Don‘t panic! This is not a film tie-in. As most gamers can testify, unless they happen to have ‘Spider-Man’ in the title, among a short list of exceptions, good movies don’t have a great history of making decent videogames. Instead, Blair Witch is fresh story told within the same fictional world first seen in 1999’s Blair Witch Project and more recently returned to in the 2016 film that shares a name with this latest adventure - one that was first launched on digital platforms last year if it sounds familiar, but has now gone fully 'old school' with a physical console release.
The game takes place in the same woodlands surrounding Burkittsville, Maryland, and is set in 1996 – some two years after those unfortunate students first set out to unravel the mystery behind the titular witch who could manipulate people into killing at her behest. You play as Ellis, an ex-soldier and former cop who joins in the search for missing 9-year-old boy. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t take long for things to take a turn for the worse.
Without heading into spoiler territory, Blair Witch doesn’t waste much time in hinting towards Ellis’ own troubled past and it soon becomes clear that very little is quite what it seems. Drifting between horror and the surreal (in a way that reminded us of the excellent 2012 game Spec Ops: The Line) he almost literally battles his own inner demons while the search takes him deeper into the woods in a growing spiral of despair. This is not a game to be played for laughs…
It soon becomes clear that very little is quite what it seems
The game plays to its setting nicely, with menus stylised like those of the camcorders of the day. You also get a distinctly Nokia-like phone from the era, complete with the same interface and options – to the point where you can even take a break with a quick game of ‘Snake’ (kids: ask your parents!). In one of several nice touches, as Ellis’ own mind deteriorates, so too do the inventory icons.
With a vast woodland in front of you, what quickly becomes clear is that the developer has no intention of holding your hand and walking you through the game. There are no missions or waypoints and your next step is offered by little more than a nudge via a text message or a chat on your walkie-talkie with the sheriff leading the search. It can feel like you’re exploring the forest with little sense of direction but, arguably, that’s pretty much how a real search could feel.
This can be a quite tedious and tiresome in places, with continued exploration required until the one key element needed to progress the storyline is found. However, while at first it might seem like an endlessly open world you could get lost in, Blair Witch is actually far more linear in its approach, with each path ultimately leading back on itself, so at worst you’ll just be running around in circles at times.
The developer has no intention of holding your hand and walking you through the game
Follow the Dog!
To help with the hunt, you’re joined by your trusty canine sidekick, Bullet. Presumably a companion aimed at helping Ellis with his PTSD – he’ll get dizzy and panic if Bullet runs off and leaves him isolated for too long – he also makes for a great search dog. With a handful of simple commands you can send him off to look for clues, including some of the many collectibles in the game, call him back if he does stray away or just pet him with a friendly ‘good boy’.
A lot of the time you’ll use his nose to follow a scent from one clue to the next, and, for the most part, Bullet will have a much clearer idea of where you should be going than you probably will. So, if in doubt, just follow your pet pooch's lead and the chances are you’ll be going in the right direction. It certainly beats chasing your own tail.
Bullet will also react to certain things in the game and the odd bark could alert you to something of interest, while he’ll get notably defensive when evil rears its head. It doesn’t happen too often, and Blair Witch has very little in the way of actual combat, but you will get glimpses of supernatural ‘monsters’ lurking in the trees. They’ll be angered by your flashlight or if you get too close, but in true Alan Wake style, a continued blast with your torch should send them into oblivion. Although for reasons that we’ll touch on later, it’s not necessarily a good idea…
As mentioned, Blair Witch doesn’t tie in hugely with the films that share its name but there are plenty of nice nods to the previous storylines, seen in police reports and passing radio references to those previous students going missing. And, of course, the notorious witch herself is a predominant influence although it doesn’t really feel like a Blair Witch experience until the final third or so. Instead, the game plays more on Ellis’ own frailties that become obvious quite early on.
