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The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow review: frightfully effective folk horror

By Lewis Packwood. Posted

Have you ever watched The Blood on Satan’s Claw? It’s a deep cut, I know, but it’s also a masterclass in 1970s British folk horror – and the film that immediately sprang to mind when I started playing The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow. I suspect the developers are fans.

Both the film and the game involve villagers digging up something that really should have been left in the ground. In the case of the 1971 movie, it’s a deformed skull of possibly demonic origin. In the case of the game, it’s whatever lies inside Hob’s Barrow – which I won’t spoil for you here. But suffice to say that when you do eventually discover the grave’s secret, it kicks off one of the most memorable and disturbing video-game denouements I’ve seen.

Not that the game’s particularly scary, per se. This is a slow burner, a delightful exercise in building tension and cultivating an unsettling atmosphere, punctuated by the occasional wyrd happening with an emphatic ‘y’. We’re in folklore territory, and the locals don’t welcome outsiders.

You play as Thomasina Bateman, a Victorian archaeologist invited to the remote village of Bewlay to excavate the ancient and mysterious Hob’s Barrow. But when you arrive, your contact – the wonderfully named Leonard Shoulder – is nowhere to be found, and the locals are far from keen on your presence.

It’s strongly reminiscent of The Wicker Man, with a city-type blithely blundering around in a rural society that has its own ways of doing things.

The game sees you pointing and clicking your way around Bewlay, collecting and combining objects in the age-old fashion of Monkey Island and its ilk: indeed, the graphics themselves are a wonderful pixel-art ode to the LucasArts point-and-click classics of the early nineties.

That said, there are a few modern quality-of-life improvements to ensure the game is never quite as frustrating as its glorious but occasionally annoying forebears: a tap of the space bar highlights all interactive objects in each area, and a map screen allows you to zap between areas in an instant. A hint system would have been a useful addition, but generally the puzzles are intuitive enough to see you get by without too much trouble. The only irritations I encountered were when searching for a way to progress the story. Often, it’s a case of wandering around to see what’s changed.

But what a story! I found myself fully drawn in by this eerie village of strange characters, each of them richly drawn in a figurative sense if not a literal one. It helps that the dialogue and voice acting are excellent throughout, and Thomasina herself is a likeable Victorian heroine, a headstrong feminist pioneer in a man’s world, tirelessly fending off queries about why she doesn’t have a husband. In short, Cloak and Dagger has created a world that is a delight to spend time in. I’m just glad I don’t live there.

Highlight

Every now and then, the game will throw in a pixel-art close-up at dramatic moments or when key characters are introduced. It’s a neat cinematic trick, adding to the disconcerting atmosphere. In particular, the sudden appearance of a ghoulish cat near the beginning is a brilliant piece for foreshadowing.

Verdict

A brilliant slice of British folk horror that charms and unsettles in equal measure.

82%

Genre Point-and-click | Format PC | Developer Cloak and Dagger Games | Publisher Wadjet eye Games | Price £11.39 | Release Out now | Social @cloakanddaggerg

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