Version tested: PC
It's not every week you get to play a horror adventure set in the Cornish wilderness. As the movie-style ratings blurb didn't say: "Contains disturbing images, sustained levels of suspense and very thick clotted cream teas." Nothing quite so tasty, I'm afraid.
In this rather traditional point and clicker, you find yourself in a broken down car, presumably after driving nine hours straight looking for a 24-hour cream tea shop. But rather than being able to call up the AA roadside rescue and sit patiently trying to beat your Zoo Keeper Time Attack score, you notice the narrow lane behind you has been somewhat inconsiderately blocked by a pair of standing stones and a rippling dimensional barrier between them. Kids today.
The only way is onwards, up the narrow lane smothered by dark forest on both sides, where you reach a remote service station and Barrow Hill itself, an ancient stone circle in the wilderness of the deepest darkest West Country.
Initially, there's a lot of blundering about the near-dark roads and pitch-black woods, waving your oil lamp around like our old chum from Alone in the Dark. Irritatingly, the lamp only lights up a very small area, meaning you spend a lot of time moving it around the screen and squinting for interactive icons (the interface is the usual context-sensitive affair).
It all feels a bit slow going, forcing you to scan the cursor across those acres of dark and bark in the tedious search for something to interact with. It's particularly galling in this case, as you must keep turning in increments of ninety degrees to check you haven't missed anything - and then you discover very little anyway. Granted, a gradual build-up is expected when it comes to revealing the hill's mysteries, but it's boring nonetheless. In its favour, the sound effects do a decent job of upping the tension, with the distant snapping of twigs or a startled bird suddenly flapping out of the undergrowth. But the pace is just too sluggish, and combing through many similar darkened locations just isn't at all fun.
Matters pick up when you find out more about the archaeological dig going on at Barrow Hill from the motel rooms at the service station. The unravelling story becomes more intriguing throughout these mid-stages, and you find yourself getting more into the game because it bears a distinct edge of realism. For instance, there are loads of notices on the garage's message-board which aren't merely for decoration, you can actually take the time to read them all if you want; not only do they contain the back-story on Cornish mythology, but also clues that will help you tackle later puzzles. The radio you discover can be tuned through lots of different stations - the local one is worth listening to for sure (okay so that isn't realistic) - and other items you find like a mobile phone are fully usable. There are numbers on business cards, for example, that you can ring up and get through to, even though they're only for colour. Little touches, but the divine's in the details.
Most of the puzzles in Barrow Hill are commendably logical. Quick example (and tiny spoiler): There's an unreadable inscription chiselled into a stone, which you can't do anything with until later in the game when you pick up some paper. You can use this on the stone, then use a crayon you found previously to create a rubbing. This in turn reveals a riddle, which hides within it the key to another puzzle. In general, the solutions are pleasantly rational, if sometimes erring towards the simplistic.
The items in your inventory are deliberately kept quite small in number, so you're never bewildered by the prospect of what to do with a multitude of widgets, and the game helpfully points out objects that can be used with an inventory item via a specific icon. The interactive areas on the screen are quite large, so generally you won't miss points of interest, but there are exceptions where items are tucked away at the screen edges and you end up stuck, wandering around and re-combing through locations with the cursor (as if you don't do enough of that in the early stages).
While the storyline blooms from the initial boredom into something more intriguing, it fizzles disappointingly as the game comes to its rather abrupt end. With the whole thing clocking in at around ten hours, it's not the longest game either, but with its near-budget price of £15, that's pretty forgivable. Despite some occasionally over-simplistic puzzles and clunky control elements undermining the package, Barrow Hill is a thoughtfully-designed adventure that hardcore fans of the point-and-click genre should consider checking out. Just don't expect too much.
5 / 10