Hob is a fun little Zelda clone whose substantial technical issues harm, but don't ruin, the experience
By BigSocrates 1 Comments
Hob made a terrible first impression on me. The game starts with a robot guy freeing your little character from a chamber. You walk out into a verdant 3-D world presented from a mostly isometric perspective and are supposed to follow the robot out into the starting area, which is not strictly linear. I tried running around a bit to see if there was anything else to do, and found a plant that I did not yet have the right equipment to interact with. So I followed the robot through some very basic puzzles and got to a point where your character gets attacked and there’s a late set of opening credits and…the game crashed to a blue error report on my PS4. I considered abandoning it at this point, but didn’t want to give up so easily on a well-reviewed game I had been looking forward to playing. So I started it again, followed the robot through the boring sequence, again, got a little bit further this time and…the game locked up, and I had to force quit it. Fortunately, I’d hit a save point this time so I didn’t have to do the intro sequence a third time, but I was seriously annoyed and very nearly deleted the application from my PS4.
I’m glad I didn’t, because Hob is a fun and engaging game, but it is also rough around the edges. In addition to a handful of additional game crashes I experienced some significant frame rate issues in a few areas, a bug where I couldn’t hit a switch necessary to advance the game (which was fortunately resolved by quitting and restarting the program), and a recurrent bug where the wrong 3-D model would load for an enemy with a specific weakness, making it impossible to read when that enemy was actually vulnerable to having its armor removed. It’s the buggiest console game I’ve played in a very long time, and it’s a testament to how good the core of the game is that I kept playing to the end despite those issues.
That core is…top down Zelda. It’s Zelda. Hob is a Zelda clone. From the pre-release news and the handful of reviews I read I thought it was more like an adventure game Journey/Abzu game but with a little combat and a few puzzles, but it’s not. It’s a (mostly) isometric perspective game where you fight enemies with a sword and shield, solve puzzles, and do some platforming and traversal (which is often made harder by the isometric perspective.) The balance is tilted heavily away from combat and towards puzzle solving and traversal, with the traversal providing the most challenge. Most of the puzzles amount to just flipping every switch you find until a new area opens up or an old area re-arranges itself and you can advance. There are a few clever puzzles requiring some thought or timing, but it’s probably no more than 10 across the game, and none are overly difficult.
The combat, for its part, is stripped down and simple, mostly rewarding hit and run tactics where you dash up to an enemy, smack them a few times, and run away before they retaliate. There are a few wrinkles involving stripping armor by using a charged punch attack with your robot arm or by grappling glowing weak points, but they don’t add very much and there are probably 15-20 enemy types across the whole game, including variations of a base type. There are also no bosses before the end of the game, though there are a few puzzle-focused dungeons (which also do have combat against basic enemies.) The major challenge in Hob, then, is figuring out how to use the traversal mechanics to reach the particular switch you need to flip to advance through the area, which makes for a fairly laid-back experience. This is aided by generous respawn points that are usually only 20-30 seconds away from where you died, and don’t reset the world state, so dead enemies (mostly) stay dead and flipped switches stay flipped, minimizing frustration.
Hob’s traversal mechanics are simple but functional. You can walk, run, jump, climb ladders and then later do a short warp dash and a grapple. The controls are decent, though they can be finnicky (especially when trying to get from a grapple point up on to a ledge.) You can also pull switches and rotate levers, but it’s very basic stuff. The biggest challenge can be the camera, which often makes for odd perspectives on jumps and sometimes loses track of the character behind foreground objects, leading to unnecessary fall deaths.
Hob also features treasure chests to discover, with either 10 units of glowing green upgrade currency, or an upgrade schematic. There are also sword upgrade pieces, heart and energy meter upgrade pieces, and secret lore rooms (that present their information through glowing images, rather than words.) These secrets are often well hidden, though many times paths I thought would lead to an upgrade chest were actually the only way to proceed. The game also enjoys teasing you by showing you upgrade items that you won’t be able to get until you clear all the pink slime from the area, or raise or lower platforms. The upgrade systems are stripped down from what you might find in something like Breath of the Wild, but your character ends up with quite a few additional abilities and heart points by the end.
If Hob’s gameplay is just above-average, then, the story is basically non-existent. The pre-release materials made a big deal out of the game lacking dialog, which is not strictly true; in fact the intro robot chatters at you quite a bit, it’s just not in a real language. Hob has a few cut scenes and NPCs, but no real storytelling. You’re on an adventure rebuilding and purifying the land, and that’s pretty much it.
And it’s that rebuilding and purification of the land that provides Hob’s true strength, which is, quite literally, worldbuilding. While in most Zelda type games you get access to new areas by gaining new abilities or opening doors or paths, Hob does both of those things but adds a good deal of terraforming into the mix. In Hob you don’t just open doorways you purify entire areas of this creeping pink ooze that blocks off your path and damages you. Even cooler, you raise, lower, and rotate the landscape itself to create new paths and connections, and recontextualize old areas into new ways. The world map in Hob doesn’t just get filled in, it gets fundamentally altered, and it’s really satisfying to see not just your character change but the entire play area change with it. There’s a point in the game where you raise an area with a big lake in it and come face to face with a giant predatory fish staring out at you from the cross section of the world as it shoots up and then crashes down into place. That fish will then proceed to hunt you as you swim through that lake, and you have to activate noise-producing platforms to drive it away so you can move through the area. That kind of spectacle and alien worldbuilding provides the greatest joy in Hob and kept me playing until the end of the game. The terraforming, along with gates you can open and ladders you can pop out, also creates lots of convenient shortcuts and new openings, making areas that might take you an hour to get through the first time much easier to traverse when you need to backtrack to do something else or hunt for additional items and secrets.
If the art design and aesthetic world building in Hob are great, the graphics are just so-so. The game has a pleasant cell-shaded style, but many of the textures are low definition and, at least on PS4, the game often has a low frame rate and jittery camera. Sound fares a little better, and the game uses music much like Breath of the Wild, with a few pleasantly haunting tunes alternating punctuating the in-game soundscape. Hob’s simple geometry and clean look isn’t a bad thing, but at many points it looks like an upscaled PS2 game rather than anything cutting edge.
Hob represents the final game made by Runic Games, the studio that developed Torchlight 1 and 2, before it was shuttered. Given that the studio was made famous by its Diablo clones, it’s not surprising that it decided to branch out and clone another famous action RPG series. While Hob is not as successful as Torchlight it’s definitely a respectable effort, and I’m a little surprised that it didn’t make a bigger splash despite coming from an established studio and getting (deservedly) good reviews. The game takes about 10-12 hours to complete and for $20 (or less on sale) it’s well worth it. It’s too bad that Runic shut down before they had an opportunity to make a sequel (or spiritual sequel more likely given how the game ends.) I think that with a little more polish and maybe a move to a free-control 3-D camera, a sequel to Hob could have been a truly special game and not just a good game with some truly special parts. Alas that isn’t going to happen, but the game they made is a game worth playing, so if you’re in the mood for some top-down Zelda style action, minus the bosses and with a streamlined item/upgrade system, Hob is worth a try. Just do your best not to get eaten by that giant fish.