The filmmakers behind The Blair Witch Project created a lengthy and involved history regarding the mysterious goings-on in Burkittsville (also known as Blair), Maryland. Of the many supernatural events they concocted, the creepiest is the story of Rustin Parr. According to the fictional tale, seven children disappeared from Burkittsville during the early 1940s. In 1941, a hermit named Rustin Parr left his house in the forest, walked into town, and said to a local shopkeeper, "I'm finally finished." Six of the children were found murdered in Parr's basement; one child, Kyle Brody, was still alive and standing in the corner.
The story of Parr will be somewhat familiar to those who saw the film. Parr's house was the site of the final scene, and it's the key to the film's cryptic ending. The murders are also the subject of Blair Witch Volume 1: Rustin Parr, the first entry in Gathering of Developers' three-game Blair Witch series.
The game was developed by Terminal Reality, whose Nocturne tread similar ground. In fact, Rustin Parr is a sort of sequel to Nocturne. It uses the same engine and the same characters. You play Elspeth "Doc" Holliday, who was only a bit player in Nocturne but gets the starring role in Rustin Parr. Holliday is an agent of Spookhouse, a government agency set up to investigate the supernatural, and she is sent to Burkittsville to see if there is any truth to Parr's claims that he was under the influence of otherworldly forces when he committed the murders.
It's a good premise, and the pairing of the Spookhouse agents with the Burkittsville legend seems like a perfect match. And, for the most part, it works. Rustin Parr manages to pack in some really scary moments. However, as in Nocturne, the reliance on gunplay and monster killing takes away from the more subtle tone of the game. The Resident Evil-like monster infestations in Blair Witch Volume 1 seem out of place. The game - like the film - is at its scariest when there is merely the suggestion that something supernatural is afoot. When it's blatant, it just gets silly.
Before heading to Burkittsville, you must go through a training session. Here, all of the Nocturne engine's shortcomings are in full effect. The shifting third-person perspective can make the combat frustrating and difficult, as in most every other games of this type since Alone in the Dark. The designers have but one suggestion: Find a better camera angle when fighting. This is actually a "technique tip" in the training mission, and it makes you wonder why the designers didn't follow their own advice and replace "fighting" with "designing."
This tip actually won't work when combat becomes constant later in the game, as moving to a new location simply means finding more enemies and a potentially worse angle to fight from. Moreover, the game's auto-aim feature in inconsistent, and it's hard to keep a bead on incoming adversaries. Luckily, combat is an optional element throughout most of the game, perhaps unintentionally. It's quite easy to just avoid most enemies altogether and run past them. You'll have a huge train of undead beasts on your tail as a result, but not fighting them can save you some trouble.
Rustin Parr picks up once the training mission is over, when Holliday goes to Burkittsville and begins investigating. There's more of an adventure element in Rustin Parr than there is in Nocturne, and Holliday keeps excellent notes so that you stay on track. However, this adventure element isn't very pervasive, and you'll probably wish you could interact more with the townies, but you'll still get a good deal of interesting history and friend-of-a-friend anecdotes about the evil that lurks in the woods.
The first chapter ends with a strange sequence that is among both the game's best and worst. The townsfolk all become floating demons reminiscent of The Evil Dead, and you need to destroy them all. It's your first taste of combat since the training, and it's some of the only gunplay you'll actually be required to engage in over the course of the game. But what's most interesting about the sequence is how it ends: It has two endings. The first of these is really terrifying, and it seems to send the game hurtling in an interesting direction. Then you'll get the real ending, which lessens the shock of what you've just seen.
Your first trip into the Black Woods is a lengthy maze sequence that requires you to find Rustin Parr's house and a landmark called Coffin Rock. Not much happens, and you'll doubtless get a bit frustrated as you wander through the woods. Get used to it: Each time you enter the woods (and you go there quite often) you'll need to navigate the maze again. These treks through the woods can be tiring, as the constantly shifting angle makes navigating in a single direction difficult. Even with the compass activate, you'll often find yourself running in exactly the wrong direction.
Once you find Parr's house, you'll get a good sense of how scary the game can be. Because of its great lighting and shadow-rendering capabilities, the Nocturne engine is excellent for creating atmosphere. And Parr's house is a perfect example - you'll keep thinking you see subtle flashes of things in the darkness that may or may not have been there, and it's really creepy.
The rest of the game consists of traveling from Burkittsville to the woods, as you learn more and more about what is really lurking out in the forest. The story is interesting although a bit convoluted. And there's a temporal shifting in the woods that is used effectively, if not frequently enough. The monsters (which become more and more abundant in the woods as the game goes on) mostly consist of undead animals and humans, though the weird, shambling stick bundles you'll also encounter are somewhat scary. But for a game that evokes its major scares with subtlety, it's strange that your first major monster encounter would be with a big, invisible scorpion.
The endgame sequence is fun but a bit of a letdown. You won't have to do much, and at one point the game takes over, and you just watch. It's a pretty tense sequence, but it seems relatively easy compared with some of the trickier parts of the game. The best part comes just before the end, when you must execute a series of puzzles that are both interesting and original. It's a great sequence, and seemingly every time you think it's over, there's one more thing you have to do. Rustin Parr would have been a more consistently fun game if this type of puzzle solving had been more prevalent.
The game looks good, though some of the human character models are a bit awkward and the constant flowing effect of their coats looks somewhat unnatural. But the great shadow effects and the desolate appearance of the town and the woods all help add to the creepy atmosphere. The sound does a good job of adding to the atmosphere as well: The often-hammy voice acting is immediately noticeable, though the voices of both Holliday and her colleague, Nocturne's protagonist, The Stranger, are great. The game even has two excellent puzzles that require you to analyze sounds on a tape recorder. And both The Sixth Sense and The Exorcist before it proved that a tape recorder can be a very scary device.
Although it is inconsistent, Rustin Parr is fun. The good parts make slugging through the mediocre combat worthwhile. The atmosphere is great, and though it may just be because of the long shadows and dark corners, it still works. Rustin Parr won't take you very long to finish, but it will give you a few good scares along the way.