Barrow Hill PDF Print E-mail
Written by Doc_Brown   
Saturday, 09 June 2007 18:00
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Developer: Shadow Tor Studios
Publishers: Got Game Entertainment (US), Lighthouse Interactive (European)
Official Site and Demo
ESRB Teen (Alcohol and Tobacco Reference, Mild Violence)
PEGI 7+ (Game may be frightening or scary for young children)

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A Drop of Time
Let’s get one thing very clear before we go any further: I am not what you’d call a hardcore adventure gamer. Sure, I’ve played my share of adventure games, from the old and obscure (anyone remember Déjà Vu?) to the last hurrah (Grim Fandango remains one of my all time favorites), so I’m certainly open to the genre. But when you come right down to it, no, I’m really not a fanatic when it comes to adventure games. Keep this perspective in mind when you take my review into account.
 

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The Curse of the Ancient Circle
Barrow Hill takes place in… Barrow Hill, a little out of the way spot in rural Cornwall, England. The player character’s car breaks down one night, forcing them to trek up the road to a nearby service station. Upon arriving, however, something is clearly wrong: the place looks as if it were abandoned in a hurry. A car, engine running and door open, sits at the pumps. The phones can’t get an outside line. Timepieces run backwards or don’t run at all. Compasses spin in circles, and Global Positioning Systems spew out gibberish rather than coordinates.

It all seems to center on the hill itself, historically the site of standing stones and currently the site of an archeological dig. Think Stonehenge, only smaller. In fact, part of the game’s charm comes from its quaint perspective. The service station has a mere two pumps, three motel rooms, and a diner that can accommodate eight patrons. The on-site archeological team consists of a pair of scientists, while a group of students protesting the dig number a half-dozen at best. BHR (Barrow Hill Radio) has a single employee, and is run from a Winnebago out in the marshland.

When it comes right down to it, though, Barrow Hill is more about the premise than any real storyline. Something’s wrong, you figure out what, and then you fix things. Not that I mean to disparage it—Barrow Hill has got a great hook, what with its focus on Pagan mythology. I find it fascinating whenever a story looks at these old religions, bumped off the map by the inquisitions and crusades of their more mainstream cousins, and asks the question, “What if they were right?” I’m not trying to make a statement on religion here, mind you. I’m just a storyteller, and I know a good idea when I see it.

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Under an Unquiet Skull
Barrow Hill certainly nails the ambience the premise requires. As the accompanying screenshots indicate, it’s a dark game where light seems hard pressed to keep the night at bay. It’s made with pre-rendered screens, overlaid with effects, which are then linked together as an interactive slideshow. Keeping in mind that Shadow Tor is a small independent developer, what they’ve accomplished is actually fairly impressive. The only flaw is in the few other characters you encounter, which are likewise portrayed as a series of still images. The effect just doesn’t work as well with people.

Audio has similar high and low points. The music, whether spooky accompaniment or radio tune, is quite good. Sound effects, ranging from the ambient noises of the forest to your own footsteps and interactions, are likewise solid. The voice acting, however, comes off decidedly amateurish. While this works when Emma Harry, BHR’s disc jockey, is chatting over the airwaves, it isn’t as convincing when she’s talking to you on the phone. The same is true of the character Ben, whose voice actor sounds for all the world like he was afraid he’d sound silly if he raised his voice.

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The Uncanny Valley
Gameplay in Barrow Hill is of the point-and-click variety. The mouse cursor indicates potential actions on each screen, including the ability to turn and move. Perhaps first-person shooters have spoiled me (or maybe seeing the trailer for the never released The Unseelie misled me subconsciously), but I can’t help but find the format a little inhibiting. It’s a little frustrating to see a door across a room and have to click, click, click my way over there, and sometimes puzzle items are only collectable from a particular perspective despite visibility from another.

The puzzles in Barrow Hill are all grounded in reality, which is a welcome change from the genre’s typical esoteric reasoning. The demo gives a great example of this, wherein you find yourself locked in a room and get out by simply finding a way to break the lock. That’s the way it should be. On the downside, this realistic approach means you can take a closer look at things that have no bearing whatsoever on the story or the gameplay. Don’t be surprised if on your first play through you spend a lot of time rummaging through useless junk in search of clues.

Which highlights an interesting problem: realism implies open-ended gameplay, whereas adventures games tend to have one and only one solution to each problem. As clever as it is to substitute fruit flavored drinks in place of actual fruits (part of one puzzle), why must I buy them from a vending machine? Earlier in the game, I broke into a cash register for change, so why can’t I break into the vending machine as well? Both are equally acceptable “realistic” solutions, but the game only allows one. The more realistic our options, it would seem, the more obvious the unrealistic aspects become.

Replayability is also an issue. While your first play through will no doubt take a respectable amount of time, once you know what you’re doing it’s possible to beat the game in a half hour. Full Throttle, another classic adventure game, suffered a similar problem, but at least it's still fun to watch.  Barrow Hill tries to extend the playtime with some random elements—such as the door codes and the whereabouts of the game’s antagonist (yes, there is an antagonist; no, it’s not as well developed as you’d hope)—and you can’t skip any of Emma’s lengthy monologues, but it still comes up short. Once is really enough for Barrow Hill.

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Conclusion
I don’t mean to come down harshly on Barrow Hill, but remember that I’m not an adventure gamer. I’m liable to be less forgiving than I would of something I’m more partial to, as my Thief: Deadly Shadows review no doubt indicates. Having said that, Barrow Hill really is a good game, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to adventure game fans. For those of you who aren’t into the genre, however, I will at least suggest you try the demo. You may be surprised by what adventure gaming has to offer. The genre is by no means dead, and I for one am thankful for it.
 

Game Rated 7/10
 

 

 

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