Former police officer Ellis Lynch investigates the disappearance of a young boy in the Black Hills Forest near Burkittsville, Maryland, in 1996, only to find himself lost in both location and his own mind that is haunted by his past and an evil force in the woods.
Narrative liberties and flaws
Anyone looking for a faithful game adaptation of The Blair Witch Project or the more recent Blair Witch will be disappointed, as despite taking place in the same woods and even in a creepy house towards the end, connections to the found footage horror movies are barely noticeable. Even the story about the Blair Witch herself isn’t the main focus, as the spotlight is reserved to a character who has a troubled psychological past, something that Bloober Team seems to be as much known for as for its jump scares. Only this time, it’s not about artful horror, but urban legends and war stories.
The woods as a psychological and literal battleground
Too much time is spent on war memories, so much so that Ellis frequently hears and sees some of his comrades and the forest turning into a battlefield. A few past conversations with his wife and therapist aside, it doesn’t help to make him or any other character he is or was in contact with memorable or interesting. One can use Ellis’ phone to call people, receive text messages and answer it in some cases, but this only reinforce a sense of isolation and timelessness, without going much deeper. While the game makes it clear that it’s not based on, but inspired by the movies and its lore, less psychological drama or horror and more scares in the woods would have been a much better choice.
Scary and surreal changes
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t any creepy or disgusting moments. Far from it, as there’s a clear sense of losing time and orientation in the woods as well as some very dark and violent sequences that are just as intense, especially towards the end when all hell breaks loose and one scare jump follows the other with constant reality shifts. This is to be expected, though, coming from the developer’s Layers of Fear or Layers of Fear 2. So furniture that re-arranges itself or walls falling apart and re-assembling themselves might not really fit the Blair Witch universe, as it’s more haunted mansion material, but it makes for some good surreal moments. If only there would be more story or character development, these sections would have made sense in a narrative way, too.
Much more successful are the sections when one fumbles through the dark, e.g. in a house where one’s only way around is using the videocamera’s nightvision mode. The camera is actually a very important part of the game, because seeing certain messages, following hidden tracks or picking up items that weren’t there before is only possible by turning the device on. It might not make much sense again in the context of the movies, but it adds originality to a genre that certainly needs it to stay relevant.
Unfortunately, these segments are hit-or-miss. One constantly finds cassette tapes that have to be played in a specific way to solve a puzzle. For example, stopping the video at one frame makes an object appear in the present that can be interacted with, while being able to remove a fallen tree by hitting the “rewind” button makes for some interesting gameplay ideas.
Walking, waiting, sneaking, running
The game can mostly be described as a walking simulator in which one collects clues, which explains why there are many long passages when not much is happening or some sequences/locations feel like an eternity, especially one towards the end that is a loop, testing the player’s patience in extreme ways.
Then it suddenly turns into survival horror with very annoying stealth sections. It might sound like a great idea for intense sequences that do the source material justice, but being forced to walk backwards in a house with narrow corridors and rooms in order to evade the deadly glance of creatures is anything but fun. The same holds true for a few outdoor scenes that require running from one safe spot to the next, as some saw-like entities are moving around the woods. One is also forced to fight creatures with the flashlight (just as in Alan Wake) or run away from them, which is suspenseful the first time, but becomes very annoying later on.
Lost in the woods with a dog and different paths/endings
While getting lost in the woods is part of the Blair Witch atmosphere, it soon becomes quite annoying, as it’s often not clear what to do or where to go next. Items or switches that are easy to miss add to this problem, even though the developer tried to mix things up with varied puzzles, some of which are not only solved by the camera’s alternating-reality mechanic, looking for the right object or figuring out how a machine works, but by the helping paw of Ellis’ dog.
It’s not really a new concept, as other games have used the canine friend for level progression, but it makes the emotional link with the main protagonist stronger, one that is also reflected by customization options for the canine friend. One actually feels more sympathy for the human/dog relationship than for the rest of the story, which might be because of different ways of handling the dog, e.g. patting him or giving him something to eat.
While the dog never refuses to go looking for an object or crawling through tight spaces to retrieve something, this has an impact on the different endings, some of which can also be changed depending on other choices during the game. Despite not being easy to guess the outcomes, various characters, including the dog, will face consequences at the end.
Frightening sights and sounds
The game’s graphics are quite impressive when it comes to visceral detail or lighting effects. Despite some textures being not particularly good, the various settings offer some great artwork, ranging from a creepy network of underground tree roots to a dilapidated house. The dog looks especially realistic with its animations and fur, while the few characters one encounters are highly convincing as well. The voice acting is very good, and the music is nice, too, although it’s used sparingly. Being a horror game, sound design is obviously very important, and it doesn’t disappoint with all sorts of scary effects.
The Blair Witch legacy haunting a different game
Blair Witch is another Blooper Team effort of playing with the audience’s head. However, this time it’s based on a franchise, one that might be questionable in terms of quality, but one that nevertheless has a certain fanbase. These will be disappointed, because the connections are slim, while story and characters remain forgettable. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t some highly effective scare jumps and frightening sequences, with the camera and the dog mechanics being a change of pace, even if none of them are particularly elaborate.
What remains is a rather short game of 5 hours that only rewards the player with different endings. Having many frustrating stealth sequences, it’s questionable if one perseveres throughout the whole ordeal again. It’s really a shame, because both sound design and artwork make for a pretty good scary time.
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