Barrow Hill: The Dark Path – Night of the Offering Redux

I’ve made no secret of my love for niche horror adventures. I don’t know what it is that attracts me to them – maybe the obtuse puzzles, or the totally corny voice acting, or the nice art that still relies on point and click screens. I’ve been playing these things since the original Dark Fall. Although, it wasn’t always such a great time: Dark Fall was a bit too complicated. Rhiannon was a screen-hunting mess (in a real nice setting though). The Lost Crown was really good, but perhaps too long. Barrow Hill was one of the most interesting titles, but suffered from a pretty hard big puzzle near the end. So how does its sequel fare?

(spoilers ahead)

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“I thought I was rid of Emma Harry and her crazy spirits forever. But now I know I must go… BACK TO THE HILL!” *theme music*

The plot is not too different from the first game. It’s still the Equinox, some kids are still stupid enough to go around meddling with vengeful spirits, and you gotta save everyone. While it does feel like a retread, even down to the puzzles progression, enough has been changed to make the experience feel fairly fresh.

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Oh, looks like the victims from the first game got some mourning from their families. Finally someone who cares about disappeared NPCs.

The big problem in horror adventures is often how difficult and obtuse the puzzles are. Finding some of the ingredients in Barrow Hill was outright devilish. Dark Path tries to solve this issue by hinting at solutions a bit more heavily, especially if you enable item descriptions from the options. The three big puzzles to end the game – find the kids’ personal items to free them, find the metals to destroy the circle, and get some substitute items to replace Baibin’s – are almost all fairly obvious. This does make the game a lot less frustrating as you are generally able to understand what you are supposed to do without going around in circles, although the hints are a bit too direct at times.

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Ah yes, somewhat crudely rendered 3D objects. Believe it or not, they are a big draw for me. They harken back to the days of Myst. (okay, not quite *that* crude)

Unfortunately a few obtuse puzzles are still there, but perhaps more due to the interface than the developers’ intentions.I had to look for a walkthrough to see that I was supposed to make a fishing magnet in the garage, because the cursor didn’t help at all. At one point, I just started clicking the screen at random until I got it to do what I wanted. Another big annoyance is a point where you need to rearrange a series of short clips. And in general, there is a lot of scenes with rubble to move around, which honestly shouldn’t count as puzzles. These feel like influences from the HOG genre. Overall though, I feel the general experience is improved, and a good mix of old adventures and new HOGs.

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This style almost looks like a screenshot straight out of an hidden objects game.

The visuals have been modified in several ways. While of course they are higher quality (1024×768 instead of 800×600, and more detailed) the general look is not as dark as before. I don’t mind myself – Dark Fall was one of the most illuminated horror games around, and it’s still got one of my favorite art directions, while its much darker sequels weren’t as good. And who can forget the original Alone in the Dark with its pastel colors? So I’m not that bothered. Still, I can’t help but think that it’s a bit too colorful at times. But hey, you get to enjoy the nice scenery, at least. And of course the voice acting was bad as always, which is just what I wanted.

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The day again, at last! Now to call a taxi, and hope it’s not being driven by a skeleton in diguise.

In the end, Barrow Hill: The Dark Path is a pretty good effort. While it feels modernized, it doesn’t stray from its roots too far, and its improvements for the genre are many. Some may say it was made a bit too easy, though, and that’s something to think about for future games.

Speaking of future games… will Bracken Tor ever come out? I’ve been wondering since 2010 at least, but I’m a bit more hopeful now. Dark Path contains a few audio and visual teasers. Also, many might not remember Wychwood Hollow, another game that was announced a long time ago, as far back as 2011. I remember the early trailer and shots, and it really looks like the project eventually evolved into The Dark Path instead. Chances are, Bracken Tor could end up like that too. Something to wait for?

Memory Goes Here, Performance Goes There

Another failure? At least an interesting one, this time.

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A whole 8MB on a single stick. Only in 1998, folks.

Just a few days ago, I found a cheap 8MB SGRAM expansion for the Matrox G200 series. Yes, it’s a memory expansion for real this time. It was supposed to bring my G250 all the way up to 16MB. In itself, it’s already a useless experiment – the G400 32MB has more memory, is faster in everything, and has literally the same compatibility (including the same issues). While I was sure it wouldn’t make any difference in lower resolutions, I was thinking that perhaps you could see an effect once the local memory was entirely filled up by the framebuffer.

