Blair Witch Review
Try not to lose your sanity.
The Blair Witch Project first debuted in theaters back in 1999 to strong critical acclaim, though the series sort of faded from the spotlight after the disappointing sequel. Lionsgate eventually acquired the distributor behind the series and years later revived the franchise with a new movie in 2016. Now a few years later, Lionsgate Games has enlisted Layers of Fear developer Bloober Team to expand the lore of the series in video game form with Blair Witch.
Rather than being based on any of the events of the past movies, Blair Witch instead offers a completely original story that is ingrained in the lore of the franchise. The story starts in 1996 after the disappearance of the young boy named Peter in the Black Hills Forest. You play as Ellis, a former police officer that is trying to help find the boy separate from the police. As you play through the game, you learn more about Ellis and why he is no longer a police officer.
Split across 17 chapters, Ellis travels through the woods in search of Peter, but many things are not as they seem. It wouldn’t be a Blair Witch game without plenty of supernatural properties, which really start to crop up more often midway through the game. This is utilized well as a way to not only make Ellis start to go crazy, but also serves as a way to explain his past and why he has such a fractured mental state.
Ellis is not alone on this adventure though, as he also has his trusty dog companion Bullet by his side. Having Bullet nearby not only helps him maintain a clearer mental state, but he can also be a big help in the game otherwise as well. By pressing LB on Xbox One, you can summon Bullet to your side and then command him in one of five ways, Stay, Stay Here, Reprimand, Seek, and Pet. It may not seem like much, but any game with a dog companion should offer the opportunity to pet them. You can also give him treats from your bag to help calm him down when he gets upset, as he gets really afraid of the collectible totems that you must break in the game.
The main reason you will be using Bullet in Blair Witch is for his Seek command, as he can lead you in the right direction. Sometimes this is just based on him sniffing the ground nearby and sensing something and other times you provide him with a scent from an item to follow. The only real problem here is that the usage of Bullet is sort of random in the game. There are times where he can be really helpful and others when you really need some direction on where to go and he cannot sense anything that can help you. This does force you to explore more sometimes, but it would have been nice to have him help as it can be be difficult to get through this dark forest.
A good bit of the game has you navigating this very dark Black Hills Forest, which can be pretty difficult at times. All you have to see with is your flashlight or camcorder and the different shrubs and trees can make it even harder to see. This is where you really have to rely on Bullet to make it through the woods. This is made a little bit easier thanks to his reflective collar which stands out in the darkness. If the game did not include the reflective collar on Bullet, this would have made traveling through the forest in these segments near unbearable. Even with the reflective collar and the icon showing the direction he is in when he barks, you will likely find yourself frustrated at times to find your bearings in the dark.
While making your way through the forest, there are times where Bullet will start going crazy. This means that one of the Blair Witch’s monsters is nearby and running around. You must focus on Bullet and see which direction he is barking at specifically and point your flashlight in that direction to hurt the monster. Do this a few times and the monster will be killed and you can move on. This is really the only form of combat found in the game, as the rest of the monsters you come across require you to find ways around them or you will be killed quickly. While it was nice to see a movement away from gun gameplay in a game like this, it does feel like there could have been something a little more than these flashlight showdowns to add more tension into the game. The very good thing here though is that the game does not introduce any sort of like battery system for the flashlight, as it only turns off when it is story related.
As you explore the forest, you’ll continue to come across clues that will push you forward in the narrative, some of which is done with a few different items. Right out of the gate, you will find a walkie talkie that you must use to interact with the sheriff and another mystery person later in the game. You also have an old Nokia-like cell phone that you can use for phone calls and to receive text messages. Some of these messages are just backstory for Ellis, but some are also very helpful in how you can advance through sections of the game.
You will also find a very important item not too far into the game that is the most iconic aspect of Blair Witch as a franchise, a camcorder. There are also tapes that you can find and watch throughout the game, but these are no ordinary tapes. Most of these tapes also have supernatural abilities to where you can manipulate the outside world based on what part of the tape you are at. These include moments like waiting until a door is open in the video to then be able to go through what was previously a closed door. These are vital to solving some of the relatively few puzzles that are found in the game as well. It almost felt like there could have been more of these in the game, as it was definitely the most innovative thing that Blair Witch introduced without question.
The camcorder also comes into play later in the game once you reach the infamous Witch House. At this point, Ellis attaches his flashlight to the camcorder and you have to use the camcorder to navigate through a lot of the corridors. Actually looking at the monsters in here will cause them to run at you and kill you, so instead you must look down at the ground with the camcorder and follow the path provided.
Exploring the Witch House is definitely one of the best parts of the game, as the entire thing is like one giant trick on your mind. Nothing is as it seems and Ellis starts losing his mind the deeper into the house you get. Sadly this is a pretty limited experience in the grand scheme of the whole game, leaving us wishing there was more of this to enjoy.
The game as a whole does a good job at portraying the descent into madness for a character that was already on his way there. There are definitely some jump scare moments in the game, but the horror focus here is more on insanity. There is one sequence late in the game that was beyond unsettling and was really hard to play. This sequence goes on for a few minutes too, with it feeling like near torture with the psychological effect of what is happening in the scene and the sound effects associated with it making it even tougher. This almost felt like it was included as a way to show how far the game would go, but I think the game really could have been fine without handling it in this fashion.
Blair Witch is a relatively short experience, clocking in at around four to five hours if you know exactly what you are doing. Due to the aforementioned dark forest and how easy it is to get lost, this time can be extended quite a bit due to aimless exploration. There are also some collectibles to find during the game that can prolong the experience, including pictures, dog tags, totems, wooden dolls, and psychiatrist notes. While there’s a healthy amount of these to find in the game, they really do not add a lot of replayability to the game overall.
Performance was rarely a problem in Blair Witch, but there were still a couple isolated issues that popped up. The dark forest makes it easy to not be able to see where you are going at times, with one glitch we had causing Ellis to get stuck on a branch with no way to get off of it without restarting. The one other issue occurred later in the Witch House, where the game crashed completely. The game’s auto save function was very helpful here, as it only lost a few minutes of progress as a result.
It is pretty amazing that it has been so long since someone last developed a Blair Witch game and Bloober Team definitely seemed like the right fit based on their prior pedigree with Layers of Fear. While way too short, Blair Witch features fairly innovative gameplay surrounding an interesting narrative that is pushed forward by exploration and the solving of puzzles.
The Blair Witch franchise has never been able to capture the magic of the original movie in the years since, but this may be the closest attempt yet thanks to the effective use of a psychological focused story and gameplay that feels fairly fresh within the horror genre.
- Available On: Xbox One, PC
- Published By: Bloober Team
- Developed By: Bloober Team
- Genre: Horror
- US Release Date: August 30, 2019
- Reviewed On: Xbox One
- Quote: "The Blair Witch franchise has never been able to capture the magic of the original movie in the years since, but this may be the closest attempt yet thanks to the effective use of the a psychological focused story and gameplay that feels fairly fresh within the horror genre."