Blair Witch

Part of Microsoft’s ongoing Game Pass experiment, Blair Witch released on PC and Xbox One a couple of days ago to the delight and surprise of many. The Blair Witch franchise is hardly the snuggest fit for a videogame, with a heavy emphasis on fruitless woodland-stomping and the power of suggestion. You have your setting – the woods of Burkettsville, Maryland – and you have your evil wood-dwelling antagonist, the eponymous witch (or is it a serial killer? Or is it both? (Or neither?))

This hasn’t stopped studios from trying to capitalize on the Blair Witch zeitgeist, and in the early noughties a trilogy of short survival-horror experiences came out of three different studios. Janky third person experiences, these games were very much a product of their time, and inserted some non-canon zombies – and zombie dogs – to give the gameplay more substance.

So it goes in keeping with the current milieu – a couple of movie sequels and a couple of decades later – that Bloober Team (Layers of Fear, Observer) are cashing in on our nostalgia by resurrecting a fondly remembered franchise while we cross ourselves repeatedly and hope they don’t ruin it.

You play Ellis, a man assisting the county sheriff in trying to find a child who has gone missing in the famous woods. You are accompanied by your loyal canine, Bullet. Over the roughly 4-5 hour playtime this premise will evolve into a Blair Witch highlight reel including twig figures hanging from trees, muddy camcorders, people standing facing corners, impossible geometry and the inevitable spooky denouement.   

With the power of the Unreal Engine behind it, Blair Witch 2019 presents a vivid, breathing portrayal of the Burkettsville woods, so that you come to appreciate how much characters can be squeezed out of what amounts to a lot of trees. Tweaks to lighting and shaders can turn a sun-drenched glade into a foggy wasteland. In the twisting of the mundane Blooper have conjured a world that is at times decrepit and at others hauntingly beautiful. The moonlit approach to a derelict riverside sawmill is a particular highlight. The woods are the main antagonist – and the woods are omnipresent.

Despite the scope of the forest (and various nifty tricks the engine uses to loop you back on yourself or obfuscate your location) the game does have linear paths and beating your own way through the brush will often end in an invisible wall. Not that you’d want to wander, as the sheer amount of woods is daunting. It’s to the game’s credit that it can thoroughly turn you around, but will always find a way to get you back on track once it’s finished toying with you.

One of the ways it does this is with Bullet, your furry companion. When all other options appear exhausted, using Bullet’s ‘seek’ command from a radial menu will often have him lead you to the most relevant area. From the outset the game is keen to emphasize that the way you interact with Bullet will impact the story later. While interesting in theory, this seems to be a binary choice between either petting the dog often and keeping him close, or abandoning the dog with the ‘stay’ command and needlessly rebuking him, despite the game never giving you any cause for this. That said, it’s amazing how valuable the dog’s loyal presence feels during some of the bleaker portions of the game. You could argue that having Man’s Best Friend at your side detracts from the oppressive atmosphere, but his absence resonates in what is usually an already unsettling situation.

There is also your handy Nokia 3310 analogue, with a fully fleshed out interface that you can use to contact your partner, Jess, as well as a couple of other characters including the local pizzeria. Yes, you can play snake on it. Throughout the game cell signal ebs and flows and – similarly to Bullet – coming out of a dead spot and being able to contact Jess again is a blessed relief. There’s also a walkie-talkie with which you can speak to the sheriff. Responding to phone calls and prompts on the talkie are optional, and radio silence is a valid choice which can alter the endgame.  

Your arsenal also includes a torch with a (thankfully) limitless battery, and in keeping with the Blair Witch Project VHS aesthetic, a camcorder. At various points you will collect tapes which will reveal some plot point or clue, but will also double up as a mechanic to alter reality in small ways by winding to a specific spot.

Through communication with Jess and the sheriff you will come to understand the motivations of Ellis. As you proceed further into the witch’s verdant lair it becomes clear that the real demons came into the woods with you. Unfortunately, those demons are the same tired PTSD tropes you’ve encountered before, and after putting the pieces together halfway through the game the same plot beats will continue to be hammered home. The last chapter suffers some pacing issues and what should be a thrilling climax outstays its welcome quickly. Blooper reaches into their established repertoire of tricks once too often, it seems.

There is enough variety in gameplay – including some light puzzle elements and ‘dangers’ to keep the game interesting – while not compromising the core tenants of the franchise by allowing the atmosphere to stagnate or resorting to standard ‘hide and seek’ survival horror mechanics.

In some ways Blair Witch is a lacking, or at least pedestrian experience. Xbox users can also expect some performance issues, which have historically plagued Blooper’s console releases. Where it does stand out is in it’s day-one release on Microsoft’s subscription service – offering a new game by a well established studio, and adding value to an already burgeoning service. The Netflix of video games has arrived, and if you’re a horror fan then there’s no reason not to give Blair Witch a try.

Blair Witch is available on PC via Steam (£24.99) and on Xbox One (£24.99 / Game Pass)

Outer Wilds

Outer Wilds. Its been out for about a month. No, you’re thinking of that other game, Outer Worlds, which isn’t out yet.

