The Blair Witch franchise has struggled to remain relevant since the 1999 classic, The Blair Witch Project. Every movie sequel has fundamentally misunderstood what made the original such a foreboding and sinister horror experience. It looked like the series would never get a respectful entry… until now.
Bloober Team’s Blair Witch is a return to form for the series that haunted us 20 years ago. Apart from a few understandable missteps, Blair Witch not only replicates what made the first movie so special, but also expands the property in brave new ways.
Blair Witch’s setup is simple. A nine year old boy goes missing in the woods and our voiced protagonist, police officer Ellis, joins the search.
It’s the same Black Hills woods from the original movie and it’s lovingly recreated here. Trees stretch way higher than normal, their branches are contorted grotesquely and the one-note colour palette gives you a sense deja vu even if you know you’ve never been to these parts of the woods before.
The sound design is just as impressive. The snapping of twigs in the distance, the overwhelming choir of bugs and the ominous ambient noise always left me feeling as if I was being stalked and preyed upon from afar. The soundtrack is similarly jarring. It replicates the sounds of growling and screeching in musical form and its main violin track is beautifully haunting.
But Blair Witch’s great visual and audio design aren’t the only thing that make the woods terrifying again. The environment will often morph around you, behind you and even before your very eyes. The iconography of the Blair Witch shows up almost everywhere as she plays with Ellis like a meal. This is used to great effect in the first and last hours of the game. Talking to the Sheriff on your walkie talkie early on in the game shows how much potential this idea has. As you’re talking about where you are and where you’ve been, he has absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. This makes the woods feel inescapable and so, so eery.
There are some missteps when it comes to recreating the horrific woods though. Frame rate dips are a common sight in the first two hours of the game and other technical problems are also present. The AI for your canine companion isn’t perfect and on more than one occasion either Ellis or the dog will get stuck in the environment. The menus are also quite unintuitive; they don’t make the game unplayable but it always took me way longer to find something than it should have.
Combat encounters are also not great in a game like Blair Witch. A few times through the journey Ellis will encounter invisible creatures that can only be seen and killed by shining a flashlight on them. It’s kind of like Alan Wake’s combat without the shooting. These sections don’t feel bad, in fact it’s a quite interesting idea.
The problem is that for a game that’s supposed to be about being preyed upon by an omnipotent witch, vague, invisible creatures break that tension. These encounters also aren’t too hard, so after your first few fights they kind of lose their fear factor. In later sections of the game, the option to fight these monsters is removed. Instead you need to detect them with the night vision on your camera and avoid them at all costs. These segments are by far more haunting and dreadful than the former. I wouldn’t have minded if the combat was entirely replaced with this mechanic in fact.
The rest of the gameplay is actually quite interesting. It mostly consists of puzzle solving and tracking down the missing boy. The puzzles are one of Blair Witch’s more innovative ideas and throughout the woods, Ellis will find tapes showing the environment you’re standing in, in a different time. Pausing the tape on your camera at a particular moment will change different things in the environment. For example, if you pause at a moment where a door opens, that same door will open in real life. That’s one of the more simpler examples from the game, but many of the puzzles can be genuinely fun and spooky spot-the-difference challenges, while also being a nice ode to the series’ found-footage roots.
Walking through the woods and unravelling a mystery is just as satisfying. Much of the game’s progression is tied to your adorable german shepherd, Bullet. He can bring you items that you can’t reach, go looking for collectibles and track the scent of items that the missing boy might have dropped. Following him when he’s caught a scent is actually a very smart design decision. Part of the appeal of Blair Witch is how mind-numbingly similar the woods seem, however, in video game form this could just come across as frustrating if you don’t know where you are and how to navigate the surroundings. Bullet solves that problem by leading you where you need to go in situations where that might be unclear.
Also, you can pet the dog. That’s very important. Genuinely, Blair Witch can often be a very lonely, oppressive experience and having a friend there by your side can make some of Blair Witch’s more terrifying moment bearable. Moments where Bullet is comforting Ellis, are often some of the most emotionally resonant in the entire game.
You see, from the very beginning it’s hinted at that Ellis isn’t as mentally stable as he should be if he’s going to be trekking through the woods. Trauma and psychological damage scar Ellis’ every action. A fracturing relationship with partner Jess, a police scandal and PTSD from his days in the army, all haunt Ellis just as much as the supernatural force in the woods and they provide great fuel for the Blair Witch to play with. The more you find out about Ellis’ history, the less you’ll sympathise with him. But that only makes his struggle for redemption that much more complicated and it only leaves Ellis with more guilt to be crippled by.
Throughout the game Ellis can also call Jess when he has signal. The relationship between the two of them is the beating heart of the game and it’s comforting to break away from the horrors of the woods to take a detour into Ellis’ private life. The voice acting between the two is grounded and believable, but unfortunately the acting outside of these conversations is wooden and stiff.
Flashback sequences might be new ground for the franchise but they’re in line with the story being told here and fit in surprisingly well with the ever changing woods. Horror set pieces also aren’t what the series is known for but in video game form, Bloober Team manages to pull it off. The last hour of the game especially had me feeling like I was losing it in a hellish, almost psychedelic finale that returns to the iconic house from the movies.
The plot also doesn’t try to mess with the cinematic lore though, only add to it. The additions here make sense if you’re a fan the movies, while still bringing brave new corners to explore. I just can’t help but feel that Blair Witch’s narrative would work better if more was left to the imagination. But that’s going to be subjective depending on the player.
Ultimately, Blair Witch on Xbox One is at its best when it returns to the crippling paranoia and dread that made the original movie so mesmerising. The moments where the threat is unseen and the sounds are far away are Blair Witch’s best. An intriguing, psychological story and a perfect recreation of the Black Hills woods only amplify the game’s non-stop tension. Some technical hiccups and out of place combat isn’t enough to stop this from being Bloober Team’s scariest game to date, and the best Blair Witch entry since 1999.