What I didn’t know, was that the memory expansion would actually decrease the default memory and core clocks on the card.

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You don’t have to worry about higher resolutions if your monitor is crap.

I said in the past, that my G250 seems a bit different from the specs originally mentioned on Wikipedia: the core runs at 105mhz core, and the memory at 140mhz. That’s pretty high for its time, but I tested the veridicity of Powerstrip’s claims by running a few games and noticing that framerates scaled almost linearly against the G200A (which runs at 84/112mhz). It doesn’t even seem like an anomalous overclock, since scores stay up no matter how long I keep the tests running, and there are no artifacts in sight.

But after installing the memory daughterboard, suddenly I found the clocks going down to 90/120mhz. Attempting to overclock the card all the way up to the original values produced slight artifacts, so I didn’t make any further attempts. And sure enough, testing the card showed a sizeable decrease over the original framerates. The Forsaken test is particularly telling: the framerate matches the core clocks almost entirely, and shows that, at least on a P3-450mhz, the game is completely bound by the graphics card.

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The complete set. Now with automatic downclocking.

I made two mistakes: I thought there would be no difference at lower resolutions, but there was. And also, I thought there might be a difference at high resolutions, but it didn’t quite turn out. Even with something like 1024x768x32 in Incoming, which is supposed to fill the framebuffer almost entirely, the framerate delta is still effectively the same. 3DMark 99 does show a slight proportional increase when running at 1280×1024, but the difference is pretty small. I suppose the G200 series was really good at AGP texturing. It had DiME support, like the i740, whereas many AGP cards of the era stopped at DMA.

So what happened? Well, I have a theory. The expansion module was made for the old G200, which only ran at 84/112mhz (just like the later G200A die shrink). So they didn’t bother making memory chips that could run much faster than that, since they weren’t expecting people to clock the card any higher – after all, the G200 wasn’t even quite a gamer’s card to begin with. Therefore, since the G200 seems to always run with a 3:4 ratio between the core and memory, if you add slower memories, the core will go down too. Bummer, uh?

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Thank god my paycheck came in just a few days ago.

So that was an interesting experiment, but it could have gone better. Lately, all of my experiments haven’t gone so well, perhaps it’s a sign that my benchmarking days are over? Time will tell. At least the rest of my haul from yesterday wasn’t bad, as you can see. I expect to start Barrow Hill pretty soon, perhaps in the weekend (still playing Claw)… while the Zork book will have to wait until War and Peace is finished, which might take a little while.

Oh, and the SiS 6326 is a C3 revision with just 4MB of memory. Even worse than expected. I’ve never seen such horrible texturing perspective issues. Another one for the shelf.

My Matrox Mystake

That was a failure.

See, a few days ago, I bought myself something that seemed real nifty – a Matrox Mystique 220 with memory expansion add-on. Just imagine, an 8MB MGA! Think of the possibilities! (well, mostly, playing games in 1024×768 really slowly)

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See that bump on the left? It looks exactly the same as a MGA chip. Why have a second chip on a memory expansion module? The answer will be revealed soon.

So it arrived. At first it looked real nice, but then I noticed something amiss: the expansion module is too big, for starters. Also, it had what looked like a second MGA chip on it. And finally, the PC still only saw it as a 4MB card. A quick googling for the MYST/RRSTI code revealed the truth: it’s actually a Rainbow Runner Video add-on card, essentially an AVI and MPEG1 encoder/decoder. Useful, I guess, but not for my purposes.

Oh well, at least I got a Mystique 220 out of it, right? Well, that was something of a disappointment too. The chip is an MGA-1164 (compare to my old Mystique, which was MGA-1064), and compatibility overall is actually a lot lower. Most tests and games will freeze at random, if they even start at all. The only solution I could find was disabling Bus Mastering, but that will reduce performance severely.

Apparently, with bus mastering, the card can start working on polygons while the CPU is still busy. Or maybe the opposite? Anyway, Turok has absurd slowdowns, 3DMark is a lot slower, sound in Forsaken seems slowed down, and overall stuff doesn’t run as well. At least it didn’t crash anymore, but at that point I might have as well used the older Mystique instead. Surprisingly, Quake even shows that the card doesn’t support the same 256 colors resolutions as its older brethren: nothing higher than 640×480 is shown.

