Through the eyes of Thomasina Bateman, The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow plunges you into a mystery in the rolling countryside of Victorian England. The game is a point-and-click puzzle that takes place over the course of three days, but feels like it’s reaching for much bigger things.

Hob’s Barrow has a cute 8-bit pixelated art style. This gives it a retro atmosphere that feels like it matches the quaint, old-fashioned setting. While the design style does lose some of the grandeur of the sprawling English countryside scenes a little bit, when it jumps to very close up shots of rats and ravaged faces, the impact is intense. 

Thomasina is an antiquarian with a passion for archaeology who is summoned by a mysterious man to excavate Hob’s Barrow. He is not there to greet you when you arrive. It is up to you to find your inn, book yourself a room, and ask around the village to find out more about what you’re doing there.

At first, you are confronted with nothing but walls. All the locals insist they haven’t even heard of Hob’s Barrow despite there not being a lot else going on in the village. This warns you early on that this game is going to be a challenge.

The characters you interact with are genuinely interesting. A lot of effort has clearly gone into crafting their backstories and relationships. There is clear evidence of knowledge of the way that people in small towns often have long entanglements that fester and get complicated and end up clouding the information you’re looking for in their personal drama.

The puzzles really begin on the second day, once you’ve got your bearings. Information will only be revealed to you once you’ve buttered up the relevant villagers. You have to pay attention to what they say and what their needs are to think of where to look for what they want.

There are some moments in the second day when the tasks you’re sent on feel more like fetch quests than puzzles. Once you’ve unlocked all the areas and have spoken to everyone about the first round of topics, you end up still flitting around the village trying to think of where you can get some milk. But it’s so easy to get absorbed into the story that if you are paying attention and you are invested it isn’t an issue.

There are hints in the top corner about what you’re looking for at any given moment in case you get distracted, but you are ultimately left to figure it out for yourself.

As you learn more about the Barrow, you also learn more about Thomasina as a character and her family. She experiences flashbacks about her father who inspired her to pursue her chosen career and has been tragically unwell for a long time. As well as the generally creepy atmosphere of the village and the way the story draws on English folklore, this sense of dread about the fate of Thomasina’s beloved father adds another layer of depth and trauma to the game.

The amount of work you have to do in the second day prepares you for the puzzles you face when you finally get to excavate the Barrow. Uncovering all of its secrets requires a lot of attention, but has a sense of accomplishment to it at the end.

The story has just one ending despite there being a number of choices you can make throughout the game that feel like they could have influenced it more. However, the sense of losing control of Thomasina’s decisions feels like it’s part of the horror and it feels like it makes sense. If horror games let you make the sensible decision not to engage with a threat, then they would be short and unsatisfying. The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow, though short, is not unsatisfying.