Bad things apparently happen in towns with "Hill" in their names. As if the nightmarish streets of Silent Hill weren't enough to scare fright-game fans out of their wits, now they have to contend with Barrow Hill: Curse of the Ancient Circle. But this adventure based on authentic archaeological digs in the UK doesn't live up to its almost-namesake, due to grade-z production values and a suicidally dull story that lacks even the mildest hint of the heebie-jeebies.
Anyone who's worked on an actual archaeological dig will tell you that there is nothing scarier than hauling dirt and painstakingly cataloguing ancient artifacts. And certainly, a game based on such back-breaking labor would be more hair-raising than this third-rate frightfest. Although the writers have attempted to spook things up with a creepy tale about Indiana Jones types digging up something best left buried at a circle of ancient, megalithic standing stones, there are no scares here, aside from a few cheap "Boo!" moments, such as when a raven suddenly flies out from behind a garbage can. Yes, you wander dark paths through ostensibly eerie woods. Yes, you explore to the accompaniment of occasionally ominous music. But aside from the sporadic moment where the lights blink off and a standing stone goes for a walk, or the odd encounter with globs of goo that were recently hippies, there isn't anything to keep your interest. You'll open your mouth wide to yawn, not to gasp or scream.
Much of the storyline seems hacked together. The gas station and attached motel that you encounter right after your car mysteriously breaks down soon becomes a hub that you have to backtrack to over and over again. You'll go down one roadway to a hippie shack and find some clues that lead you right back to the pumps. You'll go down another road to a wrecked jeep and find a tip that forces you back to motel room number one. You'll head back to the motel yet again after discovering that you need pieces of a broken ancient seal to get everything back to normal. You'll need to use the gas-station kitchen to mix up some interesting recipes late in the game. Admittedly, Barrow Hill is a tiny place, with just a half dozen or so primary locations, but there should be some sense of progression--not of constantly going over old ground. All this pointless busy work is reinforced by generic adventure-game mechanics. Too often you're engaged in a scavenger hunt, collecting random objects as you know that they'll come in useful later. Generally, this makes zero sense at the time of acquisition. Crayon? Why not? Egg basket? Hey, you never know when that might come in handy. Batteries? Maybe you'll find a flashlight. Acorns? Better grab those just in case you need to make an offering to the pagan gods later on.
Picking up items is made difficult by the graphics engine, as well. This is one of those old-school, stutter-step adventures where you move like a four-way automaton, clicking to move forward, look left, look right, and zoom in on objects. It works decent enough for moving around, although it is quite clunky and routinely clips important areas you need to focus on to pick up an object or a clue. Getting out of the hippie shack, for instance, was incredibly frustrating, as the hose we needed to use the acetylene torch on was stuck in the far bottom right corner of the screen. You typically have to roam the cursor all over each screen to make sure that you're not missing an object or a hot spot, which makes progressing through the game incredibly tedious.
Other aspects of your quest are similarly incoherent. Having to use your cell phone is completely artificial, a way to both insert a cheesy damsel-in-distress element to the story and to point you in the right direction every now and then. The sparseness of the visuals and sound enhance the synthetic nature of the story, too. Most of the screens look reasonably good (for an adventure game), if a long way past their best-before date, but every location is completely devoid of people. Presumably, this is to build a sinister, "Where did everybody go?" atmosphere, but it ends up making you think about production values so bottom-drawer that the developers couldn't handle animating people. The audio is just as empty, a fact accentuated by a musical score and sound effects that vanish for long stretches of time, only to suddenly swell at apparently random instances. The rare moments when you get to listen to the voice of another human being, usually on the radio, are marked by some of the worst acting this side of an online Star Trek series.
All in all, Barrow Hill: Curse of the Ancient Circle is about as engaging and terrifying as a wait in a doctor's office. Maybe a doctor's office with appalling, old magazines that make waiting for the nurse to call your name a little bit menacing, but a doctor's office nonetheless.