Based on ancient British folktales, Barrow Hill: Curse of the Ancient Circle combines puzzle solving, archeology, rituals, and ceremonies to create a game that is full of mystery and intrigue. You begin stranded on a lonely road leading to the Barrow during the Autumn Equinox. As you explore your surroundings you learn all about the Barrow and the dangers that lurk there. It is your task to bring balance back to the Celtic world by solving a variety of enigmas and unearthing clues. A true account of some of the eerie events that surround the Barrow where one of two construction workers vanished from the area in 1967.
Barrow Hill (also known as Barrow Hill: Curse of the Ancient Circle) is a horror mystery adventure game created by Matt Clark, an independent game developer from Cornwall, United Kingdom. This is the first game developed by Clark under Shadow Tor Studios of which he is also the founder. For Barrow Hill, Clark has chosen to borrow the history of Cornwall - an area steeped in real life mysteries, myths, and legends for millennia - for use in the game's story. It is from this inspiration that Clark combines history and fiction to produce a spine chilling, suspenseful, and riveting adventure.
The fictitious name Barrow Hill also conjures up a few thoughts on what this game is about. As an archaeological definition, a barrow (or barrow hill) is a burial ground, consisting of earth that is constructed above a tomb. In the United Kingdom, there are over 6,000 barrows, stone circles, tumuli, and monuments, dating back as far as the Bronze Age. The most famous of all barrows is, of course, that of Stonehenge (circa 2500 BCE), which is believed to be a burial ground once used by Druids. Barrow Hill is, thus, aptly named for an imagined setting where such an inspired story will unfold.
Barrow Hill is a classic first-person point-and-click adventure game. The story takes place over a chilling night during the autumn equinox. You play the role of an unknown, unnamed, and nondescript weary traveler, who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The game begins with an introductory cut scene showing you to drive along a double lane highway through the Cornish countryside, listening to Emma Harry on the radio. The cut scene is devoid of any color. As nightfall descends, you turn off the highway and onto a narrow road that goes through the woodlands. Eerily, your car stalls. The car's headlights then go out. There is now complete darkness. You cannot restart your car. As you leave your car, you can hear the sound of the car door slammed shut. Suddenly, the headlights mysteriously light up, revealing a single oak leaf falling to the ground. The cut scene is restored to full color. Alas, your sanity counteractively dissipates. You decide to turn around and walk back to the highway, only to find yourself trapped and unable to go back. Moving forward, you arrive at the deserted Barrow Hill Service Station and Motel. Your nightmare has just begun.
Soon, you discover that you are standing on an archaeological excavation site in Barrow Hill. You also learn that Professor Conrad Morse, a famed archaeologist, and Pete Aston, the professor's assistant, have been excavating the site. The purpose of their dig is to uncover ancient artifacts related to the local myths that have existed for millennia. Overnight, you become an investigator - you must retrace the steps of the professor, who is now missing, and discover his whereabouts. Fortunately, the professor has meticulously archived every step of his expedition. You learn about his purpose, his findings, his thoughts, and his madness as well as the other strange disappearances at Barrow Hill. A journal and some tape recordings reveal a broken seal at the excavation site with an ominous warning - "The Ancient Man has awoken. Balance must be restored." It is up to you to discover who (or what) has been awoken and how to restore the balance - then and only then will the disappearances and murders stop in Barrow Hill.
Gameplay in Barrow Hill takes on a refreshingly nonlinear style. In this game, many key events happen at random times throughout the story. Depending on when these random events take place, the course of action which you will need to take to progress in the game will differ. An example of this randomness is securing the code for the lock to enter the professor's motel room. Ben, the service station attendant, may or may not give you the code when you first talk to him, regardless of what you do. If he does not give you the code immediately, you will have no choice but to wait until he is killed later in the game and then enter the office by other means, where the code is hidden somewhere.
Installation of the game is straightforward. The game only supports a native resolution of 800x600 in 32-bit color, though the low resolution in no way detracts from the quality of the graphics. Upon starting the game, you are presented with a simple menu: New Game, Load, Save, Options, Credits, and Quit. Within Options, you are presented further with a submenu: Inventory Descriptions, Help, and Resume Play After Save. There are only 10 save slots. There are no provisions for subtitles, volume controls, and graphics settings.
I found the inventory handling in this game to be quite intuitive, expect for a single minor glitch which had initially held me up for some time. I noticed this glitch when I needed to use the lantern at night but could not find it anywhere. Thinking I had not picked it up, I searched everywhere for it. It was only when I moved the cursor to the very far left of the screen that the description of the item was visible but not the item itself. By clicking on the description, I was finally able to use the lantern. The lantern remained physically hidden from the screen. Had I not enabled descriptions for inventory items, I would still be looking for that lantern!
The game's setting, though fictitious, makes use of many real locations in Cornwall. According to the developer, thousands of photographs and endless footage of films have been shot on location in the Looe Valley for this game. The Sentinel Stone in Barrow Hill is actually a megalithic stone found in Cornwall, and the St. Anneka's well in the game is actually the Well of St. Keyne. Likewise, many audio recordings have been made from real ambient sounds and sound effects for this game. These include owls hooting, a raven being disturbed and taking flight, the breaking of twigs while treading through the woods, dripping water in a deep well, the ringing of a mobile phone, and even the running sound of a car engine.
The developer has done a wonderful job rendering the still photographs. Further, the developer has employed a number of contemporary filming techniques to achieve specific cinematic effects. An example is the jump cut technique, wherein a filmed scene is cut and joined to another scene taken later to create an effect of discontinuity or acceleration. Another example is the subjective camera technique, which is used to stimulate searching in the dark while holding a lit lantern by giving a realistic view of what is in front of you as you walk about. Other techniques, such as time-lapse filming and blue screen photography, are also used in the game.
The voiceovers in Barrow Hill are all very well done, albeit there is not much dialog in the game due to a lack of physical characters with whom you can interact. The music in Barrow Hill is eerie, haunting, and chilling, and it complements well to the theme of the game. Though repetitive, the string instrumentals do not become boring or annoying.
Hotspots are reasonably easy to locate throughout the game. However, some hotspots can only be triggered on subsequent visits, so that scenes must be examined and reexamined carefully as needed. You cannot die in this game, to the extent of having to revert back to a previous save to continue. If you touch the Sentinel Stone, you will not be allowed to go past it. Instead, you will get a quick resurrection after death so as to resume the game immediately.
Barrow Hill is not really a puzzle driven game. To this end, however, the story can be considered as a huge puzzle in itself - finding out who or what is killing the locals and culminating in the restoration of the broken seal. There are numerous mini puzzles that also help to tie the overall quest together. These additional puzzles are not too difficult. The clues to these puzzles are not logic driven, nor are they left to chance via trial and error.
Experienced gamers will be able to complete this game in around 15-25 hours. Given that there is no visual violence in the game, Barrow Hill is a game that I can recommend to all age groups who are fans of horror fiction.
In sum, Barrow Hill is an exceptional game. The setting is believable, the story is gripping, and the adventure is absorbing. Shadow Tor Studios has certainly hit the right note with its first game. I am off now to print out a map of Barrow Hill, so that I may explore the Cornish countryside once again!
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