Barrow Hill Review
A remote area of Cornwall, U.K... a dark and eerie night... strange and unexplainable happenings... conflict between the past and the present.... All these and more serve to set the stage for Barrow Hill, a haunting mystery/adventure game from Shadow Tor Studios.
After your car breaks down as you are driving through the Cornwall countryside, you are forced to go for assistance. However, on this night, in this place, you will encounter more than you bargained for, as forces begin stirring in the woods, and a forgotten legend awakes.
The game takes place entirely in the space of a single night -- September 21, the autumnal equinox -- in a location already laden with myth and legend. Barrow Hill, Cornwall is the site of an ancient burial ground, undisturbed for centuries, but now exposed to the diggings of an industrious archeologist. You must delve into ancient Celtic legends, learn about ancient kings and mythological characters, and follow the path of archeologist Conrad Morse, in an attempt to find out what is happening, and stop the horror before it is too late.
Barrow Hill is an original work by Matt Clark, an independent software developer who may not be new to some gamers. Clark worked with Jonathan Boakes on Dark Fall: Lights Out, providing some of the audio effects in that game. In somewhat of a "tit for tat," Boakes plays a part in the audio for Barrow Hill by, among other things, providing voices for several of the characters. Also, fans of Jonathan Boakes will notice his influence in Barrow Hill.
Barrow Hill is distributed on two CD-ROMs; the installation copies all files to your hard drive, and the game can be played without the CD-ROM present. The game played quite well, and I encountered no technical problems or other impediments to successful gameplay.
Navigation within the game is point-and-click, and done using intuitive cursors that provide information about the possible options at any point. There is no panning in Barrow Hill; every scene is a still shot, with transitions between the scenes (a la Myst). The game environment has a very small "footprint" (all activity takes place within a few hundred yards of where the game begins), so it is not difficult to get from one place to another.
The graphics in Barrow Hill were the highlight of the game for me. As with other games in this genre -- and with the added factor that the entire game is played in a nighttime setting -- many of the scenes are very dark. Outdoor scenes, as well as dimly-lit indoor scenes, all contribute to the haunting atmosphere of the story. Admittedly, it is difficult to design an entire game that takes place in predominantly dark scenes, and make it appealing, graphically. But Barrow Hill achieves that goal. Although the darkness of many scenes can sometimes make it difficult to distinguish some of the finer details of the artwork that went into the creation of the game environment, there are still many places where that level of detail comes through. The screenshots in the sidebar are an attempt to illustrate some of the quality of that artwork.
The story line is another major factor in the game, and is developed primarily through journals and letters that are discovered throughout the course of explorations within the game. Most of the few Barrow Hill locals have disappeared, along with the members of the archeological expedition working on the burial site. However, their journals, diaries and letters remain, along with various minor notes, articles, clippings, etc. As these are discovered and read, they begin to unfold a tale that permeates through the rest of the game.
One impediment to gameplay continuity was that there were many of these kinds of written information that either contributed to the story, or were part of solving one or more of the puzzles. And yet none of these items was able to be taken into inventory for later reference. I either had to make a written note of the information somehow; or return to wherever the item was found, when the need to reference that information came up -- neither of which is very satisfactory.
The items that can be taken into inventory are typically useful in solving the many inventory-style puzzles in the game. There is a bit of "object gathering," collecting items into the game's inventory. And then there is the discovery of the purpose for those objects, so that they can be used in the proper places, in the proper combinations, in the proper order, etc. The puzzles are not always object-based, but often require going back to the documents, notes, journals or other material that has been read, and applying that information to the puzzle solution. Although not all of the puzzles are clear and intuitive, they all do seem to fit together nicely toward achieving the ultimate goal of the game, which is to defeat the evil forces that are taking over Barrow Hill and the surrounding area.
One thing that may frustrate general adventure gamers is that, while playing the game, there are many places where there are interactive objects, indicated by a special cursor icon. However, it turned out that many of these were for entertainment purposes only, and had nothing to do with advancing the game itself. A glass could be picked up and examined more closely -- but it played no part in the game. A drawer could be opened -- but there was nothing in it. An item on the bulletin board could be examined more closely -- but provided no useful information. I frequently felt that I wanted something to happen, when in fact it rarely did.
The sound effects in Barrow Hill are rarely more than simply ambient sound bites used to reinforce the feeling of a particular scene, and are often far too infrequent. In many spots, the game plays completely silenty -- something I'm not used to, as so many other similar games will augment the atmosphere being created with eerie music, haunting refrains, or other "spooky sounds."
Barrow Hill provides a great deal of exploration for the player -- and that can be both good and bad. Early in the game, there is a tremendous amount of exploration with little or no "reward" (i.e., very little seems to be being accomplished, and there is no indication of any progress for quite a while). However, as the game progresses, the non-linearity of the exploration becomes a "plus," and seemingly unrelated items or issues begin to come together to form a more complete picture. I found that my own interest in the game continued to increase, as the game -- and the story line -- developed to its climax.
The game provided about 15-20 hours of gameplay. The "T" (Teen) rating is based on the "dark" storyline, as well as the... um... unnatural demise of some of the characters. (Fortunately, no deaths are actually witnessed on-screen; the player simply encounters them after the fact.)
After playing almost the entire game with no real "life or death" situations (i.e., where the player can "die" by doing something wrong), I was surprised to discover that there are actually two endings to the game -- one which plays out the game to its full and complete solution, and one which results in a somewhat truncated game, with an unsuccessful ending. While other games have done this same thing, the truncated game didn't quite "work" for me with Barrow Hill, resulting instead in more of a "Huh?" response than anything else.
Barrow Hill is an adventure game that will appeal to many, although it will have the highest appeal to those who enjoy games in horror/surreal/mystery settings. The graphics are done quite well, and the story -- while initially beginning at a somewhat slow pace -- eventually developed toward a good ending. Matt Clark has shown that he can do a fine job as a solo developer (while still making use of the talents of someone like Jonathan Boakes).
-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.