Blair Witch as a franchise hasn’t had an excellent run with video games. Some would even argue that only one of the three films thus far have been good. Some don’t like it at all. But for the first time in a long time, when I saw the reveal trailer for Blair Witch at E3, I was optimistic. And after having finished it twice, I’m happy to declare it the best Blair Witch game ever. Although, admittedly, that bar isn’t set very high.
Blair Witch takes the lore established by the original film and the recent sequel to tell its own story. The game takes place in 1996, where a young boy has disappeared in the Black Hills Forest near Burkittsville, Maryland two years after the three film students from the original film also went missing. You play as Ellis, a former police officer who joins the search in the woods with his trusty dog Bullet. Obviously, things don’t go to plan.
This rendition of Blair Witch is an entirely self-contained story that doesn’t reference any previous piece of Blair Witch media. Instead, it uses the lore to tell the story of Ellis and further flesh out the mythology of the eponymous entity and the woods she inhabits. The story of Ellis himself is admittedly done to death, however, and anyone with experience in the genre will be able to predict where he ends up. But Blair Witch is a game that’s more about the journey than the destination, and it’s a pretty tumultuous one.
What you enjoy about Blair Witch depends on whether you enjoyed the first film, the recent sequel or both. Developers Bloober Team has had plenty of practice establishing mood and atmosphere with their pedigree, and this experience comes to a brilliant head with Blair Witch. The first half of the game is a clear love letter to the original film – throwing you into a world that feels wide and open and yet using stark minimalism to creep you the fuck out. The second half, or to be more specific, the final third of the game throws that all out the window to provide an experience akin to the 2016 sequel’s closing moments. For better or for worse, these moments closer resemble Layers of Fear more than anything else.
The problem here is that none of it feels particularly new – though ironically because the original Blair Witch film did so much to establish the tropes that this game is trying to tap into. If this is your first introduction to the franchise, you’ll most probably enjoy the way the game builds its atmosphere. In fact, the game should be commended for relying on its superbly built atmosphere to instill a genuine sense of dread than cheap jump scares. If you’re not new to the franchise, Blair Witch will tap into some of that nostalgia you never knew you had for the property.
The game itself plays much like any other first-person horror game, but it does feel a bit more involving than Bloober Team’s previous games. You control Ellis, who has access to a deliciously retro mobile phone, a flashlight, and a camcorder. Each item has a distinct use in the forest; the phone allows you to call home and speak to the outside world, the flashlight has obvious uses but also works to ward away the Witch’s monsters and the camcorder is used to solve puzzles.
The “puzzles” are probably the most exciting thing about Blair Witch. The crux of them involves red videotapes, which Ellis can play in his camcorder. The twist is that each of these videos can be played to manipulate aspects of the Ellis’ own environment. Imagine you see a locked door in the game. You also have in your possession a macabre red videotape that shows a killer chasing a victim through that same door. Pausing the video just as the door is opened will mean that the door will then be open in the real world too. It’s an excellent way to incorporate the very grisly videotapes you find around the forest into the gameplay itself, even if it borrows from my least favourite element of the 2016 film.
Joining you in your search is a dog named Bullet. Trained by the K-9 unit, he acts as a way for you to find your way without ruining that feeling of isolation that helps to sell the atmosphere Blair Witch is trying to establish. Bullet can do pretty much anything you’d expect a video game dog to do – he barks to get your attention at certain key items, can dowse for hidden objects or locates key leads after you give him a scent to track. How you treat Bullet is essential – it not only affects the ending, but it also affects how useful he is in battle, allegedly.
I say battle, but Blair Witch’s action offerings are rudimentary. From time to time, if you step too close to an invisible enemy or shine your torch on them, you will awaken the monsters that aid the Witch. From this point, the battles are simple – Bullet barks in the general direction that the monsters are coming from, and you must shine the light on them to scare them away. It’s a simple system that works – and one of the most involving that Bloober has made – but thankfully it’s not repeated ad nauseam, so it doesn’t overstay it’s welcome.
But the question remains as to whether Blair Witch is a frightening experience or not. The more you consume horror, the more you become desensitised to all the tricks that it tries to use against you. Despite this, I still found Blair Witch to be an unnerving experience even if a little bit predictable. Most of the game is spent in silence with little to no music, and the combat sections themselves are tense. The scare factor does wear away when you get lost and find yourself walking around in circles. Especially in the forests at night, where everything is dark with little to no helpful pathfinding.
I guess that’s as authentic a Blair Witch experience as you can get – but while this might unintentionally serve an artistic purpose, frustration does overcome the initial feeling of fear and dread during these moments, and it can make the game feel less scary.
From the get-go, Blair Witch brags about watching you, and for the most part that’s true. On your first run of the game, you’ll no doubt get five to six hours out of it with an ending dependent on how you behave in-game. There are even aspects of the story that can only be unlocked in a second playthrough, providing closure for threads left hanging in your first run. Whether you find these alternate or expanded endings worth replaying for is totally up to you, but it is a game that I wanted to jump straight back into after finishing it the first time.
I’ve harped on about how Blair Witch uses audio (or lack thereof) to sell its atmosphere, but the game has some great visuals too if a little uneven. The forest itself lends such a foreboding tone that it feels like a character in and of itself. Lighting is used to great effect to differentiate each of the game’s invisible chapters. There are times when performance can ruin the experience a little bit, as the framerate is incredibly uneven, even on an Xbox One X. But those pivotal moments, those major story beats, especially one where you must just stare into a corner for a few minutes, are choreographed incredibly well.
THE XBOX ONE VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS PLAYED ON AN XBOX ONE X FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. A DIGITAL COPY OF THE GAME WAS PLAYED BY THE AUTHOR VIA XBOX GAME PASS.
Blair Witch is the best Blair Witch game yet. However, its willingness to get you lost can be frustrating despite being so authentic to the franchise. Regardless, despite some uneven presentation, Blair Witch is a passionate love letter to the first and third films in the franchise. It manages to maintain its scares from beginning to end, even if it becomes a little predictable.