Mr. Bill's Adventureland Review
Reviewed by Mark Hasley
About a half century ago, when I was a boy, my very English Grandfather would regale us with tales of his youth in England at the turn of the century. One story I remember was how his mother would threaten him and my great uncles. "If you continue in this way, weíre off in the cart and Iíll leave you in Cornwall!" she would state. Granddad found this quite amusing, but admitted that as a child it was effective and a bit frightening. The whole thing never meant much to us because we lived in Michigan and had never even heard of Cornwall. However now that I have completed the new game entitled Barrow Hill, I understand the threat a bit more. Itís a clever, well-done, frightening little game that is set in Cornwall. No wonder my great-grandmother used it as a threat. This game will prove to people that Cornwall is, indeed, a very scary place to visit.
Barrow Hill is another new entry into the small but very welcome group of frightening games that have been designed not for youngsters who want to see and hear things go 'BOOM', but for grownups. This game is thoroughly scary... but it is not brutal, grotesque, or gory. There is no blood. There are no splatters. But there is a finely orchestrated, carefully honed sense of evil and foreboding that makes the game delicious. The player is not quite sure why he feels this, but he knows that just around the corner there is something really bad waiting. The gamer is nervous, worried, and confused as to why he feels this way, but he knows that heís correct. Itís a wonderfully scary gaming experience. And yet (although I couldnít find any indication of a rating for the game) I can suggest that a rating of E (Everyone) is completely reasonable.
The game begins with a rather low quality (I realized later that it was supposed to be that way) black & white cut scene of an automobile moving through traffic. The car turns off onto a rutted rural road, hits something violently, and the game (suddenly in color) begins. The gamer plays an unnamed traveler who has wound up here, and when he tries to leave, he finds himself locked in by some sort of unearthly force field. He then trudges through the dark to a lonely but well lit gas-motel-diner complex, and that's when the real trouble begins.
The place is nearly deserted, but there is a great deal of material lying about that deals with Barrow Hill as an archeological site, that describes some old and mysterious stone formations, and that makes some very disconcerting allusions to danger. The foreboding becomes even more intense as Ben (the motel manager) peeks through the grill of the locked office door and mumbles about "the evil creatures", and what they have done. Little of what he says is coherent, but the seeds of concern, which were planted by some strangely grim radio broadcasts, begin to grow. In true and wonderful adventure game fashion, the player slowly learns that there were people here to excavate an archeological site... and that they arenít here anymore. As more clues are uncovered and more puzzles are solved, it becomes obvious that an evil is lurking, the world is in grave danger if that evil is unleashed, and of course the only person who might be able to stop this disaster is you. And there are, as there often are in adventure games, two different possible endings to the tale. If any of these plot elements seem new or unique to you, then you havenít played many adventure games.
The technical components of the game are simple and effective. The game is on one DVD that loads easily. Once it is loaded, the game can be run without it. It ran perfectly on my Windows XP and there was never a hesitation or pause in the gameplay. The game is of the first person point-and-click variety. The interface is simple and easily operated. There is a traditional cursor that appears as a tiny rectangle. It changes to a hand when something can be picked up or used, and it becomes a pointed finger that indicates a direction for movement. There are inventory sections at both the top and the bottom of the screen, but they disappear until the cursor is run over them so they never interfere with the game. There is room enough for only 9 saves, but that seemed to be more than enough for me.
The game is presented in the old-fashioned Ďslide showí format. That surprised me at first, but as I went through it I found it to be a real advantage. Iíll discuss why a bit later. Gameplay is generally non-linear, but there are times when the player must complete a particular puzzle before he can get to the next step in the game. I wouldnít usually mention an opening menu, but Barrow Hill has a really clever one. It opens in the dark and then a candle flares up so that you can see the option list. It contains the usual ĎNew Gameí, ĎLoadí, ĎSaveí, ĎCreditsí, and ĎQuití list. There is also a section for options. Two of these are noteworthy. A player can opt to turn 'Inventory Descriptions' on or off. This would have meant a lot to me had I bothered to look before I played the game the first time. There were times when I wasnít sure what was what and the description would have saved me from a few dumb errors. There is also a ĎHelpí button that saves running to a pamphlet to find out how the interface works. My only gripe about the options is that there was no option for subtitles. As my hearing slowly erodes I find it helpful to be able to read the conversations. If someone has played a lot of adventure games, there is little in the above statements that sounds astounding or amazing. Technically the game is solid, functional, effective, and uninspiring. It is what you see and hear as you play the game that sets it above most others.
The game is a visual gem. The player spends most of his time in the woods and the entire game takes place during one night. That means that itís dark all the time, and at an isolated place like Barrow Hill, it seems to be darker than other darkness. There are lots of different spots to visit, and they are all well defined and creepy. There is always light in the spots where game action takes place, but the light is always odd somehow. Thereís a phone both that glows brightly in the middle of a desolate stretch of road. There are portable lights set up around the archeological site. The headlights of the car remain on even after the accident. There are lots of lights at the motel, but they flicker and fade. And of course the entire area is bathed in a bright gloomy blue moonlight. All in all itís a frighteningly dark night, and in the woods itís even gloomier.
