Barrow Hill



Genre:   Adventure (Psychological Horror)

Developer:     Matthew Clark

Publisher:    Shadow Tor Studios

Released:  March 2006

PC Requirements:   see end of review




Additional screenshots




by Inferno


“The knowledge must be passed from one to another…
My faith is torn, yet I know what I must do.”

History of any sort has long been an interest of mine. And there’s certainly enough to discover in recorded history to keep any enthusiast satisfied. But one can’t help wondering: what of that which came before? Before the written word, what was there? Myths? Legends? Barbarians? Monsters? Menhirs ii ? Magic? I’ve always been of a mind that “legends” have their basis in fact. And if this is true; what of myths, monsters and the rest? Is it possible that they can also have some share within that basis? These questions give rise to multiple possibilities for storytelling and Adventure Gaming.  

Now, there have been many adventure games that deal with various ages of ancient history – even some that touch on prehistory (Beyond Atlantis and The Omega Stone are just two that spring to mind here). So what makes Barrow Hill so different? I think it is because the game evokes an era where very little is really known; and that which is unknown is truly fascinating. But there is something else…the elements of organic atmosphere, horror and mysticism of such a remote time and place, while the game is played in the present. This is one theme that hasn’t been beaten to death yet. So how does Barrow Hill fare with this subject? Let’s have a look.

Independent Developer Matthew Clark and his small production company Shadow Tor Studios have approached the adventure game Barrow Hill much like a theatrical production. No doubt research was done, a preliminary treatment was written; plot laid out, storyboarded and scripted, on-location filming done, music scored and full postproduction maintained. This work of interactive media makes it easy to see what can be accomplished using a combination of theatrical knowledge and a talented crew.

It is also evident that Mr. Clark’s first attempt at a “classic” point and click adventure did not miss its mark. From the opening title screen, the simple words “Barrow Hill,” the deep tolling bells, and the undercurrent of a pounding heartbeat forewarn the gamer of what may lie ahead. As the primary Menu comes into view, menacing tones of stringed instruments play, delicately shimmering in their asymmetrical and strident sounds, building emotions of intensity for the unknown dread of what is to come. The soft, hallowing whispers, almost inaudible, are ancient chants that lick to light the flickering candle’s fire. We hear the lyric of the flame like voices of the ancient ones on the wind. This imagery calls to mind a night in an antediluvian forest. A time before written knowledge…a forgotten time; a dark age of man when the forces of nature and “the old ones” ruled their world with the “charm of making.”          

The Story    

“Anál nathrach, orth’ bháis’s bethad, do chél dénmha”iii

The storyline is simple at first. We play the part of a traveler…a night traveler. The black and white film holds a subjective view and we find that we are driving our way along a two-lane highway somewhere in the Cornish countryside as night encroaches upon us. The musical interludes of the local radio station BHR are our only attendant. As Emma Harry, the radio announcer for BHR drones on, we are informed that it is fifteen minutes to eight. We are also invited to stay tuned to Emma as she will be our companion “till late past the witching hour.” (Oh well, now that’s a comfort, isn’t it.)

We turn off onto a desolate wooded road. It is here that the malaise begins to creep up the nape of my neck. The insistent undercurrents of violins parallels my unease as I listen to the sounds of the moving car, the dissonant underscore and watch the moody images of nocturnal flora and fauna rushing by. Emma Harry reminds us that it is the night of the Autumnal Equinox, an important date in the Pagan Calendar, and we have twelve hours of darkness to look forward to. “So, like Alice, we’re off down the rabbit hole…” she quips. Suddenly, there is some sort of loud crash as if we’ve driven through something.  Followed by complete darkness.

In the void of night we can hear the car’s motor trying to turn over, but it’s no use. The car door opens and closes in the pitch-blackness as we enter into the game’s universe For some strange reason, the car’s lights have come on at the instant the car’s door is shut. Like Dorothy when she lands in OZ, our world is now viewed in color. The only movement is a single oak leaf as it twirls solemnly past us toward the ground. And in front of us appears a familiar object that adventure gamers the world over have come to know and trust: “the little white gloved pointed hand” icon.

