Who’s a good boy?
I remember the critical buzz surrounding The Blair Witch Project when it released in theaters some twenty years ago. Found Footage films had been done before, sure, but there was something about what these independent filmmakers had done that really popularized its use for years to come. I loosely remember its sequel: Book of Shadows, and never actually got around to seeing its 2016 followup; simply titled, Blair Witch. That said, I still regularly watch The Blair Thumb and attest it’s still one of the funniest things I have ever seen.
For a new game to come out based on the property was actually a pretty big surprise when the game was revealed at the Microsoft 2019 E3 press conference, a title that would release day and date on Game Pass, Microsoft’s subscription service that keeps becoming the best thing in gaming. While the game certainly has some interesting ideas and genuinely creepy atmosphere, it can come off a bit weak in its overall gameplay variety. That said, Blair Witch still offers a fun and enthralling experience for its average 5-6 hour length.
You play as a man named Ellis as he and his dog, Bullet, are driving out into the woods to assist in tracking down a missing boy. You arrive to help in the search, and find that everyone has started without you. As you traverse into the woods, it appears very clear that Ellis isn’t doing well and that he’s suffering from many mental health issues that cause concern from his ex-wife, Jess, whom you’ll talk with often on his cellphone. With it being 1996, you have a Nokia looking mobile phone that has the classic back-lit greenish screen with such amazing features as a phone-book, messages, and a few games, one of which being snake. It’s a nice trip down memory lane, and one that places the game firmly into the past quite well.
Joining you in your search is Bullet, your German Shepherd companion, that can sniff out clues, retrieve items for you, and will keep Ellis calm and collected when he starts to freak out. You can pet Bullet anytime you want, or scold him if you’re a monster. My only issue with Bullet is the radial wheel used to offer his commands feels clunky, like it’s from the era that the game is taking place in. Bullet will also act as a compass for the more supernatural threats, barking in their direction, giving you the chance to shine your flashlight ala Alan Wake style to then let you burn them up into dust.
Traversing through the woods here is vastly enjoyable, almost always creepy, and when you wear headphones, due to its use of binaural audio, it really completes the overall package of what Bloober Team was looking to accomplish here. You’ll encounter wooden idols to collect, cursed charms to crush, and clues to collect as you’ll get lost again and again, driving you, and Ellis, into madness. Now, getting lost in games in one thing, but here, it’s intentional. It’s not something that is the reflection of poor sign posting or a lack of direction, but rather one that is psychological in nature. You’ll take one path up a hill, and find the camp site you just left moments ago. This forces you to question if there is something holding you there, a clue left undiscovered, a mystery unsolved.
You’ll often explore the forest through different means as well. It may be bright and sunny early on, or eventually dressed in the fabrics of a pitch black environment, but later on, the forest starts to become more rotten, as if it has aged considerably. Seeing Ellis descend into fear and hysteria is very involving due to some conversations he’ll have with certain characters, or how his past comes back to haunt him at nearly every step. This isn’t just a mission to find the missing boy to Ellis, it’s part of a redemption arc he doesn’t feel he can ever earn. While the last chapter feels a tad longer than it should be, it does a good job at showing us what Ellis is going through, a glimpse into his mind and mental state. Jess is another constant reminder of the life he’s led and depending on your choices, it can end very good for them, or very, very bad.
Blair Witch has 4 overall endings that vary on you completing certain objectives or how you explore the environment, however; these are never made clear to you in any respect what-so-ever. Getting the good ending from the start can be rather difficult as it’s not exactly cut and dry on how you go about that. In fact, I didn’t even know there were different endings until I glanced online for help with a puzzle and the recommended videos was talking about how to get said endings. The endings; however, are not drastically different and feel like somewhat minor changes despite some big differences of where Ellis and Bullet end up. Leading up to the end, some aspects of the story are far too predictable, and the game goes out of its way to play up a “bet you won’t see this coming” approach to its narrative that can feel rather silly considering you’ll figure out exactly what is to happen far sooner than the game really wants you to.
If you’ve played Layers of Fear, and its sequel, a pair of horror games also developed by Bloober Team, you’ll feel at home with the constant changes to the environment as the camera view shifts away from them. Walking into a room and the door behind you is suddenly gone, turning around and the room has changed yet again, walk through the door and appear into the room you just left. This type of design happens often, and frankly, a bit too much so in the final length of the game. The locations here of a never ending forest and a few homesteads, really do sell the feel of the films, while also making for very detailed and engaging set pieces.
I will say that while there is some nice level design, and an overall moody atmosphere, the actual visuals of the game are a bit lacking for a modern release. The game can feel somewhat muddy and the textures themselves rather poor. Even Bullet, can look awfully plain and his fur looks like a character model that is still loading it in. There is some nice detail to the game; however, I just wish it was higher resolution than what is currently offered. Considering the turn around time following the release of this and Layers of Fear 2, I wonder if this game had a very short development cycle.
The game does tie into the found footage gimmick of the movies by giving Ellis a camcorder early on. You’ll find a series of cassettes that show you past footage, and red tapes specifically, will allow you to affect the real world by pausing them when a door is opened, or a shovel that hasn’t been retrieved yet. It’s very cool to see these things play out and lends to that bit of supernatural charm needed to make its world and its atmosphere play out. The camera has additional uses in the final few hours that play to what we’ve seen camera’s used for in other games, but still does fit within what Blair Witch is trying to do here.
Hearing the branches crunch under your feet, or the noises of Bullet sniffing around is heightened when wearing headphones, something the game recommends, and I do as well. As was the case with other games that use binaural audio, sound is recorded all around you, placing certain aspects of the world in one ear and curving around your head as you move. The sounds of the forest, the creaks of the floorboards, all compliment the game rather well and add to the fear and dread the game throws at you.
While its final chapter makes its stay a bit too long, I rather enjoyed what Blair Witch offered, even if its gameplay systems and visuals are a bit basic. Wandering a pitch black forest with a flashlight barely illuminating my way and relying on a camcorder may seem old hat now, but these gameplay systems are still enjoyable given the game has moody and immersive environments, which Bloober Team has nailed here to great effect. While it can feel clunky in its menu’s and lacking the gameplay depth of what’s come before, those looking for a fun and atmospheric horror game can check this game out on Game Pass and get lost in the woods, clutching the controller in fear. Just make sure to pet Bullet as often as you can and give the good boy some treats when he’s scared.
Blair Witch was downloaded via Game Pass by the reviewer and played on an Xbox One X.
All Screenshots were taken on an Xbox One X.