We live in a time where everyone has a strong opinion about video games. Each new title that makes it into the mainstream raises questions regarding the community and the industry. Recently, Cuphead and Shadow of War both served as entry points for bigger discussions, more specifically whether or not video games should always be accessible and microtransactions in full-priced titles—a conversation that has been going for years but gained full traction thanks to the business practices adopted by Warner’s latest Lord of the Rings game. When it comes to difficulty, however, the community’s general consensus seems to be that video games should hold nothing back. Titles such as Dark Souls and Cuphead itself are largely praised for being difficult whereas others such as the upcoming Assassin’s Creed, are largely criticized for allowing players to throw danger out of the window and straight on a comfy flower bed.
Hob, developed and published by Runic Games (Torchlight and its sequel), could be yet another polarizing title to grace the market. In this Zelda-like action adventure with a semi-seamless open world, players are introduced to a planet consumed by a purple plague. After being awoken—and later saved—by a construct, the player character must rid the land of its disease by completing several tasks that will reemerge parts of this world as well as save its inhabitants. So far so good, especially because Hob features combat. However, this is by far one of the easiest games to come out this year and for better or worse, it might’ve been intentional.
Before we delve into that, let’s address Hob’s premise. Its entire novelty lies on rebuilding the game world, which is effective enough. This world is much less organic than others, being comprised of several detached sections that together form entire zones. In order to progress, players must raise masses of land that will instantly complement existing ones. The image of puzzle blocks ascending to seamlessly form a landscape is compelling and more so is the fact that the whole world is one giant puzzle box. Sometimes, in order to reach certain areas or complete specific puzzles, is necessary to activate an area and run all the way back through a newly-opened path. Though the world map provided through the pause menu can be difficult to read and interact with (at least if you’re following the developers’ recommendations and playing with a controller), the seamless overworld is easy to navigate thanks to unique landmarks and thought out connections. And just as important, Runic Games outdid themselves with the art direction seeing as how this world is filled with beautiful and consistent sceneries.
Unfortunately, whereas the world of Hob is a feast for the eyes, its story is as bland as can be. The tale of a lone hero bent on saving the world from a plague that threatens its existence has been told a million times before. In addition to that, this story is told through gestures and less often, an unintelligible language that does even less to explain what’s going on. All we ever get to understand is that we must go there, do this, activate that thing, and voila! This approach to storytelling has worked before as seen on RiME, Inside, Little Nightmares, and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, to name a few; however, Hob fails to achieve the emotional impact of its predecessors. It’s clear that we’re supposed to care about this world and perhaps form a bond with the aforementioned construct, who appears every now and again to add flavor to the journey and give vague directions. Perhaps because storytelling was never Runic Games’ focus with this project, that never happens. Exploring this world is fun, sure, but it’s difficult to care about it beyond its novelty and vistas. Same goes for the characters, none of which have any everlasting impact or help develop the story.
Other than its beautiful world and how it comes together, Hob has a hard time shining due to its story and gameplay. Whereas the puzzles are fairly simple, rewarding, and this land is fun to explore, the combat feels dull even with all the regular conventions in place. Players are given a small arsenal meant to aid in both exploration and combat. The world provides paths that can only be traversed with the use of certain tools and in the same manner, some enemies can only be efficiently dispatched with the use of certain moves accessible through specific weapons. For instance, a number of foes have hard carapaces or armors that deflect any sword hits. In order to make them vulnerable, players must use the slow yet powerful glove attack. In addition to different approaches to combat, there are a number of upgrades scattered throughout the map. Unlike other titles which also provide upgrades to assist in battle, most of Hob’s trinkets and costumes are useful in many situations whether you have a specific playstyle or if you end up using different moves to adapt to possible situations. Even so, fighting is never difficult unless two or three of the surrounding enemies require special tactics. Despite its visual brutality, the world Runic Games crafted is forgiving thanks to a simplistic enemy design and a complete lack of bosses—excluding the final encounter.
This lack of difficulty brings us back to how polarizing Hob can be. Should it have been more difficult to cater to a larger audience or is it OK to be easy and chill? It’s important to understand that the developers intended for the construct-like world to be the selling point. It’s very common for games to have areas that can only be unlocked after you acquire key items, yet the idea behind Hob is to rebuild a world instead of unlocking pre-existing areas. It focuses on exploration more than anything, hence the lack of bosses or massive battles. Those looking for the next Hyper Light Drifter might be disappointed at how chill it is, but anyone after a light Zelda-esque with a focus on exploration rather than clearing dungeons and being part of an epic story will be pleased with what Runic Games came up with. It is important to note, however, that the game has noticeable performance issues especially with NVIDIA’s 10 series GPUs, more specifically the mobile variant of those. Even after setting the graphics to the minimum and using RivaTuner to lock the framerate to 30, my GTX 1050 Ti (mobile version) wasn’t able to maintain a satisfying performance at specific moments. Unfortunately, the advice provided by Runic on pinned threads wasn’t enough to fix the problem but on a brighter side, they are still working on patching the game.