In the woods is also where the cleverest and most original bit of graphic excellence is seen. Remember when you were a young child and you received a flashlight to play with? It wasnít a new, hi-tech light but an old, two D batteries light. There wasnít a clear, even circle of light. There was a yellowish collection of varying concentric circles of light with a dark spot in the center. Thatís what the traveler has here. He wanders through the woods with this flashlight showing this eerie, changing, cheap flashlight beam and seeing only what is directly in front of him. Itís also in the woods areas where the slide show approach works so effectively. Every time the player moves from one scene to another the slide changes and, either by accident or design, gives a viewer that split second glimpse of something foul and nasty that is there but not quite seen. Weíve all had the feeling that there is something just beyond our vision. This game provides that all of the time. Itís wonderfully eerie.
The scenes themselves are extremely well done. The few buildings look like they should and some of scenes are magnificent. The motel complex looks pleasantly old and comfortably run down, but there are no people and a car is still idling. The phone booth is an oasis of light in a desert of darkness, but the phone doesnít work. The archeological sites are strangely, but fittingly, weird. Thereís even a scarecrow that, the first time he is glimpsed, will stop the gamerís heart. He just stands there, propped in the moonlight, and forewarns the traveler about something... but itís not clear just what.
The graphics are perfect, but that by itself is not what makes the game so effective. What makes this game stand out is that the graphics are excellently supported by the music and the ambient sounds. As the game moves from scene to scene the music shifts, and as the final puzzles near everything gets a bit scarier and a bit more intense. A player will get so wrapped up in and focused on the game that the few really scary surprises are, in fact, really scary. This is not common for me, but twice while playing Barrow Hill I literally jumped from my chair in absolute surprise (my wife finds this incredibly humorous). Both times, and throughout the game, the music helped set up the mood brilliantly. When my character was wandering through the dark woods, I could hear my own footsteps, crunching leaves, nocturnal animals, and lots of generally mood-invoking details. And all of this is heard with the plaintive, wistful, background music adding to the whole effect.
The puzzles are of the 'find-things-and-read-enough-material-to-figure-out-where-to-use-them' variety. However the puzzles are so well blended into the context of the plot that they seldom feel like puzzles. There are books, diaries, and sheets of notes lying all over, but since this is a working archeological dig, there should be. The player hears all sorts of details while listening to the radio, but itís exactly the sort of radio chatter that one hears at 2:00 A.M. Even the information at the motel is cleverly placed in tourist pamphlets. All in all, the puzzles are good, fair, reasonable puzzles that are perfectly integrated into the plot. There are no slider puzzles nor is there a maze (I mention these two only because I dislike those types of puzzles so much). If itís necessary to evaluate their difficulty, Iíd label them of medium difficulty. The problems are not simple, but they are not that vile spider chair in MYST IV either. Most important for me, all the puzzles were fair. Once I figured them out I realized that there were several reasonable clues. I had simply missed them. And while there are a couple of times when the gamer can die, the game restores him right back to the same spot where he will now know better than to do what he did before.
The voice acting was well done, but there simply wasnít much of it. The traveler speaks to Ben several times, but only through the grill of the office door in which heís locked himself. Ben is frightened, manic, and nearly out of control. He sounds like it. Emma is the radio D.J. and sounds like one. Later, as she becomes more fearful, she sounds more fearful. There isnít a lot of character interaction going on.
There are a couple of special comments that need to be made. One interesting twist to the gameplay is that several of the clues are uncovered using high-tech devices. Several valuable pieces of information were contained in one of the archeologistsí P.D.A. The traveler also finds and uses a cell phone to gain important bits of knowledge. This caused some minor but entertaining difficulties for me because in real life I donít own either one and have no idea how these items function.
Another interesting point is that the game is not available in retail outlets. It must be purchased directly from Shadow Tor Studios. I found it somehow synergistic to purchase and receive a game titled Barrow Hill, which is set in a place called Barrow Hill, which was designed and manufactured in Cornwall that is very near Barrow Hill. The cost was in no way prohibitive.
Another interesting point is that when I purchased the game it was not available in retail outlets. It had to be purchased directly from Shadow Tor Studios. I found it somehow synergistic to purchase and receive a game titled Barrow Hill, which is set in a place called Barrow Hill, which was designed and manufactured in Cornwall that is very near Barrow Hill. The cost at that time was in no way prohibitive.
So that is Barrow Hill. Itís entertainingly and effectively frightening, but never disgusting or gory. The game loads easily and plays flawlessly. It contains a reasonable and unique plot, gorgeous graphics, and a pleasantly unpleasant musical score. All of these elements combine to create a chilly, eerie sense of foreboding that develops and builds exactly as a quality plot should. Itís a fun game for grownups. Iím not a collector of games, but this game is for everyone who loves adventure games. It probably should be on your 'keepers' shelf. After I replay it a time or two, it will most certainly stay on mine.
© April 2006 Mark Hasley
Visit the official Barrow Hill Website to learn more about the game, download a demo, and see more fantastic screenshots.
Developed (2006) and published (in Europe) by Matt Clark and Shadow Tor Studios. Published (2006) in North America by Got Game Entertainment.
Rated: T for Teen 13+ (alcohol and tobacco reference, mild violence)
Minimum System Requirements:
PC: Pentium III 450 MHz Processor; Windows 98 SE / 2000 / ME / XP (2000 / ME / XP Recommended); 128 MB RAM (256 MB Recommended); DVD-ROM Drive; SVGA Graphics Card with 32-Bit Color at 800 x 600; DirectX 9.0 Compatible Sound Card; 1.44 GB of Free Hard Drive Space; DirectX 9.0; Mouse
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