The mention of horror often conjures images of repetitive jump scares, ear-piercing screams and overly-gratuitous gore. But some of the most influential horror stories are those that slowly build, steadily manifesting an air of unease to events that make the blood run cold. Make it a Victorian setting and a pixel point-and-click adventure and you have The Excavation of Hob's Barrow. Teaming up with point-and-click paragon Wadjet Eye Games, Cloak and Dagger Games take you on a chilling journey inspired by old English folklore that both engrosses and deeply unnerves in the best possible way.
Players are transported to a world of Victorian moors and fens reminiscent of a Brontë epic. By mysterious invitation, Thomasina Bateman journeys to the village of Bewlay to explore local landmark Hob's Barrow, hoping to document it for her upcoming book. But her Bewlay contact is nowhere to be found, the locals prove less than obliging and at night her dreams take a disturbing turn. What secrets will be unearthed here? And at what cost?
The gameplay follows the traditional style of point-and-click greats with some welcome new features. Left and right-clicking your trusty cursor will interact with/examine things respectively. A handy fast travel option allows you to revisit locations you've discovered instantly. And, as befits an author, Thomasina keeps a notebook to track active tasks and make notes – useful if you're a little stumped on what to do next. To gain access to the barrow, you must converse with the locals and solve a myriad of item and logic puzzles. An old faithful formula seen many a time, but Hob's Barrow shines in its exemplary world-building and storytelling. Make no mistake, this tale is a slow burner, but depth is woven into almost every facet of gameplay.
The game is framed around a letter Thomasina writes to her mother about her exploits, using flashbacks of both the Hob's Barrow expedition and her own childhood. Expertly voiced by the wonderful Samantha Béart, Thomasina is a thoroughly likeable protagonist with an infectious passion for her craft and always ready to roll up her sleeves and set to. But her narration of the letter is bereft of that spark, stripped bare and tinged with the smallest traces of despair. Every snippet casts an ominous cloud over things to come. Something terrible has happened and the player has no choice but to watch it unfold.
When talking to the locals about the barrow, Thomasina is met with staunch denials of its existence and “There's nowt for you here, lass.” But with each conversation and puzzle, a little more of Bewlay lore is revealed, sometimes very subtly. Breaking into a post office uncovers the impact of the railway coming to Bewlay, the modern meeting the traditional. A search for pastries sheds light on a mysterious wealthy overseer and a woman's struggle with grief. Obtaining goat's milk brings a broken man's harrowing loss to the surface. Even the puzzles have a sort of earthy, rustic quality to them. And the darker undercurrents of the story slowly reveal themselves in the smallest elements; a slight tonal change in conversation is enough to cause unease. It's as if it seeps through the very earth of the moors themselves before breaking through to the open air in unnerving ways. Over time, “There's nowt for you here, lass” appears to carry more weight to it than simply a distrust of strangers.
The aforementioned puzzles are relatively straightforward but progress in difficulty towards the final chapter of the game. Never to the point of frustration, but just enough to give the brain a little workout and always quite logical in execution. One puzzle in the first chapter involving a doll is a little cumbersome in triggering a particular dialogue option to unlock, but it's a very minor niggle (and easily solvable in retrospect). But the nature of puzzles melds perfectly with the narrative, even taking on a more strange and eldritch nature as the story takes a darker turn.
All this is reinforced by fantastic visuals and sound design. The village of Bewlay is brought to life with sweeping landscapes reminiscent of John Constable and atmospheric lighting and weather effects. Close-up cutscenes are interspersed throughout that are both exquisite and almost grotesque in equal measure, adding to the growing unease. Direction handled by Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye, Béart and the whole voice cast is of course first class and turns out top-notch performances. And, composed by The Machine. The Demon., the soundtrack is simply superb. Another example of the modern meeting the traditional, the electronica tracks reflect the scenes yet at the same time channel a kind of ancient primordial essence. Echoing ambience, resounding notes reminiscent of cultic chants, slight sounds skittering at the periphery of hearing – it's endearing, enthralling and eerie all at once.
For fans of expertly crafted stories and horror that deeply unsettles and perturbs, The Excavation of Hob's Barrow is an absolute must. Once begun, it becomes near impossible to put down. Thomasina's pursuit of the barrow is a tale that stirs and disturbs you in the best possible ways with excellent pacing, simple but effective gameplay and an atmosphere that feels almost unnervingly tangible.
There's nowt for city folk out in Bewlay. Whatever you've heard, it's all hogwash, an old wives' tale.
But I suppose there's no harm in telling it…