 As we adjust our eyes to the illumination given off by the car’s headlights we decide to inspect the car for damage and find that there is none. So what the heck did we hit then?  We can make out a single-lane road and a signpost up ahead. If we turn around and cast our gaze to where we came from, we can see two Menhirs shimmering in the moonlight – like sentries at an outpost, one on each side of the narrow road. We walk toward them to have a closer look, hmmm…no damage to either of them. Our trusty white gloved hand bids us to carefully click on the area between the two sentinels that guard our path to freedom, and then just as we click…something disturbingly abnormal happens and we realize…we have either just crossed over into a colorized version of a “Twilight Zone” episode…or we are alone in this adventure and it is up to us to find a way out.

            The Twilight Zone – That is exactly what kept running through my mind as I played through Barrow Hill. This isn’t meant in any derogatory way, mind you, I’ve always liked the Twilight Zone. Rod Serling meets Merlin. Now, even though there is no reference to Mr. Serling and you don’t in anyway meet up with Merlin, this is how the ominous and moody atmosphere for the game played out for me. A dark and mysterious setting, a place known as a “Barrow” – an ancient burial place, guarded by a ring of Standing Stones. Legends of a time lost to the ages, when people believed in mother earth and its magic. A time of Pagans, when the Land was revered above all else. An age when the balance of nature was appeased for man’s survival.  

 The Art Work:

“The land is alive.
 I feel its heart pounding ever stronger”

Barrow Hill offers much in its varied visuals which, though different in texture, seem to meld together in blended harmony. The opening cutscene juxtaposes grainy black and white film (denoting reality), with the ethereal jewel-toned colors of the game’s universe, as if they were swabbed from an artist’s palette. These rich hues of phthalo blues and greens - vermilions - ochre - and sap green…are used to paint us into the game world and offer us an interesting willing suspension of disbelief while we are there. They are almost dreamlike in their presentation, which is odd as the experts all say we dream in black and white.  I, for one have never agreed with this. There are also some fairly beguiling interludes of time-lapse filmingv (executed by Jonathan Boakes) and blue screen photographyvi (by both Brian Clark and Emma Harry) sprinkled into the mix. Many of the film sequences shot and edited by Mr. Clark and his development team show a judicious use of jump cutsvii and subjective cameraviii techniques that add to Barrow Hill’s stylized film sequences. All of these visual elements proved to work quite well for me in the finished product of Barrow Hill.  

While this is his first “full production” adventure game, Mr. Clark is no stranger to the genre. A quick glance at his website gives us much information about how Barrow Hill was created (quite fascinating reading, actually). His style and his use of color, its various shades and values lend a decided depth to the prerendered nodes of Barrow Hill. Interesting, as the entire game takes place at night. There is a certain claustrophobic feel as one wanders through the dark woods…alone.  Yet the familiar use of a single lamplight may offer some comfort for those adventurers who fear the dark recesses of an ancient forest.  I thought it clever on another level, as it allows one to see only what Mr. Clark wants us to see…until it is too late, that is. Still, lamplight or no, there is that pervasively oppressive feeling that things are not quite right on this particular autumn night.

          I found the look of one of the characters you meet, Ben Kendal (visually played by Richard Clark), strangely intriguing.  His movements are not natural human characterizations…but rather, stylized…frenetic…the embodiment of human terror pushed to the brink of insanity. On the other hand, while the voice of Emma Harry is heard quite smoothly over the airwaves or on the cell phone, her presentation via video was believably fragmented. This is exactly how my own “video phone” seems to work -- a series of still pictures, totally out of sync with the audio. Any different and it would have destroyed the illusion for me.

The Sounds

“That which sleeps must not be woken”ix

          The Foleyx, which was done by Matt Clark, Brian Clark and Jonathan Boakes is absolutely magnetic. The soundscapes were natural and rang true for me at every bend. There were times I was so certain that I was being followed that I developed the habit of turning to the right and left to see if I could catch something…and unfortunately for my virtual persona…I did, more times then I care to mention here. The musical theme and “event score” written by Jan Kavan is rapaciously predatory, and did its best to keep me alert and skittish during much of the adventure. I constantly had the uncanny feeling of being watched…followed and, on more than one occasion, pursued. But by what? There were also some musical interludes which did provide solace, such as the dactylic harp one may hear (when you know how to unlock it) at the St. Anneke’s sacred well or in the swamp. I found the rest of the musical arrangements by Mr. Clark appropriate for Barrow Hill, and felt they successfully added to the mysterious aura of the piece.