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At least it looks cool, I guess? It’s like a sandwich card. Two slices of PCB with a filling of memory and graphic chips. The unfiltered taste and stippling aftertaste might not be to everyone’s liking though.

So yeah, a big disappointment overall. I need to check my sources better. Can’t really fault the seller, because he probably didn’t know what he was actually selling. A lesson for me, I guess. The next card coming, and possibly the last one (I know I always say it…) is a SiS 6326 AGP. Not sure how much memory, but the memory chips make it look like a 4MB model. Strange, since I believed 8MB ones would be more common when it comes to the AGP model. Either way, it should be better than this mistake here.

Wink to the Past

Some days ago, my motherboard died. Or so I thought. See, when your PC only turns on without beeping or showing anything on the screen, my first thought is “reset the CMOS”. If that doesn’t work, “try a different power supply”. Only if that doesn’t work either, I change the mobo. Unfortunately, in my haste, I skipped the second step.

So after changing the motherboard and noticing it still didn’t work, I tried the power supply. That made it! Except… the computer was now turning on with the different motherboard. Too late, I didn’t think about it. Windows 98 suddenly got messed up, and after a couple reboots where things seemed fine, it stopped seeing almost every peripheral in the computer. And that was the chance I needed to reset everything.

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Microsoft advertising OpenGL? It was more likely than you think.

For a change, I put Windows 95 again. Nothing against Windows 98, but I do remember it was slightly harder to run DOS games properly on it for some reason, even though both 95 OSR2 and 98 run the same version of MS-DOS.

I even put a Virge in the case during the installation process, to make sure everything would go as smoothly as possible. I don’t think there’s a more supported card than the Virge out there. And sure enough, the installation was smooth and flawless. I also found a really good USB driver, called XUSBUPP, which was a lot easier to install than Microsoft’s own driver. I remember that one would completely ruin your Windows installation if you messed up.

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After tweaking the Autoexec and Config files. These are the kind of sights I love.

Well, there’s just one problem. Ok, a few problems. First one is, the mouse wheel doesn’t work – perhaps I can look into fixing it. Another problem is just how rough the thing feels at times – you can’t choose which version of the driver to install from an INF file, it seems.

The other problem is 3D Mark 99. I thought it would just work the same, but it turns out it won’t recognize my Pentium 3 as a Pentium 3. Perhaps that required Windows 98… anyway, I’m stuck with basic Intel optimization, which means my CPU score went down from 7000 to 4500.

(that also shows us that there isn’t much difference at all between Pentium 2 and 3, aside from the higher clocks, if you aren’t employing some optimization. The P2-350mhz scored roughly 3500, which perfectly matches the 4500 scored by the P3-450mhz)

This would make further card testing partially useless, depending on the card employed. More powerful chips like the TNT2 and Voodoo 3 obtain a fairly lower score. Of course, it would not affect other game tests, since nothing else in my benchmark suite had those P3 optimizations.

Nor, it seems, does it affect less powerful cards in a meaningful manner. The Trident Blade 3D – which I momentarily elected as card of choice due to needing something that could install quickly and painlessly, much like the Virge but less crappy – had its score going down from 2850 to 2750. That sounds like the GPU is bottlenecking the CPU instead. The G250 also went down a measly 50 points, from 3050 to to 3000. And weaker cards should be even closer. I do have an interesting 1996 thing coming up, and also waiting to see if my bid on a SiS 6326 gets through. So those should be safe for testing.

The last problem? I forgot to back up my old 3DMark database results. Sigh.

Revenge is a dish best served old

In this day of strange inaugurations and general protests, there are many things to complain about. No least of them, is the fact that Nvidia lies to us. See, the latest Geforce 2 drivers available on the site is 71.84, which is essentially the last driver to support many of their older cards. Sounds good, right? Except those drivers don’t really work all that well. Several games had somewhat unwelcome issues or were slower than expected. Removing Vsync was a pain. Don’t even get me started on Final Reality suddenly glitching the whole framebuffer.

