Making the Blair Witch films into a game could be a very easy, and boring trick to turn. Big forest, lots of jump scares, someone stands in a corner at least once. Easy money. So it’s nice to see Layers of Fear and Observer developer Bloober Team not taking that approach. There is a forest, and plenty of jump scares obviously, because it wouldn’t be Blair Witch without them, but the team have twisted things up in interesting ways, adding a dog buddy for help, and using the series’ videotape origins as a time-twisting mechanic to solve puzzles.
That alone is a good start but Bloober’s added its own signature touch with warping spaces that shift as you explore, creating a house that loops in on itself, changing where the doors lead as you explore its rooms. Or levels that blink and stutter between locations as your torch flickers, leaving you confused and lost as you deal with monsters and try to work out if the game’s gone mad, or you have.
To anyone who’s played Bloober Team’s games, this will sound familiar. Its titles so far - Layer’s of Fear 1 and 2, and Observer - are built on clever camera tricks and unreliable level design where doors can disappear when you’re not looking, or corridors become rooms as you turn your back. It’s a studio that plays with in-game reality in clever ways, building a disorientating experience that creates an uneasy sense of confusion as you look for missing routes that were just there a minute ago, or find yourself entering the room you just left.
Mixed in with the more familiar Blair Witch trappings of stick effigies and running through forests at night regretting all your life decisions, it freshens up what could otherwise be a far more predictable jump fest. Licensed games don’t usually do too much that’s inventive or different so it’s good to see Blair Witch trying out ideas that could stand alone without the name attached. For example, as well as turning a small house into a shifting labyrinth of corridors that lead you in unexpected directions, there’s a time-travelling videotape mechanic that changes the world around you as you view cassettes filled with the found footage that so defined the original film.
Be kind, rewind
The film franchise was obviously built off the idea that you were watching the recovered tapes of people that had disappeared into the forest, and it would have been easy to use them as an audio diary-type device to fill in backstory and create atmosphere. Here, however, you can rewind and fast forward the tapes, scrubbing through the footage to find an advantageous place to pause and see what you’ve found reflected in the world around you. The example I played shows a man being chased by someone and escaping by opening a door that you initially find locked - work through the film until you see it open and you can pause playback to discover it's now like that in the real world.
It’s a limited example and, hopefully, the game will do more with it. Crucially, there’s a detective edge to reviewing videos and piecing together where they’re taking place in the real world that works perfectly with the main plot set up - that you’re an investigator called Ellis looking for a missing boy. Both you, and the character, are trying to piece together the information and use it to your advantage, all helped along by your dog partner, Bullet. He adds another layer - leading you through the forest and following simple commands like finding useful items and clues, or growling in warning when the monsters start coming.
I have to admit I’m not entirely sure about the monsters. Looking like a sort of cross between the stick effigies and the Blair Witch as she appeared in the 2016 movie, they feel functional if a little forced. For a film that was very conspicuously built on not showing anything originally, very visible, very monstery monsters feel a little incongruous. That said it is effective - when Bullet’s hackles go up with a growl, and you start desperately slashing the torch beam through the trees to hold the shuddering creatures back (they don’t like the light) it’s a very effective recreation of the spinning ‘oh GOD where is it?!’ panic you see on screen.
My only concern with all this is that the demo I played consisted of several very small, well-defined chunks of the game designed explicitly to show off these tricks - short enough to get the gist across, but no longer. And certainly not long enough to give any idea if Blair Witch can sustain them in an interesting way across the whole experience. There’s promise, but also the potential that what I saw could end up like a trailer with all the best bits in. But the fact that a Blair Witch game is even trying to do something different is encouraging when it would have been easy to bundle a pile of jump scares up with the logo, and take the money. Even the fact Bloober Team is doing it feels like a statement. It’s a studio that makes a very specific kind of psychological horror and not your usual choice for a tie-in game. If what I’ve seen can build the tension it needs over a longer playthrough then this could be very horrible indeed, in a good way.