The Blair Witch Project was probably the first horror film to genuinely scare me as a kid. I was 15 and technically shouldn’t have been watching it in the cinema, but that’s not the point. I grew up in a semi-rural area and dicking about in the woods was a pastime that me and my friends engaged in a lot, so to see a group of youngsters getting slowly killed by an unseen evil was unnerving in a way that I hadn’t really experienced before. So 20 years on, does a game based on the premise hit as hard as the film did back in the day?
Blair Witch puts you in the shoes of Ellis, a cop with a traumatic past trying to help find a missing child in the woods of Burkittsville made famous for nobody ever making it out of them alive. That’s not what anybody really cares about of course, we’re all here for Bullet, the adorable German Shepherd that helps you out in your search. From fetching items that you can’t reach to sniffing out trails, he’s the most important character in the game and Bloober Team has done a great job of making him a fully fleshed-out and emotive character despite his lack of dialogue throughout.
Having Bullet around makes the game less stressful than it otherwise would be. The level design is actually pretty good at guiding you to where you’re meant to go without feeling linear, but Bullet barking to let you know he’s found something or running in the direction of a scent will help keep you on track. The animation and interaction with him gives you a genuine emotional connection, and as the plot unfolds, you start to learn just how much our protagonist relies on his canine companion for emotional support as well as functional. There’s also a command to pet him, which made me very happy. Sometimes, he even licks Ellis’ face when he gets a cuddle and it’s super adorable.
As well as Bullet, you’ll find various camcorder cassettes around the woods, which can be played in order to manipulate the environment. By playing, rewinding and pausing tapes, the real world is changed: objects will appear or move, doors will open and close, and so on. It’s a very interesting mechanic and leads to some quite unique puzzles. Later in the game, the camcorder is also used for night vision and finding hidden paths a la Outlast. Your only other useful tool in this horror-themed walking simulator is a torch, which you can use to fend off the enemies in the game who are apparently terrified of the light.
The lack of weapons and difficulty seeing what is going on all the time helps to add to the feeling of dread and hopelessness that Blair Witch instills in players. The fact that you’re following a trail of clues that goes in circles, combined with the lack of knowledge of what exactly it is that you’re up against also does this. And the thoughts and flashbacks of Ellis, who is clearly suffering from PTSD, are harrowing to the point of actually being quite disturbing. If I didn’t have the aforementioned “pet Bullet” button, I’d have been much more distraught.
You’re told at the start of the game that your humanity is being tested and your fate isn’t set in stone. This is hinting towards the game’s multiple endings, which change depending on your actions in the game. The problem is, you’re not told exactly what it is that counts as good and bad, meaning that it’s largely luck on the first play through. Unless you have looked up in advance what you should and shouldn’t do, it feels rather arbitrary and smacks of artificially lengthening the game by convincing players to play through multiple times. I did not do this, I completed the game and watched the other endings on YouTube like most people.
The ending chapter of the game also suffers from this stretching out problem, as the last hour of the game outstayed its welcome a little bit for me. I feel like the tale it told could have been told in 15 minutes, but it was stretched out with lots of confusing supernatural happenings and backtracking just to fill in the time. As it’s one small frustration in an otherwise well-paced game, I’ll forgive it, but it’s worth noting that the game doesn’t end as well as it started, which is a little bit of a shame.
The optimisation isn’t brilliant. I have a reasonably competent PC (RTX 2080, 48GB and a Ryzen 7 1800X) and I still had to turn the texture resolution down a bit from the max to get a stable 60fps. Not that it made much difference, the game looks very similar either way as it’s too dark to really appreciate the textures half the time anyway. There were also a few moments where my character became unresponsive and got stuck to the spot. This did improve during my play through as the game is on major patch number two already. It’s a little disappointing to see that it’s been necessary, but good to see such prompt fixes issued.
There was another issue that is somewhat specific to me. I’m deaf in one ear, and this rarely causes major issues with gaming, but Blair Witch is a bit different. As you load it up, it tells you that headphones are recommended because the audio is binaural, and this turns out to be very much important because of the aforementioned darkness making it difficult to see things that want to kill you. It didn’t stop me from playing, but I did get “deafsided” by monsters on a few occasions because of it. It’s probably a really cool mechanic for those who hear in stereo, but some accessibility options would have been nice. The game gives you a visual cue as to where Bullet is when he barks at you, but no options to add them for other noises that are present. In the same vein, there aren’t any options for any other disabilities either. I’m not going to mark the game down for it, but I felt that it was worth mentioning in case any readers have sensory issues.
Putting the few minor issues aside, Blair Witch is a fascinating and engrossing game. As the story gets slowly drip fed to you, you start to get an attachment to the characters. There’s just enough information given to keep you going, but never enough for you to move from the edge of your seat, and that's a testament to the writing here, which is great. There’s some great voice acting too, with a top job done by all.
In all, Bloober Team has done a great job of capturing the feel and ethos of the film series. With some unique and interesting mechanics, a solid story, and a cute pupper in a lead role, it adds up to something really quite good. A few issues stop it from being perfect, but it certainly does justice to a film that’s held dear to many.