flutter through it; such innocent children playing with totally normal dolls, their harmless laughter echoing through the forest from all directions; a sheep. Everything about the opening act teased us perfectly, with one toe always shamelessly dipping into the twilight zone. Were these creatures the hideous, scruffy Yorkshiremen they appeared to be, or just harmless zombies? It was impossible to say and we weren’t sure we wanted to know.
But the power of the game’s framing device is that it pulls you in whether you have the courage to explore the secret of Hob’s Barrow or not. By recounting her story in retrospect, Thomasina Bateman demonstrates that she will go through with all of her plans and emerge on the other side, even though, judging by her muffled voice and worried expression on her main screen, she hasn’t. had the happiest time.
The horror that Hob’s Barrow generates is absolutely palpable. The biggest jump scare here isn’t a screaming demon tumbling in your face from a creaky loft, but rather the sudden whistle of a train in a field. Scaremongering is delivered instead by implication, hearsay, the joining of past events with the present and future, and the resulting inevitability of doomed fate. (However, we won’t pretend that the train whistle in the field didn’t make us jump.)
He equipment of the creepy country horror movie genre that Hob’s Barrow borrows from are so well produced that if it were a movie, it could almost be formulaic. However, as a game, as a way to experience those details through interaction, Cloak and Dagger Games deserves praise for having dismantled and analyzed the formula before rebuilding it in a new medium. This is truly a horror movie that you can jump right into.
In that regard, it’s worth noting the scope of interaction on offer here. The game is narrative and linear, developing its story through dialogue, voice-over, and some flashbacks that are interactive but no choices to be made. Puzzling is relatively sparse, and in the early segments, when there isn’t any, it can feel like a clickathon for the story to progress.
However, there is thankfully little padding here: for example, no search “puzzles” have been added. Hob’s Barrow displays confidence in its minimalist nature. When the puzzles come up, there are some extended logic chains that will have you sneakily manipulating other characters in a way reminiscent of LucasArts in its 90s prime. we stopped to question, for example, the wisdom of trying to steal ingredients for arthritis ointment so we could milk a goat. If a game achieves that, its puzzles are doing just fine.
All these signs of a magical game sadly vanish in the third act of the game. There’s nothing more terrifying than the imagination, but the faint hints of something nefarious happening early in the game eventually play out and the mystery dissolves. The puzzles also run into crazy territory in the final sections. There are manipulations of the environment that don’t make any sense from a narrative perspective. This takes the game into semi-comic Indiana Jones territory: a boulder rolling behind a mine cart wouldn’t have been too out of place. This mood swing feels more accidental than deliberate.
Fortunately, even the wildest puzzles are pretty easy to solve, so we weren’t clicking back and forth not knowing what to do in the middle of the absurdity. Cloak and Dagger has managed to build enough momentum in the first two-thirds of the game to get past the silly low-stamina puzzles at the end and land a pretty good landing for the story.
Since we keep mentioning “clicking”, we need to touch the controls. This is that rare Switch game that supports a mouse, which is a delightful way to play. We didn’t miss it much when playing handheld, though, as the controller implementation is excellent and it’s touchscreen-friendly too.
At its best, The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow feels like the halcyon point-and-click days of LucasArts. Some of its puzzle chains are compelling, immersive, and just right in difficulty. It gets a bit messy in the third act, but not enough to undo the excellent setting and thickening of the plot that precedes it. Hob’s Barrow might have been hampered by its quiet surroundings; instead, he brings a wheelbarrow loaded with otherworldly chills.