There's Something In The Woods: Blair Witch Review
Bloober Team is no stranger when it comes to psychological horror games. They’ve had us on the edge of our seat with Layers of Fear. They’ve also kept us up at night because of Observer. Blair Witch is the studio’s first crack at adapting an established IP and suffice to say, Bloober Team pulled it off.
Blair Witch doesn’t hold on to the name of the acclaimed horror franchise for recognition’s sake. No, Bloober Team’s game builds off the foundation of the original film. Telling an original story, Ellis, a man with a troubled past, heads off to the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland. With his loyal and loveable dog, Bullet, at his side, the two head to the woods to assist in tracking down a boy who has gone missing.
The Blair Witch Project built its claim to fame for the use of found footage cinematography, enveloping a feeling of discomfort and uncertainty. Within 10 minutes of the opening, Blair Witch begins to replicate that same feeling. Ellis and Bullet venture into the woods to catch up with the local police department and surely enough become lost in their own right. It’s not before long that Ellis notices that something doesn’t feel quite right. Before there is any real indication of a threat, the forest begins to loop itself. Due to not having a map or any navigation tools, it’s easy to begin to feel disoriented and nervous. Ellis himself is unarmed, having only brought a flashlight, a walkie-talkie, and a late 90’s Nokia phone with him. His only true form of support is Bullet.
Ellis is a damaged man. He is haunted by his past and because of that, Bullet aids him as his service dog. Bullet is able to sniff out clues, lead Ellis around the bewildering forest. But most importantly, you’re able to pet Bullet. The relationship between Ellis and Bullet may be one of the most authentic I’ve seen in a game. You feel the dependancy Ellis has for Bullet. While there is an option to reprimand Bullet—and you’d be a monster to do so—the co-dependent bond between the two is perhaps the aspect that stands above the rest. Bullet is an essential part of the game, not only from a gameplay perspective, but an emotional one as well. Ellis and the bond he shares with Bullet has a lasting effect on the game. Keeping Bullet near you will help keep his mental state in tack, and when the foreboding threats in the woods start showing their ugly head, Bullet can be pretty handy.
Just like most other survival horror games, Blair Witch does not have a traditional combat system. Ellis does not wield a gun nor a knife to defend himself. Instead, and perhaps luckily enough, the only weapon Ellis needs to concern himself with is his flashlight. One of the primary enemies found in the woods can be defeated by shining your light on them. They’ll scurry off behind a tree, Bullet will signal where they are and you’ll have another go with the flashlight to defeat them. It’s very reminiscent of The Taken enemies from Alan Wake. The other enemy boils down to sneaking around them. Turning off the lights and using an old camcorder Ellis stumbles upon, Ellis can use night vision to navigate around these enemies without alerting them. The latter became a bit tedious as once they become altered, it’s game over for you.
As with most horror games, especially survival horror, the moment the curtain is pulled and the monsters in the darkness have been shown, the game loses a lot of the tension and horror. The atmosphere and ambiance that is built within Blair Witch do a fairly good job of carrying the unsettling nature of the game. From the rustling of leaves deep in the pitch-black forest to the music, you never really feel safe. Even after you run into the aforementioned enemies, there is still the lingering feeling that something or someone looking over your shoulder.
Blair Witch offers some really unique gameplay elements as well. Aside from the interactions between Ellis and Bullet, Ellis’ reality can be altered by way of the found camcorder. Throughout your expedition, Ellis will come across videotapes that give clues to the next objective or provides context for the narrative. Through these tapes, Ellis is able to manipulate time and objects. If a door is locked for Ellis but opened in the video, Ellis can rewind to that specific moment and the door will now be open.
Videotapes aside, there are more than a few collectibles and extra goodies that shed some light on the narrative and provide additional context. Ellis’ phone can be used on occasion to contact the outside world. Although contacts in Ellis’ phone won’t always answer, it’s worth pulling out the phone when you’re able to.
It’s important to give credit when credit is due and Bloober Team deserves recognition for ending Blair Witch on a high note. It’s become all too common that survival-horror games are able to maintain a strong trajectory, yet fumble on delivering a satisfying ending. Without touching on specifics, Blair Witch ramps up the tension when barreling towards the climax and does not let up in the slightest. The final hour in the brisk five-hour playthrough throws a lot at you. The music and ambient sounds are dialled up, paired with intense visuals leave you feeling like your world is crashing down around you.
Graphics and performance have never been Bloober Team’s strong suit. Blair Witch is a considerable step up from their previous pieces of work, yet there is more to be desired. Playing on the Xbox One X, I experienced a few moments of slowdown during times when there wasn’t much happening on screen. The environments look pretty when the sun is out, but the game is awfully dark at night. The flashlight does help compensate, but when you’re tasked with following Bullet in the woods, it becomes difficult when you’re unable to keep track of him. Bullet’s AI can be a little wonky as well. Ask him to go seek, and he’ll walk in circles, lay down, or backtrack before making any real progress.
Blair Witch is standout in the survival-horror genre. It very rarely relies on cheap jumpscares to put you on the edge of your seat. Instead, Bloober Team took the transferable qualities from the film and developed a game around it. The sound engineering is top-notch, so you’ll want to throw on a headset before taking your first steps into the Burkittsville forest.
Halloween is not too far off now. Blair Witch serves as a gratifying treat to begin the Halloween season early while providing an injection of nostalgia for 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. The game is available on Xbox Game Pass, so if you’re eager to get in on the scares now, you’ll be able to with a subscription to the online service.
Available: August 30th, 2019
Platform: PC & Xbox One