Barrow Hill

Review by Enigma
October 2006

There's a menace out there somewhere, and it's close. As you tramp through the dark, damp woods, alone, or crunch down the deserted road, you can feel the thing, whatever it is, that menace, looming just out of sight. Sometimes you can hear it—in the pay phone, on a tape recording. Oh yes, it's there.

"We're Off Down the Rabbit Hole"

So says Emma Harry, your friendly local DJ, as you watch a car drive along a country road in grainy black and white film reminiscent of a "B" horror flick. Emma says that it's September 21st, the autumnal equinox, and who amongst us doesn't know that meant something to the ancient Celtic pagans? The car stalls and suddenly everything's in color, and there you are standing by your inoperative, inaccessible car. Turn around and you see two tall stones flanking the road. Try to walk through them and—oh my. Something very strange happens.

So you walk down the dark road in the other direction, hearing the sounds of your footsteps and, maybe, hearing something else moving in the woods. That sound, that rustling in the foliage, it isn't in sync with your movements, quite. Is someone following you? Look to the right and the left and you see steps going up the hill, a dark stone structure, some intriguing mushrooms. Keep going down that dark, dark road and you come to an island of light, a small service station with a café, three motel rooms, restrooms and a garage. There's a car idling by the petrol pumps. But where are the people? Enter the café and you'll meet Ben, who'll talk, or rather, babble, to you through the office door. Ben has locked himself in the office and he won't come out.

What's got Ben so scared? Could it have anything to do with the Stonehenge-like site that's the area's tourist attraction?

That's what you're going to find out in one of the most immersive pure adventure games I've played. Barrow Hill has two massive strengths as an adventure game: its atmosphere and its puzzle(s).

Lonely, Lonely, Lonely, Night

The entire game takes place at night, and you seem to be mostly alone. Except for Ben and the voices on the radio, no one else seems to be around. No one human, that is.

Much of the time you're in silence, with only the sounds of movement in the woods—your own movement, you hope. That silence in the night enhances the atmosphere. I won't call it "spooky," but it's clearly unsafe. When something significant happens, you'll hear just the right touch of sound or music. Nothing's overdone. It's just there, like that thing that might be stalking you, and it multiplies the tension.

There are a few jump-in-your-chair surprises, but I'll let you find out about those on your own.

You'll just have to put up with that off-balance feeling as you work your way through the mystery of Barrow Hill.

Clues! Real Clues!

The game is essentially one large, elegant puzzle built of many layers. All of it is logical and real-world, well, as long as you buy into the supernatural force with which you're dealing in the game. When you want to light a match, you have to strike the match on the matchbox. Plenty of items can be manipulated, but only some are useful. Some of the appliances work, but you won't need them all. Not only the final, game-ending puzzle, but many of the embedded puzzles that are part of it come in many layers. Because the game is essentially nonlinear, there's almost always something to do, so you probably won't experience many "stucknesses" in the game. It's so nonlinear, in fact, that you can even decide to do the final puzzle piece by piece, or save up those pieces and do it all at once. Personally, I found the piece-by-piece approach more satisfying.

Most importantly, Barrow Hill gives you clues. Real, actually helpful clues to each and every major puzzle in the game, often more than one clue to each puzzle. If you explore everywhere, examine everything in good adventuring style and take notes, you shouldn't have too much trouble piecing it all together. I did it without a walkthrough and later learned that I'd missed the clue to one major puzzle, but I was still able to hack my way systematically through it.

I'm calling these "puzzles," but these aren't the 7th Guest or Shivers type. These include finding items, choosing from those the thing(s) you need, combining some things, and figuring out the right place to put the resulting stuff. All of it is so well thought out that it fits together seamlessly. You wander around and find something else—ah! That makes sense! Now I know what to do! Meanwhile, you're also looking for combinations to locks—patience, patience, you'll find them—finding journal entries scattered about, getting into new areas of the game and exploring those places, and dealing with the odd little surprise that comes your way from time to time. And, of course, all the while you're trying to figure out what's going on.

