Once upon a time, the wealthy who could afford it raised burial mounds called barrows all over the English countryside, waiting to be discovered—and raided—by excavators that call themselves barrow diggers. Thomasina Bateman, daughter of a renowned barrow digger, is raised just like her father: with a trowel in one hand and moist dirt in the other. She is in the process of writing a book on the various famous barrows of the English countryside. When she receives a letter from a mister Shoulder inviting her to a remote village called Bewlay, her curiosity gets the best of her.
She should never have said yes.
Welcome to The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow, an 2022 indie adventure game by Cloak And Dagger Games and Wadjet Eye Games that’s subtly steeped in Lovecraftian horror. As soon as you start the game, you’re greeted with a howling KAJIIIIII sound that ends in a powerful bass1 in the main menu where you can witness Thomasina riding the train towards Bewlay with a picture of an open barrow in the background, glowing menacingly purple.
The game starts out relatively sane, although you somehow know things are about to go awry very soon. Then you meet the local folk at Bewley and you’re immediately welcomed by rude drunkards, old farts, and generally unhelpful people that try to avoid answering your pokey questions regarding a barrow. Something is very off indeed—and where is mister Shoulder? You were supposed to meed him at the local pub but he never showed up.
The conventional adventure game takes off: click on everything you see and figure out what’s going on and where to go next. The stylistic tone of The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow matches the haunting theme perfectly, although it indeed starts out innocent enough. Okay, you’re met with a bit of resistance, so what? But then you start dreaming weird things, the local priest asks you to do even weirder things, and most worrying of all, you discover somehow your father is involved… I won’t spoil the story here but I will say this: the crescendo the game works towards hits home hard.
While it is true that the style of the game could be called pixel art, contrary to the aim of something like Kathy Rain that feeds on nostalgia, here, it feels like the technique is employed to facilitate that uneasiness: a muted color palette, reduced resolution, and sometimes even the stiff animation plays a part.
Hob’s Barrow isn’t a conventional horror game like Resident Evil where zombies, an excess of blood, and all sorts of mutilated beasts cause jump scares. Instead, it’s very subtle, patiently building up the narrative. Both you and Thomasina will be eagerly anticipating the excavation—what the hell is inside that deserted barrow in this godforsaken place? The answer is simple.
As far as puzzles go, the game reserves these until the very end, which is perhaps a bit of a downer. I was beginning to think the game wasn’t interested in serving these at all until I made it towards the end. The first half of the game is mainly spent by conversing with the local Bewlay folk, and of course by running errands—perhaps one too many. I need to get a bucket of milk, but to do that, I need puddings, and to get that, I need flowers, and to get that… Yeah well.
That’s not unusual for an adventure game, except that Hob’s Barrow doesn’t offer a lot of locations to discover: there’s Bewlay and surroundings, and that’s it. That means if you’re stuck, you can easily revert to brute forcing your way through, which I only had to do once or twice. I know the emphasis is on narrative here, and the game is exceptional in this—did I mention the masterful voice acting?—but I wished it contained a few more original approaches to progress and puzzling. This apparently ain’t that kind of game. That also means “moon logic” is absent, although a later puzzle involving a hungry cat did stump me.
I can’t say enough good things about Hob’s narrative design, especially in combination with the voice acting work and the perfectly matching visuals. Yet at the same time, it’s over in just six hours and doesn’t offer a lot of interesting puzzle design except a few escape-room-esque things that weren’t that compelling. If you’re a fan of narrative tension and don’t mind a horror twist, you’re in for a treat. If you however expect superb adventure game mechanics, perhaps look elsewhere. Remember that this game is made by a very small but dedicated team! Also remember that it’s dirt cheap—only
$12.59 on GOG.com.
Hopefully we can expect more great things from Cloak And Dagger Games!