The Excavation of Hob's Barrow (PC) Review

By Athanasios 09.10.2022

Review for The Excavation of Hob

Gamers now live in a time where small studios produce some pretty high-quality titles that easily rival those with deeper pockets. In the realm of point-and-click adventures, publisher Wadjet Eye Games seems to be one of the luckiest of the bunch, with gem after gem being added to its portfolio, and with its latest discovery probably being its best yet. Crafted by Cloak and Dagger Games, The Excavation of Hob's Barrow (which started its life as Incantamentum) tells the story of young Thomasina Bateman, and of the terrors that are hidden in a rural corner of Victorian England. Blending the unknown and unescapable of Lovecraft, with the folk horror of The Wicker Man, and the weird serenity of the vast moorlands, this will manage to grab and never let go.

The opening shows the protagonist writing to her mother, explaining what led to her current predicament, which is not shown, but it's easy to assume that she isn't exactly happy. This is not the starting point, however, but the end of the story. It all begun in a remote, almost unknown English town by the name of Bewlay. Thomasina Bateman, a young and inquisitive antiquarian, is documenting her findings from the various burial mounds that she has excavated, and the reason for visiting this place is a letter about the titular Hob's Barrow. So far nothing monstrous has jumped from the shadows, there were no hallucinations dancing in front of the protagonist's eyes, and generally nothing that anyone would describe as scary… and yet this has already started to slowly get under your skin.

Screenshot for The Excavation of Hob's Barrow on PC

By now players are aware that something is wrong, as the whole thing is a retelling of what happened to Thomasina. It can't really be averted, only experienced, and that evokes quite the feeling of impending doom. Bewlay doesn't help either. The village is surrounded by vast, featureless moorlands, stuck between a typically English, soggy weather, a constant drizzle, or heavy rainfall. It gets worse. Leonard Shoulder, Thomasina's contact, is nowhere to be seen, and the locals aren't exactly a friendly lot, as they don't even try to help her find him, not to mention that they claim to be ignorant of Hob's Barrow, although they probably aren't. The few that admit its existence try to avoid the subject altogether, or claim that there's "something" wrong there, mentioning rumours, or frightening myths that revolve around it.

"Hogwash!" says young Thomasina. This lass is a creature of logic and science. She doesn't accept stories about curses, witches, and goblins that ruin crops. A fantastic portrayal of a proto-feminist living in a purely patriarchal era, Thomasina doesn't back down from a challenge, but she isn't the unlikable wench that a "strong" woman is supposed to be nowadays. She is a tough, but also cheerful lady, and while she isn't exactly happy with how people behave towards her, she is quite the practical gal, and thus knows that sometimes you need an alternative approach when dealing with those that see things differently. Watching her "clash" with the locals makes you sympathise with her, as she is obviously a stranger in a strange land, but it's also easy to admire her intelligence, as she clearly knows when to push, and when to stop doing so.

Screenshot for The Excavation of Hob's Barrow on PC

Thomasina will spend her first day searching around for Mr. Shoulder, and trying to make her new "friends" a bit less hesitant to offer her a bit of info about Hob's Barrow. The whole process won't involve much puzzle-solving. This is mostly a story-driven experience, with the majority of obstacles being quite easy to work around, as their purpose is mainly to be part of the narrative, and not an annoying, immersion-breaking pause that mars the pacing. Especially in the beginning, The Excavation of Hob's Barrow mainly wants you to explore the town, meet the few people that live there, talk with them to gather clues, and be engrossed to it all - and engrossed to it all you will be, courtesy of some fine writing, and some even finer voice-acting, especially when it comes to the main lead herself.

Screenshot for The Excavation of Hob's Barrow on PC

The main driving force for Thomasina, and of course for the one controlling her, will be the extremely strong feeling of mystery it creates for the barrow. Talking with people, and listening to the way they speak - or avoid speaking - about it, makes one wonder whether the folklore tales hold a speck of truth or not. Additionally, the fact that you have to work a lot before getting near the bloody thing helps quite a lot, as your imagination will unavoidably go wild before finally finding the darn barrow, which, as expected, is nothing fancy. During her time in Bewlay Thomasina will also grow used to the locals, get to lower their defences a bit, and even create a nice friendly bond with a couple of 'em. Things are improving, correct? Well, not exactly…

Strange things will happen, which will play with your mind. Disturbing nightmares, people disappearing without leaving a trace, and as you delve deeper and deeper into the mystery, ominous dreams (visions?) that add to the looming horror surrounding Hob's Barrow. Even the landscape itself will creep you out, especially when the night falls, making you feel as if Thomasina is alone… but not completely. Small cracks will soon start appearing on the rational mind of hers, and consequently, on the mind of the player. Don't expect any jump-scares. The horror on offer is of a different kind. It's the slowly burning Lovecraftian horror of the unknown, with your imagination being left on its own to do the heavy lifting, filling the gaps with something much more frightening that blood and gore. It's somewhat similar to the more Stephen King-ish Kathy Rain.

