About two and a half hours into Blair Witch, I was worried that it was going to end up being another disappointment from Bloober Team, just like Layers of Fear 2.
Things get off to good start. With your dog, Bullet, by your side, you assume control of Ellis, a former police officer who’s heading into the Black Hills Forest near Burkittsville to assist in the search for a young boy. Alone, except for Bullet and the Sheriff who’s at the other end of a walkie-talkie, you can’t help but be put on edge by the feeling of isolation; a feeling that’s heightened by just how real your surroundings look. With the graphical settings maxed out, the Black Hills Forest is just dripping with detail, cranking up the atmosphere. After just ten minutes or so of play, there’s no doubting that this is a Blair Witch game.
The first thing that took me by surprise about Blair Witch is that it doesn’t hold your hand. In the first area it’s down to you to look for clues as to the missing boy’s disappearance, and you won’t get far without making use of Bullet. When close to Bullet, you can command him to seek out anything out of the ordinary in an area. And if you or Bullet do manage to find something, it can then be presented to his nose so he can track an attached scent. Needless to say, following Bullet is something you do a lot in Blair Witch. He’s more than just a pet; he’s a colleague and a valuable asset. But he is also a bit stupid.
For the most part Bullet acts in a believable manner, but his AI sometimes shows flaws. He’ll start to lead you somewhere, for example, then suddenly stop, turn around, backtrack a short distance, then turn back around and carry on his way again. He might also run into an object like a rock and just keep running, like he can’t see that there’s something blocking his path. The way you issue commands to him also perhaps isn’t quite as good as it could be.
Playing with a controller, pressing the left shoulder button summons Bullet to your side, which is required to issue commands like seek, stay and follow closely. Often, though, he won’t move close enough to you to enable you to issue those commands, forcing you to try and locate him near to your feet to get a bit closer. The dark nature of the game, and Bullet’s liveliness, means that that’s not always as easy as it should be, leading to some frustration. Thankfully though, it doesn’t detract from Blair Witch too much.
Further into Blair Witch, another inventive gameplay element is introduced which really is impressive. By finding video tapes, you’re able to watch mysterious footage recorded in the Black Hills Forest; usually in the location you’ve found them, in fact. Stopping the tapes at key points allows you to progress, removing barriers or introducing key evidence that may give you a lead. There might be a locked door preventing you from getting into a building that you need to search, for example, and in a video tape you might see someone opening the door with a key. Pause the tape with the door open, and you’ll probably find that the door has opened for you, too.
While Blair Witch‘s oppressive atmosphere puts you on edge from the get-go, it’s likely that an encounter with an apparition will be your first big scare. Unlike in Bloober Team’s previous horror offerings, you can actually fight back in Blair Witch. When encountering enemies, which doesn’t happen all too often, Bullet becomes unsettled and barks in their rough direction. It’s then up to you to locate them on your periphery before they move in to attack, shining your torch on them until they disperse. These moments are tense and also quite terrifying. And they’re kept that way because they’re not overused.
It’s just a shame that about two hours into Blair Witch you hit a section that’s simply a bit dull. It takes the wind out of your sails, and after some time you wonder if that’s it; that the rest of Blair Witch is going to be a bit of a slog. But push on and you’ll be thankful, because things soon pick back up again. And Blair Witch‘s final hours are absolutely terrifying. Really.
I’ve played more horror games than I can remember, but only a handful have ever put me so on edge that I’ve considered simply turning the game off. Blair Witch is now one of them. To say too much would spoil it for those wishing to experience the game for themselves, but what I will say is the game makes excellent use of your camcorder’s viewfinder. Blair Witch‘s final act will have you gripped. You’ll want to push on but will be scared about what lies around the next corner. It’s horrifying and mind-bending. It’s Bloober Team doing what it does best.
Your first playthrough of Blair Witch will be over in five to six hours. With numerous endings available, however, you might not be happy with Ellis and Bullet’s fate. But if so, that’s all the more reason to jump back in, change how you play and maybe discover a new ending. It’s something I certainly will be doing, even though I know the final stretch is likely to scare me silly again.
Lionsgate was wise to let Bloober Team loose with its Blair Witch IP. It has treated it with respect, delivering a game that truly does justice to the source material. While its centre part lets it down somewhat, and Bullet’s pathfinding could do with a bit of improvement, it’s one of the scariest horror games ever made. And your reliance on Bullet, as well as the manipulation of found video footage, adds gameplay meat to what usually ends up being little more than a walking simulator. If you’re brave enough, you should definitely enter the woods and face the Blair Witch.