When Blair Witch was announced at this years E3, it surprised just about everyone. No one expected them to reveal a game based off of The Blair Witch movies out of all things. After seeing some gameplay and reading up on it, it had both my curiosity and my attention. Luckily, despite some clunky gameplay and a slow start, my curiosity and attention was well deserved, because Blair Witch is pretty darn great.
The story of the game is relatively simple, with one particular element added to it that helps make Blair Witch become more than just another generic first-person horror game. You play as a man named Ellis who, along with his adorable dog Bullet, is searching for a boy named Peter, who went missing somewhere in the Black Hills Forest in 1996. As these things go, the investigation starts out pretty normal and then things take a turn for the weird. The element that makes the game so special is that Ellis has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Bullet is essentially his service dog. This makes for a lot of really great bits of psychological horror and an interesting relationship between him and the player.
Blair Witch is one of those games where the gameplay is the weakest part and is way overshadowed by the narrative. I know that your thinking that a game with weak gameplay doesn’t sound really worth it, but hear me out on this one. My main issues with the gameplay lie in three places: the environment, the enemies, and the puzzles. I have some nitpicks as well, but nitpicking isn’t really my thing, so I’ll focus on the stuff that actually matters.
The problem with the environment is that a majority of the game feels on rails with invisible barriers to keep you from wandering off. The game feels at points to be almost oppressively restrictive in where you can go, and being a game set in the Blair Witch universe, it should feel the opposite. A Blair Witch game should feel overwhelmingly open, because part of the horror at the heart of the movies is that feeling of being lost in an unfamiliar, yet all too familiar place. It’s almost like there’s this tiny box you’re playing in and if you go too far you hit the edges. Although, I will give it credit for using loops like in the movies which makes for some genuinely and intentionally confusing moments.
I’m going to lump the enemies and the puzzles together because they both have the same central issue. It’s not that the enemies or the puzzles are difficult, it’s more like they’re annoying. There are several different enemies that you face throughout the game, and while at first they’re pretty scary, that feeling eventually goes away for the most part. At several points, the enemies feel less like a threat, and more like an obstacle getting in the way between you and progressing through the story. The puzzles are pretty much the same. Blair Witch doesn’t hold your hand, which is something I like, but at the same time, it doesn’t give you much help either. A few friends watched me play the game, and at a few of the puzzles were just as confused as I was in how I was even supposed to figure it out. This wouldn’t be as much of an issue to me if the story wasn’t as engaging as it was, I found myself just being annoyed at the gameplay for the most part because it kept getting in the way of the narrative.
This isn’t to say all the gameplay is like that, no not at all. There are several pretty cool mechanics that help keep the game feeling fresh. The most notable of these is the video camera. While it can be used to detect enemies later on in the game, the coolest thing about it is that it’s able to manipulate reality. At parts in the game, the player gets these red videotapes that act as clues to puzzles. When you watch a tape, and if you pause or rewind at certain points, things in the world around you change depending on what you do with the tape. Even though this does fall under a few of the problems I have with the puzzles, it’s still really neat nonetheless.
I can’t believe I almost forgot the best thing about the gameplay! Bullet! Your relationship with Bullet is crucial to the game, and depending on how you treat him, the story and the way he acts toward you will change. You can punish him for wandering off (although what monster would do such a thing), pet him, or give him dog treats. He can also sniff out clues and warn you of enemies. Basically, Bullet is the best boy.
Now that all the gameplay is out of the way, I can talk about where the real meat of the game is. The story of Blair Witch is fantastic in so many ways. First of all, Ellis is a genuinely great and dynamic character with a painful past who I wanted the best for (and depending on what ending you get, which there are four of, you may get just that). He’s on a quest for redemption after making several grave mistakes in his past. While he doesn’t have to be searching for Peter, he feels compelled to, like it’s his responsibility. Ellis isn’t a hero, and doesn’t think of himself as one, he’s just a man trying to do right after doing so much wrong.
The relationship between Ellis and his wife is a big part of the game, but the more interesting relationship is the one between him and the Blair Witch. What this game really nails is the witch herself. I think that as far as horror goes we tend not to give the Blair Witch the credit she deserves. She isn’t a creature, an entity, or anything tangible, she is evil incarnate and the game never let’s you forget that. She uses Ellis’s PTSD as a way to turn his brain inside out warping his reality and clouding his judgment. I don’t think there’s been a game since maybe Spec Ops: The Line (2012) that really understands how lonely, controlling, and debilitating mental illness can be especially when you’re constantly being gaslight by an abuser, which is basically what the Blair Witch is. She wants Ellis, and in turn you, to eat out of her hand and do her bidding, she wants both of you to feel hopeless and like you have no control over your situation.
This leads me to my last thing to gush over, the fact that you do have a choice. As I said before, there are four different endings, and depending on what actions you take, the ending changes giving the game more replayability. The choices aren’t binary either, they’re little things throughout the game that add up. Things such as how much love you give Bullet or whether or not you destroy those creepy stick things laying around everywhere. It’s almost as if it’s less that you’re at the mercy of the Blair Witch and more that you’re at the mercy of yourself. That to me is a perfect example of psychological horror done right.
Blair Witch isn’t one of those games that you should just watch a Let’s Play of on YouTube, even if the gameplay may be the weakest bit. This is a game where your experience as a player, and your hands on the controller or the keyboard, are essential to how the game resonates with you. For 30 bucks this game is almost a steal and is worth every dollar spent.
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