The voice work was appealing, with some of the talentxi taking on more than one role.  .  It featured Emma Harry as the indomitable “Emma Harry” of BHR: “On Top of The World.” Also Jonathan Boakes, who shows off a decided range of characterizations, from the voice of the absolutely terrified Ben Kendal to some of the radio advertisements. These adverts had me in tears (especially that little old lady from Celtic Corner). Richard Clark was quite portentous as the mysterious “Offerings” vocalization, yet also showed much variety in the adverts as well. And at long last, we had Matt Clark himself, who was the voice of that famed archaeologist, Professor Conrad Morse.        

Game Play

“It is my burden and my burden alone”ii

The technical side of things is indeed a breeze. Installation of the game is fairly quick, the DVD need not be present in the drive once it is installed and extra programs need not be closed down in order for the game to run. There are no invasive copy protection programs on the DVD, and saved games can be transferred from one system to another. Yes, you heard me correctly; this adventure is produced solely on DVD, so those of you who have yet to upgrade your systems to a DVD-ROM drive may want to consider this if you decide to play Barrow Hill. The resolution for this adventure looks the best at what it was designed for, which is 800X600 screen resolution and 32-bit color. It will play in 1024X768 screen resolution, but I did notice pixelation during a few sequences and the occasional hang now and then.

 The Main Menu holds a separate Options page where an “explanation” of inventory items may be turned either on for additional help, or off. There is an adequate help screen, which describes those basic functions of the cursor and an explanation of the “split” inventory (which, by the way, disappears from view during game play only to reappear as you pass your cursor over the top or bottom as need be). There is a “Resume game after saving” option, which may also be activated. During game play, all one need to do is move one’s cursor to the top of the screen and click on “MENU.” It is at this main menu that nine saves are possible, more than adequate in my estimation although I’m sure that there will be those who will disagree.  However, if more saves are desired, it is easy enough to go to the Barrow Hill game folder on your hard drive and copy your saved games to a separate folder, and then go back to the adventure and overwrite the original saves.

If I haven’t mentioned it before, this is a point and click adventure. It is also a “first-person-prerendered-slideshow–story-driven-logical-inventory-puzzle-based” game. Oh yes, I found it to be fairly nonlinear as well. Both in game play and in theory. I’m not aware of the ESRB for Barrow Hill, but I will say that while there is a decided mysterious and menacing atmosphere to the game (along with a few scares) – there is nothing in my mind that would constitute a rating of anything but an “E” for everyone.

 While you cannot die in this game, I felt on one or two occasions as though I had … but only briefly, and I was allowed to continue. This brings me to one of the issues I had with Barrow Hill. My logic told me that I should have died. Now, I know that many adventure gamers get very nervous when they hear that one may “die” in a game. But when the inherent nature of an adventure calls for it, then the developer should follow through and either let the gamer die on screen or offer a “second chance” screen of some sort. Without going into the actual instances within Barrow Hill, I hoped that this would have happened…hopefully in Matt Clark’s next creation it will.

  Be that as it may, there is a lot to do in this game, much to read, and several gadgets to work before you accomplish your goal. You will discover these as the game progresses. For the most part the puzzles are organic, meaning that they are intuitive within the workings of the storyline. A large part of the puzzles are inventory based, a few are mechanical, and others are a combination of both with a choice to be made near the end of the adventure in order to trigger one of the two endings. The level of difficulty for this adventure, I would place at “medium,” as the solutions to the various riddles and conundrums are there right in front of you -- all you need do is look, listen and read.  

 There are a number of red herrings, one in particular which had me caught up in its red tape for well over an hour until I realized what an idiot I was. Will I tell you where it is? Nope, not on your life, why should I be the only fool? I especially liked the fact that each time you begin a new game, some of the solutions for a few of the puzzles changed. Take things in a different order and the paths for certain events will change as well. I would have liked to have seen more of this, as this seems to be one of Mr. Clark’s strengths; and maybe as Shadow Tor gains its momentum, I will. One may only hope.


