Hob preview

May 4, 2016 by Carli Velocci

The latest from Runic Games is an exploration-heavy journey through a mysterous, robot-encrusted wasteland.

Hob artistically looks a little bit like Torchlight. Wonder Russell, the public relations manager for Runic Games, said that many people stopped by the booth at PAX East noticing the stark similarities, but without realizing that Hob is the newest game from the same studio.

“It's funny, we've had people stand here and be like ‘kind of reminds me of Torchlight’ and we're like yeah... could be!” she said.

Sure, Hob looks a bit like Torchlight, with its smooth animation, simplistic character models, and its illustrated style. Its gameplay is also similar: it’s full of dungeons with puzzles that unlock new areas as you go. But that’s Runic’s goal; with Hob was to be original and unexpected, to not create another RPG. Russell said that it’s a sort of “palette cleanser” for the studio before a potential Torchlight 3.

“It was things we were really interested in, inspired by games we were loving in the office,” she said. “We wanted to do something that we could put our own spin on. That was more. It was really satisfying -- it was a lot harder -- but it's satisfying to make an original IP.”

While the games in the Torchlight series rely on series of battles drawn together with world building but little character or story telling, Hob focuses on the narrative.

The game stars an unnamed and quiet protagonist, who is all alone in a world filled with mechanized creatures, mystical-looking sprites, crumbling structures, and a purple, oozing goo that may be the cause of all of the destruction. You’ve been attacked and saved by a mech who gives you his arm and sends you off to find answers. While Russell fed me few details (“that’s part of the fun,” she said laughing), she did convey that this ambiguity is what drives you forward. Who are you and why are you the only one of your kind left? What is this place, and why is it all in a state of disrepair?

The demo at PAX did little to answer any of these questions, but it did present a level that included a series of three-dimensional platforming puzzles, combined with an integrated tutorial that introduced you to combat rules. Your mechanical arm is almost larger than you are, but possesses strength that can help you move pieces of buildings around and fight off monsters. If you die in battle, you reappear stumbling out of one of the regeneration tubes that dot the landscape.

Interacting with the environment to open new passageways or build new bridges is vigorous work, but intuitive. The paths are easy to follow, but the game doesn’t hold your hand as you traverse treetops and dynamic, ever-changing cliffsides. As you move, the game slowly introduces the pieces that you have to recall in future situations. It sounds simple, but Hob strikes a good balance between letting you explore, but also giving you the tools to make it through the level.

Then there’s the story, which isn’t just handed to you in a plot summary. You are dropped into the game with few clues about the world, your existence, or anything that can give you a sense of place. You only know that you have a singular goal: to find out who you are and that the environment you are exploring isn’t a realistic Earth. Curiosity about the character’s fate and past are enough to drive the game forward, especially with the foreign environmental details handing out clues and leaving you more intrigued about the elements that make up this universe. Turning keys can activate platforms, bridging gaps between previously inaccessible areas. Tree-like appendages that line certain paths can attack you if you’re in a certain range. The purple ooze covers everything with seemingly no effects (yet). And as you play, you start to fix buildings and machinery that has become overgrown by fauna, which opens up even more questions.

”[Hob was] very heavily inspired by Shadow of the Colossus and Journey and games like that where we just tease these narrative threads but then keep revealing the deeper you get into the gameplay,” Russell said. “You're changing and fixing the world and you're turning things on and hooking things back up, reestablishing connections that were there and have completely devolved or been lost.”

In the 15-minute demo, there wasn’t much to actually answer. It’s something we have to wait for in the final release. The game is currently in active development with no set release date, but it’ll be available on PC and PS4.

Carli Velocci is the editor of her webzine Postmortem Mag, and is a culture and technology writer seen at Paste Magazine, Motherboard, the Boston Globe, and anywhere else brave enough to publish her. You can read more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @velocciraptor.