Blair Witch Review — Pretty Good, Pretty Scary
Undoubtedly the best thing to happen to the Blair Witch since the 1999 film.
Blair Witch dishes out its share of jump scares, but most of the time it’s content to keep you on the hook—nervous about what might happen and what might be around the next corner. This somewhat more tempered approach to horror is likely to make Blair Witch as divisive as The Blair Witch Project was 20 years ago. Some will undoubtedly wonder why there isn’t more action—why you can’t see more enemies, for instance, and why you can’t shoot them. However, those who can handle the subtlety of Blair Witch will be rewarded with a compelling and unpredictable experience that carefully explores the nature of guilt, loss, and fear.
The sense of unease that Blair Witch cultivates is nowhere more salient than in its narrative. You play as Ellis, a former police officer and soldier, and you enter the Burkittsville woods at the start of the game to look for a missing child. So far so good. Soon, however, you realize that Ellis maintains a precarious equilibrium. He suffers from PTSD and deep-seated guilt, and the game begins using more and more unusual delivery methods to reveal the grisly details of his past. You’ll start to see all manner of bizarre occurrences, and you’ll question whether they are caused by a witch or by Ellis’s own tenuous grasp of reality.
This difficult subject matter is handled with maturity and respect. When I was first introduced to Ellis’s on-and-off-again partner, Jess, I girded myself for a ham-fisted take on domestic abuse. By the end of the campaign, though, I was enthralled by Ellis’s history and personality. He is a flawed character, no doubt, but his flaws help make him more challenging than a lot of video game characters. I was not expecting complex character development from a tie-in game for a film franchise that hasn’t been good in 20 years.
Narrative is not the only way Blair Witch doles out its surprises. Enemy encounters, for instance, are dealt with in a multitude of ways. When you first meet the game’s shadow monsters, your dog will help you locate them, and your flashlight will send them running. It feels a little stiff, but you better figure it out—if you struggle in this process, they get closer and closer, making the whole experience increasingly stressful. Later, the game forces you to deal with these enemies in a different way—you use the camera on your camcorder to simply avoid them. Whereas games like Resident Evil pretty much revolve around the location of a shotgun, Blair Witch never offers such a permanent and stalwart solution to its problems. Rather, you never really know how you’ll deal with things from one moment to the next, and for the most part, I found such flexibility engaging.
One element in Blair Witch that seems to wholly endorse Resident Evil’s game design, though, is its use of little puzzles. They are never too difficult—this is not a puzzle game—but they do help with the game’s pacing: they’ll cool you off after an intense sequence, facilitate changes in the setting, or develop some exposition. Most are solved by manipulating the content of videotapes, too–a neat extension of the original film’s “found-footage” conceit.
My favorite puzzle in Blair Witch, though, is an extended item-hunt. Much as it does in the Resident Evil franchise, searching for items provides you with a fun short-term goal and a good reason to explore your surroundings thoroughly. This particular hunt is flawlessly executed—it provides clear motivation and instructions, takes place in one of the game’s more unique areas, and delivers a great payoff for your efforts. The items you’re looking for even make sense, which is an interesting twist on the Resident Evil formula.
Unfortunately, this is an isolated moment in the game–the only item-hunt sequence of its kind. Instead of returning to the well, Blair Witch opts to develop other isolated setpieces. And while such a loose structural premise does serve to keep you uncomfortably expectant, I feel bittersweet about the game’s lack of commitment–to puzzles, to combat, to gameplay. At times, it feels like Blair Witch’s only definite gameplay mechanic is to force you to follow a trail of breadcrumbs: follow the trail, follow your dog who’s following a scent, follow the light. At one point, you are literally just following railroad tracks. Blair Witch is incredibly cinematic and frightening, but it doesn’t always provide you with a strong feeling of agency.
Compounding this issue is a lack of diverse scenery. The entirety of Blair Witch takes place in the woods, and while there are a number of subtly distinct locations, you will, at times, feel like you’ve seen too many trees. When there is nothing to do but trudge forward through them, Blair Witch risks becoming a bit monotonous. Maybe it should have taken another cue from Resident Evil—RE7 begins in a forest too, but you soon begin to navigate the Bakers’ ranch and other interesting locales. In this respect Blair Witch was perhaps limited by its source material: The Blair Witch Project doesn’t leave the Black Hills Forest, either.
Most of the time, though, I was charmed by the smaller scale of Blair Witch, and only occasionally felt like it needed more of a gameplay hook and more diversity. After all, the setting is beautiful and spooky, and it does change: night turns to day and back again, a yellow palette begins to dominate the sky, a dense fog creeps in. Likewise, as you’re funneled through its twists and turns, Blair Witch distributes plenty of new things to look at and interact with, including new enemy encounters. The forest is quaint, no doubt, but it is also an effective canvas for the game’s developments.
The only completely irredeemable part of the game is the occasional technical hiccup. From time to time, my character would become locked in place, and there would be no way to move him besides quitting to the main menu and reloading my save. This would happen at inopportune moments—like right after I’d completed a long stretch of the game and right before I’d reached a subsequent autosave. I’m sure the developers have been made aware of this bug and are working on a fix as we speak, but it was definitely something that dampened my experience with Blair Witch.
All in all, though, Blair Witch is still an awfully good game. Its unique story about guilt and PTSD, its flexible gameplay, and its inventive approach at horror all make it worthy of your attention. It is also the best Blair Witch-related thing to happen in 20 years, so if you’re already a fan of the franchise, I can’t imagine why you’d miss it. Prepare to be surprised, scared, and delighted.