Halloween 2020 Gaming Special, Day 6: “Barrow Hill: Curse of the Ancient Circle” (PC)

After all the fancy new modern technology horror in our Halloween gaming special week, it’s time to get back to good-old fashioned myths and archaeology in Shadow Tor Studios‘ first-person adventure game Barrow Hill: Curse of the Ancient Circle.

Barrow Hill: Curse of the Ancient Circle (PC)
(UK 2006, developer/publisher: Shadow Tor Studios, platform: PC)

After one’s car stops in the middle of the woods of Cornwall during the Autumn Equinox, one investigates the surrounding area of the ancient burial mount Barrow Hill and discovers the disappearance of various people involved in an excavation.

Discovering present and past mysteries
As the protagonist’s name is never mentioned, there isn’t much of a character development to speak of. One simply has to find a way to escape the strange place where a mysterious force prevents the player from leaving. While there is a service station employee and a radio station DJ, the former isn’t much of a conversationalist, while the latter only helps to flesh out the local history, but only gets in touch once in a while.

One picks up various documents, like newspaper articles, journals, and advertisements that provide some background information about the surrounding area and its people. Diaries, pamplets, flyers, and other material give the player an idea about old legends and how the excavation proceeded, and the more one reads the creepier the texts become. This creates a sense of dread if one accepts the slow-paced storytelling as a substitute for real shocks and in-your-face horror.

A tale of horror in Cornwall
Cornwall with its rich history of druids and rituals obviously holds a special interest for those eager enough to explore its region, with the use of sightseeing photos adding to realism. As the game only takes place during the night, darkness plays a big part, too. More tension is created in key scenes when one finds strange drawings in a room, explores the creepy woods with a flashlight, sees lights illuminating a path suddenly turn off one by one, or listens to recordings with strange voices. But there are also a few moments that are unintentionally funny, as one watches a CCTV recording of a group of people being chased by a monolith or listens to the maniacal ramblings of the petrol station employee.

Screaming and laughing
Unlike so many survival horror games where danger comes in all enemy shapes and sizes, using a monolith that burns the player to death if one touches him isn’t the most effective way of creating terror. There are a few cheap jumpscares, e.g. a sudden phone ring or a bird unexpectedly flying towards the player, but these only work because there isn’t much else happening. It’s telling that most of the creepy moments happened in the past and that unraveling the mystery in the present isn’t nearly as terrifying. There are also a few intentionally funny moments, e.g. various radio commercials or an astrology station that make fun of products and the paranormal. However, as the main story itself veers towards some mumbojumbo revelations towards the end, it’s ironic that the supernatural elements aren’t as frightening or convincing as they could be.

Lost in places and puzzles
While the locations aren’t too numerous, one still gets lost from time to time. This isn’t only because of the lack of a map, but because the first-person perspective results in disorientation. Turning around twice in order to go back is cumbersome and missing vital objects in the environments is even more annoying. Pixelhunting is made even more frustrating, as the player can pick up and look at useless items. Visiting most places right from the start (after one acquires a light source) and solving most puzzles in any order makes the setting less restrictive, but non-linear exploration is detrimental to storytelling and suspense.

Puzzle solutions are usually logical, but they heavily rely on finding items that are difficult to make out in the environments. Clicking on specific parts to interact with them is also quite fiddly. Items can’t be combined in the inventory, and while their uses are mostly clear, this doesn’t prevent the player from walking around aimlessly at times. On a positive side, one often feels like an archaelogist or explorer when uncovering hidden objects with a GPS or digging through mounds of dirt with a shovel. Looking for clues in documents and other sorts of writing add an investigative element as well. Still, there are only so many codes or passwords one has to figure out before originality wears very thin.

Aged technology
The graphics were already dated when the game was released, and they look even worse now, especially the pixelated videos featuring some questionable, unintentionally funny acting. Still, despite the static backgrounds, the way how the scribblings in journals or the photos are presented help to elevate the atmosphere somewhat. Fortunately, voice acting is quite good, the music is great and many background sound effects, especially in the woods, add to the overall creepiness.

Classic horror forgotten
Calling Barrow Hill: Curse of the Ancient Circle a terrifyingly tense experience would do the horror genre injustice, as there’s simply not enough happening in its short playtime of around 5 hours. While the setting and especially sound design create a few goosebump moments, one rarely feels dread while walking around the same locations. Adventure fans who don’t have a problem with first-person disorientation and can overlook the drab visuals will still be entertained by non-linear puzzles, while people interested in Cornwall history are catered for, too. However, those looking for a memorable horror game might have to look elsewere.

Score: 6/10

Buy the game for PC on

Official website

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About nufafitc

Being an avid gamer, cinemaniac, and bookworm in addition to other things the internet and new media present, I'm also very much into DIY music, rock and pop in particular. Writing short or longer pieces about anything that interests me has always made me happy. As both an editor for German website "Adventure-Treff" and UK website "Future Sack", I like to write reviews and news about recent developments in the movies, games and book industry.
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4 Responses to Halloween 2020 Gaming Special, Day 6: “Barrow Hill: Curse of the Ancient Circle” (PC)

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