We don't really talk about the other Blair Witch games, the strange early aughts trilogy featuring were-bats and zombies. So when Bloober, the developer behind the brilliant psychological horror game Layers of Fear, announced it was taking a whittled-stick stab at a game steeped in Blair Witch lore, the anticipation was real.
Blair Witch tells the story of Ellis, a cop reeling from making a massive on-duty mistake due to PTSD he suffers from his time as a soldier. Ellis and his German Shepherd named Bullet join a search party in the infamous Black Hills Forest, where a young boy named Peter has gone missing (as people tend to do there). For suspense's sake, the game begins with you realizing the search party has gone ahead and setting off on your own, with nothing at your disposal but a flashlight, radio, and your old school cell phone.
That's because Blair Witch isn't about combat - it's about avoiding it, and Bullet is your best line of defense. There's no heads up display, but Bullet acts like one, running ahead to alert you if he's discovered something, growling when danger is near, and barking his fool head off when the Witch is around. Oh yeah, you encounter the Witch. That shifty, long-limbed lady will pop up at random intervals, lurking behind trees and darting out from behind the brush. The only way to stave her off is to shine your flashlight at her, and Bullet's job is to point to wherever she's creeping.
It's a nifty idea, except it can be janky. At one point Bullet stopped reacting to the Witch, but the score persistently told me she was near. As the music swelled and the screen blurred, he rolled around in some leaves and promptly laid down, leaving me to twist about frantically, my feeble flashlight illuminating minuscule parts of the forest. Sometimes he would run so sporadically it was hard to figure out which way he was looking. This could be a purposeful mechanic, but with a game this buggy, I can't be sure.
Bugs are scary
And this game is buggier than a late evening backyard barbeque in mid-July. Hats off to the design of the forest, which envelops you like a strange aunt's hug at Christmas dinner, squeezing you ever closer to the brink of a nervous breakdown. The place is disorienting, and when night falls it's a damn labyrinth. This lends itself well to fear-inducing gameplay, but some mechanics fall too close to actual tech issues. There's a feature where, if you wander into a territory that you have yet to unlock in the gameplay, your flashlight flickers, and you end up facing where you came from. Unfortunately, the first major bug I encountered was one that trapped me in the forbidden forest (hehe) behind a tree, twice, forcing me to load previous saves.
FAST FACTS: BLAIR WITCH
Release date: August 30, 2019
Platform(s): Xbox One, and PC
Developer: Bloober Team
Publisher: Bloober Team
Some gameplay mechanics and world-building seem built to break or delay. The "wandering the forest" concept is great, but it's often unclear what's a blocked path that can eventually be cleared and what's an in-game barrier that can never be crossed. There was a lot of fumbling about the perceived map edges. Some of the items that offer an interaction prompt were never able to be interacted with. And some visual elements (darkness/fog) invoke frustration instead of fear.
Then there's the big bug that I encountered nearly five hours into the game that rendered me immobile. Literally. As I made my way to the threshold of Casa de Blair Witch, ready to shine my flashlight in her dumb scary face, I found myself trapped in the doorway, unable to move. I loaded an old save, trudged back up there, and was promptly stuck in said doorway again. On the third reload I doubled back to where I came from, but all points of entry and exit were blocked off - this happened for each one of my five attempts. The house was clearly my end game, but I couldn't get in. Blair Witch? More like where, bitch?
Not all who wander are lost
And neither is this game. The score is great, with eerie strings that wax and wane throughout. And the found footage mechanic brings the iconic Blair Witch camcorder into play, but with a supernatural twist. If Ellis finds red tapes in the forest, you can rewind and fast forward them to manipulate reality based on where the footage was shot. This means you can open locked doors, repair felled trees, and uncover items that are invisible to the naked eye. This is a fun, if occasionally tough to execute, mechanic - one I wish was deployed more.
There's a few "find the code" puzzles, an early one of which I failed to solve because I was wrapped up in the main storyline. The one I did complete, however, was in a run-down sawmill with a figure lurking in the second-floor window. You gained access to that floor via a set of stairs behind a locked door with a sliding bracket combination. Scurrying about the mill searching for the code was fun, and when I successfully opened it I had the smug look of success we yearn to wear when playing games.
And then there's Bullet, an eternal Good Boy. Using him to find clues and lead you places is a clever feature that's often necessary to move the plot forward. It's a new way to do clue discovery, and it plays well. His command wheel is a nifty feature that can call him to you, keep him in place, or let you pet him. Bullet is great. Everything about him is wonderful and he must be protected at all costs. That's all I'll say about that.
But is it scary, though?
Blair Witch definitely flexes some psychological horror muscles. Pairing you up with a dog imbues every move you make with the kind of imperative saved only for puppers - I didn't care if Ellis fell down a cliff, but the idea of Bullet scraping a toe bean petrified me. I was spamming the "heel" command whenever I lost sight of him. The game emphasizes the need to stay close to Bullet for the sake of Ellis' mental state, but that logic applied to my own mental wellbeing, too - an especially harrowing Bullet-related event had me sobbing. The dog acts as a kind of emotional support animal for Ellis, whose mental health is frequently referenced in-game. He's an anchor that both you and he reach for periodically, and a brilliant emotional play.
Speaking of mental health, the game cleverly weaves the disorienting and surreal aspects of the forest into a narrative about Ellis' PTSD. There are moments when the war zones of his past seep into the forest: bullets pelt the water in front of you, mortars strike nearby, dog tags lie buried in the dirt. It makes you wonder how much of the creepiness and anxiety can be attributed to the demonic power of the Blair Witch, and how much of it is because of Ellis' personal demons. It's a brilliant narrative tool, one that constantly keeps you on edge.
The Blair Witch I encountered was represented by branchy-limbed forest Slender Man spirits lurking behind trees that were only mildly scary after the first encounter. But that first encounter elicited a loud yelp from me that had my heart pounding in my ears for the next ten minutes. The few jump scares the game throws at you are great, and coupled with the thread of unease that snakes through the entire game, are super effective. It can be scary, but it's most often anxiety-inducing, which for many is the worst form of fear.
I can't say where the final Blair Witch encounter registers on the spook scale, however, because she refused to let me in the front door as if I were trying to push some newfound religion on her…
Overall my time in the woods was equal parts freaky and frustrating. When the game works, it really works, blending clever narrative elements, a brilliant score, and psychological suspense. But the occasionally wonky moment and the disruptive bugs hinder the experience, replacing moments that should scare with moments that vex. The Blair Witch is scary, but the bugs are scarier.