Despite having a small resurgence a decade or so ago, point-and-click adventure games rarely draw much attention outside of fan circles. It was quite a surprise when The Excavation of Hob's Barrow, between all the gushing over Elden Ring and God of War: Ragnarök, managed to gain even a few mentions during last year's Game of The Year debates. Now the game is out on Switch, and we are here to see whether the game holds up on a new platform.
In The Excavation of Hob's Barrow, you play as Thomasina Bateman, a young antiquarian whose research into the barrows of England has led her to the small rural town of Bewlay. After arriving by train on a cold and foggy night, she heads straight to the local inn and rents a room. Upon waking up the following morning, she finds that the fog has lifted, but the veil of superstition and hostility hanging over the small rural city proves harder to get rid of, and Thomasina must spend the next three days finding the barrow, getting permission to excavate it and finally assembling a crew willing to assist her in the actual labour.
Without spoiling too much, it's very much a Lovecraftian tale with plenty of vague hints, but little in terms of actual horror, until the final act where all hell suddenly breaks loose. Interspersed with the linear narrative are plenty of short playable flashbacks which reinforce the theme of digging into the past and gives further motivation to the character. I personally liked it a lot, but even if you don't particularly enjoy this brand of suspense, the characters and dialogue will probably win you over.
First of all, Thomasina is a great character having both charm, wit and warmth, without ever falling into the ironically-detached power woman-cliché that is quite prevalent in the genre. Through the well-written and engaging conversations, you'll also learn that beneath the hostile veneer of many of the locals, such as the initially abrasive Arthur Pillet and the old and bitter Cyril, lies a genuine warmth. It certainly helps that Thomasina can hold her liquor better than most men, and at times the story almost feels like Cheers meets the X-Files, with the local tavern The Plough and Furrow providing a safe haven amidst the many vaguely unsettling sites in Bewlay and the surrounding marshlands.
Published by Wadjet Eye Games, The Excavation of Hob's Barrow shows all the hallmarks of their usually high production values. While the pixelated graphics don't feel particularly original, they are still well made with atmospheric vistas, charming animations, and, crucially, a clear view of important objects. Also of note are the exaggerated character portraits shown in a few scenes that harken back to the classic Cthulhu point-and-click adventure Shadow of the Comet. And while I could spend paragraphs raving about the soundtrack and voice acting, let me just be brief and say that it's excellent - easily on par with anything you'll find in most AAA productions.
Of course, most adventure games stand or (which is too often the case) fall with their puzzle design. This has led many modern developers to almost remove puzzles entirely, but developer Cloak and Dagger Games goes for a better solution, including puzzles that add to the atmosphere instead of detracting. Often the solution amounts to exhausting all dialogue options or using your tools of the trade (such as your trusted chisel or trowel), but there are still a few brain teasers that require you to use some lateral thinking to solve. Overall, the puzzles can best be described as road bumps, forcing you to slow down a bit and engage with the world, without ever putting you to a full stop.
In light of all this, it's not hard to see why the PC version of The Excavation of Hob's Barrow has received so much praise. Cloak and Dagger Games has dug deep into the adventure genre's past, but instead of being grave robbers, taking each and every element that might arouse nostalgia from fans, they have instead focused on only bringing back those elements that really work, and have even polished them further. But what about the jump to console? Has the developer also managed this tricky feat?
The short answer is yes. For the most part at least. Even in handheld mode, graphics look crisp, and while objects are in and of themselves easy enough to spot, you can highlight them all by pressing Y - a feature that should be mandated by law in all point-and-click adventure games. Further quality-of-life features include an easy-to-navigate inventory bar at the top screen, the ability to cycle through items with the shoulder buttons, and instant screen transitions enabled by double tapping at the exits. The small development team even tries to solve the eternal question of how best to adapt mouse controls to the controller, letting you use both analogue sticks to control a virtual cursor, with the right being slightly slower than the left, allowing you for more precise controls if needed. My only complaint is that you can't switch them around.
There are some minor shortcomings, such as the game only clocking in at about five hours, and the ending feeling both rushed and a tad predictable. But all in all, The Excavation of Hob's Barrow is an excellent modern point-and-click thriller that in many aspects surpasses even adventure classics such as Broken Sword and Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. For the more than fair price of £13.49/€14.99 this is a must buy for fans of the genre.