Every nation has its own traditions for folklore and fairytale. In England, those tales tend to gravitate toward a thinness between our world and that of fae folk or magic, and a notion that bucolic rural villages hide dark secrets of ancient pagan sects. From The Wicker Man to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, local legends with dark hearts are a core part of English tradition, and it’s within these realms that The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow so neatly fits.
A traditional point-and-click adventure created in the enduring Adventure Game Studio, Hob’s Barrow is the unsettling story of Thomasina Bateman and her determination to excavate an obscure ancient burial ground in the tiny (fictional) English village of Bewlay. Arriving by train to the brand new station, just built in what I’m assuming is a late 19th-century setting, Thomasina is immediately made aware that strangers aren’t often seen around these parts, and they’re not necessarily welcome.
That’s not the case from all the residents. The local pub landlord warmly welcomes Bateman to town, provides her with a room, and gets her settled in. However, when he finds out the reason for her visit, he’s clearly unsettled, but refuses to explain why. That’s very much the vibe from most in Bewlay, with a tangle of rumour and myth surrounding the Barrow, and a previous excavation attempt some decades earlier.
What follows is a brilliantly paced adventure game, where Thomasina spends much more time getting to know people in the village, learning the relationships between figures like a mysterious local lord and the vicar of the parish church, than throwing you head-first into some horror-laden antics. Very much following the timing of so many of the better 1950s-70s Hammer Horror films, and indeed many surrounding UK films and TV shows of that era, it instead allows the sinister nature of what’s inevitably coming to brood, calmly developing as you hear more about the village’s past, and indeed Thomasina’s own childhood.
By the game’s rather more hokey denouement, I was far more forgiving of some especially unsubtle puzzles and much less careful writing, simply because I’d had long enough to learn to care about the characters involved. And while none of the plot’s twists surprised me, I still enjoyed the moments when they occurred.
If there was one thing this point-and-click adventure most directly reminded me of, it was something so spectacularly niche as to be ridiculous — but for that one person reading it’ll mean everything: Pilgrim. It’s a long-running radio drama in the UK, written by Sebastian Baczkiewicz, that so delicately tells intimate tales of those affected by the world of the fae-like Greyfolk, and a man cursed to live forever to help maintain the veil between their world and ours. While Hob’s Barrow shares none of these direct story beats, it has in common the low-key atmosphere, the sense of brooding danger in a place with an idyllic facade, and the minute detail of a story that only touches a very few people’s lives.
The voice acting here is spectacular, an amazing cast, with voice direction from one of the safest hands in the industry, Dave Gilbert. (His Wadjet Eye company also publishes the game.) Samantha Béart provides the voice of Thomasina, and is pitch-perfect throughout, sounding extraordinarily like Amy Louise Pemberton as Gideon in the lamentedly late Legends of Tomorrow. Meanwhile, a broad range of Northern accents fill out the village’s cast, and not one puts a word wrong. That’s pretty special in an old-school indie adventure.
Alongside some pleasantly pastoral pixel art, this adds up to a splendid adventure game, with a superbly sinister tone that feels just right for this spookiest of months. It’s low-key, underplayed, and with all the right vibes of traditional English folklore, all with a lead character you’ll properly care about.
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