From screenshots and video you’d be inclined to think this is something in the vein of a No Man’s Sky. Massive, craft-y, procedural. The sort of game where you accumulate x of this and y of that to eventually unlock a gun or a few more lines of flavor text. I’m happy to report that this isn’t the case. Outer Wilds is set in a lovingly crafted, cohesive solar system that consists of a handful of planetoids. Despite a boxy, sparse aesthetic the game is beautiful, and terrifying and it does have an ending. In fact it has many endings, spaced approximately 22 minutes apart.

Awakening on the surface of Timber Hearth (the Earth analogue), you (blue alien with many eyes) prepare for your first foray into the screaming black void of space in your rinky-dink wooden spaceship. But first, you’ll be needing the launch codes from the local observatory. The observatory which is also a museum and shrine to the Nomai: an advanced super-race who inhabited the star system long ago, but aren’t here any longer. On your way out of the observatory a chance encounter with an enigmatic Nomai statue causes you to slip into a time loop from which there is no escape — even death. From this point the game becomes a Groundhog Day-ish adventure in which you have to solve the mystery of the Nomai’s disappearance and save the universe before the sun supernovas, which occurs every 22 minutes or so.

And it’s not just the obliteration of the solar system you need to contend with. Over the ~20 hours you’ll spend in the Outer Wilds your haphazard forays into the star system will see you crushed, eaten, smashed into rocks, sucked into voids and asphyxiating in the cold vacuum of space. Mistakes will be made. You will forget at least once to put your spacesuit on before leaving the ship. That’s not to mention your remedial piloting of a junky spaceship that will cause you to misjudge landing trajectories and autopilot into the sun on the reg. You’ll think you’re getting a handle on navigation and how the various jets and thrusters work, but then you’ll miscalculate stopping distance one time and take a physics lesson to the face. But each time, you reawaken with a gasp next to the crackling campfire on Timber Hearth, and everything is fine.

Death is just another tool in your limited inventory, and initial trepidation at stepping into the unknown will give way to “let’s see what happens” after the first few cringe-inducing misadventures.

Speaking of that limited inventory: save for your ship, a signalscope (for tracking space sounds) a translator and a remote scouting orb, there is no persistent item or key collection. The only item you need is this, he says, tapping his head. There is a ship log that will update over time, leaving you with a chart full of information nodes and rumours webbed together by color-coded lines, like the work of some interstellar conspiracy nut. The log populates automatically as you find notes left by the Nomai in their fractal, non-linear scribblings all over the star system, and slowly the Bigger Picture starts to come together.

And what a big picture it is, for a relatively sparse collection of worlds.

For the duration of each 22 minute cycle, the planets go through violent metamorphosis. See the Hourglass Twins: two planets that orbit the sun in such close proximity to each other that gravitational pull slowly displaces an ocean of sand between the planets, revealing secrets on one twin, and burying them on the other. Or there’s Brittle Hollow, a planet with a fragile crust that is slowly crumbling and being sucked into the black hole at the planet’s core. Observe the typhoons that litter the surface of Giant’s Deep — a water planet — occasionally thrusting a handful of nomadic islands up into the lower atmosphere. Indeed, much like Giant’s Deep, the clockwork diorama that is Outer Wilds often gives way to some unfathomable, spooky, depths.

At times Outer Wilds is lonely, and terrifying. Existentially, cosmically terrifying. Looking down (up?) into a black hole — or worse, falling into the yawning void of darkness — gave me the willies the way no other game has. Plunging through the cold darkness of Giant’s Deep past giant phosphorescent jellyfish set my hair on end. Panic set in as the rising sands of Ash Twin threatened to crush me within the derelict superstructures of an underground city. And what to say about Dark Bramble, a nightmarish void of space-dilation full of impenetrable mist, and thorns, and…

We don’t go to Dark Bramble.

But for all this trauma, there is also the unbridled joy of organic discovery. Short of a tip from a fellow Hearthian at the outset (one of only a handful of characters in the universe), the game is bereft of markers or waypoints or anything to interfere as you follow tidbits of information from one mystery to another. What is the Interloper? What is the Quantum Moon, and where does it go when it disappears? Why does my signalscope pick up banjo music deep within Brittle Hollow?

It’s basically Myst in space, but the reiteration of some info across different planets and locations ensures that you won’t hit a frustrating dead end for overlooking a single vital codex somewhere. In this way, it’s less obtuse than Myst could sometimes be. As restrictive as a 22 minute loop sounds, it’s a generous amount of time to pull at an investigative thread or two, and keeps the tempo of the game bouncing between laid-back exploration and last-minute struggles to wrap up your findings before the sun begins its implosion (foreshadowed by a melancholic synth track).

My one lament is that short of a concussion there is no incentive to revisit this game. Cursed with the knowledge of a hundred previous loops you can find your way from the start of the game to the end in about 20 minutes. It’s not even good for speedrunning thanks to some arbitrary waiting you need to do at certain points. Once the game is over you may reload and eke out a few extra nuggets of lore from a few more liftoffs, but the possibilities are (unlike the vast expanses of space) unfortunately finite.

If you do find yourself in the Outer Wilds, savour it. As the adage goes, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.

But also, the ending is pretty good.

Outer Wilds is available on PC via the Epic Store (£19.99) and on Xbox (£20.99 / Game Pass)