Blair Witch Review
A tame game for a lame film
True fact: I was a complete wimp when it came to horror movies. One time I hid in the bathroom at the movies rather than watch The House on Haunted Hill. However, even for as much of a scaredy cat as I was, the original Blair Witch Project did not frighten me. I was bored by it as a kid, and almost as bored of it when I watched it later as an adult. If there was a studio that could produce thrills from the franchise, though, it could be Bloober Team. Layers of Fear and Observer were both uniquely scary, but can Blair Witch live up to that pedigree?
Taking place two years after the first film, Blair Witch places players in the shoes of Ellis. A former police officer dealing with some severe trauma, Ellis has ventured to the Black Hills Forest to join in the search for a missing child. Despite everyone he knows being against it, the man is compelled to try and find young Peter Shannon. With a begrudging support system available via phone and his loyal dog Bullet by his side, Ellis must brave the forest in order to find the truth. However, there's something bigger than just a missing child afoot here.
Story is second to atmosphere for the franchise, and this gaming excursion is no different. The disappearance of Peter sets the plot into motion, but this is more of a story of Ellis' trauma than anything else. There's an interesting and important story there. As a veteran and former cop, he has been through a lot in a short time. We've seen other games explore these topics before, but Blair Witch doesn't delve into it deep enough to be effective. His past is used to generate scares more than conversations. It culminates in a messy, and easy to predict finale that felt cobbled together at the last minute.
Like the films it spawned from, you spend a lot of your time in Blair Witch aimlessly wandering the woods. The forests of Burkittsville, Maryland are eerie whether it's during the day or at night. And that's before you even get to the supernatural curse that plagues it. While there is usually a set path for Ellis and Bullet to walk, there are also plenty of side-areas to explore. These off-trail locales usually hide objects of interest such as photos of past victims, dog tags of fallen soldiers and creepy wooden dolls. You don't necessarily need to find these things, but they do add another layer of unease to the game.
Even more so than a flashlight, Bullet is the biggest asset Ellis has. The capable canine is more than just a support animal for the PTSD-stricken vet. He can sniff around for clues and is key to tracking Peter's trail in the woods. Ellis can give certain objects to Bullet to sniff, which will then send the duo on to the next set-piece of the game. Not only is it comforting to have a dog to hang around with, but it's also a smart way to make sure players don't get too lost in the woods. Bullet also plays a large role in dealing with the enemies you come across in your journey. These ghastly entities are hard to detect with human eyes, but the dog can sniff them out and point Ellis in the right direction. The pup truly is man's best friend during this horrific adventure.
The other major gameplay hook of Blair Witch is more in line with the rest of the series. One of the aspects that helped the first film stand out was how it was presented as found footage. Cameras must be an integral piece to the Witch's lore, as Ellis comes into possession of one as well. This is more than just a regular video camera, though. As you get further into the woods, you'll find more and more tapes. These tapes shine a light on recent events but can also change the present as well. For example, in order to get past a fallen tree, you'll need to use a specific tape to rewind the tree falling. It's an interesting mechanic, and I wish it was used more in the latter portions of the title. The camera sticks around, but the time manipulation fades as the story goes on.
Eventually, the camera's main use is to help Ellis sneak around monsters in the forest. It's not great, and really all enemy interactions are low points for the title. I despise forced stealth segments, and the ones here don't change my mind. They're annoying, boring and prevent you exploring the world around you. When you're not trying to sneak around, you can also fend off some enemies with your flashlight. Apparently, these malevolent spirits are really bothered by artificial light, as all you need to do is just shine a light on them to take them out. I would have been perfectly okay if these segments were excised entirely. Just focus on trying to scare me.
And really, the scares is where Blair Witch comes up short. For a studio that I know can deliver frights, both cheap and well-built, this game is a bit toothless. The jump scares are predictable and repetitive, and the lack of story development makes later psychological scares land with little impact. If a certain moment doesn't work the first time, it's not going to work the other four times it's trotted out. There are creepy ideas within the lore of the series that could have led to some truly chilling moments, but they aren't properly used here. But hey, I guess not being scary is staying true to the history of the series.
The performance of Blair Witch is straight up terrible on a base Xbox One. The framerate frequently stutters and stops. You could just be walking around, and you'll be hit with waves of lag. Certain actions can also take a bit to appear. It was particularly evident when issuing commands to Bullet. The game isn't even that visually intense, so the fact that it runs so poorly is extremely surprising. It's arguably one of the worst running titles I have played this console generation.
Blair Witch is far from the best-looking title out there, but it does boast excellent atmosphere. Black Hills Forest feels appropriately ominous and unnerving. Getting lost in the woods is an uncomfortable experience, and you do get that feeling from the game from time to time. While I didn't love the final portion of the story, it does provide the best visual moments. It's hard to explain why it's so interestingly designed without getting into spoilers, but Bloober Team really pulled out every trick to make it memorable.
There are parts of Blair Witch I really like, but they are often counter acted with at least two things that really bother me. The Black Hills Forest is a genuinely unnerving setting, and the lore is ripe for a terrifying campaign. However, the story lacks depth, the monster encounters lack tension and the scares are few and far between. When combined with the absolutely unacceptable performance, this marks Bloober Team's weakest effort to date. Evidently, the horror proficient studio was hit with the curse of the Blair Witch just as badly as Ellis was.