The witch is back!
The world is full of strange phenomena that defies rational explanation. The Bermuda Triangle, for example, or why some people actually enjoy eating circus peanuts. The Blair Witch Project was another such anomaly. Who would've guessed a handful of people could take a camcorder out to the woods, shake it around, capture absolutely nothing on tape and yet somehow manage to frighten millions of moviegoers into giving them millions of dollars?
Indeed, the Blair Witch made a lot of money -- enough to inspire a three game series. The first of these unholy triplets is Blair Witch Volume One: Rustin Parr, an immersive blend of mystery, role-playing, and the movie's own bleak appeal. Clocking in at an affordable $25, this is a solid beginning to the trilogy.
Rustin Parr (for those unversed in the Blair Witch mythos) is the nutcase of legend who lived in the woods outside of Burkitsville, Maryland. In 1941 he turned himself in to the authorities for mutilating and murdering seven children while forcing an eighth child to stand in a corner as a surviving ear-witness to his evil deeds. Parr claimed to have been willed to do these things by the ghostly figure of an old woman. This has invoked some people to draw a connection between the Parr case and an old lady who had lived in those woods in a previous century and who apparently was suspected of doing some fairly nasty things.
The game takes place in Burkitsville in 1941. You play Doc Holliday, special agent of Spookhouse (the turn of century X-Files equivalent, minus the doubting
Scully). As the Doc, you are working undercover to investigate the weird goings-on in the town. You do this by wandering around Burkitsville interviewing the locals and telling them you are looking for your niece who has disappeared and you think Rustin Parr might have had something to do with it. You big liar, you.
Good voice acting and well-written dialogue provide dark suspense to the interviews. The game relies on these cinema interviews to advance the story (and add to your clues). They also flesh out the plot and bring the town of Burkitsville to life.
The game's setting has an old, dark and rainy feel to it and this is done great justice by the eerily beautiful graphics. Blair Witch has a smooth cinematic look, very similar to the game Nocturne and, in fact, runs on the same engine. Trees loom above casting menacing shadows, and the dramatic camera angles add real tension to the game.
The cinema quality camerawork, as lovely as it is, can also be a real hindrance to gameplay. Your view of Doc is occasionally obscured by the shadows. There are frequent scenes with extreme longshots in which you must propel her blindly into the far distance with no clue as to what might be two feet in front of her. This calls for great faith in the benevolence of the unseen.
The ambient sound effects combine very nicely with the visuals to create a sensory world that has a three dimensional feel. The sounds of rain falling, the rustlings of leaves, and the cracking of branches add a tremendous amount to this game.
There are parts of the game in which the player will become hopelessly lost. Being lost in puzzles and mazes is nothing new to gaming (anyone remember Miracle Warriors for the Sega Master System?), but the rich combination of sights and sounds in this game really up the ante. Lost...wet...wandering in circles...surrounded on all sides by shadows, pockets of mist, and the ominous sounds of the deep woods...it's great.
Blair Witch is fairly successful in making you feel surrounded by danger, even where nothing is seen. When the danger is up close and personal, the game has some shining moments. Creatures are random...and persistent. A lot of them are actually scary (those daemites are pretty freaky). Some of the creatures are demonic, some material, some ethereal...there's plenty of combat here for those who want it. The combat and puzzle elements have variable difficulties and this adds a little variety to gameplay.
The depth of the environments lends the game an impressive aura of openness. This is deceptive...and very wrong, as the game is a strictly linear affair. There is basically only one right way to do things, yet somehow the game manages to not make you too aware of that fact. This linearity means that the game is painfully short on replay value. Beat it once and that's that - no alternate paths, no extra characters.
Unfortunately, the controls are god awful. Learning nothing from the crappy control in Nocturne, they have repeated all of their previous control mistakes. Although three control variations are offered (keyboard/mouse, keyboard, and point & click), they're all terrible. Trying to speed Doc through a dark and tangled forest while she's being pursued by god-knows-what is like Stevie Wonder trying to drive a Cadillac along a narrow and twisting pontoon bridge across the Potomac. This is a great travesty, since the game has so much good going for it. Whoever designed the controls should be taken out to the woodshed to be vigorously spanked.
The Blair Witch Volume I: Rustin Parr is one of the better horror-themed games on the market, but is fatally flawed by some of the worst control on record. Still, its beautifully dark graphics, spooky atmosphere, and intriguing story make it compelling enough to play through.