The Autumn Equinox, archeology, technology, ancient standing stones, and the Cornish countryside... add these together, throw in a well-paced story and let sit until tension is built, and you have the successful recipe for Barrow Hill.
In the best vein of "what if", Matt Clark and his small team at Shadow Tor manage to get under the often blasé skin of geographical historicity and turn it into a fear-inducing, riveting experience. How did they accomplish this? Let's take a closer look at this independent production, and see exactly what it serves up.
The game begins with you driving your car through the Cornish countryside, the radio your only companion -- more specifically, Emma Harry, Barrow Hill's lone radio diva, who bids you to stay with her until the witching hour. It is the evening of the Autumn Equinox, and suddenly your car stalls, leaving you stranded by the side of the road. Don't bother turning around and trying to go back for help, as some strange warp barrier prevents you. You are here to stay, and you're on your own. Though you'll soon find out that you are not quite alone, as someone or something is watching… waiting.
Following in the footsteps of the well-known archaeologist, Conrad Morse, who is suddenly missing (along with his team), you are tasked to discover the mystery behind the ancient Barrow Hill standing stones, the abandoned burial ground dig site, and the rooms of a motel littered with personal effects as though the occupants left in a hurry, or didn't know they would never return.
Along the way, you will make use of a GPS device, a metal detector, a cell phone, and a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant), each of which becomes part of your inventory once discovered, and a few other technological items that are permanent fixtures of the environment. This lends what I call techno-credulity to the game, offering a layer of realism, and some nifty modern amenities that are more than just nice props; they are necessary.
Shadow Tor has certainly served up some impressive production values in this game. They are right up there with the big studios, with few exceptions. My first impression upon loading the DVD and seeing the foreboding fade-in of the start menu, with the wick of a candle burning, the options script, the filtered ambience of a heartbeat followed by low bell tones and subtle soundtrack, created just the right anticipation. And that is the best portent of the kind of journey you're about to embark on when selecting "New Game" in Barrow Hill.
I didn't really care for the black and white FMV introducing the game, however. It uses a dropped frame-rate (film stutter) for effect, but it ends up being annoying, and too close to the boundaries of poor quality than the body of the game deserved. Yet the intro is fairly short and sweet, and the actual content of the video is well edited and appropriately ominous.
Barrow Hill is played in a first-person perspective, similar to another recent indie horror, Scratches. The cursor is a simple directional one, that transports you by nodes in the direction you indicate, slide-show style. There is no 360-degree panning, and movement is only marked by the varied sound of the footfalls of your character. I prefer this, as you can cover ground much more quickly, and there is no waiting for a video sequence to end or your arrow to change direction as is sometimes the case in games with rotational movement.
Graphically, BH offers an attractive game environment, where palm fronds look real, and textures are rich and varied, from the rocky yet lush, green Cornish landscape to the incongruity of a gas station/motel plopped in the middle of this tract of mysterious, hallowed ground. You traverse paths and roads where a narrow beam of light illumes a phone booth, where the moon floats atop lapping water in a swamp, filters through cracks in the boards of a shed, and alights upon the tents of the archeological dig site, to name a few. The gas station/motel (which also functions as a small diner) is the main attraction, and you will spend some time moving about and returning there.
Barrow Hill is nothing if not atmospheric. Each scene is structured and supported by the next in varied ways, so that you're constantly on edge as you move around, whether from the subtle music that seems to swell from a mist or the lonely sound of the crickets as you move further away from your single point of civilization. Or from the car with the engine still running and the doors ajar, sitting crooked by the gas pumps, to the small BHR (Barrow Hill Radio) trailer whose lone occupant must surely be afraid…
The soundtrack itself is very organic, and among the most crisp and artifact-free I've ever heard. There are the aforementioned footfalls, which vary according to the terrain you are moving on, there are night sounds, and wind – but most importantly, and this is so key -- there is the absence of sound where it elicits the most effect. The music itself knows when to fade away and return, and is very well done, lending a film-like aspect to gameplay.
The inventory system is one of the simplest I've seen in a game; that is to say, no frills, no red herrings. You won't hear, "I can't do that here," or "This won't work," or some such comment. There is no trial and error. If something doesn't work, it just doesn't, and your character isn't left pondering the metaphysical meaning behind his inability to fuse mercury to plywood. If you can use an inventory item (and it is usually obvious when/where you can), you are rewarded by some sort of organic action.
Barrow Hill incorporates inventory puzzles whose solutions are right there in your environment, behind a layer or two, and sometimes three, and the end result of finding the right solution is always logical and satisfying, always moves the story ahead, and never feels like a cheap shot to stall the player with a poorly designed conundrum. It is a testament to the game that it allows the story to dictate the puzzles, and not the other way around; the story motivates, the puzzles move. That's just good game synergy. There is reading in BH, and quite a bit of it. Yet the way the game incorporates it is very natural and I didn't feel as if I'd just sat down to an assignment.
Along with the pleasing pre-rendered graphics, of which there are plenty, Shadow Tor has incorporated well-crafted bits and pieces of historical fact with legend factoids. They also managed to weave in scientific proofs along the way, so that in the end, it is the story that is the real dark horse of this game. Sure, moving about and seeing what's next is fun and intriguing, but you'll also find your mind mapping the story as well as your current location, and this really heightens the intensity of the gaming experience. There is always that great question mark dangling like a carrot in front of you, promoting continued gameplay to see what can be discovered or unveiled next.
Voice work is limited to Emma Harry as the radio DJ, plus an assortment of amusing radio commercials, and Ben, the attendant of the gas station/motel, who has freaked out over something that's happened there and confines himself to the motel office, yet often gives you clues within his lunatic ranting. A cell phone and radios are also used to apply tension and music to certain scenes, as well as tuning in to Emma, who helps you in her own way. While there is nothing outstanding about the voice work, the direction is noteworthy, as the cadence and evocation of each of the actors fits well within the context of any given scene.
Technically the game performed fine on my PC, but there were two consistent bugs that would crash me to desktop each time. I emailed Matt Clark, who responded immediately, and it was discovered that turning sound acceleration off fixed the issue, and didn't affect the game at all.
The game boasts around 20-22 hours of game play, and since it is so non-linear (there are multiple ways of resolving each conflict -- even though the primary puzzles have a single solution), it can even be replayed to see what was missed the first time around.
Barrow Hill is a solid adventure that takes actual fact and blends and warps it to its own blend of reality through a haunting landscape and highly mysterious circumstance. I recommend it to any adventure gamer, and more so to those interested in ancient standing stones and Celtic legend.