Is Blair Witch more than a walkies simulator?
I have a soft spot for Bloober Team’s “walking simulator” horror games. I loved Layers of Fear in spite of its lack of peril, I enjoyed >Observer_ even with its poor frame rate, and I had a good time with Layers of Fear 2, even though the narrative and world were a bit messy. The team have a flair for horror and messing with the player’s understanding of the world, as well as the ability to create worlds that drip with atmosphere. With that in mind, perhaps the Blair Witch franchise is something that suits them perfectly, seeing as the films are (mostly) atmospheric walks through horrifying, ever-changing woods. I took the opportunity to play the Xbox One release of Blair Witch and dove into the madness.
You take on the role of Ellis, a former soldier and police officer who heads into the famous Burkittsville forest to search for a missing child. He is joined by his service dog, Bullet, who was assigned to him after certain incidents in his past, and the two are near inseparable. Upon arrival, Ellis finds that the police have already begun their search, and aren’t all that thrilled to discover that Ellis has also joined the party. Ellis picks up a spare radio and a torch, and heads into the woods with his canine companion. What follows is a six-or-so hour descent into madness.
Blair Witch plays somewhat like a walking simulator — something of a Bloober Team trademark by this point — in which you search areas of the forest, giving commands to Bullet to help find clues about Peter’s whereabouts. Early on this involves sending Bullet out to find items, having him sniff clues to follow a scent trail, or pressing on to a point of interest in the distance. There is some scope to explore, as the woods are fairly open, but the game has some tricks up its sleeve as you go on. As things progress, and the horror of the witch becomes more apparent, the forest becomes more confusing. There are objects that simply shouldn’t be there, strange noises that seem to be right behind you, and the iconic wooden fetishes. The darkness of the environment can make it hard to navigate, but Blair Witch will always bring you back to where you are meant to be, as though you have been walking in circles. I really liked this aspect, as not only does it tie into the films, it also prevents you from getting utterly lost. On top of that, it gives this great sense that the titular witch is toying with you, and leading you down a path that you feel you are following by choice.
The story is pushed forward through cutscenes — some of which show flashbacks and hallucinations of Ellis’ past — as well as phone calls and radio contact. You can take out your phone at any time and call anyone you want, assuming you have signal, as well as read text messages and even play Snake. You also have a camcorder which is used to solve some puzzles in a somewhat unique way. Bloober Team have often had you solve puzzles by messing with your perception of reality, and Blair Witch is no exception. In certain areas, you can find red video tapes that show you events that played out nearby. Watching these tapes and pausing them at the right time can change things in the world around you. In its simplest sense, you could look at a locked door, watch a video and pause it when the door is open, then put the camera down to find your way now unblocked. It’s a neat mechanic that is used to good effect throughout. There aren’t a huge number of these puzzles so it doesn’t become stale either.
Unlike previous games from this developer, Blair Witch includes some simple combat at a few points during the story. Occasionally monsters will appear in the shadows of the woods and attack you. I’ll be honest, the first time one appeared I almost jumped out of my skin, and this is coming from someone who tends to handle horror games fairly well! Once the initial shock was over though, the combat was actually very simple. All you need to do is point your torch at them to weaken and eventually kill them. They’re hard to keep track of, but thankfully Bullet will always look in their direction to help you out. It’s incredibly simplistic, but it can be intense as you try to keep an eye on your dog and point your torch in the right direction at the same time. This is a rare occurrence, and never outstays its welcome. Later on, combat is almost nonexistent, being replaced with very tense stealth sections in near pitch black, using the camera’s night vision mode to help you navigate and avoid death. This is certainly the best iteration of stealth sections that Bloober Team has put together, and the less I spoil them the better.
The only reason all this works is due to the team’s incredible skill at creating atmosphere. The Burkittsville forest is beautifully realised, whether in its natural or more horrifying form. Great use of lighting and fog create unsettling scenes, and character design and animation is some of the best I’ve seen from such a small team. Some of the moments in which a major enemy gets close to your face are at the level of Far Cry games at times. How the world morphs and decays during the fantastic final act of the game are especially impressive. More importantly, this is probably the most stable frame rate I’ve seen from a Bloober Team game on console! It does dip a little from time to time, but in comparison to >Observer_, it’s a big improvement. The sound design is equally good, and links up to the films well, using sounds of sticks and stones being moved about just outside of your visual range. The writing and voice acting are very good, and mixed very well making it possible to pick out important pieces of dialogue even during hectic scenes. The sound and visuals are a touch weaker during some more urban sections of the game, but to say more about this would be spoiling a little too much.
You are told early on that how you behave will be noticed, and there will be consequences for your choices. It turns out there are a number of different things that can happen throughout Blair Witch, and also three different endings depending on how you interact at certain points. These choices are rarely explicit, and sometimes you may not even realise you’ve chosen one path over another. Whilst I like the fact that this gives you the most “honest” ending for you — by which I mean you aren’t gaming the system to get the outcome you want — it does mean that you may not understand why you got to the ending you did. In my ending I understood why certain things happened, but I had no idea there were even other ways to approach certain situations. This means subsequent playthroughs are a great option, but I’d have liked a touch more clarity at the end of the game to explain why things went the way they did.
There are a couple of things I wasn’t completely satisfied with. On a couple of occasions, the puzzles were a little more irritating than I’d like. At one point I needed to find the correct scenery to use a red tape on, but the areas of the forest all looked so similar that I struggled to find it and just went around in loops for a good ten minutes searching. This broke the tension and pace somewhat. Also, at times I felt a bit more as though I was trying to work out what to do next rather than how to continue to unravel the mystery. A little more direction may have helped here. Finally, and most irritating, at one point I managed to get my character stuck on world geometry and had to load a previous checkpoint. It was only around five minutes wasted, but there’s not a lot more that can spoil a horror atmosphere than having to reload because of an errant tree.
In spite of a couple of flaws, I utterly loved my time playing Blair Witch. This is easily Bloober Team’s best game to date — and this is from someone who utterly rates Layers of Fear — and is something that I would encourage anyone to try out if they enjoy a story focused horror game. It’s a slow build to a great finish, so don’t expect a ghost train of jump scares and monstrous foes. But if you are willing to go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a great surprise.