Just a few weeks ago, Runic Games released Hob on PS4 and Windows gaming systems. Hob is an action adventure game centered around an impish character with a robot arm, exploring the world he wakes up in, loosely guided by a mysterious robot mentor. The game is as artistic as it is unique to the genre. In many of the comments from other critics and reviews, I keep seeing a popular point of comparison for this game: Zelda. Specifically, A Link to the Past. Being the diehard Zelda fanatic that I am, this immediately piqued my interest. I picked up (downloaded) the game so I could see for myself.
From its outset, Hob establishes itself as a game centered around exploration of the rather beautiful environment. All of the puzzles are environmental, requiring your character (whom I have been referring to as Hob, though that may be the name of the world itself), to make use of his newly installed robot arm – a moment that took me completely by surprise – to manipulate various mechanisms located around the world. Buttons, switches, cranks, all used to operate utterly massive pieces of machinery, piecing more and more of the world together, and seeking to discover the purpose for which you were awakened at the beginning of the game. The scope of the game can feel daunting, at times, with dynamically different environments to explore, both in the main world, and in the mechanical guts that compose a sort of underworld to the game.
The combat system in the game is, to me, not particularly intuitive. However, I am no definitive authority on the matter. I fully believe that the combat is well established, and that I am just not very good at it. In the game, Hob carries a sword, and is also able to use his robot arm for punching – it would be a bit obscene if he didn’t. The combat system also comes with upgrades. Hob can find and gain items akin to skill points, which allows him to purchase upgrades to his arm, as well as other abilities, including dash attacks, using the arm as a shield, and other upgrades where the player can sacrifice – as one example – their health for a boost in attack power. There are also upgrades to health, stamina, and Hob’s sword that can be found throughout the world, further rewarding the player for thoroughly exploring the world.
The game is not perfect, however. There were a few issues that I have found to be quite frustrating. In regards to the actual gameplay mechanics, there is no way of manipulating the camera at all. One might assume that, if the game doesn’t allow for camera controls, they shouldn’t be considered missing. However, while this works throughout most of the game, there are certain areas of the map where camera controls wouldn’t just be appreciated, they seem almost necessary. Even more frustrating, the game does not seem to run optimally, at least not on the PS4. There are moments where I am dragged down to maybe 3 frames per second. This tends to be tied more to environmental factors, such as an excess of grass or other movement, rather than an abundance of enemies on the screen. However, there can definitely be both, and if this is the case, your fight is not going to go well. This is unfortunate to see, as it does really cheapen the feel of the animation.
So how does it compare to Zelda? There are certainly a few direct parallels that seem to pay tribute to the beloved series. While the intro to the game does not show Hob to be sleeping, he appears to have been locked away for what seems like it may have been some time, and he shields his eyes from the sun as the chamber he appears to have been sealed away in is opened by the mysterious robot friend. This is reminiscent of Zelda games, where Link is often awakened at the start of the game, and put immediately to task by a mentor-type character. The manner in which the game gives very little tutorial, other than through trial and error exploration, is also in line with the earlier installments in the franchise. Another almost too obvious tribute to the Zelda series is the health upgrades. While there are not mini games or side quests that need to be completed to earn them, the heart pieces resemble small, cubic hearts. Collect two to add another piece of health to your character. The top down format of the game is obviously similar to Legend of Zelda and Link to the Past, and the manner in which you simply explore the world, visiting and revisiting areas until your player is adequately equipped to proceed past whatever barriers lie in your way. It is clear to see how this game has been so frequently compared to such an iconic franchise.
While I haven’t yet finished the game, Hob has been a great experience. It was particularly relieving to see such a fresh game with great visual AND smooth controls, that doesn’t rely either solely on its artistic style, or implement some form of gimmick into the gameplay as a draw that rapidly grows stale through the course of the game. Hob is a great example of how older game styles, such as the top down adventure game, can be brought to life in the modern day, both graphically and mechanically, to achieve something truly unique. With the time I have already put into the game, I can say that I’ve spent more to play less quite a few times in recent years. I would strongly recommend Hob to any fans of classic adventure games, or anybody looking for a breath of fresh air in an industry that sometimes seems able to only produce more of the same.