The Blair Witch project came to live in 1999 with a superb movie. And having received a sequel in 2000 and a remake in 2017, it’s now up to the games to create a great horror experience. After having released on both pc and Xbox One, it is now time for the Switch to receive the game installment from Bloober Team, but is it actually any good?
Bloober Team – known for Layers of Fear and Observer – is the developer who takes this responsibility and tackles the horror world that awaits in the forest of Burkitssvile, Maryland. Like their previous titles, this is a first-person game. You step into the shoes of Ellis, a man with a troubled past and his dog Bullet who enter the woods in the year 1996 (two years after the events of the original film) to find a missing child named Peter Shannon. There is no rose scent or moonshine in these forests, but we knew that from the beginning.
We are thrown in from the outset after Ellis parks his car and prepares for the search. However, he is alone, despite all the cars parked nearby, and decides to start searching with Bullet himself. Along the way we get flashbacks about what happened in the past and how he and Bullet got here, but since the game is roughly five hours long (for a ‘playthrough’) we won’t expose too much about the story here to avoid spoilers.
All you need to know is that you are alone and vulnerable in a forest that has claimed many victims, and if that’s not the best setup for a horror game, we don’t know what is. The setting itself is perhaps the most effective part of the fear Blair Witch instills. In houses and corridors you are shielded and you can protect yourself with the corners, but in the woods there is a vast void that goes endlessly in all directions. That means you are never sure who is watching you and what awaits you there. It is a truly frightening experience.
It is not so much an ‘on-rails’ experience and for the most part Bloober Team manages to guide you carefully through this forest. Everything is technically open, but using high walls, piles of wood and other subtle measures, the game has a path for you to follow. Although that doesn’t stop you from getting lost every now and then. However, these moments are rare and the majority of the time we explored the forest without any frustration, even discovering little secrets off the beaten track.
The setting is exciting and unsettling in the daylight, but that goes the extra mile when night falls on your quest. Using only a flashlight and your video camera’s limited ‘night vision’ to guide you, it’s incredibly nerve-racking to play, and this is where we find one of the game’s most questionable elements – the monsters.
These are not visible and briefly manifest themselves as shadow figures, but since the appeal of the original 1999 film was that you didn’t see anything, this may not appeal to everyone. The good news is that these are rarely used and they do not drive you too aggressively. When they appear, all you have to do is follow Bullet’s growl and shine a light on them to dispel them. There are also spine-chilling moments where they are completely invisible, where you have to use the red outlines on your camera screen to spot and avoid them.
Later in the game, you’ll come across one of the most frustrating elements of Blair Witch, which we found equally frustrating in Observer – the ‘instafail’ sneak sections. These require you to follow a glowing track with your video camera screen while avoiding the monsters. The problem, however, is that they are so close to the track and sneak around that they’ll attack you or kill you all at once if you catch a glimpse of their toenail for one second. Seeing a monster jump at you for the fifth time in a row removes the shock element and for us this part could have worked better.
While Bullet is good at spotting enemies, he’s actually much more than that. He is actually your main tool in the game. There is a complete control wheel that allows you to reprimand, tell him to stay or follow you, and most importantly, command you to search. This will let him bring you important objects for the story or just objects he finds (you can find plenty of them yourself too) and of course you can pet and reward him with a treat if he’s been good.
It may sound like a joke, but taking good care of Bullet is very important. Bloober Team said that how you treat your dog has implications for the story and other decisions you make – just like using your phone to record or read messages and the infamous Blair Witch totems (which can be destroyed) affect the outcome of the story.
There is more to the game than just exploring, finding items and commanding Bullet. There are also small puzzles to solve: from finding parts for a rail car system to progress to unlocking doors using your video camera. What you see on your camera changes whatever happens in real life with the same objects, so if a door is locked you can reach a point where you open it on video to get further. It’s a somewhat strange addition, but given the rest of the game, we can condone it. After all, the Blair Witch is known for twisting your perception of reality, so who knows what’s real?
The puzzles never felt like they were just stuffed in between and never too ‘gamey’. Bloober Team has managed to put everything in the game world in the context of the Blair Witch and the direct gameplay is therefore satisfying and immersive. However, you get lost in the woods as you explore it, and that provides the thrill a Blair Witch game needs. You don’t see a lot to be afraid of, but knowing that something is coming is a killer. Blair Witch fans will also appreciate the addition of the house from the very first movie, which is a real treat to explore as it has been recreated in detail.
The game is visually very satisfying, even on the weaker hardware of the Switch, especially thanks to the use of light and dark. Your flashlight ensures that light is used sparingly, but the moments during the day also help to balance this. It’s not just a trek through the dark forest and there are plenty of spooky environments to ensure you don’t just see the same thing. You will constantly find new detailed places to explore with hidden pearls and objects that help shape the world of Blair Witch.
With all of the above, we were quite disappointed when the game turned into too long and tousled an ending that seemed to take forever. The rest of the game is so tight and focused that afterwards it feels like a big miss, struggling to tie up the loose ends and lose the subtle horror of before. At the end we couldn’t wait for it to end and this also happened to be one of those ‘instafail’ sneaks we talked about.
Even with this disappointing ending, we can thoroughly recommend Blair Witch. It’s Bloober Team’s best work to date and not just a treat for Blair Witch fans, but anyone who loves horror. It’s effective and really puts you on the edge of your seat as you explore the forest, just like in the original 1999 movie where three filmmakers got lost in those same forests.
The Blair Witch is a great immersive horror experience sadly fated with a few minor frustrating sections. But a good pickup for fans of the genre nonetheless.