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Blair Witch Hands-On Preview

A refreshing take on the fan favorite franchise.

by Dean James

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The Blair Witch Project burst onto the scene out of nowhere back in 1999 and the new game based on the property took a similar approach with a very surprising announcement during Microsoft’s E3 2019 conference. First thought to perhaps be a new Alan Wake game due to it debuting at the Xbox conference, we were pleasantly surprised to see the title Blair Witch pop up at the end of the reveal trailer. Now only a couple months later and not long before the release of the game, we had the opportunity to go hands-on with Blair Witch to see this latest take on the 20 year old franchise.

Based more on the lore of the franchise than any of the specific events from the past, Blair Witch serves as a spiritual successor to what has come before with an experience like no other in the series to date. The preview build we got to try out recently was split into five separate parts, each of which presented us with something different in the game.  Rather than just throwing us in with the first 25 or so minutes of the game outright, this gave us an opportunity to experience the varying gameplay found in Blair Witch. According to narrative designer Barbara Kciuk, they wanted to give us a little glimpse at the beginning to show us “the context of what you can expect from the story,” before also showing us some various gameplay elements.

The opening portion of the preview was very cinematic and helped set the tone and setting of the game, while still leaving the player wondering what exactly is going on in the game. This led directly into the first gameplay portion of the game where we took control of the main character Ellis, which also introduced one of the major aspects of the game with your dog Bullet.

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Bullet is your faithful companion that is by your side throughout the game, who you can command by holding down the left bumper and choosing command such as Seek, Stay Close, or even Pet. There was absolutely no way my first command wasn’t going to be to pet the dog in the game when I was able. The gameplay associated with Bullet seemed to work well in this demo, though he was pretty limited due to the switching between sections in the game. One section of the demo had you facing off against some sort of apparition and you quickly realize that Bullet is the key to tracking it.

After an ending cutscene that seemingly would have led to the title credits, the demo jumped ahead to the second section in which we were once again in control of Ellis. This foggy location was definitely still in the forest, but instead moved to a more swampy area where things started to get a bit more intense. It starts off with just following Bullet, but then a crazy storm started whipping up and you have to keep running until you reach a cave, which introduced the flashlight mechanic for the first time in the game. The flashlight is simply used in this section for lighting, but it started to fade out for story reasons at times, which makes you wonder if that will happen quite often in the game or was only for this area to help with the sense that Ellis is slowly losing his sanity. We were able to confirm that there is no sort of battery system with the flashlight though, which is definitely good to hear for as important as it will be in this game.

The next section moved outside and everything seemed calm at first, but you know nothing is as it seems here at first. As we moved forward with the flashlight guiding the way, Bullet started barking and an enemy appeared and started to move around at rapid speed. It was near impossible to keep up with it by just moving around aimlessly, but that is where Bullet came into play as mentioned earlier. You keep an eye on where he is facing and then keep shining the flashlight when it comes at you. This is definitely an interesting mechanic, as the game forgoes any sort of traditional weaponry in lieu of simply the flashlight. This makes everything feel much more tense however, which should play out even more so in the full game.

Following this first battle we were able to try out, Ellis and Bullet get on a cart and it cut to the next section of the demo. This area introduced additional mechanics to the game, such as your phone that you can answer and most importantly the camcorder puzzles. After navigating this area a little bit, we noticed there were some doors we could not enter that it seemed like we needed open to continue. By searching and finding a tape for the camcorder, the game allowed us to view what seemed to be past footage, but yet affected the present. This included watching someone open a door on the recording and having to pause exactly there so that we could go through that door. This was a pretty simplistic version of this mechanic showcased here, but there is a lot of potential here for some really innovative moments in Blair Witch if it is used correctly.

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The final section of the demo was certainly the most iconic and trippy of the bunch, as we got to go inside the infamous Witch House. While this isn’t the very end of the game it doesn’t sound like, Kciuk explained that this was “not early” in the game regardless. The Witch House used the camcorder in a different fashion, as it not only replaced the flashlight here, but can be used in some different ways. This house is essentially a maze that you have to go through, which was a lot of fun to navigate. Even in this short demo, you could really tell there was a lot of thought put into not only the game, but especially this segment. The way you can use the camcorder to see some things that you can’t see in the normal view is really neat. The demo ends with an enemy jumping you, seemingly leading to your death. However, we were told that this is a moment where in the full game you are meant to look away from them to prevent them from attacking you, so it should be interesting to see how that works in the end.

For a game that you might expect to have a lot of jump scares, the demo itself didn’t really seem to have too many of them. They will certainly be in the game, but Kciuk says they wanted to place them well and use them in crucial moments to where they would be more effective. The jump scares are there, but it’s more about what is happening throughout than jump scare after jump scare.

While only getting to experience 25 minutes of Blair Witch so far, we came away very impressed with not only the horror elements, but also the innovative mechanics such as the camcorder. Blair Witch seems like a natural progression from Layers of Fear and the property seems to be in good hands, so we are really hoping that the full game lives up to what we have played so far.

- This article was updated on:August 20th, 2019

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