Responsible for Layers of Fear and Observer before, Blair Witch sees Bloober Team taking its first crack at a licensed property. Being based on a pre-existing material, one might expect Blair Witch to directly tie into the film franchise bearing the same name. While the game indeed does draw its inspiration from and occasionally pays homage to its source material, it’s actually an entirely original story and as it turns out, a well worth experiencing one. Engaging gameplay and a tense atmosphere largely overshadow a handful of technical issues.
Establishing the crux of its narrative rather quickly, Blair Witch sees players stepping into the shoes of Ellis, who - alongside his canine companion, Bullet - volunteers as part of a search party hunting for a lost child in the Black Hills Forest. Arriving a bit late, Ellis borrows a walkie-talkie from a police cruiser and sets off into the woods alone, determined to bring the lost child to safety before night falls in the forest notorious for disappearances and strange happenings. Being a horror game, of course, Ellis does not manage to make it out before sundown and the stakes are quickly ratcheted upwards once the night falls. It’s a simple premise, but works surprisingly well. Ellis is not a blank-slate of a character, he is a troubled person with problems of his own, and discovering his connection to the game’s other characters, such as the Sheriff or Ellis’ estranged ex-girlfriend, can often feel like the game’s driving force as the excursion into the woods becomes increasingly hopeless. It’s an approach not at all unlike the Silent Hill games, and while the twists are rarely all that shocking, peeling back the layers slowly lends the narrative more weight once things become surreal.
Gameplay is a bit less ambitious, though, but interesting nonetheless. At its core, the game is simply about being lost in the woods, and the environments, littered with looming trees and shadows, are often just large enough to let the player experience that loss of direction first-hand. Luckily, Ellis has a few assets to help him along the way, the most notable of which being Bullet, Ellis’ four-legged, stalwart sidekick. Bullet isn’t just a buddy to follow you around, either, as he serves up vital gameplay mechanics for much of the game. He can grab out of reach items and sniff out hard-to-spot clues in the dense brush of the forest. He can often find the path forward when the trail is covered or otherwise obscure and he’s equipped with a glow-in-the-dark collar, sometimes becoming your only visibility in the dense darkness of the woods. Bullet even helps to point out would-be attackers during the game’s sparse, Alan Wake-evoking enemy encounters. The dog doesn’t rely on the player for survival either, as there are thankfully no mechanics for escorting or otherwise protecting him. In fact, it’s the player who will find that they come to rely on Bullet and, in doing so, prime themselves all the more for scares when he isn’t around.
Ellis will also quickly come into the possession of a discarded camcorder, which serves a few different functions. It can, for example, toggle a night mode on and off, allowing a small window of see-in-the-dark vision while navigating through surroundings. Its most interesting contribution to the gameplay, however, is the ability to watch tapes that are found scattered around the forest. They don’t just flesh out the story or play into the franchise’s found-footage motif, either. Skipping through the tapes and pausing them at the right moments can actually manipulate the reality around Ellis; opening doors, clearing debris and even materializing objects in relation to what’s captured on video. It’s an extremely novel concept and provides for some of the game’s most memorable moments, especially in the opening segments.
On a technical level, though, Blair Witch is certainly a bit rough around the edges. It’s a fine enough looking game, with the forest itself being particularly pleasant on the eyes as it twists and contorts around the player. However, the game suffers from a wildly inconsistent frame rate that makes it bit of a jittery mess. It really is just smooth enough to be playable, at least as pertains to my experience on the Xbox One X, but according to the patch notes, the performance seems to be an issue across all platforms. Choppy frame rate and an overly aggressive depth-of-field effect absolutely makes the game appear a lot messier than it should. There are also some oddities with collision and pathfinding. Usually, this just amounts to Bullet running around in circles, but might sometimes result in the dog getting stuck on terrain, or the player finding it strangely difficult to fit through a doorway. It’s nothing too severe, but the occasional annoyance nonetheless.
Technical issues aside, Blair Witch makes for a satisfying experience with an oppressive atmosphere, an engaging plot and interesting gameplay mechanics. There’s also plenty of written plot details and collectable items dotted throughout the game, should players enjoy themselves enough to come back and attempt to figure out how to unlock some of alternative endings. Being a horror experience (and one with lots of scripted events) means that the most engaging experience will always be the first run through. At the very least, players can expect the game to be tense, well-paced and imminently memorable.