Hob’s Barrow review: really digging this adventure
I can’t do straight-up horror, but I do love a creepy storyline.
Back in October 2020, I took the opportunity to play point-and-click INCANTAMENTUM during the autumn edition of the Steam Game Festival. The pixelated visuals may have been what drew me in, but it was the atmosphere during this 30-minute slice of gameplay that made me add it to my wishlist.
Two years later and I receive an email from Emily Morganti. This message announced that developer Cloak and Dagger Games had decided to change the game’s title to The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow. While I think I preferred the previous name, what hadn’t changed was my desire to play it in full and I accepted the kind offer of a review key.
The story follows Thomasina Bateman, an antiquarian writing a book on the barrows of England. These are ancient burial places covered in large mounds of earth and there’s nothing she likes better than digging into them (literally). When an intriguing letter calls her to the small village of Bewlay in the remote countryside, she sets off by train with her assistant a day behind.
Upon arrival though, the note’s mysterious author doesn’t join Thomasina at their agreed meeting place and is nowhere to be found. On top of this, her assistant never arrives with her money, a stubborn landowner refuses to provide her with access to Hob’s Barrow and the locals are unwilling to part with any information about this curious location. With her excavation off to a rocky start, things turn even stranger when she starts having weird dreams which seem to have a connection her a father.
I think this would make a good introduction to the genre for anyone who isn’t familiar with classic-style adventures.
Point-and-click fans will be immediately familiar with Hob’s Barrow’s interface. It’s a simple right-click to look at non-player characters (NPCs) or items within the environment, and a left-click to interact with them. Moving the cursor to the top of the screen reveals your inventory. The addition of a map menu which enables you to fast-travel to any area you’ve already visited is a nice touch as there’s a lot of walking to do around Bewlay. And if you forget what it is you’re supposed to be doing, you can check your handy to-do list.
The tasks themselves are usually simple but together, form rather long puzzle chains. For example: to persuade the maid to introduce you to Lord Panswyck, you’ll need to get her some milk. To obtain the milk, you’ll have to provide the farmer with a poultice for his aching joints. To create the medicine, you’ll need to find the ingredients for the local wise woman. To collect the ingredients, you’ll have to pick up an item from a room in the church. And finally, to get into that room, you’ll have to locate the vicar’s hidden key.
Got all that? These steps aren’t as complicated as they sound though, and the to-do list mentioned above is great way of keeping on track. This is particularly useful whenever you decide to save and return to the game another time. The puzzles to be completed for each task are rarely complicated either making Hob’s Barrow quite a chilled experience. But they’re unlikely to offer much challenge to experienced adventure gamers, as they tend to take the form of ‘doing something’ rather than ‘figuring something out’.
This changes in the final section where you’ll find puzzles which feel suitable for a spooky point-and-click. You’ll be switching between looking at objects within the environment and items in your inventory as you try to piece together visual clues. The most challenging for me was one which involved playing a tune on a fiddle. I couldn’t distinguish the notes being sung, and while it seemed as though there were hints hidden in the setting, I struggled to decipher them. I think this says more about me than the game though!
Hob’s Barrow never left me scratching my head; I never felt overly challenged or the need to reach for a walkthrough. But the story was intriguing enough to get caught up in and I found it pulling me along for the eight-hour ride. I think this would make a good introduction to the genre for anyone who isn’t familiar with classic-style adventures. And it’s worth playing it for its highlight: a foreboding atmosphere, and the sense that something is coming which can’t be stopped despite your best efforts.
Bewlay is a small village tucked away in the English countryside and it’s exactly what you want to see from a setting in Victorian times. During the day, you can visit the market in the village square, explore the nearby woods, or take a walk through the desolate moors where you may come across some strange sights. By night, when the rain is pouring down outside and things could be lurking in the shadows, you’ll be confined to the pub where you’ll have to convince the locals to talk. What is it they’re not telling you?
The woods to the west of Bewlay reminded me of the forest in Simon the Sorcerer. They’re not as big an area or take such a winding path, but it’s lovely to see rabbits and birds randomly make their way through the trees. The final section of the title contains a maze which brough back memories of The Secret of Monkey Island. You won’t have a head guiding you this time, and it’s up to you to use the clues in your notebook to select the right doors. I’m not sure what happens if you choose the wrong entrance as I made it on the first try.
The last scene really highlights that sense of ‘something coming’ I wrote about above. A small clue is given just before this starts and it hints at what’s about to happen. You’ll pick up on this but it’s invisible to Thomasina, who’s compelled to keep pushing forward despite her fears, and it creates a wonderful sense of helplessness for both the player and protagonist. You can’t do anything to change her mind or get her to deviate from the path laid out in front of her – regardless of how bad an idea it obviously is.
It’s one of the more atmospheric point-and-clicks I’ve played in a while and feels like it’s folk horror done right.
The ominous atmosphere does a lovely job at making the hairs on the back of your neck prickle. I wouldn’t exactly call this game scary (it’s highly unlikely I’d have made it to the end if it was) even though it does contain a few mild jump-scares. But it’s one of the more atmospheric point-and-clicks I’ve played in a while and feels like it’s folk horror done right.
Based on the ending, I doubt Thomasina is going to be around for a sequel any time soon. But The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow is a great addition to the Cloak and Dagger Games’ catalogue and I can’t wait to see what they create next.