Publisher: Got Game/Lighthouse Interactive
Developer: Shadow Tor Studios
Release Date: August 25, 2006
If I had to be flippant, I would proffer a five-word review in place of today's article and be done with it. Since when have I ever rationed words in such a manner? Even still, it is quite possible I can sell you on this one with the five words I have in mind, and nothing more. Try this on for size, and see if it sounds like something you want to have a go at – Barrow Hill: Myst meets Undying.
Sounds like ad copy from a press sheet, doesn't it? If you've played both of those games though, you are probably quite interested in picking this up now, even without the rest of my review. The five-word review falls apart if you haven't played those legendary titles, though. Please allow me to explain further.
Barrow Hill is an action-horror game, straight up. For those of you who've never played an adventure title, let me summarize how they work: There is no circle-strafing, no avatar development, no resource management, and no questing for elite loots. Instead, you are presented with an extensive series of quasi-still shots of the environment you're exploring and a simple mouse cursor that you use to quasi-interact with the images you see. Each different panorama with which you're presented has a certain number of options you can choose from; turn right, turn left, go forward, look here, look there, examine object, collect object, and so on and so forth.
What you can and cannot do is limited only by the whims of the developer and how they've chosen to present things in order to tell the story. What you actively do is move your mouse around each and every screen, watching intently for the cursor to change, letting you know what you can do. The rest is sorting out the logic puzzles interwoven into the game itself.
Barrow Hill uses these mechanics faithfully whilst telling a tale of man's folly and nature's revenge. The story begins with you driving up a winding road on your way to an undisclosed location, your trip taking you through the tiny area referred to as – you guessed it – Barrow Hill. On the local radio, a deejay named Emma Harry tells you that it's the evening of the Autumn Equinox and that 12 glorious hours of velvet darkness lay ahead.
With that, almost on cue, your car stalls. From there, you are left with little option but to continue on foot toward the nearest service station. Walking around a heavily wooded area in the pitch black is a less than enticing concept at the best of times, but you'd best get used to the idea; all of this game takes place in near-to-total darkness.
Upon reaching the small hotel/gas station/restaurant, you are plunged into mystery. A car sits idling beside the fuel pumps, door ajar and empty. Three cabin suites lay cold behind locked doors, seemingly empty. The lobby of the station itself is devoid of people and in a state of general disarray. The only sign of life is a rambling man in the general office, who refuses to open the door and will only speak to you through the thin slats of a ventilation grate. His terrified raving about disappearances and a hunter in the night does nothing to allay your fears that something is wrong, and that the overall shroud of tension draped upon the air is one of death and horror. Overcome your dread and use your brain; there is a way out of this.
While I would love to continue telling you of the events that transpire, to do so would give away too much of the story, and that's really all this game is about. It is a highly suspenseful and intriguing myth that draws heavily from British folklore and legend. There are just enough historical references to give Barrow Hill a palpable sense of realism. In the same way that the "Blair Witch Project" only really worked if you suspended disbelief enough to think it was real, so too does this game fall apart if you keep your brain firmly mired in the here and now. Of course, this takes a little more effort than a non-interactive movie does.
To begin with, many of the clues you'll use to sort through the game are advanced technologies that clash with the old-world-that-time-forgot atmosphere of Barrow Hill. Cell phones, global-positioning devices, and even metal detectors are a far cry from menhirs adorned in Celtic knotwork and decaying 12th century ruins. Once you can reconcile these two worlds, you'll then need to bypass the graphics themselves. If you're a fan of adventure games, this doesn't apply to you – this is the way you like it. If you're new to the genre like I am, it will take some time to get used to the slightly animated slideshow that you'll see.
Essentially, the single largest challenge Shadow Tor has ahead is convincing gamers that Barrow Hill is a quality experience, despite its lack of gore, action, or strategy. There is certainly a niche market that is used to the mechanics of the adventure genre, but those of us fed a steady diet of FPS, RPG, and RTS might not be so willing to adopt the frame-by-frame pace of the game. I personally urge reluctant people to try to overcome any bias they might have, as this is a spectacularly creepy title that manages to achieve what so few others have; it's actually scary.
While much of this can be attributed to the darkness and the isolation, most of the praise here needs to be heaped on the excellent use of atmospheric sounds. Whispering winds, rustling leaves, scratching in the underbrush, and the incessant chirp of crickets, all intermixed together for the maximum sense of, "What was that?"
Lest this begin to seem like I left all critical thought at the door, allow me to illustrate the few points I can think of that are directly important to the "good/bad" scale of an adventure game. For starters, we have the logic puzzles that are the meat of this genre. Are there enough of them, and are they too hard? There are most certainly enough, and for the most part they aren't too difficult to sort out. What is more of a challenge is finding the requisite items needed for a given clue. Many of them are a little too well hidden, and it can be somewhat frustrating searching an area over and over to no avail, even though the item is right in front of you but has such a narrow scope to its visibility that you just never quite managed to pass over it with your cursor to see it.
After this point, we have the story. Is it well written and engaging? Absolutely. After the "creepy" factor, the story is the best part of the game. It's interesting and deep without becoming mired down in unnecessary details, and it's well-paced. Plus, it's screamingly obvious that the author was passionate about the source material. Shadow Tor loves their culture and history, and that shows through in the fabric of Barrow Hill. Lastly, we have the interface. Easy to understand and use? Yes. Well now, that was simple enough.
To sum up, there is very little I have to say about Barrow Hill that I didn't think was done with exceptional skill. I admit I'm unfamiliar with the style, but the fact that I'm still impressed should say something about the developers' ability to cross genre preferences. Imagine how surprised I was to discover that the entire team numbers roughly five people, not counting the small voice-acting cast. This is an excellent example of what can happen when a game is made by people who have full creative control over their own art. I don't even want to think about what corporate micro-management might have done to this game; that's a whole different form of horror.
My final words are these: Barrow Hill is a title that is absolutely "worth playing." Pick up a copy, turn out the lights, and get yourself some quality heeby-jeeby time.
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