There must be nothing more satisfying than making your own game on a shoestring budget, and then actually getting it published at retail. That's what Matt Clark and Jonathan Boakes, co-creators of point-and-click adventure Barrow Hill, have done and they've had some help too, with a long list of what are undoubtedly friends and family who've lent their voices and expertise to the game. Not only is this an indie production, it's a family affair too. What they've created is an adventure game that makes no concessions to modern genres, shuns the full 3D engine approach and sticks to the origins of the point-and-click genre with detailed pre-rendered environments and full mouse-driven control. It may be old-fashioned, but then some people like it that way and it's certainly better than the uncomfortable halfway house other games have employed.
Barrow Hill opens up with some idiosyncratic video footage of a car - a Volkswagen Golf estate for those interested - winding its way through some old Cornish country lanes. Emma Harry, of Barrow Hill Radio, is broadcasting and informs you that this day is the Autumn Equinox and that there's twelve hours of darkness ahead. Soon after this revelation your car comes to a grinding halt, and you're left to begin your adventure in the mysterious and perpetually dark, Barrow Hill.
The story, which revolves around the excavation of an ancient stone monument, is refreshingly unusual and ticks most of the boxes one would require from a game of this type. The archaeologists who were excavating the site have all gone missing, leaving nobody apart from you, one very spooked petrol station attendant and radio DJ Emma Harry. As plots go it does have a touch of the Darkplace about it, but equally it has plenty of depth and is revealed at a nice pace using an abundance of reading material, puzzles and the occasional cutscene to offer titbits of information for you to follow.
As an old-fashioned style adventure game the interface hides few surprises. Everything is mouse driven, with movement directed by clicking ahead of you to move forward, and to the sides of the screen to turn left or right. When exploring areas the cursor will change to inform you of what action you can perform, allowing you to zoom in or use items and so on. The game also takes the helpful liberty of telling you when you need to use an inventory item, taking some of the guess work out of progressing forward. As simple as this is it isn't without its problems, although they're more universal to the genre than specific to Barrow Hill itself - trying to find small cursor hot zones or areas that allow you to zoom in or out can prove somewhat tedious. It's a minor gripe, but since many parts of the game depend upon finding these 'zones' it's worth noting.
One thing Barrow Hill does very well is strike a balance between challenging yet logically solvable puzzles. Though there's plenty of challenge to be had there are relatively few moments where you'll be completely at a loss as to what to do, and even then the game invents subtle ways to point you in the right direction. The game also tries to mix things up a bit by adding 'archaeological elements' to the gameplay, although this boils down to little more than using a metal detector and a trowel to dig up items of significance.
If the game has any single flaw it's the size of the area you explore. Barrow Hill isn't a big place, and you'll often find yourself exploring certain areas and finding clues that lead you back to places you've been before. The Motel/Garage/Café area, which is the first area you'll visit in the game, is one location you'll be visiting repeatedly and its charms wear-off fairly quickly. The level of detail in these environments is, however, to be commended, with lots of relevant and irrelevant things too look at and examine. One amusing example of this detail is the shift rota in the Café, which reads: "The super rota template for idiot people with no DTP skills".
Despite some charming touches, and the slightly amateurish but strangely appealing voice cast, it's an inescapable fact that Barrow Hill adds very little new to the genre. It's a very by the numbers adventure game which will please adventure fanatics, but few others besides. If you're one of those fans then Barrow Hill is well worth a purchase, if not, you can probably pass this by without too much difficulty.