The immediate and justified response to a Blair Witch game was one of skepticism. Here was a tie-in video game to a film franchise that changed the face of horror, only to quickly lose its footing and never seeming to regain it. While there are defenders, myself included, of Book of Shadows and Adam Wingard's 2016 sequel, no followup has truly matched the frenzied, panicked terror of the 1999 film. Now, two decades later, Bloober Team has delivered a stellar sequel in Blair Witch, a terse and frightening game complimented by some of this year's most engaging and novel mechanics.
It's All In Your Head
Blair Witch puts players in the role of Ellis, a damaged man who enters the infamous Black Hills Forest in search of a missing boy. With no other company than his trusty therapy dog, Bullet, he ventures deeper and deeper into the forest with no clear direction. As he begins to lose his way in the dense, expansive thicket, it becomes clear that there's something sinister lurking in the trees. Or is there?
Bloober Team isn't preoccupied with spooky, scary skeletons, you see. There are definitely monsters twitching and growling in the shadows, to be sure, and they'll definitely kill you if you slip up. But it's never clear what these monsters look like, how they move, or if they're even real. There's a very, very good chance that they're figments of Ellis' imagination, a theory compounded by the fact that most of the scares in the game revolve around the protagonist's repressed trauma manifesting itself in delusions and debilitating anxiety attacks.
In that sense, Blair Witch is spiritually adjacent to 2011's woefully underrated Spec Ops: The Line. Ellis is a Gulf War veteran, and his PTSD dictates the narrative in fascinating and frightening ways. As major characters come and go, and as the environment becomes more threatening, it's entirely uncertain as to whether or not players are exploring some haunted woods or the inner workings of a man's tortured psyche - or both.
With shades of Jacob's Ladder and Silent Hill 2, not to mention callbacks to the original film and (surprisingly) Book of Shadows, Blair Witch is a tragic descent into mental illness that's as heartbreaking as it is horrifying. There's never a clearly defined, linear narrative - only bits and pieces of what may or may not be true. After the credits roll, you'll be left wondering what's fact and what's fiction.
Who's Really In Control?
The chilling ambiguity of the narrative is complimented by mechanics that toy with expectations and play with reality with gleeful, reckless abandon. Blair Witch is an iteration on Bloober's staple first-person gameplay, most notably Layers of Fear. But for the first time with one of their games, I wasn't left wanting more. There's enough mechanical variation throughout the game that you're never doing too much of one thing for too long.
Most of the time, players will guide Ellis around the Black Hill Forest in a fairly linear fashion as he solves puzzles and stumbles across environmental hints that help uncover patchwork pieces of the rich narrative tapestry. On occasion, players will have to use a haunted camera, a la Fatal Frame, to spot potential threats and follow invisible paths to their next destination.
More compelling, though, is how that camera is used to twist reality. Players will discover tapes throughout the woods, and by watching them, they can toy with their surroundings to uncover new clues and forge new paths. While Blair Witch is far from the first game to do something like this, with Remember Me really putting that mechanic on the map, this is probably the most streamlined and least convoluted take on the concept to date. Plus, watching creepy home movies is just a really fun way to gussy it up.
There's also combat - a first for a Bloober game. While you can count the combat encounters on one hand, they're effective little numbers all the same. Players are tasked with using their flashlight to seek out the formless, shapeless spectral encounters and shine a little light on them to banish them back to... wherever they came from. This is a pitch-perfect execution of a concept that's been done in games before, in that it feels present enough to keep you on your toes, while never truly overstaying its welcome.
"What's That, Lassie? Things Are Super Messed Up Here?"
Blair Witch's coolest mechanic, though, comes in the form of Bullet. Bullet is more than just an extremely good boy - he's also a vital part of progressing both the game and the story. Bullet can seek out scent trails, spot threats, and find collectibles for Ellis. By paying close attention to his behavior, players will not only be able to figure out where specters are lurking, but they'll also be able to uncover vital bits and bobs of the game's lore that will help them figure out just what the hell is going on.
Ellis can also fully interact with Bullet. He can rub his belly, give him compliments, order him to stay, and just about anything else one might do with a dog. Oh, and feed him treats. That one's super important. It's also possible to scold Bullet and call him a bad dog, but because you're not an inhuman monster, you obviously won't be needing that! Bloober Team should really just patch that feature out, to be honest.
Jokes aside - dogs in video games often feel like window dressing. Outside of rare examples, like Metal Gear Solid's Diamond Dog or Dead To Rights Retribution's Shadow, they tend to just feel like brainless companions that only serve to garner cheap player sympathy. Bullet, however, feels like an integral part of the game in both a narrative and mechanical capacity. In a way, Bullet represents the line between Ellis and his own mental ruination, and that's beautifully represented in the mechanics.
That Crazy Witchcraft
Blair Witch's climactic moments see players revisiting a location that's sure to be familiar to diehard franchise fans. Throughout the duration of that setpiece, narrative truths begin to unravel in lockstep with Ellis' sanity. During that final hour, every mechanic is turned on its head, and players are left to flounder, helplessly, as they're relentlessly terrorized by things they have no fathomable way of harming. Walls collapse and rebuild. Things disappear and reappear. Reality itself warps and bends. Everything that you've taken for granted is suddenly upended, and your only choice is to resign to your fate - plunging deeper and deeper into the carnage while surrendering all hope that you'll come out fine on the other side.
I've been playing survival horror games since I was eleven years old, starting with a copy of Silent Hill 2 I picked up out of a bargain bin for five bucks. In my fourteen years with the genre, there hasn't been a single sequence in a single game that's filled me with as much abject dread as this one. I felt Ellis' claustrophobic panic begin to set in, growing panicked, jumpy, and queasy. I screamed, sweat, and tensed up like I haven't in a long, long time. When it was over, I was left with a rotten feeling in the pit of my gut - like I'd just seen and done something that I shouldn't have.
This is precisely why Blair Witch is such a tour de force. Until the very end, you have no clear way of knowing what to expect, and when all is said and done, you're left with more uncertainty than catharsis. Truly, this is what horror is all about - making the audience question their beliefs, fear the everyday, and lay awake at night, pondering everything they take for granted. Horror greats like Ringu, Halloween, and yes, The Blair Witch Project, know this. They prey on societal certainties and norms, twisting and skewing them to frighten us. Most games, even some of the best in the genre, don't manage this feat, instead content to rely on cheap pop scares and gore to unsettle us.
Blair Witch is not one of those games. It's one of gaming's greatest psychological thrillers, some of survival horror's finest few hours, and one of 2019's very best gaming experiences.
5 Out Of 5 Stars
A PC copy of Blair Witch was provided to TheGamer for this review. Blair Witch is out now for Xbox One and PC.
A feat only a true Dovahkiin could pull off.