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This frequently makes use of some pretty unsettling close-ups that have a higher level of detail when compared to the normal low-res visuals. These jarring moments will terrify, but in a different way that is expected from a typical horror title. These can be quite unsettling, and make people wait for something terrible to happen, although it rarely will. The Excavation of Hob's Barrow is more concerned with creating a feeling of uneasiness rather than straight up scaring people, and it achieves that by lowering your defences. It avoids hitting you in the head with constant terror, and instead lets one relax first. Thomasina will talk with the townsfolk in the local inn, or enjoy the serenity of a walk in the woods or the moorland. Then the music will suddenly change, and something weird will heavily creep you out, completely crash that feeling of comfort, and stay with you for quite some time.

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Immersion is one of the strongest weapons on this title's arsenal, the fantastic and impressively detailed pixel art painting a world that feels like a real place where real people live, with the various ambient sounds further enhancing that vibe, whether that's the distant barking of a dog, or the howling wind. Anyone who has ever spent a day or two in a town away from the hustle and bustle of the city will appreciate how well this has recreated the atmosphere of such a place - especially how fast the dark-as-death night falls, or how dense the all-enveloping mist is. A lot of effort has been given to animation as well, making everyone, and especially Thomasina, look as if they are actual people, and not just a bunch of sprites that do the same three to four moves again and again. Oh, and as mentioned earlier, the voice-acting is top-notch, putting triple-A products to shame.

Aside all this talk about how good this looks and sounds, or how awesome the story and presentation is, there is a game to talk about here, right? Again, one should be aware that this is more like an interactive story, rather than a traditional point-and-click adventure. It takes quite a while for the actual puzzle-solving to begin, as most of the time it's all about talking with people, or putting two and two together, and using item A in obvious place B. That's not a flaw, though. This was handled so well that, while veterans won't ever struggle with the puzzles, the fun factor won't decrease. The low challenge also means that this is perfect for newcomers. Note, however, that the final chapter is vastly different, offering zero dialogue, and lots of puzzles. Again, nothing that difficult, but it is enjoyable nonetheless.

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There are a couple of issues to talk about. It kind of hurries towards the end; has a part with 15 to 30 minutes of boring fetch quests that require almost no skill; and the obvious villain-hidden-under-charming-smiles is way too obvious. These are small cracks in the surface of a diamond, however. Even the fact that this leaves plenty of questions unanswered works in its favour… as long as you are one of those who can live with the fact that sometimes you won't get the answers or the happy ending you wanted. Always remember that this is far more Lovecraftian than video games that deal with actual Lovecraft stories. You slowly descent towards the abyss, unable to make Thomasina turn around and run away, although every cell of your body will want to help her. That's how good this engrosses players into its harrowing tale of folk horror, where pagan myths come to life - or do they?

The Excavation of Hob's Barrow is immersion in video game form. It will capture players long before they get to experience the eldritch aspect of it all. The protagonist will be fleshed out via small flashback sequences that show how deeply personal her quest to excavate barrows actually is, which will make you get attached to her even more, and share her struggle. Even the secondary characters are excellently handled. Some of them will be given much more depth, with dialogue sequences that will delve deeper into their past, and their personal ordeals. The biggest success of this marvellous journey, however, is how it manages to stay with you hours after reaching the end of the journey, contemplating on what exactly happened in this brief time.

Screenshot for The Excavation of Hob's Barrow on PC

Cubed3 Rating

9/10
Rated 9 out of 10

Exceptional - Gold Award

Rated 9 out of 10

Narrative-driven adventure done right, The Excavation of Hob's Barrow goes from suspenseful to downright ghastly, with the in-between being filled with excellent writing, awesome presentation, and flawless atmosphere. Lovecraft meets Edgar Alan Poe, meets Pagan folk horror, in a point-and-click that won't challenge your puzzle-solving skills, but will masterfully play with your mind, and force you follow the main heroine's journey towards her inevitable demise. The actual game requires five or so hours. The experience will stay with you far longer.

Developer

Cloak and Dagger Games

Publisher

Wadjet Eye Games

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  9/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   

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