Inside Pulse 12

Review: Barrow Hill (PC)

Barrow Hill: Curse of the Ancient Circle
Publisher: Got Game Entertainment
Developer: Shadow Tor
Genre: Adventure
Release Date: 08/26/2006

Man, this game is impossible to find. It had a very small print run from which you could only purchase over Shadow Tor’s website back in April. Then, on 8/26, the game was released en masse. Supposedly. Not a single EB, Gamestop, Best Boy, or any store selling PC games had it near me. And by near me, I mean a 200 mile radius. I finally had to order it and have it shipped overnight so I could get a timely review. Note to Got Game: Please supply me with press copies of the games, as I end up reviewing all your hard to find crap.

As odd as it may sound, this has been the one game all year I’ve been chomping at the bit for. I love well made adventure games. I love spooky games. I love folklore. Guess what? Barrow Hill promised me all three. The website was wonderful, and the five minute playable demo, was stunning, if not exceptionally short.

So what did I get for my $19.99 plus overnight shipping? Was it the adventure game I hoped for? Do I have a new game of the year to finally unseat Street Fighter Alpha Anthology and Samurai Shodown V as the best games I’ve played this year (Which is sad considered both are ports)? Did it turn out to be a pile of crap ala Crime Stories? Was it as crashtastic as Scratches? There’s only one way to find out!

Let’s Review

Story

It’s the Autumnal Equinox; the longest night of the year, and you’re out driving in Cornwall listening to the local radio station as you pass through the area known as Barrow Hill. Suddenly your car dies. With no flashlight and no idea where you are, you end up weaving your way to a local petrol (Oh my does it sound weird to be saying petrol instead of gas after all these years. Maybe I should change flashlight to torch and put in a Girls Aloud CD) station that also doubles as a motel. Outside the hotel is a vehicle left at the pump with no drivers around. In fact, there’s no one around anywhere. Thus begins one of the weirdest and most original stories I’ve ever encountered in a video game.

As you make your way around Barrow Hill, you discover it’s been the site of a recent, and controversial, archeological dig. However, some pieces of history are best left buried, for this dig as disturbed ancient forces from before the time of Christendom and now, the Sentry stirs from its ancient slumber, and it is not a happy…well, you’ll see exactly WHAT the sentry is if and when you play the game. I have to admit the first time I saw it, I laughed pretty hard. But that’s because I was watching a video tape of it and it seemed so surreal it brought me out of the almost consistent creepy as f*ck mood the game is entrenched in. Then I encountered it once while playing, and let me tell you, I was SCISSORSMAN level paranoid for the rest of the game,. I was truly amazed that Barrow Hill could make me do a 180 on what I thought was the stupidest possible antagonist ever and actually make me, by the end of the game, go, “Oh shit. Oh shit. Ohshitohshitohshit.” Kudos to Shadow Tor.

Like most Terror/Survival Adventure games, the plot is mostly deciphered by a lot of reading. You’ll only encounter a single character face to face in the game, and even then he’s behind a locked door and is peering out at you from a vent. You’ll actually have dialogue with a second character who is more important to the game, but then you never meet her. This lack of contact with other characters might be offsetting to some gamers, but I feel it really heightened the tension and creep factor of the game. I actually jumped at something in this game. I can honestly say I’ve played through every Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Alone in the Dark and whatever horror game you’ve named, and Barrow Hill joins Hell Night and Clock Tower as the only games to actually make me physically react to a spooky type scenario.

There’re also multiple endings to the game. Two to be exact. The “Bad” ending loses points for me because I watched it three times, and it still makes no sense to me. It’s like mindless stock footage that is totally irrelevant to the rest of the game and then it’s over and the credits roll. The “Good” ending however is a brilliant way to end the game. Most adventure games tend to be pretty anticlimactic, but this one ends on an appropriate and ominous note.

Bad ending aside, Barrow Hill has one of the best plots I’ve encountered in an Adventure game, being right up there with Dracula: Resurrection and Still Life. It also joins those two, The Black Dahlia, and Dark Fall in my top five Adventure games of all time. The slow reveal, the atmosphere, and the local lived up to every expectation I had for this game. Yes folks, it’s that good. Too bad it’s nigh impossible to find.

Story Rating: 9/10

2. Graphics

Barrow Hill is a visual delight. One of the most consistent things of Adventure games, is that they LOOK stunning. The just drips with beauty from the second the game starts until it ends. Every location looks as if you truly are walking through the forest of rummaging through the last ramblings of a deranged lunatic. I can’t empathize enough how much detail was put into this game. From a clump or berries to scrawled handwriting on walls or on paper being distinctly different from another characters, Barrow Hill is impressive.

