Hob is part delightful problem-solving adventure and part open-world third-person exploration game. The game is fun, combining environmental challenges, combat, and a minimalist approach to great success. The environment is the stand-out highlight of the title, changing upon puzzle completion in ways that are visible, affect gameplay, and are immensely satisfying. That said, Hob’s stark approach to player guidance can be bewildering, risking player burn-out. Furthermore, despite being a near-release build, technical issues mar the game, although given the title’s slow-paced nature, these bugs and crashes never have a significant impact on gameplay.
Runic’s choice of presentation is extraordinarily minimalist: few words greet the player at the start of the game, and words rarely appear again, serving only to explain the choice of upgrades available. This approach informs the entire game, not just the first ten minutes. Hob has no clear end goal, no ‘go here and do this’, and, blessedly, no tedious fetch quests. The only way to figure out what to do is to play the game—trial and error made fun. That trial and error normally centres around Hob’s chief form of interaction with the world: the mechanical arm discovered early in the game. The fount of abilities, the arm is the means by which the player can change and interact with the environment, and represents the closest thing to a narrative in the game. By solving and fixing broken mechanical systems, the player gains access to new areas, creates new geographies, and avoids threats.
The only aid Hob throws to players is the single diamond that appears on the world map, pointing out that time might be well-spent going from the opening desert locale to the forest. Except that going somewhere in Hob is complicated, because the game’s geography is a perpetual maze. The best and most time-consuming puzzles in the game are about figuring out how to get to the next place when environmental hazards, such as purple poisonous plants and walls or pipes, block the path. These problems are frequent, and at times frustrating; because prompts are rare, the player is entirely self-reliant on finding a solution, despite said solution often being simple.
Hob’s largest puzzles feel incredibly satisfying to solve, yielding an endorphin kick similar to the first killstreak in Call of Duty 4, or Journey’s final revelation. Given the problems are embedded as part of the environment, the rewards for the solution are in kind. Completing the largest ones rewards the player with fabulous animations as the world changes: large segments of earth rise up from below with new enemies on them, water makes traversal to new areas possible as it flows into basins, and old obstacles are destroyed, making previously inaccessible areas now viable. Developers typically design the gameplay and story first and foremost, with the game acting as the journey, not the reward. Hob delivers the journey well. The puzzles are fun and the gameplay challenging, yet the rewards for playing are stunning: the environmental changes are a genuine—and at times jaw-dropping—treat.
As new areas come into play, new enemies arise. Combat in Hob is kept simple, with the player’s choice of upgrades adding complexity as the game progresses. Despite keeping battle mechanics streamlined, Runic has done a great job of balancing them. Combat is challenging, but never impossible, and interesting without being complicated. Enemy types vary considerably, but the player’s strength always lies in fluid and responsive movement, encouraging strategies of dodging and striking. Often movement is too nimble, as jumping too far and moving too quickly is easy, ensuring a swift drop onto impressively lethal vegetation. Player death is not a punishment in Hob, as save points are frequent, and previously-gathered resources and rewards remain.
Despite Hob having larger set-pieces that draw the eye, the game’s intricate open world encourages exploration. The runtime on the game is estimated at five-to-eight hours, yet Runic has created a world where exploration is interesting and rewarding without being rote, significantly bolstering play-time. A speed-run might be completed in a few hours, but a more relaxed player could easily expect to get 12-16 hours out of Hob. One path might lead to a set-piece that forwards the closest thing the game has to a main quest, and the other path might lead to a health or sword upgrade, or open a shortcut to another area.
However, Hob is not without flaws. The minimalist approach is, at times, too bewildering—Hob may end up with a high player turnover and a low completion percentage, given the lack of explanation or guidance offered. Guides and walkthroughs online will inevitably become an important resource for some. However, despite the frustrations Hob offers, it remains a rewarding game to play without a walkthrough. In this case, checking a walkthrough really is cheating. A third option for Runic would be to provide an improved guidance system for players who want it as an opt-in option.
Hob’s fast travel system offers a quick way about the complex map, a necessity given that straight-line cross-country movement is almost never possible. That said, the placement of fast travel portals is few and far between, and the game would benefit from more of them and better placement of existing ones. Re-hashing an already-completed dungeon just to get to a spot nearby is irritating and unnecessary, although given how precisely each area of the map interacts with another, Runic evidently had its reasons, preferring to limit the player’s ability to navigate between areas until more abilities or paths have been unlocked.
Sadly, despite this review being based on a near-release build, Hob suffers from major technical issues. The pre-release build of the game is prone to crashes and freezes. Fortunately, save points are frequent enough that significant amounts of progress are never lost, but the crashes often remove the carefully-built sense of immersion. The frame rate also stutters frequently, and on rare occasions slows to a crawl for five-to-ten seconds at a time. These problems are not major bug-bears, but they do diminish the glorious animations and geographical changes that Runic has created in Hob’s beautiful world. Although technical issues never disrupt puzzles or combat directly, the possibility of them doing so remains. Since the writing of this review, Runic has released a patch intended to address these issues.
Hob is a great game, bringing fun, challenging puzzles, tricky combat, and a beautiful world into one effective package. Yet Hob’s real treat is in the geographic changes the player can effect on the world. The sudden pull-back of the camera as more of the map thunks into place is glorious, surprising, and joyful, with each addition bringing a host of new possibilities to areas both new and old. The changes are genuinely delightful, never boring, and bring a smile to the face every time they occur. The technical issues are irritants, but given the type of game Hob is—quick to load, with frequent save points—they remain irritants, rather than game-breaking problems. If Runic can solve those quickly, then it has an unmitigated gem in its hands.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4.