Can a classic franchise bring new scares?
It's a horrendously sunny and warm day in early August as I make my way to the offices of Premier Communications for a special preview of the upcoming Blair Witch from Bloober Team. Fortunately, the building I'm heading for has climate control. The heat stops as soon as I walk through the door. After a pretty damn short waiting time with three of my peers, our group heads into a small room. That's where the preview starts.
The room is downright creepy. Sticks crafted into the shape of the witch totems from the Blair Witch movies hang everywhere. Red lights envelop the room. Our preview starts with a small presentation by Maciek Glomb of Bloober Team, which introduces us to some of the basic mechanics and concepts behind the game. Just as quickly as it starts, the presentation is over. All four of us are herded into our own isolated booths to play the game.
It's fair to say that Blair Witch is a fair bit different to Bloober Team's previous titles. While they specialize in horror, they seem to add more gameplay as time goes on. Their first release, Layers of Fear, started out as close to an interactive horror story as you could get. Their next title, Observer, added some 'adventure game' style elements. These had players exploring scenes to try and put together a mystery and escaping horrifying monsters in stealth segments. From what I've played, Blair Witch comfortably continues that trajectory.
Blair Witch's Animal Friends
Blair Witch opens immediately by introducing you to Bullet, your animal companion. Bullet is one of the big changes this time around. He follows you around for pretty much the entire game and you can give him different commands. He can take active roles like sniffing out enemies or clues. Or, he can just keep you company, provided your fear doesn't stop you from moving on. The preview starts out with your character wandering the woods, helping to search for a missing child. You and Bullet set out into the wilderness hoping to meet up with the rest of the search party. As you can probably imagine this doesn't necessarily go to pan.
The rest of the preview gives you a snapshot of several different chapters which will be in the final game. These little snapshots do a damn good job of giving you some insight into how the game will work, without ruining too much of the story for when the full game finally drops. After your brief excursion through the woods playing fetch with Bullet, you find yourself deeper into the woods, nearby to some old sawmill. It is here that the game introduces the combat elements. Perhaps combat is a strong word, you don't actually physically attack anyone. Instead, you have to use your flashlight to try and keep monsters away, while Bullet will point out the direction of approaching enemies.
This combat-lite style works very well for a game like Blair Witch. It gives the player a sense of control over their fate, without ruining the fear-factor by making you too powerful. The brief combat encounter I got to try out was as intense as anything I've experienced from a horror game in a long time. I was on edge pretty much constantly after that. It was to the point that every slight noise or movement in the woods could be a creeper preparing to jump out at me.
Blair Witch's Perfect Scare Formula
On that note, Bloober Team seems to have got the scares just right. You're not likely to find any startle-dependant jump scares in the game, or at least not very often. There is a certain mastery of tension building necessary to make a good horror game. If every time the music cuts out you have a monster jump at you then it doesn't take long for the scares to stop working. That's the beauty of well-produced tension: it only gets better if you don't pay it off. Each time the world got quiet in the game I was sure that something was going to happen, but nothing did. It happened enough times that I was lulled into a false sense of security, which is exactly the point.
Apart from the well-crafted scares, the combat, and the animal friend, there is one other major gameplay addition. As you explore the world, you come across different videotapes which fit into your camcorder. Firstly these tapes are a great callback to the source material which also allows you to gain some more backstory about what has been going on. Secondly, the tapes let you control certain things in the world. As you fast-forwarding through the tapes the world around you reacts like the actions on film are still taking place. These fast-forward, tape mechanics are the primary method of puzzle-solving in the game, and it's not only a nice touch that adds some challenge, but it's so in flavor for the Blair Witch universe that it might as well taste like peanuts.
Blair Witch Preview | Final Thoughts
All in all, my time with Blair Witch was all too brief. After solving the deadly and deceitful sawmill and utilizing the videotape mechanics, I found myself in a creepy house. It was here where I met the scariest type of monster. The ones who don't fear the light. It was also here that the preview dropped some pretty damn cryptic story hints. Then it yanked the rug out from under me and telling me I had to wait to find out anything more. I was sad when my time with Blair Witch was up. This was an impressive demonstration that got my mind racing. With the new mechanics and Bloober Team's attention to the important elements of horror the new title is shaping up to be their best yet.
Techraptor previewed Blair Witch hands-on PC at an event held by the developers in