Review: The Excavation of Hob's Barrow [Switch]

25 Jan 2023

There’s something to be said about the hook of a solid narrative, especially with the Telltale-led resurgence of the adventure game genre far in the distance. Aside from the impending release of The Wolf Among Us 2, some in the collective gaming community might hold the notion that adventure games in general have gone back into hibernation once again.

However, some in the community do remember the initial heydey of the genre led by Sierra. Those who remember some of their favorite moments with titles like the Kings Quest series will often bring up the solid writing and unique graphical presentation, and other adventure games in their catalog continually kept this vibe as well.

This Sierra-centric vibe is what developer Cloak and Dagger Games are keen on emulating with their recent release of The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow. Released back in September on Steam (PC/macOS/Linux), this seemed like a natural first step given that the phrase “point and click adventure game” is commonly associated with PC/Mac platforms. With the simplicity of the graphics and gameplay, the task of porting it to the Switch is just a no-brainer at that point.

With said Switch port releasing on January 25th, 2023 by publisher Wadjet Eye Games, The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow‘s arrival on the platform will be a welcome one given the plethora of adventure games already available. Regardless, the Switch version is what we’ll be covering here.

Amongst the Moors

Opening with protagonist/narrator Thomasina Bateman arriving in the remote town of Bewlay by train, she’s summoned by one Leonard Shoulder by letter to assist with the titular barrow in question. Being that she’s an archeologist that specializes in antiquities found in places like this, it’s an easy way to bring someone like her to such a remote area. Though the game quickly lets on that she’s merely taken up the mantle of work from her bedridden father, and establishes she’s no slouch in that field herself. She’s also confident, grounded in logic and reason, and far from a typical woman of the era.

Right off the bat, this game lets you know that it’s a period piece set around the Victorian era. While no explicit date is mentioned, the aesthetics alone are a dead giveaway to those familiar with them. Bewlay itself is a small remote town that primarily concerns itself with the goings-on of that community and that community alone, and looks the part as well.

Once Thomasina is settled in at the inn/pub dubbed the Plough and Furrow, she sets off in search of Leonard while also getting to know the locals. It’s not often that they get visitors, and the construction of a train line is a point of conflict for some in town. Regardless, this is the kind of story that likes to slowly peel back the layers on your way toward solving the mystery of the titular barrow. Because of that slow burn, you’re often presented with plenty of world-building moments that reveal the general vibe of Bewlay. Given the remote nature of the setting, it makes sense that the pace would also match. Those used to fast-paced stories may find themselves impatient with the deliberate pacing, though the overall plot progression doesn’t have a lot of fluff given its short runtime.

If it isn’t the locals’ obvious unease with the prospect of Thomasina engaging in something they’d rather she leave alone, Thomasina’s backstory and subsequent dreams add another wrinkle to the overall story at hand. They’re often quick, but they also do a good job of establishing events that led up to the beginning of this story in a pretty effective way. The creepy dreams also reveal just enough about the mystery to keep you going, and I’m always a fan of a good breadcrumb-styled mystery. The overall writing is tightly wound, and that helped enhance my enjoyment of the story.

The era-appropriate characterization goes a long way with the overall narrative, too. While the horror (some would say Lovecraftian) elements reveal themselves in due time, most everyone involved here delivers a performance that’s appropriate for the setting and is written in a way that feels natural. We’re not necessarily dealing with a tone shift that might clash with the setting. This isn’t a zombie apocalypse unfolding in the Victorian era. It knows that it’s a creepy slow-burn story and is comfortable with that.

While some may balk at the short runtime, it does a lot within those 5-6 hours to keep you engaged. It’s absolutely a bottle episode type of game, but that bottle is far from cramped and tells a story that hits the right notes in a way that I’m sure that many an old-school adventure game buff can appreciate. The eventual payoff definitely falls under the “your mileage may vary” category, but it does so with the foundation they built throughout.

Taking that all into consideration, it was a pleasant surprise to me that I was able to experience a story as tightly written as this. Those who are familiar with the genre will enjoy this, though those who are merely curious may have to ease themselves into it to get the same type of enjoyment. You’ll do plenty of work on the gameplay side to uncover the plot and progress the story. Though if new players are willing to stick with it, I feel like they would find themselves agreeing with longtime fans of this genre.

Unearthing the Past

For some, describing the old-school style on display here may be a daunting task. It might be a bit more difficult for some when more accessible titles are available, but those who remember the first golden age of this genre relish the gameplay loop that came with each release. You had to be very aware of the surroundings you navigate, use involved problem solving (some would say obtuse), and find out for yourself how to move forward to progress the story. These games weren’t the kind that would hold your hand; you had to put that noodle of yours to work. This aspect of the genre was seemingly cast aside in service of moving the story along in more modern titles, but that didn’t stop certain fans from clinging to those classic vibes. Thomasina’s story definitely falls in the latter category.

While the game does fall into the more old-school style of gameplay, it isn’t completely devoid of a little bit of nudging along when necessary. Thomasina will openly state what she wants to do from time to time, and I feel like that helps keep the title from being too rooted in the past. Past that, the classic adventure game loop that it’s trying to hang onto is on full display here. You’re going to be spending a lot of time exploring Bewlay, talking with the locals, obtaining items to accomplish various tasks, and doing all the usual sleuthing and problem-solving that comes with a title like this.

