How do you solve a problem like the Blair Witch?
As popular as 1999’s The Blair Witch Project was, you never got so much as a glimpse of the titular entity. This didn’t stop McFarlane Toys from creating a Blair Witch action figure; and subsequent properties, including a movie and three games, made monsters up on the spot. Only Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows, butchered by the studio, did anything remotely interesting with the concept.
Bloober Team’s Blair Witch, now available in VR as Blair Witch: Oculus Quest Edition, takes a different tack. Your protagonist, Ellis, heads into the wood in search of a missing boy, with a view to settling some perceived debt, and he’s not leaving until he’s found him. You might scream at your average found-footage protagonist, berating them for not getting the hell out, but Ellis’s determination to save Peter gives him a less ridiculous reason to be there.
He’s not alone in his quest; Bullet, his dog, is on hand to accept treats and hunt down items – and in VR, patting the hell out of him is an absolute joy. But he’ll also spook the hell out of you by barking at everything within a five mile radius. Sure, seeing Bullet bark at nothing is a little scary in the vanilla edition of the game, which I’d dabbled in prior to playing this VR incarnation. Here, however, the terror is poured in through the Quest headset; you’ll constantly keep looking around to see if anything’s behind you.
Blair Witch: Oculus Quest Edition does more than just make you afraid of monsters, though. The walkie-talkie Ellis carries is more than just a device to deliver exposition; it’s your link to what may or may not be the “real” world. Blair Witch has a dreamlike quality, starting as fantasy but plunging into nightmare, but it’s never entirely clear whose nightmare it is.
This air of uncertainty is a hugely effective way of keeping you on edge. Your stomach will drop when the Sheriff informs you that you’re both standing in front of the same landmark, but who’s trapped in this web of horror? Is Ellis the one who needs rescuing? Or is it the sheriff who’s been doomed just for doing his job? There are shades of Silent Hill here, but Blair Witch has a character all its own.
The levels are chunked, so you’re never lost to the point of frustration, but getting turned around and going past the same dip twice is doubly unnerving in VR. Your sense of reality is further eroded by Blair Witch‘s handheld video camera. There are a few unrelated puzzles to solve, but the camera system is something special. Yes, it’s a nod to the found footage format of the The Blair Witch Project, but you’re able to manipulate your surroundings, using it to solve puzzles.
Need to clear a fallen tree? Find a tape that shows the tree falling and you can rewind it to a point when the tree was still standing. The further you get into the game, the more complex these puzzles become, but there’s always an underlying note of unease and unreality. The camera screen is so small that you can see exactly what’s going on behind it. Blair Witch has you bear witness to the moment when a toy police car, complete with siren, pops into existence in front of you. I spent a good five minutes rewinding and fast forwarding the tape, because, even in the context of a game, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
There are scripted monster encounters, fewer than you might think, and in Blair Witch‘s original incarnation, they were a little weak. But in Blair Witch: Oculus Quest Edition they’re so in-your-face that, instead of moving the mouse or your controller’s thumbsticks, you’re spinning around, desperately hoping you can illuminate them before they get close enough to murder you.
There’s one point when you literally have a monster breathing down your neck. Elevated by VR, it’s a deeply disturbing encounter that’ll haunt you long after you’ve removed your goggles. Trust me: I made the mistake of playing Blair Witch: Oculus Quest Edition at night, in a room where the radiator creaks, and my sleep was fitful to say the least.
That said, there are a couple of missteps and missed opportunities here. The graphics are a notch below the console version – though that’s to be expected given this is purely running on Quest. But there are times when it feels like Ellis’s trauma is being used as a cheap shot. And, while Blair Witch‘s gameplay has been tweaked to better suit VR, I’d have loved to have seen a few more non-scripted encounters that make use of the medium. Imagine turning around and just catching something disappear behind a tree, then being afraid to turn back around because of what you might see.
Blair Witch: Oculus Quest Edition is a great survival horror outing. With a runtime of four to six hours, it can be completed in just a few sittings and, consequently, never outstays its welcome. Whether you’re a hardcore Blair Witch fan, or hated that Heather kept blubbing into the camera without once wiping her nose, Blair Witch: Oculus Quest Edition is worth its weight in suspiciously well-crafted stick figurines.