Ancient stone monuments such as the Stonehenge have fascinated mankind for many centuries. The origins of these stone circles found across the British Isles are shrouded in mystery (some date as far back as 2500 BC). Explanations abound as to what purpose they served. Were these stone circles aligned with celestial bodies to accurately estimate the time of the year? Or could these circles have been used as amphitheaters for early pagan rituals? No one knows for sure. Adding another layer of mystery to this conundrum are “barrows” or burial mounds constructed by ancient Britons. The barrows are far more in number than the stone circles. As many as 6000 of them can be found in the West of England alone. Barrow Hill is an adventure game based on this very subject of mysterious barrows and stone circles.
The game starts with a grainy black-and-white video of you driving along listening to the radio one evening, when suddenly your car develops problems and breaks down near the ancient woodlands of Cornwall County. You get out and make your way through the creepy woods to eventually reach a gas station. Much to your surprise, the place is deserted. A car hums near a fill-up tank, its door open, the occupant nowhere to be found. Various items lie scattered all over the ground. You trudge over to a cafe in the complex, only to find empty tables, chairs knocked over and not a single person in sight. Except for Ben, who’s hiding in his office and won’t come out. Clearly, something is amiss, and you must figure out what has happened here if you are to get out of this place.
Barrow Hill is essentially a first-person perspective point-and-click exploration adventure. You will find yourself wandering around reading pamphlets, journals, and notes scattered about the place trying to figure out what has happened. In due time, you will learn about a team of archaeologists staying at the nearby motel, who’re digging at a mysterious barrow site surrounded by a stone circle. Some of the locals are apparently not all that pleased with these strangers disturbing their ancient land. The only person you meet, Ben, seems to be incoherently mumbling about something waiting and watching out there, trying to get him. Is there a connection here between all of these? You’ll quickly realize that rational explanations cannot account for what you’re seeing and hearing around you.
Yes, this game is scary. But there is no blood or gore here, so don’t worry if you get squeamish easily. The spookiness stems mainly from the excellent use of sound effects and the eerie atmosphere created by the graphics, especially the brilliant lighting effects. There are moments where you are lulled into a false sense of security and suddenly something will happen to make you jump. It happened more than once, for instance, when I walked past some trash cans, and it made me jumpy for the rest of the game. Another time, the sudden loud ring of my cell phone caught me totally unawares, as I roamed around dark stretches of the forest with just the sound of my footsteps to keep me company.
I was really impressed with the excellent graphics and sound effects in this game, which help make it so memorably atmospheric. Interestingly, the settings for this game have been inspired by an actual place in Cornwall County in England (you can check it out at the developer’s website, http://www.barrow-hill.co.uk/). Matt Clark, the creator of Barrow Hill, and the rest of the Shadow Tor team painstakingly filmed on location in the Looe Valley, recording ambient sounds and locations for use in their 3D modeling software. Thousands of photographs and endless reels of footage were shot to create the world of Barrow Hill (as well as future games planned by the team). You will be amazed at the detail that was recreated from various locations across Cornwall, which was incidentally chosen because of all the counties in the British Isles, it is thought to be the richest in folklore, magic, legends, and mystery.
The puzzles in Barrow Hill for the most part require finding and then using items in different ways. I though that the puzzle integration in this game was one of its biggest strengths. None of these puzzles seemed arbitrary or out of place. And none of them will be too difficult to crack if you pay attention and take notes. It will certainly help if you keep a piece of paper and pen handy to jot down tidbits of information, which will come in handy eventually. There are clues to solve the puzzles all around you, if you only look (and sometimes listen) carefully. You will also have the opportunity to use several gadgets such as a PDA, mobile phone, GPS device, and electronic metal detector, which you will find during the course of the game. These devices will be essential to solve some of the puzzles, and after a point will also provide a handy map feature, so you don’t get lost.
The story in Barrow Hill moves along fairly briskly. There are several notes, pamphlets and journals to read, which will give you a greater insight not only into the myths and legends of Cornwall, but also about what’s been happening with the archaeological dig, from the viewpoints of several people (who are strangely nowhere to be found). Your only contact with humanity, aside from Ben (who isn’t all that helpful given his scattered state of mind), will be Emma Harry, a radio DJ operating out of an RV from across town. You will hear her voice from the several radio sets you come across, in the café, motel rooms etc. Some of the other stations that you can tune into will have music, psychics telling your horoscope, or really funny advertisements which will crack you up (my favorite was the one for ginger flavored toothpaste).
To wrap up, I really enjoyed playing Barrow Hill. The game is dripping with atmosphere, has some beautiful graphics and lighting effects, and plenty of unnerving sound effects. The storyline is gripping and the puzzles mesh well with the plot. You won’t find yourself stuck at any point for too long, unless you’ve not been paying attention to the myriad of clues all around you. My only complaint is that the game is a little on the short side. I guess I liked playing this game so much, I’m just wishing I could have spent some more time with it. The bottom line is that if you like an adventure game with a lot of atmosphere, plenty of mystery, and a few scares, you can’t go wrong with Barrow Hill.