Blair Witch review
More a psychological thriller than pure horror game until the final stretch, Blair Witch won’t scare you so much as drive you barking mad (in both good ways and bad).
Most horror games, by their very nature, are designed to be pants-wetting experiences that leave you fighting the urge to curl up in the fetal position, trembling and whimpering uncontrollably. Emotional Support Animals, on the other hand, are meant to provide comfort for those suffering from trauma or mental instability. The two things are almost diametrically opposed, which is why it’s so surprising that just such an ESA would be front and center in Bloober Team’s original new entry into the Blair Witch franchise. More a disturbing psychological thriller than terrifying supernatural horror game, this unusual combination turns out to be both a blessing and a curse, as your canine companion is both one of the game’s most appealing assets and also one of the reasons it’s not nearly as scary as you’d expect.
The protagonist is a former soldier and ex-cop named Ellis, who drives out to the remote Black Hills Forest near Burkittsville, Maryland in search of a missing boy, the latest in a long string of disappearances dating back decades. It’s clear from his strained cell phone conversation with his love interest Jess that he feels some sort of personal obligation to help young Peter, but also that there are reasons for concern about Ellis’s own frame of mind in undertaking such a task. Ellis insists he’s fine, of course, intending to meet up with the local sheriff and the rest of the search party somewhere in the woods.
But Ellis isn’t alone. Perhaps the real star of the game is Bullet, his trusty German Shepherd companion. Bullet isn’t just a comforting presence – though he is that, particularly in moments of extreme stress, so you will almost certainly want to reward him with pets and even snacks at times – he’s also a vital part of your search. He’ll use his attuned canine snout to sniff out helpful items needed to progress, and once given the right scent to follow he can even track a new lead through the dense forest trails and brush – sometimes a little too enthusiastically. You don’t need to protect Bullet, which is perhaps a bit of a missed opportunity to create an even stronger bond between you, but whenever he runs off you’ll come to feel the same separation anxiety as Ellis, whose pulse audibly quickens and his vision starts to blur.
Bullet isn’t just an emotional support either, but a legitimate lifesaver in times of genuine peril. Bizarre red energy-like creatures occasionally show up to attack you in the dark, which can only be killed (or at least dispelled) by shining your flashlight on them for a few seconds, a process that must be repeated between 3-5 times before the threat subsides. The problem is that the creatures flit so rapidly through the trees around you that often the only way to find them is to follow Bullet’s line of sight to alert you to their current position. When he begins to dart about at your feet, it can become easy to lose sight of him through the limited beam of light, making you temporarily vulnerable. Fortunately you can survive at least a few hits when the creatures rush you, as I never once died during these handful of encounters.
There is a drawback to being accompanied by your furry friend, however, which is that it makes the whole experience a lot less scary than it would otherwise have been. Bullet will growl nervously whenever he senses danger, but in between that means his silence signals the all-clear, allowing you to relax and simply explore at your leisure. For some this will be a welcome respite, but as the safe periods vastly outpace the relatively few moments of jeopardy, it’s an odd choice for a franchise based around terror of the unseen. The game is much, much more frightening whenever Bullet and Ellis are unavoidably split up.
Not that there’s really all that much to fear for long stretches, with or without Bullet at your side, at least during the first two-thirds of the game. You’d figure being stranded in such an eerily oppressive environment would provide lots of opportunities for spooky sounds from things going snap in the night, but the biggest fears come not from the woods or even the witch, but from Ellis’s own troubled mind. The deeper into the forest you venture, the more the protagonist is plagued by flashbacks and hallucinations, or some combination of the two. Without going into spoilers, it’s clear that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, both from his harrowing experiences in the war and a particularly disturbing confrontation as a police officer back in civilian life, stresses that then spilled over into his domestic affairs with predictable results.
I found the periodic backstory elements to be far more interesting than the main event for much of the game. Memories are experienced only in fragments, teasing out the details slowly and in no discernible order, but these brief forays into the past are highly surreal, filled with visual distortions like changing colour palettes, twisting and bending camera perspectives, slow motion, ever-increasing haze and more. Many are simple cutscenes but some of the more dramatic events lead to entirely different playable segments. The most compelling are those that blur the lines between reality and memory, leaving you fending off (figurative) demons from the past in an altered version of Black Hills Forest.
Against all this, the search for a missing boy feels fairly routine, although the main plot too has some tricks up its sleeve. In between traipsing through the lush and crisply rendered 3D woods through different times of day and even varying weather conditions – the same lone-tent campsite looks and feels much different at night during the rain than it does in broad daylight – you’ll discover scattered video tapes that show what happened to young Peter. This is a clever tie-in to the “found footage” origins of the Blair Witch franchise that goes one step further by implementing these recordings into the gameplay itself. For reasons never explained (black magic!), when viewed these videos can directly impact your surroundings for real, opening up new avenues of investigation. Where a fallen tree now blocks your way forward, for example, perhaps a video showed a time when the path was still clear? It’s a fun little gimmick, though always fairly obvious as the tape you need will always be found nearby (and often by Bullet).