So I had to cycle through a few older drivers. I tried going back a year… nothing. Another year… nothing. In the end, I settled for the 12.84 driver, which came out long ago, in 2001. And what do you know, they work much better. No more issues, faster results, anisotropic is now supported, even 3DMark 99 shows improvements.

71.84:

TNT2 M64: 3953
Geforce 2 GTS: 3303

12.84:

TNT2 M64: 4349
Geforce 2 GTS: 4266

Nvidia strikes back! And let’s not even go into my Forsaken results. The GTS goes from a disappointing 132fps in 640×480 (which made it slower than the Voodoo 3), to a much more satisfying 200fps. And holds to 190fps in 1024×768, too.

Oh, and being unified drivers, they work with literally everything from the TNT onwards. Well… they should. The Geforce 2 MX, TNT2 and TNT2 M64 all work fine. But the old TNT didn’t want to be recognized. One more mystery with this card… I had to revert further to 6.47, and even then, it’s still a horrible model. Who knows what’s up with it.

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I’ve always wanted an Elsa card. It’s so going to become my new main.

Did I say TNT2 up there? That’s right, I got a TNT2 recently. While the world of online auctions is inundated with M64 models, plaguing our searches like locusts during a swarm, I was eventually able to procure a basic TNT2 for cheap. And it does its job well (of course using those 12.84 drivers). Similar results to the M64 in 640×480, but keeping up much better when you run into higher resolutions.

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What your money could buy in 1999. The 128 GL doesn’t really belong, but I’m afraid I don’t have its more powerful Pro cousin. And look at that trilinear filtering speed on the Nvidia card!

I had wanted to make the Radeon VE my main, as it runs Blood 2 better than most other cards. But its bad 16-bits dithering was very annoying. The TNT2 takes its spot instead, as its twin pixel pipeline seems to work better than the “triple TMU on a single pipeline” setup of the Ati card. I do question its ability to multitexture well, though. Despite enabling the option in Quake 2 via registry edit (for some reason the game doesn’t use multitexturing in 16-bits by default on the TNT series), my results didn’t improve at all. Mmh.

Well, still looking for other cards, I guess. But the number keeps getting smaller. I suppose a Sis 315 could be nice to check, but a mild distraction at best. I think a 6236 would be too slow to be really interesting. Geforce 256’s apparently are rarer than a Voodoo 4, and you can’t get close to PowerVR prices. Perhaps my collecting days are over… but I always keep an eye open on Ebay. You never know when someone will drop that cheap Fury MAXX you are looking for.

Busy Edition

With the unexpected news that I’m starting my job again next week, I’ve been in a bit of a hurry and haven’t had much time to write about my findings on the GPU front. Though in this case, GPU is a bit of an exaggeration.

Look at the 3D glasses port. I wonder how many of those were sold.

See, I received two cards in the last week, and I’ve had time to test them before I even knew about the job situation. Good for me. One is the Diamond FireGL 1000 Pro you can see above, a Permedia 2 chip. I wasn’t expecting much to begin with, and I wasn’t disappointed. 

For a card aimed mostly at the professional market, I guess it was fine, but the lack of blended color lights is a bummer. Quake 2 in monochrome lighting just doesn’t look the same – though I know a few people who would rather play it that way. Granted, they would have to get past the sub-20 FPS even in 640×480.

I’ll spare you the trouble I had to go through to find suitable drivers. They aren’t joking when they say Ati’s drivers used to suck.

The other card is this Radeon VE, or Radeon 7000, same thing really. See, it was marketed as a Radeon, but with its very gimped architecture (half the TMUs  and no vertex shader), it’s really more like Ati grabbed a Rage 128, overclocked it like hell, added one extra TMU and called it a day.

The higher clock alone makes sure it will always be faster than a Rage 128 (perhaps not the MAXX though…) but the extra TMU might not be all that useful. At the very least, 3DMark never goes past double results in multi texturing. Newer drivers give better results in tests, but don’t allow you to disable Vsync, so I used older ones. Fun times.

I still have a TNT2 coming, and my big comparison post received some updates thanks to some interesting findings about various cards. So maybe I’ll post an update eventually. If I can find the time between one customer and the other. 