One of my other favorite bits of the game is that they took that old Sega CD standby, Full Motion Video, and made it not only relevant for today’s games, but also an acceptable replacement of CSI cut scenes. This again, is impressive, especially if you’re a long time gamer.

The only downside to the graphics is when you have actual human contact. The Two characters you will see/speak with are very choppy and have no real flow to their character design. It’s just one still frame of a character and then it will switch to another with no transition. For one of the characters this is fine, as you’re speaking to her over a video cell phone, but for the guy? It just looks bad. The only blemish on an otherwise amazing game.

Graphics Rating: 9/10

3. Sound

Perfect. That’s the game in a nutshell. But of course, you want more detail don’t you? After all, this isn’t an EGM review.

Unlike a lot of games that take place in England and then use American voice actors (Even my beloved Koudelka does this.), Barrow Hill still stays well within the realm of actual British actors with authentic accents from the realm. Of course, the game was designed by Europeans so they probably had no short supply of potential actors. There’s also some hidden voice acting you can get if you’re sharp and try everything possible in an adventure game that you possibly can. Also, listen to the radio a lot. It might take time away from the actual gameplay, but it’s worth it.

The only one voice actor that I had a problem with and it wasn’t the quality if his work, just that I heard his phrase so often, it started to grate on me. If I hear, “The balance must be restored” one more time, I’m pistol whipping someone.

The sound effects in the game are also as close to perfection as it can get. From the flapping of a bird’s wings, to the clattering of a trash can lid, everything sounds REAL. Most video games don’t strive for this level of audible accuracy. Even the creaking open of a one star hotel door. And the brush of plants under your heel. Barrow Hill helps to make you truly believe you’re in this virtual world.

Finally there’s music. Barrow Hill uses music perfectly. It is rare, it is sparsely used, and whenever it occurs, your paranoia level goes through the roof. It gets even better and the music manages to be creepy as hell and sound somehow…inhuman at the same time.

Simply sublime.

Sound Rating: 10/10

4. Control and Gameplay

Barrow Hill is a first person point and click game. The only thing you will ever use is your mouse. Click to pick a direction, to close up on an item or object, to pick up an object, to interact with something, to speak with someone, and so on. The controls are tight and even if this is your first video game, you’ll only have a learning curve of about two minutes with it.

The only complaint people might have is that sometimes the cursor is pretty specific on where it has to be in order to interact with an object. For non Adventure game aficionados, this might prove frustrating. That’s where I always give the following piece of advice: Move your mouse slowly across the screen and wait for the cursor to change. Patient is a must needed virtue in these games.

Usually C&G is the longest section of my reviews, but here, it’s nothing more than using your mouse repeatedly and in the same fashion. There’re no bugs here. No stalling. No weird graphics slowdown. Just point and click and play. Just remember that not everything in the game can be interacted with, and sometimes the cursor positioning is anal.

Control and Gameplay Rating: 9/10

5. Replayability

Ah. The Achilles heel of the Adventure game. Usually all they are good for is one playthrough and then there’s no point to replay them as everything will be exactly the same the next time around. However, Barrow Hill makes a few tweaks to the usual system to ensure that the game can (and will) be replayed.

The first tweak to the usual genre stereotypes is that a few things in the game are randomized each time you start a new game. This means a code or number sequence that works the first time, won’t work the second. The second is that there are two endings to the game, and the GOOD ending takes a little bit of outside the box thinking to achieve.

Finally, there’s the Sentry. This is a big change from most Adventure games as well, it can kill you. Usually you can’t die in adventure games, but when the Sentry appears, you need to run because it will gleefully set you on fire. As well, when and where the Sentry will appear is completely randomized. Potentially you can go an entire game without encountering it. But the threat is always there, leaving you looking over your shoulder.

These changes might not make the game too exciting for a second replay ala some RPG’s with multiple characters, but the game is so damn well made the sheer excellence of the game will no doubt compel many who buy it to play it again and again throughout the years. The game might be best served though, as one you play once and then watch your friends play through as well. It’s one of those rare games that’s as much fun to watch as it is to play.

