Released in cinemas in 1999, The Blair Witch Project had a huge impact on the horror genre as well as the film industry in general. Shown from the perspective of the protagonists via handy cam and relying more on what you couldn’t see rather than what you could, audiences were left questioning the fictional nature of the film. Of course it is a work of fiction and though no one genuinely went missing in the Black Hills Forest, the (at the time) revolutionary cinematic style and marketing had people around the world talking. Skip ahead to the present day and we are once again being beckoned into the infamous forest, but this time in video game form. Blair Witch (the game), developed by Layers of Fear and Observer developer Bloober Team, is a psychological horror title set in the same universe as the film series of the same name. While not presenting any ground-breaking new innovations, Blair Witch does provide some genuine scares and a few interesting gameplay mechanics to boot. Unfortunately a large number of technical issues, a predictable narrative and a final act that drags on for far too long tarnish what could have been a brilliant entry into the Blair Witch lore.
Just so we are clear, if a huge pagan symbol forms in a forest, bomb the forest
The year is 1996. Peter, a young boy, has disappeared in the Burkittsville area and is thought to have wandered into the nearby Black Hills Forest. You play as Ellis, a former police officer who has joined the search for the young lad. In the opening of the game it is made clear that Ellis is suffering from PTSD of some sort, but the details surrounding this affliction are unclear at the time. Upon arrival you acquire a radio, get in contact with the police chief heading up the search, pat your dog and then make your way into the dense woods. I immediately enjoyed how vague the story was to begin with, giving you just a tiny thread to pull rather than spelling everything out right off the bat. Unfortunately the technical problems began at the offset. Simply getting out of the car and exploring the search party camp, which consisted of half a dozen cars, was apparently too much for the game to handle. The frame rate came to a crawl, with panning the camera being motion sickness-inducing thanks to the delay. Putting the technical shortcomings aside for a moment, the opening also introduces one of the games key mechanics, Bullet. Bullet is your German Sheppard companion that accompanies you through the forest. As far as the narrative goes, Bullet is a support animal of sorts, ensuring that Ellis always has someone by his side, otherwise risking a panic attack if he is alone for too long. Mechanically, Bullet can be commanded to follow scents, fetch items as well as point out hidden enemies (which I’ll touch on in a little bit). More importantly than all of that, you can pat him and feed him treats, 10/10.
Once you have been properly introduced to the plot and your doggo friend, you make your way into the woods where nothing bad happens at all. You find the kid and go home….right? Of course not. Not too long after entering the woodlands you discover the young boy’s cap, despite the search party having been through that area earlier. Bullet, like the good boy he is, gives the hat a sniff and takes off in the direction of Peter’s scent. From here things begin to take a turn for the worst. As a quick sidenote, the framerate issues that I experienced at the beginning of the game did dissipate once I was in the forest, so perhaps there were just too many assets on screen to begin with, nevertheless that particular issue was short-lived. Arriving to where Bullet leads you, you discover a small campsite complete with a tent and campfire, along with, you guessed it, a camcorder and a tape. These particular tapes, the variant that have a red band across them, can be used to influence the environment. As an example, this first tape shows the young boy at said campsite, playing with a toy police car. By rewinding, pausing and playing the tape correctly, you are able to make the toy car appear in front of you. This feature is used throughout the game, mainly to move obstructions and to clear paths, but this initial situation is by far the most effective when it comes to tone and scares. Playing around with the footage only for it to alter reality was an interesting revelation and, in the circumstance, quite unsettling. The mechanic does become rather predictable and even a little uninspired as the game progresses, but the first instance is brilliant.
As you continue to track the missing boy it becomes apparent that things aren’t right in the woods. Paganistic symbols made of sticks are found hanging from branches, concealing disturbing polaroid photos of various people. Bullet reacts negatively towards these symbols and interacting with them causes Ellis to destroy them involuntarily, usually accompanied by him vocalising how ‘something just came over him’. This would be an issue for anyone, but for a mentally fragile individual like Ellis, it is far worse. If you are separated from Bullet for too long, which at points you will be, your vision is blurred and your movement becomes strained. Usually having to escort an NPC in games is a pain in the ass, but here it is more accurate to say that you are being escorted by Bullet, which is pretty clever.
