Who’s Afraid of the Blair Witch?

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When the Blair Witch movie went from a film student’s basement cutting room to Hollywood blockbuster, it was inevitable that many people would be looking to cash in on the project. A video game tie-in was inevitable.

Now, as we approach Halloween this week, the lab dims the lights and sets out to review the first of three games based on the Blair Witch legend. The release of this game coincides not only with the spookiest holiday on the books, but also the release of the movie Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows. The three planned games are being released separately, and all use the Nocturne game engine (and characters) from Terminal Reality. So expect a top-down third person interface with plenty of eye candy. The first game is The Blair Witch Volume 1: Rustin Parr.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but its pretty safe to say it was not the Nocturne engine. I’ve got no problem with the engine, in fact the original game won great accolades from the GiN staff last year, including Adventure RPG of the year and a stellar 4.5 GiN Gem rating. It’s just that when I think of Nocturne, I imagine The Stranger with his twin .45s blasting away at every imaginable night-borne monster. This is not exactly consistent with the movie, or the Blair Witch legend itself – which incidentally was completely made up by the film crew. Boiled down to its component elements, Rustin Parr is basically an additional scenario – though one that stands alone without the original game – for Nocturne.

But where as Nocturne had four blood-soaked missions, Rustin Parr only has one. It is being released as value software for about $20, and subsequent releases will come the same way.

The game is pretty solid, but it totally tries to hold your hand the entire time. It’s obvious that this game is being angled at non-traditional gamers. The fact that there are huge amounts of people who saw the movie and might be tempted to get the game must be the logic used in the design. Unfortunately, this approach within the game is going to anger a lot of traditional gamers, especially ones who went all the way thorough Nocturne like I did. Thank you very much, but I don’t need a tutorial on what the medkit does for me, or how I should use my pistol.

You play Doc Holiday, the woman who invented all the cool weapons The Stranger used in Nocturne. She is like Agent Q to his James Bond. It’s 1941, and both Holiday and Stranger are still working for Spookhouse, the secret government agency charged with investigating and destroying paranormal threats in the United States. After a ridiculous training exercise, Holiday and Stranger are assigned to head to Burkittsville, Maryland where a strange hermit named Rustin Parr has just been convicted of torturing and killing seven children.

Your Spookhouse bosses suspect some type of occult activity, and you are supposed to investigate. Stranger gets angry at this point and refuses to go on the mission. He apparently went to Burkittsville once before and found no evidence of the supernatural. Since there is nothing to shoot at, he decides to stay at home. Holiday insists that her new equipment can detect unseen ghosts, so she heads up to the town by herself. This is where the player really takes over.

It is interesting to see Holiday take the spotlight, since I thought she did not get enough play in Nocturne. She is a poised British lady who has total faith in her creations. She is a bit less neurotic than The Stranger, but nonetheless has some interesting quirks.

The town of Burkittsville seems pretty realistic for an old one-horse town. I personally grew up in a town about seven miles from there and got a real kick out of seeing things like the Frederick Country School Building and a Maryland State Police car around town. This is actually where the adventure is best.

You are given mostly total freedom to explore the town, talking to different folks about the local happenings. You learn different snippets about the Blair Witch, though nobody seems willing to talk too much. There is an excellent cutscene in the town eatery where the local librarian starts to talk about the witch, only to have a storm start to brew outside in the night. In the middle of a lightning strike, you see for a brief second a woman, apparently the Blair Witch, sitting at a table watching you. Holiday does not notice and the game does not play it up much, so it’s just plain creepy.

Unfortunately, it goes downhill from there, at least for gamers used to figuring out things themselves. Holiday keeps a "to do" list that basically tells the player everything to do in order to advance the game. Notes like "Talk to the sheriff" and "Research the Blair Witch in the library" get checked off as you do them. Follow your list and you can’t lose.

The game even goes so far as to figure out puzzles for you. For example, the town sheriff is very nasty to outsiders and kicks you out of his office, even though his deputy wants to give you information. Later, you are at the town restaurant and the sheriff comes in to order lunch. I immediately knew this would leave the deputy alone and ran out to go talk to him. As soon as I got outside, a cutscene triggered where Holiday in a monologue says something like, "With the sheriff gone, I better hurry over and talk to the deputy." Well, no duh. Come on, I can think for myself here. Courting a non-gamer is one thing; assuming your audience is as brain dead as a Type IV zombie is something else.

Combat in the game does actually occur, though sometimes in annoying dream sequences. As with Nocturne, it is fast and violent, though you are mostly shooting dogs and stick people in the woods. It is pretty scary though and you learn things like how the kids from the original movie could have gotten lost. (The woods will change paths around to confuse people as it starts to get dark.) It’s really the only way anyone could get lost around Burkittsville today. Walk more than a mile in any direction and you will come to a 7-11, or some other sign of civilization.

Anyway, it was pretty remote back in 1941 there, and the feeling of oblique danger pervades the woods as you explore. It’s almost a relief to actually see something to shoot, because it breaks the tension somewhat. You can change the level of combat in case you find the monsters too difficult to takedown. This is for the nontraditional gamers I’m sure, but actually helps because a few creatures are nearly impossible to kill. I even found myself using the cheat codes at one point.

Oh, and The Stranger does eventually come and help with the shooting.

Taken as a whole, the game is good. It has a spooky feel to it that only a few games have been able to capture. In this manner, it is actually better than Nocturne, which seemed to be really too heavy with combat to advance the plot too much. It’s a perfect (and inexpensive) gift for someone who likes horror movies but has not really gotten into computer games. Hardcore gamers will probably best avoid the title, as it might taint their fond memories of bloodletting in Nocturne. The game earns an above average 3.5 GiN Gem rating, with the caveat that for a nontraditional audience, the score would be much higher.

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