Sunday, November 4, 2012

Review of Barrow Hill

WARNING: This review contains mild spoilers.

I always enjoy a good point and click adventure, and playing Scratches recently put me in the mood for more first person puzzle/horror goodness.  So when I discovered a little game called Barrow Hill on sale for a mere $3 on Gamer's Gate, I naturally didn't think twice about picking it up.  More creepiness?  Count me in!  And it turns out that Barrow Hill and Scratches actually have a lot in common.  They're both prerendered horror-themed First Person Point and Click Adventures (I like to call them FPP&CAs), they both have a Lovecraftian bent, they were both developed by small studios and released in 2006, and they both have some noticeable rough edges and design quirks.  But there's one important difference:  Where Scratches contrasted its frustrations with fantastic pacing and psychological chills, Barrow Hill delivers a mundane narrative and horror that's lukewarm at best and unintentionally hilarious at worst.

Perfect for deterring crows and inquisitive tourists.

It doesn't take very long to start sputtering, either.  Less than ten minutes in you'll encounter the game's first big mistake: another person.  Another person who has locked himself inside a service station office, and spouts lengthy exposition that instantly dissipates any mildly intriguing uncertainties you may have had about what's going on.  What's more, his animations and voice acting are both absolutely dreadful, and clash horribly with the rest of the game's slick presentation.  It's a misstep that not only destroys a lot of the potential ambiance of the game, but also reveals most of its mystery from the very start... and reveals it to be a big pile of predictable cliches.  Sure, Scratches was also full of cliches.  But it knew how to keep stringing the player along, only revealing little bits and pieces at a time, so there were always unanswered questions or ambiguities to keep you interested.  In Barrow Hill, you learn most of the backstory from the very start, and have little trouble predicting the rest.  There's little sense of mystery or suspense. 

Well, this is actually kinda serene...

And as it happens, the rest of the storytelling is marred by similarly botched execution.  Dialogue is unrealistic and stilted, journal entries jump wildly between rational conversational musings and mad ravings, and a few narrative moments just feel forced (why does my phone show a slideshow of the girl I'm talking to?).  This could all be overlooked if the plot actually succeeded at being frightening.  But it doesn't.  Is it a bit creepy at first?  Yeah, perhaps.  And there is one fairly tense moment near the beginning.  But once the real identity of the antagonists is revealed, all sense of sinister malevolence vanishes.  Let's just say that rocks aren't scary, they have never been scary, and making them sentient, glowing, and phallic doesn't make them scary.  On a positive note, I did like the way the game gradually eliminates your contact with other people until just you are left, all alone.  That was a neat touch.  

Oh hey, it's our favorite color combination!

But when it comes to the puzzles, Barrow Hill fares a little better.  They move along at a brisk pace, are usually pretty fair, and are mostly free from the restrictive linearity that plagued Scratches.  There are a few times where an unrelated scripted event must be triggered to allow you to progress, and a few obstacles that feel overly contrived, but not to the point where the game starts to become tedious.  And the "climactic" puzzle is nicely complex and involved, without being overwhelming.   Unfortunately, a myriad of little annoyances plague your actual interactions with the world.  The biggest problem has to do with navigation.  Clicking doesn't always get you where you expect to go, and some screens don't seem to logically follow from the previous ones.  You also find that the game is very picky about exactly where you have to be to get to a particular spot.  What's more, the placement and accessibility of movement icons is sometimes awkward, and you'll often find yourself accidental examining an object you intended to go around, or vise versa.  On that note, the game is rather inconsistent when it comes to examination.  You'll find that you're able to "zoom in" on or interact with many things that are completely pointless, and are unable to do the same with many things you actually would like to examine.  Yes, I'm very glad you allow me to lift every single mug on this table, poke the spilled ketchup, and take a close look at the empty inside of this flower pot... but why can't I open any of the drawers in this desk?  And why can't I read this particular piece of that guy's journal when I was able to read about six others that looked exactly like it?            

Big Hippos for Rent

Presentation is the one area where Barrow Hill really shines.  Apart from the above-mentioned character animations, the game's visuals look really good, even today.  They pop off the screen.  A lot of thought and care went into designing the scenes, and it shows.  The lighting in particular is really attractive, and has an ever so slight hint of the stylized in the way it's used.  The sound work is pretty good as well (again, when it isn't associated with people).  Unlike Scratches, Barrow Hill creates a nice ambient soundscape that really helps to set a mood.  And it's got some wonderfully creepy music as well, which reminded me a little of STALKER's soundtrack.  The entire visual/aural atmosphere is actually quite evocative, and does a good job capturing the creepiness of a secluded countryside at night.  My only complaint is that the visuals look a little less good when the game ventures inside, and most of the CG animations look a little stiff.  And, of course, the characters...

This seems like a rather awkward place for a phone booth.
What's so surprising is that even with all its issues, Barrow Hill still remains decidedly playable, and even sometimes fun.  There wasn't really a point where I got fed up with the game.  And it's obvious that the small development team put a lot of time and love into its creation.  Unfortunately, it also exhibits a lot of rough edges and some questionable storytelling, and doesn't ever seem to know what it's doing horror-wise.  If you're a dedicated adventure game fan whose looking for a cheap FPP&CA with a creepy atmosphere, Barrow Hill is worth checking out.  But otherwise, you might be better off leaving this archaeological dig untouched.

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