“This is not the Devil’s work
…it is the work of the Knowing”

So, was there anything that I would have asked Shadow Tor to do differently in Barrow Hill? Yes, allowing the player to actually die at certain points during the adventure, as previously mentioned. There were also a number of red herrings which I secretly would have loved to have been real puzzles…but one can’t have everything now can one? Another issue has to do with one telling video sequence which would have had greater effect if it had been permanently placed later in the game or if the last quarter of its subject had either been more obscured or deleted entirely.

Did Barrow Hill meet most of my expectations…and if it did, was it worth the wait?  Gee, let’s see:

A fascinating interactive screenplay, which poses thematic questions of what and where, while allowing the gamer to formulate his or her theories as to why. Game play that is approximately seventy five to eighty percent nonlinear. Puzzles and conundrums, which are organic and integrated within the plot. A few red herrings sprinkled around for fun.  Interesting and varied graphics, besides the well balanced prerendered slide show format. Incredibly moody and atmospheric soundscapes, with a musical theme and an underscore that holds a strong emphasis toward primordial acuity.  A pacing that keeps the gamer on guard and apprehensive. Hints, which can be culled from what the gamer sees, hears or reads. A reasonable length of game play (my first go-round was approximately nineteen hours spread over four days). Easy installation and interface and trouble-free game play.

 My answer to the above question would be “absolutely.”  I was quite impressed with this first offering from Shadow Tor Studios, and look forward to those mysteries which lie ahead, yet to come to light. Matt Clark has a true eye for mood and atmosphere, which shines through this adventure like the mystical quartz Menhirs that speak to their own legends as they glisten beneath the moonlight in the crisp night air of Autumn.


Grade A-

Recommended System Requirements:
OS: Windows® ME/2000/XP
CPU: Pentium® III 450 MHz or Better Processor
RAM: 128 MB RAM (256 MB Recommended)
Video: SVGA Graphics Card or better with 32-Bit Color (32-Bit Color at 800x600)
Sound: DirectX® 9 Compatible Sound Card

Minimum System Requirements:
OS: Windows® 98/se
CPU: Pentium® III 450 MHz or Better Processor
RAM: 128 MB RAM (256 MB Recommended)
Video: SVGA Graphics Card or better with 32-Bit Color (32-Bit Color at 800x600)
Sound: DirectX® 9 Compatible Sound Card
5.1 surround sound card

Played on:
Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition 2002 w/SP 1 
Pentium 4 CPU 2.00GHz 
512MB DDR Memory

Video: 64MBNVIDIA GeForce 2 MX/MX 400 AGP

Driver version: 6.14.0010.7801
Sound: Creative SB Live


i Le Grimoire du Puits Sacré - Source: Barrow Hill.   Author - Unknown.

ii Menhir: French, from Breton: men, stone (from Middle Breton) + hirlong (from Middle Breton).

Also known as “long-stone” or “Standing Stone” – dating from the end of the Neolithic Age or beginning of the Bronze Age.  

iii The Charm of Making in Old Gaelic – translated to Modern English by Michael Everson

 “Serpent's breath

 charm of death and

Life, thy omen of making.”

Corrupted by John Boorman in the epic film – Excalibur.

iv Le Grimoire du Puits Sacré - Source: Barrow Hill.   Author - Unknown.

v Special effects technique in which a series of images are taken at some preset interval and then played back at a much higher rate giving the illusion that time is passing more quickly.

viSpecial effects technique in which motion picture scenes are shot against a blue background and then superimposed on other scenes. In adventure games, many of the FMV sequences utilizes this effect.

vii Special effects technique by which a cut in film editing breaks continuity in time. This produces a startling effect as the smooth movement of the film appears to jump from one position to another during the cut. This can be used very effectively in montage sequences to evoke the emotion of the viewer. 

viii A camera shot or film style that provides the audience with the specific vision or perspective of a character in the film. This is also know as “First Person” point of view for the gamer.   

ix Le Grimoire du Puits Sacré - Source: Barrow Hill.   Author - Unknown.

x Foley: a technical process by which sounds are created or altered for use in a film, video, or other electronically produced work. So named after Jack Foley (1891-1967), pioneering sound effects editor at Universal Studios in the 1930s.

xi "Talent" is a theatrical/film industry term for anyone appearing on-camera or voice acting for animation.

xiiLe Grimoire du Puits Sacré - Source: Barrow Hill.   Author - Unknown.

xiii Le Grimoire du Puits Sacré - Source: Barrow Hill.   Author - Unknown.


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