Just out hiking with your four-legged friend
After a good amount of spooky discoveries and vocally charged conversations with the police chief via radio, nightfall comes. In the darkness of the woods, creatures lurk amongst the trees in the hopes of taking your life. Let’s get the positive out of the way first. The enemy’s (lets call them tree demons) design and presence are fantastic. Visually these tree demons are wonderful, looking like an amalgamation of a deranged man and the forest itself. Imposingly tall, lanky and covered in branches, the tree demons move quickly away from you once you spot them so you never get a solid look at one as you fight it, staying true to the tone of the movie. On the flip side, there is only one type of enemy and only one type of encounter, so despite the design and idea behind said enemy being great, after your first few ‘battles’ it becomes a chore rather than a challenge. During a fight with a tree demon, all you are required to do is look at where Bullet is barking and shine your flashlight in that direction, hurting and eventually killing them. And that’s it. The demons never become stronger, there are no variants, there is one kind of threat and that’s it.
You continue on from objective to objective attempting to survive first and foremost and hopefully find the boy while doing so. During the course of the story Ellis’ past is slowly unveiled as the witch uses his own inner turmoil against him. As the fear and trauma increases, Ellis’ grip on reality begins to loosen, resulting in nightmarish hallucinations and flashbacks. Occasionally you are grounded again by a phone call from your ex-wife Jess, but as the game progresses your old faithful Nokia brick goes from a lifeline to the real world to a vessel for more manipulation as text messages arrive from nowhere, chastising and berating you, pushing you back into a fragile state. Blair Witch is at its most interesting when focusing on Ellis himself and his personal battle with PTSD and mental instability. Not only is it handled well, but it also muddies the waters when it comes to how you perceive reality in the game. It is worth mentioning that the audio is fantastic and provides a large number of the scares through the game. I would highly recommend using a headset if possible as it does use binaural audio. From twigs breaking in the distance to trees creaking in the breeze, the use of ambient noise is great.
Not getting a proper look at the enemies definitely adds to the terror
If the game is at its best when focusing on Ellis, it is at its worst when the plot approaches its conclusion. Going from terrifying to tedious, the whole last quarter of the story drags its feet and outstays its welcome. A setting change seems to promise the end but instead continues on for about half an hour more than I would have liked. Prolonging the finale seemingly for the sake of lengthening the overall playtime, even once you do reach the end you will be greeted with a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ ending that are both incredibly anticlimactic. Which ending you receive will depend on how you interact with certain objects, but ultimately it isn’t worth playing twice to see them both as neither wrap up the narrative in a satisfying way.
I mentioned framerate earlier, but that was far from the only issue I ran into. From Bullet disappearing during a set piece where he is necessary—to not being able to interact with a story specific object, I found myself needing to close and reopen the game around 4 or 5 times. That is irritating enough in any kind of game, but in a horror title it completely destroys all immersion and drains you of any fear that you may have been feeling. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of pant-shitting moments throughout the six-ish hours of gameplay, but the many technical mishaps along the way definitely damage the experience.
Good old faithful Snake will ease my heart rate in tense situations
This was a difficult game to review as there were so many factors telling me not to like Blair Witch. From the bevvy of bugs and glitches, to the predictability of the plot and lack of enemy variety, I still found myself enjoying it in despite of its faults. I cared what happened to Ellis and Bullet and wanted to see their story through and I think that is where this game’s strength really lies. Despite the numerous low points and the fumbled final sequence, I did jump in fright multiple times and was drawn in by the reality altering handy cam, so I can’t complain too much. If you have Game Pass by all means give Blair Witch a download, but if not you might want to wait for this one to go on sale.
Reviewed on Xbox One // Review code supplied by publisher