1999’s The Blair Witch Project is a film that captivated and horrified its audience when it debuted in 1999, spawning a whole Blair Witch franchise that has spun off into sequels and other media. Now, 20 years later, we have a game simply titled Blair Witch, developed by Bloober Team, the studio that brought us Layers of Fear, its sequel, and Observer. But how does it fare against those games? And better yet, does it stand alone as a competent horror game, or does it live in the shadow of the universe the first film masterfully created?
Set two years after the events of the original film’s 1994 setting, Blair Witch is very much a psychological horror game. You play as Ellis Lynch, a former police officer, as you journey you through the thick of Black Hills Forest in search of a missing boy named Peter. But as much as the narrative is driven by the boy’s search, the majority of what you experience while playing involves the relationship between you; your dog, Bullet; and your personal demons.
Time Is on Your Side…Maybe?
As you traverse through the forest in search of Peter, you’ll discover tapes left by whoever is responsible for the boy’s disappearance. These tapes provide a bit of exposition and serve as one of the Blair Witch’s main gameplay mechanics. A tape will have footage of an event that took place in that area, and you must pause at a specific point to impact the real world. For example, you might come across a giant tree that’s blocking your way and a tape nearby, which has footage of the tree toppling over. If you pause the tape before the tree comes down, it will change the status of the tree in real life, which will allow you to get by. This feature gives you incentive to explore, pay attention, and take in your surroundings.
Despite being a unique gameplay element and something that forces you to pay attention, the mechanic is often way more convoluted than the developers intended. Sometimes, it makes sense, like the example mentioned above, but other times, the puzzle’s solution is not so clear. And there were times in which you’d think this mechanic would be implemented, only to discover that the solution is something entirely different that doesn’t utilize the camera at all. It’s almost underutilized, which might be why the feature feels confusing when it appears.
Aside from playing with time, you’ll also be interacting with your German Shepard, Bullet. In fact, most of what you’ll be doing in Blair Witch is done with your right-hand-dog. As you progress, you’ll use Bullet to help track down clues and other useful items to advance the story. You can strengthen your bond with Bullet by giving him treats, petting him, and making sure to keep him close so you don’t get separated. He actually plays a large role in the overall story, which is one of the game’s strengths.
Bullet also helps keep you company as you maneuver through the loneliness of the forest. Your sanity can be impacted due to prolonged isolation, so you’ll need to make sure you stick with Bullet as much as possible. As much as the game is about PTSD and dealing with your own personal demons, it’s also about your relationship with Bullet, which comes with some heartwarming moments. These sections are some of Blair Witch’s strongest and had me tearing up at times.
Follow the Leader
The thing that Blair Witch has going against it is that it’s not very satisfying to play. From a game design standpoint, it’s kind of a mess. When you’re simply exploring while trying to advance the plot, it’s oftentimes unclear what you’re supposed to do to proceed. But for about half of the game, you’re either relying on Bullet to lead the way or following the path that’s revealed by the camcorder. While it’s a relief when you don’t have to rely on your own wits to proceed due to the lack of clarity, this is just a testament to how poorly the game is designed.
It’s as if the game is constantly working against you, which is especially clear within the first half. Many times, you’ll have a task that requires you to make your way through the forest, but with no objective marker, no indication as to where you’re specifically supposed to go, and no clear path to your objective, it’s more often than not a frustrating experience.
There’s a difference between a game holding your hand the whole time and being so obtuse that it’s virtually unplayable. Blair Witch goes through nearly every video game roadblock imaginable. Locked door? Better find the key! Machine not turning on? Hope you like aimlessly looking for the parts needed to start it. Can’t figure out where to go? Well, you better start exploring! It’s a shame because Blair Witch has some really interesting ideas that are held back by the poor gameplay mechanics. It would almost be better if the game was restructured as a TV mini-series so you can still experience the intriguing story and characters without the gameplay frustrations.
While playing through Blair Witch, you discover much of what haunts Ellis. You come across flashbacks of him in the army and various interactions between him and his ex-wife, Jess. It’s discovered that Ellis is more involved with the missing child Peter than was previously revealed, which is why he’s so insistent on finding him—a way to get good karma points, perhaps. These serve as Blair Witch’s most interesting sections, but none of them involve actual gameplay. This begs the question of why it’s presented as a video game instead of a film, which could work a lot better.
The other thing you’ll be doing often is fending off the creatures of the forest. However, like the rest of the gameplay, “defeating” these creatures doesn’t work as well as the developers might have hoped. To take them out, you must simply aim your flashlight at them. That’s it. The hardest part is finding them before they get to you, which is easily done by looking around in a circle. Blair Witch struggles with balancing satisfying gameplay with its interesting story. If the developers wanted to make narrative the primary focus, then the gameplay shouldn’t be so obtuse. If gameplay was the intended focus, it needed to be more defined. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, either. Many games with a rich story also successfully intertwine engaging, smart gameplay.
Topping off the gameplay slog are numerous technical issues. None of them ever broke the game for me, but they distracted enough to break the immersion. At times, Bullet can be found walking on thin air, or Ellis gets caught on a piece of geometry that forces you to wiggle out to proceed. And while I never encountered anything that caused me to have to reload a save, several reports from other players have noted game-breaking bugs.
Ultimately, Blair Witch is an intriguing story plagued by unsatisfactory gameplay, with a few neat ideas sprinkled throughout. Your canine companion presents some interesting mechanics, along with altering time through the camcorders, but in the end, even these features aren’t enough to save Blair Witch from being a chore to play. There’s still some to appreciate like the characters and story, which make Blair Witch almost enjoyable.
Blair Witch review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on a PS4 Pro, using the latest patch as of 12/3/19. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.