What is it? A sort-of sequel to the 1999 found footage horror classic. With added dog.
Expect to pay: $30/£25
Developer: Bloober Team
Publisher: Bloober Team
Reviewed on: Radeon RX 580, AMD Ryzen 5 2600 3.9GHz, 16 GB RAM
Link: Official site
Horror cinema is blessed with tons of visually iconic monsters: the Xenomorph, the Thing, the Brundlefly. And then there’s the Blair Witch. Never so much as a blur on screen, at least in the one film that counts, she exists only in the sounds of a branch snapping in the distance. The one visual we have is a stand-in, those little twig effigies which Blair Witch—the videogame, sans ‘Project’—distributes liberally through its woods. You can even get an Achievement for finding enough of them.
It’s an inevitability, perhaps, of adapting this source material into a game, that developer Bloober Team had to expand beyond the main activities seen in the film: mostly just getting lost, arguing and screaming. But to its credit, Blair Witch resists many of the obvious traps. The game keeps the UI and the explanations to a minimum, it’s never tempted to hand you a gun to defend yourself, and it waits a good long time before any definable monsters do appear.
At the outset, you’re just Ellis, an ex-cop deciding to join a search party for a kid who got lost in those infamous woods near Burkittsville, Maryland. It's 1996, a couple of years after the events of The Blair Witch Project, and characters allude to those film students who went missing, but the game keeps a light touch.
It doesn’t need to say much more, because the woods themselves make it clear that something’s not right. There’s a moment in the movie where a character admits to kicking their map into a creek because it was useless—and this, at least, the game adapts incredibly faithfully. There were moments I wasn’t sure if I’d gone the wrong way, or if the game had reworked its level geometry while I wasn’t looking.
Being lost in the woods is creepy, for a while at least, but it can start to grate the fifth time you pass the same spot. To keep that horror-movie atmosphere, Blair Witch is very low on UI, which often results in me feeling directionless rather than scared.
Here to help you find your way is Bullet, a German shepherd who will surely be remembered as this game’s breakout star. Bullet is a Good Dog, but he’s also a good dog—one brought to convincing life thanks to a wealth of incidental animations that’ll bring out the protective dog-parent in you, as Bullet suddenly stops to crouch down and scratch at one ear, or stiffens as he relieves himself on a patch of grass.
Yes, Blair Witch meets that most important of modern videogame metrics: you can pet the dog. In fact, there’s an entire wheel of commands you can give to Bullet. If you lose sight of him, tap the button to call him back, and he’ll immediately canter over to you—which, speaking as a dog owner, is a comforting fantasy in the midst of all this horror. Hold it down, and you can instruct him to stay, or sniff out a clue. Early on, this lets Bullet work as a diegetic replacement for UI, a sort of joyfully bounding waypoint marker, but later in the game, asking him to ‘seek’ and nothing happening becomes a frustratingly common experience.
Eventually, ‘here’ is the only command you’ll actually use. Another option is ‘reprimand’, which obviously I never touched. I’m not the monster here. No, the real monster is those spindly-limbed creatures that keep popping up behind the trees.
At first you just catch glimpses. A blur of movement, something that could be an arm or could be a branch. The kind of thing you see at the edge of your vision when you haven’t been sleeping properly. It’s unsettling, if not outright scary.
But then the game forces you into what can only be described—with a reluctant sigh—as combat encounters. You might not have a gun, but you do have the flickering beam of your light. You desperately scan the woods trying to catch the creature like a rabbit in a single wavering headlight. It never really develops beyond ‘flick the mouse in the direction Bullet is currently facing’, but it makes for a tense, if ill-explained, first encounter. I died twice at that point, which had the effect of making this mysterious threat into something definable. By the time I saw my second or third, it was just another videogame enemy to defeat.
The same goes for the other main type of monster, something seen only by the cloud of leaves it throws up from the undergrowth. It’s an evocative sight—until you’ve had to sprint through a field with a dozen of them in it, dashing from one bit of contrived cover to the next. It’s like flicking on the light to discover that horrifying silhouette looming over your bed was just a coat stand all along.
These threats are enclosed to certain spaces, meaning that getting lost in the woods stops being scary—you never feel pursued, the way you do in Alien: Isolation or when Mr X pops up in Resident Evil 2. For a game of this length, keeping the monster permanently off-screen was never really going to be an option, but Blair Witch fails to find a convincing alternative.