This gameplay loop is typical for games of this genre, but I could see where some people could take issue with how it plays out. Oftentimes your stated goal must be accomplished through a series of errands in order for the person in question to give you what you want in the first place. There are times when that genre-specific problem-solving does rear its head in the process, but I could see where some people would take issue with what they would consider busy work that gets in the way of the story. Though longtime fans might also consider this part of the charm. Paying serious attention to the environment is pretty much required, as there are times when you’ll need a specific item to complete a task, such as getting fuel for a lantern and the like. It’s really easy to miss such a thing if you’re not paying attention, and for some, that’s just part and parcel of a game like this. There are some who might enjoy this better with a guide, but others will prefer to use their noodle.

That brain-flexing loop does give that signal of primarily catering to those old-school fans. This is an adventure game that constantly reminds you of how the genre used to be, and it definitely flexes that muscle as often as it can. I definitely appreciate sticking to your guns with this kind of design choice, but more casual fans will, unfortunately, run up against these very same creature comforts. Though modern comforts such as fast travel are present, and that does help with the pacing a bit, save for the end of the game for dramatic effect. The modern conveniences that are here are minimal, but they’re effective.

That’s not to say that the gameplay is bad in any way, just more faithful to that specific era. This is more of a game that wants to celebrate what they liked about old-school adventure games and less of a game that adopts old-school aesthetics and prioritizes story over adventure gameplay. Those looking for games that are more action-packed in nature will not find that here, and that’s obviously not their aim at all. Hob’s Barrow fancies itself as a classic adventure game from start to finish, and that works to its benefit.

Keepin’ It Creepy

Sometimes, it’s worth having a little perspective when it comes to the presentation of modern games that decide to operate with a more classic presentation. This sort of thing is nothing new, as there are plenty of indie game developers that do some of their best work working within self-imposed limitations (perhaps budget limitations as well). Hob’s Barrow‘s presentation relishes in operating in that “game that looks like it’d easily run on an i486 PC but released on modern platforms” kind of vibe, at least graphically.

Thanks to that limitation, Cloak and Dagger often work with that style of detailed 2D graphics that were revolutionary for its time but would pale in comparison to modern games. Obviously, they’re not trying to tell a story that would require a beefy GPU here. But the level of detail here would have wowed adventure game fans in the early ’90s, for sure. Bewlay itself is just a quaint English town and rarely strays from that homely vibe when things aren’t spooky or weird.

Though the graphics here do a lot within those limitations. While you’re exploring around town, things aren’t overly detailed, but they looked lived-in and as natural as you can get for the style. Characters move in a way that’s consistent with early-era adventure games and are pretty expressive to boot. There are moments in the story where they feel the need to do uncomfortable closeups with limited animation (presumably for eerie effect early on), but this is something that’s in line for the era it’s referencing. Such a thing was often used to wow the player at the time since it was more detailed than normal gameplay. There was obviously the tradeoff of not being able to animate as much, and these devs definitely kept that in mind.

That feeling of unease from the locals does tend to bleed into the presentation, as the often dreary atmosphere tends to accentuate how the plot unfolds. If the vibe isn’t overtly creepy when the plot moves in that direction, it’s often dreary and depressing. Rural life can often be like this, so it’s not surprising that they would use this to their advantage.

Though when things get creepy, they get really creepy. It’s the kind of horror that isn’t quite full-tilt insanity, but the kind that leaves you feeling like something terrible is right around the corner. Thankfully, it doesn’t overly rely on jump scares. But the use of general unease and creeping dread was absolutely nailed here, which is my preferred horror style. There are shocking moments, for sure. But the “less is more” approach was definitely in mind with the presentation, and that really helps with the creepy execution.

That dreary and creepy vibe is further accentuated by the audio presentation. If it isn’t unsettling music when terrible things unfold, it’s muted music that goes well with that dreary atmosphere that often pairs well with the environment. That unsettling music often makes those Lovecraftian moments really uncomfortable, which is exactly what you want from an effective horror game. With the game also being fully voice-acted in a way that blends well into the presentation, I honestly can’t complain. None of these performances feel flat to me, and each role was executed appropriately. It really helps pin everything else down.

The overall execution of the presentation is appropriate for the kind of game they set out to make. It may not be the kind of game everyone will enjoy, but the ones that do enjoy this genre will appreciate the kind of dedication and adherence to the things that they love most about adventure games. This is one of the things that indie titles tend to nail more often than not, as what they put out is often a reflection of their own love of the genre. Hob’s Barrow is no different in that regard, and my own brushes with the genre can recognize that level of appreciation.

Firmly Rooted

In an age where adventure games morphed into episodic sagas released over time, it’s rather refreshing to see someone eschew all that and tell a story that marches to its own beat. It’s the kind of homage and love letter to the adventure game genre that I can appreciate, even as a player that appreciates it from a distance. Really, it’s an old-school adventure game made for old-school fans. That’s limiting for some looking to break into the genre, but I think that it does enough to be compelling despite all that.

The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow is a clever and creepy indie game that isn’t afraid to show how much love they have for this style of storytelling. It may not be the kind of game that will please everyone, but it will satisfy those looking for an old-school experience wrapped up in eldritch horror. Switch owners looking to expand their adventure game library will find a solid experience here, and the low price point will work in its favor. Thomasina’s misadventure is a story worth playing, so long as you go in ready to tussle with the old-school quirks of the genre.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review code provided by Wadjet Eye Games for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Wadjet Eye Games.