It’s hard to categorize HOB: Definitive Edition. The game reminds me of Zelda, but lacks the scale of story and quests, and epic bosses. It also reminds me of Hyper Light Drifter, but lacks the explosive combat. Really, HOB is its own sort of animal. It seeks to emulate, but not copy other great games. It’s a smaller, more self-contained adventure based on exploration and world-building. Personally, I think it succeeds in creating a little niche of its own in the best way possible. It isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s a nice little game that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
The game takes place on a strange biomechanical world. Somehow, the massive machinery that keeps the planet together has become misaligned. You are tasked with fixing these great machines and re-powering the planet. You will scale great towers and explore deep caves, knock down giant structures and build up others. This is all done by exploring the environment and accomplishing tasks, like pulling levels, rotating machines, and gathering and placing power sources. It can be quite epic in its own way, but fails to be challenging in the same ways a Zelda dungeon might be. The puzzles don't usually require solving., as most of them just require doing. Strangely, though, it doesn't feel like meaningless padding and when you do power up the massive building after the hundredth button press, there is a nice sense of accomplishment. Once you raise a tower into the heavens, you are able to scan the vistas and see the world’s beauty, and that can be a relaxing reward all on its own.
The biggest problem with the game is the graphics. All of the images featured in this review were taken in handheld mode since that’s how I play my Switch almost exclusively (as do most people, if the official Nintendo surveys are to be trusted). In real life, on the smaller screen, the graphics look serviceable. Most of the sharp edges and artifact pop-ins aren’t too noticeable. But when blown up into full-sized images, they do leave something to be desired. Those with an especially keen eye may also see many of the mistakes you see in these images as noticeable in the handheld mode. While that isn’t a problem to me, it may be to some players. The good news is that the game looks gorgeous when docked.
The greatest disappointment for me is a lack of story., because I feel that a game like this craves a good tale. It's hard to even tell if there’s one and what there is seems fairly cryptic. You spend your time re-aligning the planet’s machinery, reactivating the ruins and power systems, and generally reconstructing the land to make it function accordingly. But why was it shut down in the first place? What happened? There’s a purple mass that is spreading and choking the land to death, but this is never elaborated upon enough to make for a compelling narrative. There is no dialogue and no overt antagonist for the vast majority of the game. Your robot companion explains everything to you, but sadly, we as players cannot understand the language. Without a strong story, there isn't much driving you forward other than the thrill of exploration and the grand structures you fix along the way. There are vague hints of lore that can be found throughout the game, but they are more beguiling than anything else. Afterwards I discovered that there is an official supplementary comic book and guide that offers more details on the plot. It’s just a shame that the game itself only hinted at this in the broadest of terms. All in all, I really wish there had been a more overt and straightforward narrative in the game itself.
Secrets are scattered everywhere. For example, you slowly find upgrades throughout the game that gives your mechanical arm more abilities. Likewise, you can find the corpses of fallen warriors and gather the rusting remains of their blades which you can melt down to upgrade your own. Secret alcoves hold other various surprises. Those that have the patience to seek them out as well as a love for exploration might get a lot of mileage out of hunting them all down.
While exploration is everywhere, the game’s world is still mostly linear and is built up over the course of the adventure. In a way, it’s a lot like 2D Zelda games on the handheld systems of the past. The world is large and expansive, but it’s dealt out in small chunks over time and increases as you gain items (or in this case, rebuild the land).
Combat, sadly, is also not as engaging. It consists of sword attacks, strikes with massive robot arm, and dodge-rolling. The combat is basic and serviceable, but that’s it. There are no bosses nor epic enemies to fight. Mostly they are simple fodder to be cut down and serve only to break up the pace of the game. Combat serves its function, and I wouldn’t say it’s a flaw of the game, but it didn’t do much for me.
If the overall tone of this review sounds a bit negative, that’s not intentional. It’s just difficult to fully describe this game. What it does well, it does so well that it’s almost masterclass game design. But for everything else, it’s a bit average to mediocre. I definitely enjoyed the game a lot more than didn’t, though, for what that is worth. In order to have a good time with HOB, I feel like you have to be in a very specific mood. You have to be looking for an explorative adventure that focuses more on awe of scale and expanse rather than true adventure, combat, or questing. Fortunately for me, I happened to be in just that frame of mind after playing through the amazing and absolutely brutal Cuphead. The last thing I wanted to do after that was play another stressful and nail-biting experience. So, HOB just so happened to scratch the opposite itch I was craving. Had I played it under a different mindset, it’s hard to tell what my reaction might have been. If you’re in that sort of mood, I think HOB might hit the spot. If not, well then, maybe HOB isn't the game for you. But if that is the case, I would encourage you to play it when you are feeling inquisitive.