The video tapes are about as close as the game comes to actual puzzles. The few inventory items you collect (and rather clumsily accessed through an overly cumbersome interface) all have very straightforward uses. There are a few other tasks, like replacing faulty fuses and powering up a rail cart, but both come with easy-to-follow instructions that remove any real need for working out the solution yourself. Only in select situations are there so much as hotspots to examine, but even then there’s nothing to do but cycle through them for observations. Ostensibly you can command Bullet to follow a trail if you’re not sure where to go next, but despite the labyrinthine pathways through the forest, generally speaking all paths ultimately lead to the same place anyway, and except for the rare occasions when the game makes it clear that Bullet is needed, I found this feature to be largely irrelevant.
You might be wondering where the Blair Witch factors into all this, and surprisingly the answer is: pretty much not at all until very late in the game. It’s almost as if Bloober Team had a great idea for a PTSD victim coming to terms with this past under highly stressful circumstances before realizing either they didn’t know how to finish it, or that there wasn’t enough substance to round out a complete game experience. Oh, sure, there are signs of the woods being haunted, most notably by the familiar twig totems and a dead tree oozing blood-like black fluid, and periodically in the midst of another Ellis freak-out you’ll hear creepy whispers from an unknown woman’s voice urging you onward. Really, though, Ellis is so completely screwed-up psychologically that it’s impossible to tell the difference between external influence and self-induced madness.
That all begins to change late in the game when you must first creep through a far-too-long gauntlet of fog-shrouded creatures using only the night vision feature on your camcorder, finally arriving at a house that fans of the movie will instantly recognize. At least, from the outside it’ll look familiar. Inside it’s a never-ending series of corridors and rooms that traverse not only space but time as well, appearing in various states of disrepair. Stalked by creatures that can only be crept past rather than defeated by light, every time you think you’re making progress, suddenly the rug is pulled from under your feet and you find yourself back in the center of the maze, so to speak. By this point Ellis’s psychoses are in full swing, so it’s all just a jumbled mess of images and experiences that makes no sense whatsoever. It’s tense and it’s creepy, but it’s utterly incoherent, which is a frustrating note to end on.
I’m not sure if the Blair Witch license added some additional funding to the coffers, but whatever the game’s faults, they certainly can’t be blamed on the solid production values. The beautifully rendered forest feels large enough to become genuinely lost in, and any recycling is smoothed over by effective alterations to lighting. Much of the game is spent in pitch black, illuminated only by your flashlight, but enough time is spent in various other times of day that the darkness rarely feels overwhelming. In the witch’s house you can practically feel the paint peeling and dust forming from decades of decay, while a brief detour through a cave-like tree tunnel will leave you feeling suitably claustrophobic. The creatures are never seen up close, which is probably just as well if the face-to-face moments with Bullet are any indication. The modeling isn’t poor by any means, just not particularly lifelike, though the few humans fare better. (Graphically speaking, that is – a couple of them are pretty horribly mutilated.)
Voice acting is strong all around, though the game tends to be indecisive about when to have Ellis comment on something or not. He’s not a silent protagonist by any means, between his banter with Bullet and too-frequent conversations by cell phone or walkie-talkie, but he’s strangely mute in certain situations that absolutely require some sort of verbal response. Bullet’s panting, barks, and growls sound authentically canine throughout, and hearing his occasional yelps or whimpers is sure to cause you moments of defenseless worry. Music is rare, limited only to haunting tones that accentuate mood when appropriate. Most of the acoustic accompaniment is purely ambient, which is appropriate for the middle of a forest, but less so for the middle of a haunted forest. Where are all the unexplained noises that scared the bejeebers out of the kids in the movie?
During my five or so hours playing Blair Witch, the game ran smoothly except for two crashes that forced me to reboot, highlighting just how few and far between the autosaves can be. There are several slots to permanently record your progress as well, though they’ll always restart you at the nearest checkpoint. Apparently there are several different endings available, though most are only subtle variations on the main two. It’s not at all clear what actions will contribute to the “good” (which in this universe is invariably just the lesser of two evils) ending or “bad,” or even which decisions will factor into things like the fate of Bullet and the missing boy, which is counterproductive for encouraging replays when the rest of the experience plays out the same regardless.
For a game called Blair Witch, its namesake largely takes a backseat to the skeletons already in the protagonist’s closet when he ventures into her haunted woodland playground. That makes him ripe for the tormenting, but observing the man gradually coming undone under the strain of his own trauma is compelling enough without adding a whole new layer of paranormal misery. To be sure, the game becomes noticeably scarier when the witch’s influence is finally featured more prominently towards the end, but it also feels at odds with the hours of distressing but not particularly frightening build-up to that point, and in many ways it feels like overkill. If you don’t mind the rather abrupt shift in tone and focus, there’s enough here to enjoy as a psychological thriller with a bit of late survival horror tacked on. Just don’t expect to be enthralled by one or the other in a fully coherent experience, as sooner or later you’re bound to find the spell is broken in ways only a tummy rub can mend.
Review copy generously provided by GOG.com.