Spooky & Scary, Sans Startles
Good horror is hard to find these days. Partially, that is because horror is very subjective. What I find terrifying is probably very different from what you might find terrifying. Partially, it's because horror as a genre likes to latch onto a single concept and milk that dry for a good decade before moving on. With this in mind, it should be quite a shock when I say that Blair Witch is probably one of the greatest horror games I have played in recent memory. Not that it will scare you deeply or anything. What it will do, however, is grip you with an intensity so great that you might feel on edge for hours after you're finished.
Blair Witch comes from the developers over at Bloober Team, famous for their rigid adhesion to a single genre: psychological horror. Their previous titles, Layers of Fear and Observer are both psychological horror games with different themes and settings. Backing them up is Liongate Games, the video game arm of the famous movie producers behind the SAW series and the recent Blair Witch movie from 2016. This outing marks the first time Bloober Team operates within an already established universe. It's an interesting test of their horror game prowess.
Plot And Character in Blair Witch
The plot follows Ellis, a former police officer who joins a search party for a missing child. Accompanied by his pet dog, Bullet, he wanders into the infamous Black Hills Forest following just behind the main search party. It soon becomes very clear that the rumors of curses and witches in the woods may be more than just rumors. The setting is the same as the movies, in fact, the game actually takes place in 1996, only 2 years after the events of The Blair Witch Project. The woods already have a reputation for missing persons, and as the story goes on, you find out that there are more missing people than you might have originally thought.
Ellis is a very interesting main character. As well as having a dark past which rears its head from time-to-time, his journey into the woods also feels very personal. It becomes clear early on that Ellis has a connection to the missing child. The constant hints throughout at this detail do a good job of keeping players invested. There are also numerous other sub-plots taking place at the same time. Ellis' wife, Jess, makes frequent calls to you which can be either picked up or ignored and how many time you answer or call her back effect your, already strained, relationship.
Bullet Is Your Best Friend in Blair Witch
Perhaps one of the most important background stories involved Bullet. As you make your way through the woods you come across symbols tied into the trees. Bullet does not like these symbols so you have the option of destroying them to make him happy. You also have the ability to feed him dog treats, and to pet him after he accomplished a task. How nice you are to Bullet mainly affects his personal outcome in the game. However, it's difficult not to invest yourself in such an endearing character. There's also a harrowing scene towards the end of the game involving Bullet. Saying what happens there would be a spoiler but let's just say that I've never found something so hard and yet met it with such resolve at the same time.
The gameplay is pretty simple, but that's probably for the best in such a story-driven game. Your main gameplay involves wandering around the woods, picking up clues and trying to figure out what happened to the missing child. To aid that you have several items. A phone, a walkie-talkie, a camcorder (eventually) and of course your dog Bullet. Bullet is probably the most useful tool in your search. He can seek out clues and sniff out trails from objects in the wilderness at your command. He also acts as psychological protection, keeping you sane and brave as long as he is nearby.
The Found Footage Style of Blair Witch
The camcorder is the second most important tool you have. As well as allowing you to view grey colored tapes that you come across which give more backstory it also has a night-vision mode. The night vision is useful especially if you want to find your way in the dark without revealing your location to enemies. There's also the added effect of special red tapes which allow you to affect the world by rewinding, fast-forwarding and pausing. These tapes can make literally make objects appear out of nowhere, as well as opening doors or activating machines. Combined with night-vision, the tapes mean that the camcorder is probably the tool you'll use the most. At least the non-living tool that you'll use the most.
Combat actually makes an appearance this time around as well. No longer relegated to running in screaming terror, now you can actually defend yourself. As you stalk through the forest, weird, tree-like monsters occasionally assault you. To defend yourself you must use the flashlight to scare them off. These fights can get pretty intense. Bullet spins around, growling in the enemies direction. You have to make sure you keep an eye on him as he indicates where they're coming from. If you manage to blast them full-beam enough times then you're safe again. This style of combat is perfect for a horror title. You're not so powerful that the enemies are ineffective, but you're not so weak that the challenge ever feels frustrating.
The true genius of Blair Witch
The true brilliance in Blair Witch is the tension and storytelling. Most games rely on jump scares or startle tactics to put the player on edge. Blair Witch has handily avoided this. There are about 3 cases of jump scares in the entire game, and each time comes off well. Most of the time the game basically tricks you into scaring yourself. As you creep around quite woods the sound of cracking twigs or your dog suddenly barking makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. It requires a certain mastery of tension building to make the player creeped out without wearing them down. Of all the creepiest and scariest moments there are only 2 that miss the mark, both in the late game. They just drag on slightly too long, which breaks the tension drastically.
The divergent endings also have a big impact on the game. There are decisions to be made throughout the game, even when you feel like you're going through the motions. It's important that you keep in mind that the game is judging all of your actions, not just the obvious ones. Being nice to your dog and trying you best not to be a monster is one thing, but the game also notices how you act in high-pressure situations. In fact, Blair Witch warns you about this at the very start. A black screen with two eyes on it reminds you of the force monitoring your actions and judging your humanity. If that didn't set the tone just right then I would struggle to think of a better way to do so.
Blair Witch Review| Final Thoughts
All-in-all, Blair Witch is one of the best horror games to have come out of the last decade. Scarier than Amnesia, with a better story than...well than any horror game I can think of. Despite some moments where tension drags too thin, the rest of the terror builds admirably. It is a rare thing indeed that a game forces the player to creep themselves out, and does it all without relying on cheap jump-scare tactics like it's trying to become Five Nights at Freddie's. If you're at all interested in the universe of the films, or if you're just a fan of psychological horror then you owe it to yourself to get this game. Just make sure that you stick to the Xbox One version if you want to have your frame-rates consistent.
Techraptor reviewed Blair Witch on Xbox One via Xbox Game Pass.
- Truly Intense And Creepy.
- Bullet Is Adorable.
- Involving Story With Multiple Endings.
- Puzzles Are Challenging But Doable.
- Few Times The Tension Building Drags On.
- It Is Possible To Get Lost.