Misses out on that sense of impending and unseen terror the films played on
This isn’t a bad thing, as it does explain why he could be susceptible to the witch’s subtle manipulation, but it can also mean that the horror element doesn’t really hit the mark and Blair Witch perhaps misses out on that sense of impending and unseen terror the films played on. There’s rarely any sense that you might die and if one of the monsters does evade your flashlight, the respawn system puts you back in the game with little punishment – which, given how long some sequences can play out, we’d argue is a good thing.
One element that does play nicely with the films is the discovery of several cassette tapes. Each one will give you a short snapshot into what happened with the missing boy and be your clue to the next step of your search. However, there is an added puzzle element with some of the tapes giving the power to alter your reality – in essence to transform your current world to a state you see on the tapes.
In some cases it’s quite straightforward, such as being faced with a locked door but in possession of a recently-found tape that shows someone running through that same door. Play the tape, pause it when the door is open and so that translates into the real-world and you’re on your way. However, there are several occasions where it’s not so obvious – including one instance where you need to do it in a certain undefined place or locate an unnecessarily specific pause point. It’s a nice mechanic but it can involve some infuriating trial and error to get it right. Puzzle fans might relish the challenge, casual gamers not quite so much.
As you get deeper into the Blair Witch experience, it can seem like a rather slow-burning mixture of extended exploration, surreal supernatural and a steady montage of flashbacks to further explain Ellis’ fractured mind. However, we found ourselves being drawn into the twisted storyline. You’ll have a pretty good idea quite early on where things are going but there are plenty of little twists and subtle nuances to keep you interested in exactly how it would all pan out.
It’s rather hit and miss throughout, though, with fun puzzle-driven cart ride through the woods countered by a slow hike through a foggy forest, using your camcorder to spot and avoid the many monsters blocking your path with no real sense of direction. Again, what we found a grind could be something that those who don’t want an easy ride could enjoy a lot more but a fair amount of patience can go a long way.
Not that Blair Witch is a particularly big game. We wrapped up our investigation in around seven hours (to be fair, let’s not forget this is a £25 title), but then we weren’t as drawn into the hunt for those collectibles as we so often are, and that could easily extend the playing time. Instead, its longevity could come from a few repeated playthroughs, with a couple of alternate endings to aim for.
There are plenty of little twists and subtle nuances to keep you interested.
Most players will find themselves tricked into the ‘bad’ ending simply because the game (or conversely the witch herself) prompted you to something seemingly innocuous. The ‘good’ ending still isn’t exactly sunshine and rainbows, but given the psychological nature of the whole experience we can’t say we’d expect one – nor that it would really fit. However, once you know of the criteria required to get it, which includes not killing those light-sensitive monsters, it does give you a new way to play the game.
In addition you can get two different outcomes for Bullet based on how you treat him and what collectibles you pick up – plus there’s a secret bunker you can only unlock on a second playthrough if you found two certain objects on your first trip, which reveals a lot more background information into the overall storyline. It might seem like a lot of effort for a little extra reward, but we can see ourselves having another crack at Blair Witch once we’ve wrapped our head around our first encounter - or maybe just blown up some zombies to lighten the mood a little…
- Dark and immersive
- Rich, twisted narrative
- Cool dog
- Slow exploration
- Progress can be tricky
- No real fear factor
Blair Witch Review (Xbox One)
Blair Witch offers up a nicely twisted and often immersive experience that tackles some bold issues at the same time as the evil lurking in those Maryland woods. Despite a few good jump scares, it’s a game that more surreal than scary, giving us our flashbacks to the likes of Jacob’s Ladder, and the gameplay can feel a little slow and predictable as a result.
The frequent darkness and rather samey-looking forests mean the visuals rarely sparkle in this console release, even with the 4K Enhanced/Pro versions, although a decent audio experience does help build up the atmosphere (notably if you’re brave enough to go with headphones in a darkened room).
Much like the recent film of the same name, Blair Witch isn’t likely to win many awards but if you’re after a good story and a dark, mind-melting adventure to enjoy at your own pace, it’s worth a look.
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