The puzzles are almost all inventory-based, and the inventory system is the easiest I've ever used. Just move the cursor to the bottom of the screen (or the top in some instances), and there are your items. Click on the one you want, and the game uses it automatically. No right-clicking needed, just a simple click and you're done. Icons on the screen tell you when you need an item. Sometimes you'll have it already, sometimes you'll have to wait until you find it or look around for it. You can turn on or off descriptions of the inventory items. "Off" makes the game more difficult, especially if you choose to do the final puzzle all at once.

The game plays fair. If a machine is missing some parts, they'll usually be close by. There's the standard turn-on-the-lights, get-the-phone-working, open-the-door type of puzzle, and then there's that mystery you've got to figure out from those clues. The clues are scattered everywhere: in the usual journals, in letters, and in other places. Explore, touch, read, take notes, think, and keep your eyes open until it starts to make sense.

"Indie" Means "Imagination"

Barrow Hill comes from England, developed independently by Matt Clark with significant input from Jonathan Boakes of Dark Fall and Lights Out fame. Boakes, in fact, even provides the voice for the hapless Ben and four other characters, and he helped with the sound, filming, and concept development. Barrow Hill probably does fall into the "horror" category, although you won't see any ghastly sights—well, not up close, anyway. You'll just experience sinister sounds, unsettling silence, and delve into something mysterious that seems to have killed several folks and just might be after you, too.

The voice acting, although done mostly by Boakes and, apparently, the entire Clark family with a few helpers, is just fine. Only Matt Clark himself, as the voice of a vanished archeologist, goes a little far with some insane giggles. Had he cut the giggles, his performance would have scored much higher. The voices even provide some humor in cheesy local radio commercials. You'll find more humor by reading pamphlets and things like the café menu, a nice relief from the worry.

While some indoor objects, especially in the café, could have used one more layer of shading, the outdoor artwork is wonderful. Even in the night, the things you see illuminated by your weak lantern look really nice. My only serious frustration was that there's a padlocked door in the kitchen that you can never open. It turned out to lead innocently outside and wasn't needed, but it made me feel as though I were missing a whole game area. I wish I could have opened the darned thing.

The game comes on two CDs, the first for installation only, the second for gameplay. It's a slideshow presentation, which, I think, works well for the game. The static screens allow for better hotspot searching, and those spots are plenty big enough. No annoying pixel hunting needed. I'd rather have the cursor move than have one of those awful stationary cursors with the screens spinning around, giving me vertigo. And navigation, especially when tramping through the dark woods, is easier with a slideshow format. It adds to that unsafe atmosphere when you can only see a little bit at a time.

I played on an Intel iMac in XP Home with SP2, and experienced no glitches at all. There are limited save slots, but they're sufficient. I'd guess that it took me about 20 hours to play, although I was too immersed in the game to really keep track.

It's the realism that makes the supernatural elements seem so menacing, the beautifully designed, multi-layered puzzles with their much-appreciated clues, the dark atmosphere, lovely graphics, and the restrained, perfectly pitched sounds that make this game an experience. It's a thinker's game, of course. Those addicted to slash, smash and blast won't find anything here to feed their needs. But if you complain about standard-issue, find-the-hot-spot, just-another-puzzle adventure games, try Barrow Hill. With fewer resources than established companies, by applying imagination instead of dollars (sorry, pounds) Matt Clark and friends have produced a game that reinvigorates the genre. This is real adventure.

Try it. That is, if you're not too scared to go walking in the woods, alone, at night. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Shadow Tor Studios
Publisher: Got Game (North America)
Release Date: September 2006 (North America)

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Pentium III 450 MHz or better
Windows 98se/2000/XP
128 MB RAM (256 MB recommended)
DVD-ROM drive (for European release)
SVGA graphics card with 32-bit color
DirectX 9 compatible sound card

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