A call comes in on your cellphone. The audio, a muffled voice from the speaker you forgot was embedded in your PlayStation 4 controller growls “hold on to the light”. You change the fuses on the burnt-out truck and the headlights flicker on, illuminating the expansive but claustrophobic forest around you. You send out your trusty sidekick, Bullet the dog. He comes back with a videotape that shows a gruesome murder, which you can pause and rewind and literally change the world around you.
But the darkness is closing in.
As I do with anything Blair Witch, I went into the Bloober Team’s PS4 game with low expectations. Though the original Blair Witch Project ushered in a revolution of found footage horror films with loads of copycats, many of them exceeded the quality of the actual Blair Witch entries that followed the original. Bloober Team’s Blair Witch game easily exceeds those expectations, and despite some problems, it provides one of the downright spookiest experiences I’ve had with a console game in a while.
Blair Witch tells the story of former cop Ellis, who is going into the infamous Burkittsville woods with his partner and very good boy, Bullet, to search for a missing child. The story takes place in 1996, three years after Heather, Josh, and Mike disappeared in those woods, leaving behind mysterious tapes that portray their deaths. There are indications from the beginning that Ellis has mental issues and is no longer with the police for dubious reasons. His ex-wife pleads with him to give up the search, and throughout the game you’ll see flashbacks to the breakdown of their relationship, and Ellis’s expulsion from the force. What Ellis (and by extension, you) can see is far from trustworthy, and the game throws PTSD flashbacks, blurred vision, and other tricks at you to keep you guessing.
Ellis’s only connection to the outside world is an ancient cell phone, on which he can communicate with his ex-wife and a walkie-talkie which allows him to talk to other members of the search party. He’s also got a flashlight, which serves not just it’s traditional purpose, but can be used to fight off the ghoulish creatures that permeate the environment. You also have a camcorder that you’ll use to play the videotapes that you and Bullet can scavenge from the forest floor. This is also the way you’ll alter the world around you. Pause the videotape before someone pulls a shovel out of the ground, or before a tree falls into your path, and that will be reflected in Ellis’s reality. It’s a neat mechanic that mostly works well.
But of all this stuff, the most useful tool you have is Bullet. The faithful German Shepherd is used to search the area for clues, which he’ll bring back to you, and he will bark at the uncanny shadows to warn you that danger is approaching. Dispatching monsters in this game means watching Bullet, turning in the direction of the monsters, and illuminating them with the flashlight. It’s a weird mechanic, but it works and makes your heart race when you’re not sure which direction the danger is coming from. Chief among his many skills is Bullet’s ability to provide companionship. If you allow Bullet to stray too far away, Ellis will start to experience crippling loneliness, which affects your vision and your movement. It’s a cool way to emphasize how valuable a support animal (or any companion) could be to a person suffering from mental illness and underscores that Bullet is the most important part of this game.
The feeling of isolation in the woods is very real and extremely vivid. By necessity, you’ll have to walk and retrace your steps through the woods a lot. As you go around a set track, as you might if you were actually lost in the woods, things start to stick out. A branch here, a shallow river there, all of it is beautifully rendered, and paying attention to your surroundings will definitely pay off as you progress. The graphics are really great, and even better is the sound design (especially when experienced through headphones). You’ll get calls that come through on the speaker on your controller, and atmospheric noises come from any and all directions. It’s a real trip.
Blair Witch is an exceedingly glitchy game. I often found that the game would just randomly freeze or loop, necessitating a restart. This is made worse by the fact that the game itself demands that you don’t trust what you’re seeing or hearing, so you’re rarely sure whether a frozen or glitched-out screen is part of the experience or not. The fixed save system allows you to go back and restart that section, but this is frustrating at times because you’ll have to replay sequences again and again. Conversely, things that are part of the game are not always intuitive. One sequence had me searching through a videotape, looking for an appropriate scene to pause at so that I could move a tree out of the way, but this scene was not in the video that I’d most recently picked up – it was in the one before. There are also puzzles in the game that are literally not possible to solve without doing them on a second playthrough. This is a way to incentivize replaying the story, but again, not intuitive.
You might find that for a lot of your playtime, that there’s not much “game” to the Blair Witch game. You often feel like you’re turning the pages of a story rather than actively making decisions that affect the outcome, though the story itself is pretty compelling. Watching the videos and pausing when you need to alter the environment is a neat gimmick, but it feels like you’re a bit disconnected from the action. That, however, might be the point. The game trades on the fear that you’re never in complete control over yourself or your environment, despite the powers granted to you by your videotape shenanigans.
Bloober Team has, with Blair Witch, created an experience that taps into the things that made the original Blair Witch film a truly affecting film that spawned a whole subgenre of horror. It manages to get across the fear of isolation, of alienation, and the unknown better than any of the Blair Witch sequels, and adds on an interesting perspective on mental illness and the value of a good dog. Of all the post-Blair Witch Project, um, projects, this might be the best way to get back to Burkittsville.