Friday 11 November 2022

The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow Review (Steam)


It is warming to see point and clicks still burbling along, and even more heartening to see them being chucked around with some degree of excitement. The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow had a trailer that was almost specifically targeted for my tastes. Folk horror, period English setting, that look, sinister synth soundtrack. It looked great, and for the most part did not disappoint. Hob’s Barrow manages to capture something really special in its narrative, aesthetic, and pace, that makes up for sort of light puzzle experience.

You play as Thomasina Bateman, a barrow archaeologist whose skepticism drives much of the story forward. Much seems to be reminiscent of Lovecraft here; a protagonist who is steadfast in a no-nonsense scientific empiricism, slowly broken down by the relentless inexplicability of other-worldly horror. There is also something similar to Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space here; a subterranean mystery that has seeped up to the surface to ruin lives and challenge sense. To describe Thomasina in more relevant terms, she felt like a wonderful, charismatic mash-up of both Indiana Jones and Sophia Hapgood from The Fate of Atlantis. Through her, you interact with a bevy of Derbyshire (presumably) characters. A luddite local resistant to the new railway connection; a sad but well-meaning drunk somewhat lost in his own tangled memories; a chirpy, unconcerned barman; a stoic, restrained blacksmith. They’re all fully voiced superbly and uniquely, especially notable as it is largely a Yorkshire accent being used.

Thomasina’s arrival in the town, with this population of variously mysterious individuals, is spurred on by an invitation to excavate Hob’s Barrow. The farmer on who’s land it is situated, however, won’t grant you permission to dig it up. This, amongst many other obstacles, must be overcome to reveal the story. The locations are vivid, in a classic style. Especially noteworthy is the town square at night, which aches and creaks with atmosphere, with the fog fighting the glow from the pub’s window. Navigation across the locations is easy and accessible, as is all the user-interface. There’s even a fast-travel system, which is quite fortuitous as some progress is made really by checking out all the locations to see if something has changed. This is one of my few gripes with Hob’s Barrow, as I felt like I needed to run the list of places rather than solve anything. The developers do emphasise that this is a narrative-driven adventure, so I understand that the puzzlin’ might be a bit “lite” for some.

Much of the point and click puzzling is immediately quite straightforward. If you have the items, they are rational and fitting solutions which drive the plot forward. I never felt like I was doing something absurd (aside from the more supernatural settings, where it is understandably reality-bending). I had a couple of stumbling blocks, but it turned out I just hadn’t checked out an area.

Barrow is a short game but has enough time and space to do what it needs to. You may well spot the trajectory of some of the story beats if you’re familiar with folk horror, or creepy Victorian stuff, but despite its clear influences, the journey to the outcomes is really something special. The time spent in the dialogues is a joy, the music is eerie, the cutscenes are sublimely weird, and there are just enough puzzles to keep you engaged.

I have since found some more work by the developer that I can’t wait to play. While I would have loved to have had a deeper point and click experience, this just speaks to how much I loved being in the village of Bewlay with Thomasina. The attention given to some folklore is brilliant, and there is even a goat that felt like a nod to Broken Sword. At the close of the game, I was hoping that Cloak and Dagger Games make some sort of point and click version of Turn of the Screw or Hardy’s Desperate Remedies. They’ve got the eye for this sort of atmosphere, and I can’t wait for the next one.

Overall 8/10

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