Release date: September 28, 2022
Developer: Cloak and Dagger Games
Publisher: Wadjet Eye Games
Music: The Machine. The Demon.
Platforms: PC (Windows, Mac, and Linux)
Genres: Narrative adventure, puzzle, folk horror
Modes: Single player
Categories: Mysterious and Spooky, The Occult, Dark Creatures, (Ill-)Fated Quest
Spoiler warning: This review mentions an in-game puzzle solution (location of a hidden object).
The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow is a tale of doomed discovery that will ensnare you with its atmosphere of spellbinding, slow-burning folk horror.
You play as Thomasina Bateman, an antiquarian who is researching the barrows of Victorian England and writing a book detailing her findings. She accepts an invitation to the remote village of Bewlay to explore “a most special barrow” , and almost immediately, the expedition starts to go awry—her guide fails to turn up at their prearranged meeting place, her assistant suddenly has urgent business to attend to elsewhere, and most of the locals are unwilling to discuss the barrow with Thomasina (if they’ll speak to her at all). In defiance of these obstacles and the sense of unease pervading her stay in Bewlay, Thomasina is determined to complete her excavation of Hob’s Barrow and unearth the secrets concealed within.
The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow earns much of its success through compelling writing and voice acting, particularly with regard to Thomasina (voiced by Samantha Béart). She is a dynamic, immensely likeable character overflowing with astute observations about her surroundings and witty banter that brings a touch of felicity to even the most mundane topics of conversation. Despite knowing from the start of the game that Thomasina’s adventure is an ill-fated one, it’s very easy to become invested in the welfare of this amiable protagonist who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty (literally and figuratively) in order to see her ambitions come to fruition. The dreadful conclusion of The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow packs an even more powerful punch when we’re faced with the realization that some of Thomasina’s best traits—her pragmatism and unwavering determination—are what facilitate her downfall.
Aside from those final scenes, The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow is laced with a clandestine sort of horror, the kind that leaves you wondering if the events you’re bearing witness to are sinister or just strange. Is the grumpy old man you meet at the tavern merely wary of newcomers, or does he harbor genuine maliciousness for Thomasina? Should any credence be given to Thomasina’s bizarre dreams, or can they be explained away by the stress her journey has caused? Are Bewlay’s local legends all fanciful nonsense, or is there a grain of truth to be found under the surface? Even the scenery feels vaguely sinister—moorland that stretches for miles, threatening to plunge Thomasina into total isolation if she wanders too far. It’s easy to imagine that when the wind dies down, the landscape itself seems to be holding its breath.
The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow is illustrated with “evocative pixel-art graphics”  that give the game a suitably old-fashioned feel and allow the closeup animations to exist in the space between “quaint” and “eerie.” There’s one cutscene in particular that seems almost like a microcosm of the game as a whole: Thomasina exhumes a doll that’s been buried at the center of a “fairy ring” of mushrooms, and the creepy little thing is depicted nestled among writhing worms in the dirt. It’s a find that’s unsettling and satisfying all at once, steeped in superstition and rural charm.
On the whole, the point-and-click puzzles used to move the story from point A to point B are intuitive but still rewarding. In most cases, the overarching objective is clear from the start, and it’s up to the player to discern how to get there—who to talk to, which tools to use, etc. If you’re ever well and truly stuck, you can often stumble upon the solution by navigating the map and exhausting the available dialogue options or picking up any lingering items.
Thomasina spends about 80% of the game trying to find and gain access to Hob’s Barrow, so by the time the excavation actually begins, we’re consumed by an almost desperate desire to see what mysteries are hidden beneath the soil. Even in the face of our ever-growing dread and the knowledge that Thomasina will not escape unscathed, the allure of Hob’s Barrow is nearly impossible to resist.
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