The horror film The Blair Witch Project was one of the most influential movies of its kind, as it popularized the "found footage" style of horror and shook audiences with its nerve-wracking invisible antagonist. The movie's influence is still felt today, and game developer Blooper Team created a game that both utilizes the movie's ideas and introduces some new concepts. The result is a horror game that is as gripping as it is chilling, although there are a handful of issues that keep it from being truly excellent.
Will you survive the forest?
Bottom line: Blair Witch is a chilling horror game with a great blend of classic and new concepts, but it has some problems.
- Intriguing narrative
- Incredible atmosphere
- Creative gameplay design
- Strong presentation
- Frustrating level design
- Some mechanics don't always work
- Performance problems
A conflict on two fronts
Blair Witch is set in 1996 within the Black Hills Forest close to Burkittsville, Maryland. A child has disappeared within the heart of the woods, and it's up to the nearby community to try and find him before he is lost forever. You play as Ellis, a former police officer who has decided to join the search, and with you is Bullet, a loyal and affectionate dog whose heightened senses will hopefully be useful. As Ellis combs through the woods, though, it becomes clear that he is being haunted by a traumatic past and hunted by terrifying forces in the present. With only his trusted companion at his side, Ellis aims to survive the threats that besiege him and rescue the missing child.
The narrative of Blair Witch is intriguing and intense.
This is an awesome premise, as it deviates from the standard group-of-dumb-teens-goes-missing trope that horror stories often follow. The ex-cop Ellis is a breath of fresh air, and I found myself connecting with him strongly over the course of the game as the narrative dove into his troubled history and showed me his fears and his flaws. As he is Ellis's only ally over the course of the nightmarish experience, Bullet is a character that I came to bond with, too — especially since the two of them rely on each other for survival.
As with most horror titles, there's also a large amount of collectible items strewn about the environment that tell their own mini-stories or tie back in to the larger plot. These do a great job fleshing out the world and making the overall experience more immersive, and several of them are callbacks to the original film.
The core of Blair Witch's gameplay is working with Bullet to track the missing boy as you progress further into the woods. Finding items with a scent he can track, paying attention to what he barks at, and watching where he's looking are all survival skills that you'll need for this journey. When he detects threats, though, he needs your help; the monsters of Blair Witch, which are invisible beings that attack by charging, can only be fended off with your flashlight. Bullet can sense where these creatures are, and he'll stare, growl, and bark in their direction. For the most part, I really enjoy this design, but there are times where Bullet simply doesn't listen to some commands, gets stuck on geometry far behind you, or wanders off on his own in critical moments. This is grating when it happens, as Bullet is such an integral part of the experience.
Another thing you'll need to do is ensure Bullet is close by at all times. Not only are his canine senses incredibly useful, but his presence is necessary to help Ellis retain his sanity. One of the side-effects of Ellis's trauma is that he hates being alone, so Bullet is a helpful ally and comforting friend. There are times where the game forces you to separate from him, and you'll need to focus on quickly figuring out where he is before Ellis starts to mentally break down. The sequences where you're separated from your furry friend are some of the game's most tense moments.
Another major part of Blair Witch is solving puzzles, most of which is done with a creative mechanic that makes use of a camcorder. Among the items Bullet can find in the world are tapes with recorded video; you can watch these back on your camcorder, and these provide hints about the story and what happened before you came along. However, their real importance lies within their ability to manipulate reality. Pausing a video on your camcorder at a specific moment can often change the environment around you and open up the path forward. For example, you might come across a locked door you can't open unless you watch a recording that shows the door. Then, you pause the clip when the door is open, and voila, the door is unlocked in the present.
Exploring is the weakest part of the gameplay.
When you aren't working with Bullet or solving puzzles, you're exploring to try and find a new scent for Bullet to track, which is the weakest part of the gameplay. It's not bad, but it's designed in a way that makes it very easy to get lost sometimes. Perhaps this will be part of the charm for some, but I ended up getting frustrated until I found the next area I was supposed to go to by running in random directions. Finding interesting lore objects and the engaging enemy encounters make up for this in the end, but it's still a part of the game that irked me a lot.
Atmosphere done right
In terms of presentation, Blair Witch is sublime. The creepy and unsettling forest is brought to life perfectly due to the game's sheer amount of detail. The woods are blanketed by an eerie, wispy fog that makes walking through them even more nerve-wracking, and the washed-out color palette gives off a bit of that "old footage" vibe that helps tie the game to the film that inspired it. The sound design is equally amazing, and the abundance of snapping branches, rustling leaves, and animal cries you hear as you walk between the trees will constantly have you on edge.
Blair Witch's presentation is excellent, though the performance could be better.
Unfortunately, Blair Witch suffers a fair amount in the performance department. The framerate tends to drop considerably when running through densely-detailed areas, and sometimes the game stutters slightly. There are also some noticeable pop-in problems with faraway textures, and during the daytime parts of the game, this really stands out. Overall, I wish it ran better. The rich detail looks phenomenal, but I would have been fine with sacrificing some of it for smoother, consistent performance.
So should you buy Blair Witch?
While Blair Witch certainly has its issues, it's a very good horror game. It's also a title that stays true to the source material, while bringing some new concepts to the table.
The problems that I brought up prevent Blair Witch from being truly excellent, but Bullet's glitchy moments and the performance issues are things that the developer can hopefully improve with an update, making a great game even better. Even as it is, though, I still highly recommend Blair Witch if you're a fan of horror titles.
Blair Witch is available now on Xbox One and PC for $30.
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