Enigmas, automatons, and creepy-crawlies abound in Runic Games' final hurrah: the torch-lit developers have returned from their five-year hiatus with Hob, an old-fashioned action adventure evocative of classic collectathons and platformers. Hob awkwardly teeters between charming and annoying, as an endearing first half gives way to a disappointing second act. The adventure never hits the point of unpleasantness, but the final few areas leave something to be desired. Given Runic's upsettingly abrupt shutdown, however, it may be some time before we visit Hob's unique world again.
Runic's prior titles, the Torchlight duology, followed in the footsteps of the Diablo games, and challenged you with plundering musty dungeons in pursuit of big monsters and bigger treasure. Hob comes as a departure, styling itself more after The Legend of Zelda than Blizzard's gothic lootfests, and has you hacking, slashing and puzzling your way through lush and gaudy environments to combat a strange, fleshy corruption seeping through the world.
Hob's story is told without a single word of dialogue, as the game prefers instead to let its scenery do the talking. The adventure sees you exploring a vast clockwork realm, long since abandoned by its creators, and now being reclaimed by nature – tree roots cover walls like circuitry, curiously angular grass coats the ground, and peculiar animals wander and graze. Much of the journey is spent in silence, with only the distant howls of wildlife and the gentle thrumming of the mechanical world's machinery audible. It's an oddly haunting experience, and one brought to life by Hob's marvellous sound design.
Traversal doesn't fare quite as well as sightseeing. Exploring Hob's enchanting environments is a task mired in grating repetition and haphazard platforming. The camera will often pan about to give a broader view of Hob's set pieces, and this doesn't co-operate well with the game's controls. Jumping is irritatingly floaty, and it can be frustrating trying to judge distances when stuck with a fixed camera angle – you're probably going to end up dying more to bottomless pits than from monsters. Checkpoints are mercifully frequent enough that you're never sent too far back following a misadventure, but it's nonetheless irritating fumbling a jump you can easily make.
The trek will take you through the more dilapidated areas of Hob's world, where many of the mechanisms have fallen into disrepair. Zones will task you with restoring power to levers and switches in order to raise bridges, summon platforms, and open doors. It's a satisfying feeling watching machinery shift into place. Environments tend to look radically different after you've restored things to working order, though the puzzle gameplay never really changes over time. While you're never given clear instructions for any of the puzzles, most conundrums can be solved by randomly fiddling with nearby levers and battery blocks.
Puzzles are typically guarded by monsters, predators, and malfunctioning maintenance bots, which you'll need to fight your way through in order to proceed. When the camera isn't trying to sabotage your efforts, Hob's combat plays from a top-down perspective. The pacing is much more relaxed than something like Ruiner's high-octane isometric brawling. Later fights can turn into a struggle, but a well-balanced difficulty curve ensures you'll never be stuck for long. Combat controls are tightly responsive, with swift dodging and weighty sword swings allowing you to somersault and slash your way to victory.
While the fighting fares better than the platforming, it – like the puzzles – is never greatly expanded upon throughout the course of the game. Only a handful of different enemy types and special attacks are introduced as time goes on, and the action remains largely the same from start to finish.
It's difficult not to like Hob, though a number of disappointments mar an otherwise pleasant time. The charming atmosphere and gorgeous world make for an enjoyable throwback to a previous era of games: it's a fun, bite-sized adventure which might just be the ticket if you need a distraction in-between other game releases. But there's ultimately little beneath the surface to keep you busy for long.