Quite often games are built on mysteries and the unknown, and the player making discoveries that inform the world and illuminate a story. Skillfully done, this process can be emotionally satisfying, mechanically rewarding and intellectually engaging. Hob - a new game from the developers of the Torchlight series - is also built on mysteries. Unfortunately, some of them include What am I doing this for? and Why should I care?
Hob is a Zelda-like game of exploration, puzzle-platforming and combat. It takes place in a colorful, painterly-looking world that is being subsumed by purple goo. Hob's main task is to reclaim the land from the poisonous glop, outfitted with an over-sized biomechanical stone hand that can be strengthened and upgraded, and wielding a sword in the other hand. Essentially, the mechanical hand serves as a shield in combat and a tool for breaking through walls and opening shortcuts and new areas, while the sword is the primary weapon.
From the enigmatic prologue on, Hob refuses to give up its secrets easily. There's a lot of dull, aimless wandering as the player scans the environment for cracks in walls to break, crates to move or ladders to climb. While eventually a map and the ability to teleport from discovered location to another help, the world itself - though often lovely and vibrantly colorful - is ultimately a bit repetitious and confusing to navigate. Hob is really a pretty linear game that depends on a sequence of events but doesn't often make the path obvious. Another impediment to exploration is the fixed view camera. While I guess it's reassuring to know that whatever the player needs to see is never out of view, the camera feels restrictive.
Keeping with Hob's minimalist approach to character and story, the game's ambient music is likewise sparse and distant. Music in a visual medium can do much to reinforce or fill in the emotional gaps but here it's subtle almost to the point of non-existence. I think it misses an opportunity to add some much-needed warmth.
Although there is a fair amount of combat and a surprising amount of gore and blood (which can be turned off in settings), it's not nearly as interesting or varied as that in Torchlight or Zelda. Especially the boss battles rely heavily on dodging and creating space rather than powerful combos or weapon effects. It's nice that some of the enemies are non-hostile and can be interacted using a more benign approach. In fact, one of the pleasures of Hob is encountering some of its more fanciful, semi-naturalistic creatures.
In many ways, Hob is a minimalist experience that eschews high drama but can leave the player feeling detached and uninvolved. While Journey likewise abandoned language and combat, it somehow created a profoundly affecting experience about life, death and grief. Hob relegates language to cryptic ciphers and vaguely recognizable sounds, but it also gives us a primary character that is androgynous, essentially expressionless and without the ability to communicate, set loose in a world about which we know little, at least at the start. The art design, combining organic and vaguely steampunk mechanical elements, is unique and sets the stage for the game's many puzzles.
Hob has a lot of style, just not much heart. The game is far more than a walking simulator but its stripped-down approach to combat, loot and character development can leave the player unsatisfied. The visual elements can be striking and beautiful, and the platforming is generally mechanically sound, but Hob's progression feels aimless and ultimately disappointing. Despite the attractiveness of the world, there simply isn't enough story or emotional content to support the game's ten or so hours of play.