Replayability Rating: 4/10

6. Balance

Although the point and click controls of this genre of gaming make it easily accessible to any gamer, the levels of deductive reasoning will separate the truly intelligent gamer from the fat overweight guy living in his mom’s basement whojust wants to see Lara Croft jump up and down. You have to be clever to figure out various puzzles in adventure games, and Barrow Hill is no exception. Sure, in lesser adventure games, you can stumble through simply via trial and error. But not with Barrow Hill. This game will actually PUNISH you for going that route. Especially if you are attempting to achieve the good ending and thus get an actual resolution to the game. The best course of action is to take notes and read everything. The answers are always written somewhere.

I have to admit I MISS taking notes or having graph paper handy for games. Eye of the Beholder, The Bard’s Tale, King’s Quest. Gaming sure has gotten easier over the years, but Adventure games still do their best to ensure that the genre is up there with 2-D shooters for being the hardest genre in gaming. Considering the average American gamer, it’s no wonder these two have had such a decline since the Sony age of gaming began. Boo-urns.

Barrow Hill can be a hard game for those not used to thinking while playing. For those gamers, I offer you your pick of any Final Fantasy game. For the elite amongst you, I offer you Barrow Hill. Exercise that brain of yours!

Balance Rating: 7/10

7. Originality

The trappings of Barrow Hill are quite rooted in horror cliché. You’ve got the car breakdown in the middle of a spooky place on an ultra spooky night. You’ve got a villain that defies logic and is almost laughable when you first consider it. Yet Barrow Hill transcends these trappings and manages to put a new twist on everything and make the game feel fresh and innovative. This is mainly due to the level of detail seeping into every aspect of the game. Still, so much of the game, from cheap scares, to the ending that isn’t an ending, has been seen and done a hundred times over. Although the game is amazing in all ways possible, truly original, it isn’t.

Originality Rating: 5/10

8. Addictiveness

Barrow Hill is a short game, taking maybe 6-8 hours to beat if you try everything and want to see both endings. However, it is so fast paced that it feels like you’re playing for a lot longer than you really are. I got sucked into the game, and was really disappointed that it only took two evenings for me to beat the game. I really didn’t want it to end. I can see this occurring with anyone who manages to get their grubby hands on a copy of Barrow Hill. It’s well made, the story is strong and engaging, and the graphics and audio effects suck you in. It’s hard NOT to enjoy this game unless you were weaned on what passes for the lowest common denominator out there.

Great game that will leave you wanting more as soon as it’s done.

Addictiveness Rating: 7/10

9. Appeal Factor

A low print game that has no advertising budget and that even the gamers I know that are specialists in obscure titles have never heard of? Yeah, that’s going to be flying off the shelves. Factor in the fact adventure games aren’t the best selling of titles, and that Barrow Hill is PC only, and you have a game that is only going to reach a select few via word of mouth only. Remember, 200 mile radius, and not a single member of the gaming store monopoly that is EBGamestop carried it.

The game may be great, but it’s going to be damn near impossible for anyone to get it. If you do see it, GRAB IT. You won’t be disappointed. The chances of finding it though, is equivalent to finding Panzer Dragoon Saga in a used bin at your local flea market.

Appeal Factor: 3/10

10. Miscellaneous

The only real extra that comes with the game is indeed a doozy and seems geared directly for my folklorist heart. Barrow Hill comes with an interactive guide to Cornwall and discusses the real Barrow Hill and all sorts of neat behind the scenes babble. I spent half an hour reading every little bit Shadow Tor put into the game. You get to see how much detail and realism the team added to Barrow Hill and it made me love the game all the more. If and when you get the game, please, by all means, spend a lot of time with the extras. It’s like reading an issue of Nyogtha.

Miscellaneous Rating: 10/10

The Scores
Story: 9/10
Graphics: 9/10
Sound: 10/10
Control & Gameplay: 9/10
Replayability: 4/10
Balance: 7/10
Originality: 5/10
Addictiveness: 7/10
Appeal Factor: 3/10
Miscellaneous: 10/10
Total Score 73/100
Final Score: 7.5 (VERY good)

Short Attention Span Summary
It’s hard to find a better 19.99 MSRP game than Barrow Hill It’s beautiful, it has a better story than most RPG’s released in the past 2-3 years, and it’s one of the best adventure games I’ve ever played. Due to the amazingly low print run it seems like your best option is to order the game directly from the publisher, Got Game Entertainment, or by simply going to http://www.barrow-hill.co.uk/. Look at me, I’m not a PC gamer by any means, and Barrow Hill along with Street Fighter Alpha Anthology are tied for the highest score to a game I’ve given out this year. This says something, and not just that I’m stingy with high scores. If you want one of the very few well made games released this year, Barrow Hill is easily affordable, if not easy to find.