Blair Witch failed to find new threats in an old idea.
Horror cinema gets lucky with tons of iconic monsters: Xenomorph, Thing, Brundlefly. And then there’s Blair Witch. There has never been a blur on the screen, at least in a movie, she exists only in the sound of a twig in the distance. The image we have is a small twig dummy that Blair Witch — a video game, sans ‘Project’ — distributes freely in its forest. You can even get Achievements when you find enough of them.
Perhaps, the conversion of this source material into a game is inevitable, which the developer Bloober Team must expand beyond the main activities seen in the film: mostly lost, controversial, and screaming. But with its work, Blair Witch resists many obvious traps. The game keeps the user interface and explanations to a minimum, never tempted for you to put your gun in self-defense and have to wait a long time before any i.m.-identified monsters appear.
From the start, you were just Ellis, a former police officer who decided to join the team looking for a child lost in the infamous forest near Burkittsville, Maryland. It was 1996, a few years after the events of the Blair Witch Project, and the characters alluded to the missing film students, but the game still holds a dotted line.
There is no need to say much anymore, since the forest itself has made it clear that something is wrong. There’s a moment in the movie when a character admits to kicking their map into a creek because it’s useless —and this, at least, the game is extremely honest. There were moments when I wasn’t sure if I was going the wrong way or if the game had re-shaped the level while I wasn’t looking.
Getting lost in the forest is scary, at least for a while, but it can start to get grateful for the fifth time when you go through the same place. To keep that horror movie atmosphere, Blair Witch used very little of the user interface, which often made me feel dis disd out of direction rather than scared.
“I’m not a monster here. No, monsters are actually limbs that keep appearing behind the trees.”
Here to help you find your way is Bullet, a German shepherd who will surely be remembered as a breakthrough star of this game. Bullet is a good dog, but it’s also a good dog — a dog brought to life convincingly thanks to countless random animations that will highlight the protective dog parents in you, when Bullet suddenly stops to bend down and scratch one side of the ear, or hardens people when dropping himself on a lawn.
Yes, Blair Witch meets the most important thing in modern video game indicators: you can pet the dog. In fact, you can provide the entire command wheel to bullet. If you don’t see him, press the button to call him back and he will immediately contact you — which, as a dog owner, is a comfortable fantasy amid all this horror. Keep it and you can guide him to stay or discover clues. Initially, this allowed Bullet to act as a useful alternative to the user interface, a kind of interesting reference point marker, but later in the game, asking him to ‘search’ and nothing happens becomes a disappointingly popular experience.
Finally, ‘here’ is the only command you’ll actually use. Another option was ‘reprimand’, which I obviously never touched. I’m not a monster here. No, monsters are actually limbs that keep appearing behind the trees.
At first, you only catch a glimpse. A translucent motion, something that can be an arm or maybe a branch. The kind of thing you see at the edge of your vision when you sleep improperly. It’s disturbing, if not absolutely terrifying.
But then the game forces you into what can only be described — with a reluctant sigh —as the fights. You may not have a gun, but you have your flashing rays. You desperately sweep through the forest trying to catch creatures like a rabbit in a fluctuating headlight. It never really evolved beyond “hovering in the direction that Bullet is currently facing”, but it caused the first encounter, if not clearly explained. I died twice at the time, which had the effect of turning this mysterious threat into something I can identify. By the time I see my second or third, it’s just another video game enemy to beat.
The same happens for other main monsters, which are visible only in the leaf cloud that it throws up from the bush. It’s a evocative spectacle – until you have to sprint through a field with dozens of them in it, plunging from cover to cover. It’s like turning on the lights to detect the horrifying shadow that fills your bed with just a jacket pylon.
These threats are encased in certain spaces, meaning getting lost in the forest is no longer scary – you never feel chased, as you do in Alien: Isolation or when Mr X appears in Resident Evil 2. For a game of this length, Keeping the Monster Permanently from appearing on screen is actually never an option, but Blair Witch doesn’t find a convincing alternative.