Mini-Review: Barrow Hill: Curse of the Ancient Circle

Barrow Hill (official web site); Matt Clark / Shadow Tor Studios (creator)

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Independent designers continue to rule the horror range of the graphical adventure field. Barrow Hill is a compact but worthy entry in the field, designed by Matt Clark (with help from Dark Fall veteran Jonathan Boakes).

The graphics are not cutting-edge, but you get a decently-rendered world, with plenty of mist and shadow. And the environment is then lifted to greatness by deft touches of animation, music, photo montage, ambient sound (surely the soul of horror adventure) and the vocal presence of the characters you meet. Or rather, the characters you hear; they never intersect your solitary exploration, but only approach it, divided from you by barriers of glass, radio, telephone signal.

(Many adventure games deal with the problem of dialogue. Barrow Hill has no dialogue; you only stumble upon monologues, to which are you never quite able to respond. In other genres, the form might not work, but for horror it seems ideal.)

The interface is a traditional one -- maybe old-fashioned, but there's nothing wrong with it. It's a pre-rendered world, with a static (not panning) view. The only problem is the navigation, which is too often tied to 90-degree turns and short, fixed steps. A looser layout would have felt more natural and less grid-rigid.

The inventory system, too, is straightforward. Click on something to use it in front of you. There's no dragging items into the scene or onto each other. This invites a "run down the row" approach, where you click every icon each time you get stuck; but the game world is clear enough that you generally don't need to.

But the best element of Barrow Hill is the game design. It's a broad layout; you can explore most of the game right from the start. But the story is detailed and carefully paced. The story events move in parallel with your progress through the game; but Clark avoids the design cliche of "solve a major puzzle, see a major event, unlock a major door." Certain corners of the game open up as you progress, but the connections are rarely blatant. Instead, they seem to arise spontaneously, as you move back and forth and make slow progress on many fronts. The effect is of a world inhabited by friendly and malign entities, moving beyond your sight.

The down side of this model is the "hotspot surprise." You can explore a scene thoroughly, and then find later that a new point of interaction has appeared (because the plot has progressed). To work well, such a scene must clearly convey to the player that something has changed. In other words, you must be motivated to try again. Barrow Hill mostly gets this right. Either you gain a new piece of equipment (and think "Where can I use this? Aha"), or you hear something happen in the distance, or you discover a message which sheds new light somewhere, or a character contacts you and implies that something is new or different. As long as you are attentive to these hints, you won't get badly stuck.

Caveat: The game crashed on me at a couple of points, consistently. The support page recommends turning off the hardware acceleration feature of your sound card. (In the audio control panel, under "advanced/performance", turn the acceleration slider down to zero.) This fixed the problem for me.

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