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.