Mon 23 Aug 2010
Barrow Hill is the first project of Matt Clark, a British independent developer who created the game almost entirely on his own. It is a title I was really looking forward to based on a large amount of positive reviews, because of its unique setting, because of being promoted as rooted in authentic pre-christian history, and also because of it supposedly being a refreshingly subtler take on the horror genre. Publicly available images and game overviews didn’t speak of monsters or gore, but of dark woods, old lore, mystery and suspense.
Thematically the game draws from the ancient tales and legends of Mr. Clark’s region of origin - Cornwall, England. The highlight of the game is the prominent inclusion of the kind of imposing stone circles found across some regions of Great Britain (Stonehenge etc.) – circles which were once built with great passion by the mysterious druid folk. Or so they say. I’m not very knowledgeable of the history behind the stones, but they certainly do seem an excellent basis for works of fiction – weren’t modern storytellers like Tolkien and the creators of the (original) Wicker Man film inspired by pagan myths of this kind? I honestly thought that Barrow Hill could potentially be a creative mix of history and fiction in the vein of the Gabriel Knight games.
Unfortunately, upon playing I very soon realized that Barrow Hill’s plot is very limited in its use of history. The only place in the game you can find some cool legends is a tourist flyer found in the gas station’s bar. The remainder of the mythical-mystical aspect of Barrow Hill can be presented in full in the following description. While traveling in the night through the woods near Barrow Hill, you – the faceless main hero – meet a freshly reborn Evil (some aggressive primal Force) that breaks your car and limits the places where you can go to by the means of a magical barrier. It is soon revealed that the Evil’s come-back has been triggered by a group of archeologists just on the brink of an astounding discovery. The result is that almost all living beings in the area are being turned into small burning piles. The player’s goal is to undertake a couple of rituals that will make everything go back to normal. Hmm… sounds almost as British and pagan as a remake of Evil Dead.
The graphics are presented through simple, but decently rendered, static images. They look realistic and create consistent environments, but don’t provide any inspired sights. Throughout the game the player can visit only a handful of interiors: a gas station with a small bar and hotel rooms, a trailer in which the local radio station resides, a cavern for pagan rituals, and a hut deep in the woods. Beyond that small number of local attractions the game is all about getting fresh air while getting lost in the dark, spacious forest, in which you will occasionally come across eye-catching objects like a phone booth or a scarecrow. The thick foliage that dominates visually is, again, convincingly realistic, but not particularly interesting, even on the first walk around. The sporadic appearances by Barrow Hill’s surviving locals manage to liven up things a bit though. They are presented through rough animations put together from photos of actors doing all kinds of expressive faces. Their humorous feel is perhaps not always fitting for the situation at hand, but it has its charm, as do the very British accents of the voice talent.
Now, back to the woods. The lack of distinct visual features within the forest creates some problems in traveling around. While moving through such monotone setting, even going strictly along the main paths and equipped with a lantern (you have to find it first), you are very prone to getting lost. As an additional help, the creators have put there lots of strangely placed road signs. The drawback of this is that they break the atmosphere (they could be explained only as the work of some mad road crew). And, what makes things even worse, there isn’t that much atmosphere in the first place. No terrifying or even uncomfortable events, except for an occasional appearance of a raven (accompanied by rising music) and some spooky ambient sounds. Ok, there’s the one “scary” thing that can happen to a careless traveler – you sometimes come face to face with a flying Stonehenge obelisk blocking your path. What’s worse, that seemingly innocent block of stone is a trained killer and attacks with deadly electrical discharges everyone it meets. Fortunately, after death you simply respawn in another area and can continue your journey, on occasion catching a glimpse of other characters being fried to death this way (cheesy horror movie style).
The puzzles themselves are not too bad, but hardly innovative. Most of them relies on finding the right codes, keys, passwords (to unlock a door, access a computer, open a briefcase). You also repair and manipulate various devices, some of which you can later carry around (a lantern, a cell phone, GPS, PDA, and a metal detector). It doesn’t make for any particularly exciting events, but you have to give it to the game that the player actions manage to remain relatively realistic. Nevertheless, the puzzles bring out the worst aspect of the game and the element which ultimately kills the motivation to play it. Namely, while looking for clues, you really need to search through dozens upon dozens of little corners (pixel-hunting included in spades) and move around all kinds of boring objects, or you’ll miss that one vital clue to solving a puzzle.
Yes, clicking on every single little piece of trash can potentially bring out its close-up and often also the possibility to manipulate the item in question. And you can’t easily tell things that are important from those that aren’t. It would seem that this adds to the believability of the game world, but as such seemingly meaningless, yet ultimately required, interactions take about 80% of the game’s playing time, it becomes quite a bit frustrating. Finding the paths to new locations in Barrow Hill can sometimes be just as nightmarish.
The last few paragraphs pretty much sum up the experience of playing Barrow Hill. The only aspect I didn’t mention so far are characters’ backstories. They are a bunch of subplots which follow well-known (and loved?) pulp horror cliches, e.g. the voice of a local radio presenter as the only proof there is someone else still alive in your vicinity, or a insane paranoiac babbling on and on about the apocalypse and the revenge of ancient gods. The best of these are probably the highlights of the game, nevertheless the backstories presented in diaries (some written, some recorded on tape) are really overdrawn. I mean there is an awful lot of long stories of the type “yesterday I was feeling a bit ill and had a headache” or even longer tales about love relationships that didn’t quite work out. Let’s just say they are irrelevant to the main plot and far from fascinating, yet the player needs to carefully go through them as well.
Overall, Barrow Hill doesn’t make a great horror game. It’s neither scary, nor suspenseful, nor even amusing. At its best its horror value comes from the aesthetic resemblance to amateur indie horror films. It also manages to to have a bit of a personal, intimate atmosphere in places – you do feel it is a consistent vision of one author. But in general, as a game, Barrow Hill is a waste of time – a solitary, event-less trip through the bushes around a gas station. A trip you must repeat over and over again in search of meaningful hotspots and hidden objects.