Release date: August 30th, 2019
Platform: Xbox One (Reviewed,) PC
During this year’s E3 2019 conference, it was a surprise to everyone when a new game based on the Blair Witch media franchise was announced, and the reaction that seemed to follow, leading all the way up to the launch of the game was of excitement and a longing to see if the game could fit in and live up to the legacy of this long-standing series of films and other media. It was confirmed that the game was being developed by Bloober Team, the ones responsible for the extremely popular Layers of Fear series of games from a few years prior, which only added fuel to the fires of optimism.
Despite all this, there was also an air of skepticism, given that there are so few horror games that really do things right nowadays in a sea of imitators and uninspired rehashes of ideas, and especially when the new game also ties into a media franchise that has millions of die-hard fans around the world, the expectations are often even higher.
After fairly enjoying Layers of Fear when playing a few years ago, I was hopeful this Blair Witch game could win me over, despite not being a big fan of the movies myself, and after playing through it multiple times, I’ve come to some conclusive thoughts, so lets talk about it.
First of all, the format of this game is pretty close to the previously mentioned Layers of Fear, in that it’s a first-person horror experience, but Blair Witch differentiates itself in some very important ways from LoF, mainly in that there actually are enemy encounters in the game and also a very complex system of traversal, using not only a faithful canine companion, but also some tools such as a flashlight, cell phone, and a handheld video camera.
Things start off with you driving yourself into the woods where the original Blair Witch Project movie took place, in Burkitsville, Maryland, and it takes place in 1996, just two years after the events that took place in the first movie, as your character Ellis is meeting up with a police search for a young boy who disappeared in the forest just a few days before. Shortly after that, as you’d imagine, things start to get weird. And dark.
The game first introduces you to the commands you have with your companion dog, Bullet, showing that you can have him sniff around for things or stay close to you, and you can also pet or reprimand him, which also has its own relationship sub-system that factors into what kind of events and endings you get later in the game. Bullet soon becomes a key navigation component as well, being able to use his scent detection to guide you through the dense and dark forest to places you usually could not find on your own.
Soon after, as things start to ramp up, you’re introduced to some new tools, like the flashlight and soon after, the video camera. The flashlight provides some fairly minimal light to guide you, but also has another important function, and that is to ward off any enemies that attack you by tracking them with your light to scare them back into the darkness, calling back to a game like the modern horror classic, Alan Wake.
The video camera also has some important uses, since it also contains a night-vision component (not unlike Outlast, though executed differently, and most importantly, without a silly battery mechanic,) which allows you to pick up certain kinds of markings or clues you can’t normally see, which help guide you to your objectives, and also allow you to utilize some rather useful stealth mechanics at certain points in the game when enemy encounters are present, making for a lot of variety to the gameplay along the way.
Despite having many tools at your disposal, one of the only major complaints that many people have here also stems from the navigation, because it becomes very easy to get lost in this forest, especially once things get pitch black, but many times, even in the daylight, it’s easy to get lost and wander around in the complex forest where there aren’t too many unique landmarks or things to guide you around, as is the case with most dense forests in real life as well.
It really contributes to the feeling of helplessness and despair of being lost in the woods, which is the point of the game, in many ways, but it can also get a bit tiring trying to figure out which direction you’re going to and where you’ve already been, as there is no traditional map function, either. This is a double edged sword, and it definitely led to a few frustrating moments along the way for me, but nothing to ruin the game experience.
That said, when combined, the visual, gameplay, and audio elements all come together to form what is one of the most truly terrifying experiences I’ve had from a horror game in a while, especially in the proper setting with headphones on in a dark room. Having to go through a completely dark area in a forest to find an objective with only a dim flashlight, all while there’s strange sounds and movements happening in the woods around you completely chilled me to the bone more than once and made me stop in my tracks out of fear, which is a very rare occurrence for me. So needless to say, the way the environments and immersion is handled here is absolutely top notch.
Later on, you’ll end up going to a broken, old house as well, full of more twists and turns than a rollercoaster, and this part made me feel such a level of dread that most games can’t even come close to. I was often stopping and needing time to breathe even when nothing particular was happening, the tension was just so high when going from room to room and never knowing what would happen next, and the sound design just laid on such a layer of uncomfortability in the best way possible. This is where some of the stealth mechanics also come most clearly into play, and the level of tension is nearly unmanageable sometimes in the way it’s executed.
The story ends up progressively getting more complex and goes deeper into the psyche and past of your main character and also ties in many of the collectible items and story beats with the events of the movie series lore as well, which is a nice touch. I don’t want to spoil too much, but your character being a military veteran and former police officer starts to lead to some very dark turns later on, tackling subjects like PTSD and emotional trauma from violent events. It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s a pretty fun an competent horror story that not too far off from the Blair Witch movie series or Layers of Fear.
It’s hard to pin down a very accurate estimate, but the main story can easily take you between 5-8 hours on average, if you actually stop to look around at things or search for extra items, and don’t get lost too much. While there is one part at the very end of the game which gets a little long-winded and repetitive, it doesn’t bring down the whole experience too much and the experience remains solid and engaging until the end.
Blair Witch has become one of my favorite original horror games in some years, and one that I won’t soon forget, as it uses its extremely effective environments and tension-building elements to craft this into a powerful game that truly unnerves in a way that most modern horror games cannot.
The fact that the game is only $30 to buy makes it an even sweeter deal, and it’s also included in Microsoft’s Game Pass service for a small monthly price ($1 to try for a month,) which you can’t beat. If you own a PC or Xbox One and enjoy horror games, I’d say you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t check this game out. Likewise, if you’re a fan of the movies, I think you’ll find even more to enjoy here.