Game review: Blair Witch is an impressively scary movie tie-in
The found footage classic (or rather its recent remake) gets a video game adaptation that also features gaming’s most loveable virtual dog.
With movie and TV tie-ins once again becoming a more regular occurrence on consoles and PC it’s inevitable that some of them are going to seem a little out of left field. Games based on Marvel and Star Wars obviously make sense but in generations past movies as diverse as Mean Girls and Adam Sandler’s Little Nicky have been turned into low quality video games. A Blair Witch game clearly has more potential than those but it’s still not an easy thing to pull off.
There ware actually three, PC-only, Blair Witch tie-ins released back at the time of the original movie in 1999. None of them were very good though and they struggled with the central problem that the protagonists in the movies are both completely helpless and completely doomed. Their answer was to concentrate more on the surrounding lore – with all the games set in the distant past – but this new game comes much closer to replicating the style of the films themselves.
We’ve no idea why it’s ended up an Xbox exclusive though, as rather than the licence being bought up by a random company, film studio Lionsgate has set up their own games label (John Wick Hex is also one of theirs) and, very sensibly, hired a talented horror developer to make it for them. Polish studio Bloober Team are best known for the Layers Of Fear series and are an excellent fit for the Blair Witch, even if the game isn’t quite their best work.
One of the key elements of the Blair Witch movies (we’re only really talking about the original and the remake here as, like most people, we haven’t seen the second one) is the group dynamics, where everyone has a different view of the legends and what’s happening to them – which quickly leads to distrust and disagreement. Unfortunately, that’s not something that is replicated in this game because your only companion is your dog Bullet, and there’s no way you’re going to end up arguing with him.
Bullet may well be the best dog ever to appear in a video game, at least in terms of how he looks and how quickly you begin to feel an emotional connection to him. You play as Ellis, a cop and ex-soldier who’s suffering from PTSD and trying to get over a recent incident at work. He joins the hunt for a missing child in an unofficial capacity, turning up late to a search party that is combing the Black Hills Forest, and almost immediately begins suffering the circumstances.
The only equipment you have with you is a torch, a non-smartphone, and a walkie-talkie – allowing you to have Firewatch style conversations with your ex-wife and the local sheriff. The game doesn’t have combat as such, but you’re regularly beset by the long-limbed creature from the remake (which according to our understanding of the lore isn’t the witch herself) which can, amongst other things, be sent packing by shining your torch at it.
Bullet will sense when it’s close and give you plenty of warning even when you can’t really see it, which results in some of the game’s most tense and desperate moments. It’s most frustrating moments though are when Bullet’s artificial intelligence doesn’t work properly and he completely ignores the monster even when it’s blatantly there and you can see it moving through the trees.
Bullet will also point out useful items and give hints about where you should be going, but again he’s easily confused and it’s often unclear where you should be going, or whether an area of the forest is temporarily off-limits or simply not part of the game world. Which is especially unfortunate because half the time the game is purposefully trying to confuse you, moving you around or turning you about in ways that are logically impossible. And other times it’s just a bug.
When it’s working properly there are some great ideas here, especially the use of found footage camcorder tapes. Rewinding and forwarding these allows you to alter the reality of the forest around you and reveal hidden secrets, which manages to be both very video game-y and still in keeping with the tone and atmosphere of the source material. We only wish it ended up being used more than it is – especially as the other types of puzzle tend to be much less interesting.
When most action games are given an 18-rating almost by default it’s always worrying to see a horror game get less, but this is no Man Of Medan. This is actually scary. The forest visuals are decent for a mid-budget game, the sound design is excellent, and the way Ellis’ war memories are exploited creates an interesting psychological element as you really begin to despair for your virtual self and hate the witch for the needless torture.
The whole ex-soldier backstory is a little cliché, and you can guess most of the plot points long before they happen, whether you’ve seen the films or not, but it’s all carried off effectively and with a minimum of reliance on jump scares.
And then there’s Bullet. The fear of anything happening to your loyal hound is so intense it almost makes the game unplayable for animal lovers, allowing the game to play your emotions like a fiddle. The problem is that the game’s different elements – the exploration, puzzles, and combat – never gel together very well, with awkward pacing and some items appearing so long after they would’ve been useful that you’re not sure if it’s another bug or just your unlucky navigation.
But despite its problems we’d still recommend the game to horror fans. It’s not the scariest survival horror we’ve ever played but it has some interesting ideas and even though you’re on your own it’s an impressively good adaptation of the films. The same team have proven they can do better when making something original, but we still enjoyed this more than the film remake and that’s a notable achievement for any tie-in.
In Short: An uneven mix of tense psychological drama and buggy, half-broken gameplay mechanics but the end result is still one of the better movie tie-ins of recent years.
Pros: Great atmosphere and interesting mix of elements. Bullet is adorable and the combat sections are genuinely spooky. Camcorder manipulation has some clever concepts. Reasonably priced.
Cons: Exploration is too repetitive and confusing, and the camcorder elements aren’t used enough. Bullet’s artificial intelligence frequently breaks down and the game is very buggy in general.
Formats: Xbox One (reviewed) and PC
Publisher: Bloober Team
Developer: Bloober Team
Release Date: 30th August 2019
Age Rating: 16