Beyond Good and Bad

Things aren’t always good. 2016, for example, wasn’t good by any stretch of the imagination. Hence, you can’t always talk about good things.I’ll agree that it helps people feel better: “oh, this thing that happened last year was great, totally worth it”. But sometimes you need to take a look at some things that didn’t go as planned. Which leads me to…

Most “Ok Well, That Was A Disappointment” Game of 2016:
The Mansion of Hidden Souls (Saturn, 1994)

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Never forget.

After all, what else do you call a bad sequel to a fairly good adventure, if not disappointing? The original Mansion of Hidden Souls was the very last game I played in 2015, and a surprisingly good one. I had heard about the sequel, so I didn’t have much hope it was good – but it ended up even worse than I expected. I can’t describe its crappiness in words (because it’s too much), or it’s plot (because it’s beyond description), so why don’t you give it a try?

But after the rain, the sun comes up. And we can’t just focus on the negative. That’s not good for your health. We need some good in life, and the best kind of nice things come from unexpected places.

Most “Wait, This Isn’t As Bad As I Remembered” Game of 2016
Serious Sam 2 (PC, 2005)

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Wait, what happened to all the sand and pyramids? I distinctly remember something that looked like a sphynx at some point.

No, hear me out. I know you thought I hated Serious Sam 2. To be fair, my dislike of the game was based on the first couple levels – which were so bad (and admittedly, so different from the original series) that they put me off playing entirely. Flash forward several years later, and I decide to give it a better chance. And what do you know? After the crappy beginning, it gets actually good. Sure, it’s still my least favorite in the series, and some sections are still downright annoying. But at least it’s a fun pick-up-and-play title, whoch lets you have fun blasting those damn Kleers with ease, unlike the older games. And some of the cutscenes are genuinely funny. Which reminds me, after the bleakness of SS3, I hope SS4 is a return to form.

There are even things that aren’t quite good or bad. More specifically, they might be the best you could have done within certain limitations. That doesn’t make them necessarily good, but you gotta at least admire the effort, and at least they weren’t as bad as they could have been.

Most “It Should Have Been Crap But It Wasn’t” Game of 2016
Fable: The Journey (Xbox 360, 2012)

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It was a bit like travelling around in Oblivion, if Bethesda suddenly decided to make an on-rail adventure and actually added some charm to its game.

Kinect, in the end, was only good for a few things: music games and on-rail shooters. Fable Journey did have some of the latter, but it sure didn’t have any of the former. And the rest of the story is filled with horse sections. But hey, at least they make you care about the horse. The story might be utterly predictable, but it’s well told. And while you’ll spend half your time fighting the controls, it’s almost worth it in the end. I can’t say it was a game I’d play again, but it was something I always wanted to play for some reason, and it’s already impressive enough that it didn’t disappoint.

As I said before, good and bad is not all there is in the world. In some cases though, you outright don’t care. Perhaps you are bound by a previous decision, an oath if you will. Maybe it’s simply a case of collectionism. It might even be a gift for someone, who died before you could give it to them, hence you are now stuck with it (oh wow, that turned sour pretty fast). Either way, you have to live with it. With some luck, you won’t care.

Most “I Said I Would Buy It So There Was No Choice” Game of 2016
Lego Jurassic World (PC, 2015)

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Now, eventually you do plan to have Lego enviroments in your Lego game series, right?

Me in 2014: okay, I’m not a big fan of Lego games, but if they made one based on Jurassic Park, I’d totally bite
TT Games in 2015: Lego Jurassic World is so coming!
Me in 2015: crap, at least let me wait for a sale…

Ok well. See, it wasn’t bad. Lego games rarely are bad to begin with. But they are pretty much all the same. I’ve played a few, and I didn’t really want to play any more of them. But in the end, I’m glad I did, because I was able to see what kind of progress the series has made since the earlier efforts. To be fair, not even all that much progress… but that’s better than nothing. Let me also go on record and say that, if they make a Lego game based on Predator, I’m buying that too (pretty sure I’m safe this time).

Finally, sometimes… nothing at all matters. Good, bad, promises, expectations… nothing. You play something short just because you need to finish the 52 games in a year challenge.

Most “I Can’t Believe I Played This” Game of 2016
Teddy Floppy-Ear: Mountain Adventure (PC, 2015)

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I regret nothing.

Don’t ask. At least it was fun, okay?

Writing about whatever comes to mind