Release Date: August 30, 2019Platform: PC (reviewed), XBODeveloper: Bloober TeamPublisher: Bloober TeamGenre: Psychological Horror
It made all the sense in the world to me when I heard that Polish studio Bloober Team was developing a psychological horror game inspired by the Blair Witch franchise. The studio’s brilliant Layers of Fear games are some of the most artful horror games ever made, and The Blair Witch Project is one of the most unique, influential horror movies of all time, so I was pretty sure Bloober’s vision for the franchise would hit the spot.
Unfortunately, Blair Witch is a bit of a miss. In a lot of ways, the game exhibits some of Bloober’s greatest strengths both in visual storytelling and game design, but uneven pacing, stilted writing, and off-pitch voice acting weigh the experience down and distract from what the game does well.
You play as Ellis (Joseph May), a former cop who has joined the search for a lost boy in the Black Hills Forest near Burkittsville, Maryland. With the investigation already underway, Ellis, along with his dog, Bullet, tries to catch up to the rest of the party and scan for clues on his own. As you explore the woods and learn about Ellis’ fraught personal history, it becomes clear that his mind is on the precipice of coming undone, and the world around him starts to gurgle and shift as the influence of the infamous witch takes hold.
From the jump, it’s clear that one of the game’s biggest issues is its voice acting. Ellis is about as broken as a person gets, both mentally and emotionally, but you can’t really hear all of that pain, suffering, and heartache in May’s voice, which actually sounds quite soothing and pristine. This doesn’t seem to be any fault of May’s, but rather an issue of miscasting. There are points in the story where Ellis says and does some shocking things, but his nice-guy voice just doesn’t reflect the ugliness of his actions.
The dialogue isn’t necessarily poorly written, but what’s disappointing about it is that, well, this is a Blair Witch game, and that comes with certain expectations. The original movie was so scary because the people on screen felt real and were genuinely reacting to the messed up situation they were in. Their dialogue sounded and felt more like real conversations rather than scripted lines. The game’s dialogue, on the other hand, sounds very, very scripted, and it’s performed too cleanly by the actors. Real people stumble over words and repeat phrases when they misspeak, pause to cough. But these characters always sound like they’re performing and annunciating and…it’s all too polished and pruned.
The game’s overarching story is deeply felt and draws from real nightmare scenarios that most of us can relate to in one way or another. The folks at Bloober are truly gifted at exploring the darkest corners of the human psyche and bringing those bad thoughts to life in their games, and there are plenty of moments in Blair Witch that feel incredibly humanistic despite the gruesome nature of the story.
But moment to moment, the story feels oddly paced. Without spoiling anything, there are certain sections that focus on a theme, like guilt or abandonment. Unsurprisingly, Bloober finds brilliant ways to explore these themes with their level, art, and sound design. On too many occasions, though, I felt that they overstayed their welcome with certain concepts and ideas, forcing me to repeat actions that seemed symbolic and central to the narrative at first, but sort of devolved into mundane video game-y tasks after the 10th, 15th, 20th time I carried them out.
These simple, somewhat banal tasks at times left me feeling disenchanted with the experience, which really is a shame. I can imagine some players enjoying the more traditional objectives and puzzles Bloober has integrated into the game, but for my taste, I prefer an experience that’s solely focused on the characters and story.
One of the more interesting gameplay elements is Bullet, who you must keep close to maintain your sanity. You can give him simple commands like “seek” and “stay close,” or you can pet him to calm him down. It’s crucial to keep an eye on his behaviors as well, as he’ll often unearth key items or alert you to danger.
What’s most interesting about Bullet is what he brings to the story and experience as a whole. On one hand, having him as a companion is incredibly emotional and heartening and, at times, anxiety-inducing. But at the same time, having him as a companion sort of made me feel safer than perhaps was intended. I wasn’t all that scared throughout most of the game, in large part because Bullet is so gosh darn cute that it diffuses the tension of even the most harrowing scenes.
So is Bullet a detriment to the game? I’d say no. In fact, while the game isn’t nearly as scary as I was hoping for due to his involvement, my biggest takeaway is how much I enjoyed the relationship I built with that dog. Love him.
The game’s presentation is lovely as well. Bloober always does a fantastic job with visuals and sound, and Blair Witch is absolutely no exception on this front. The forest looks dark and spiny and completely uninviting (just like in the movie!), and the sound design supports the illusion. The sound of Ellis’ feet crunching through the dry branches and weeds as I veered off of the beaten path is one of the most satisfying sound effects I’ve heard in a long while. The imagery and sounds work harmoniously in all of Bloober’s games, but this game is particularly transportive, especially in the outdoor areas, which make up a majority of the campaign.
I can’t tell you how much I enjoy exploring the environments this studio constructs — every nook and cranny of every section is evocative, detailed, and reflects the mood of the narrative, which is of utmost importance for titles like this. There is a section near the end of the game that takes place inside a house, and this is when Bloober really starts to find its pocket and gives you the claustrophobic, trippy, bone-chilling moments the studio is known for. The things you see in that house are…well, just wait. Truly terrifying stuff.
What’s odd about Blair Witch is that, if you divorce the game from its movie franchise connection for a moment, it’s actually a completely worthwhile experience and a good representation of what Bloober Team does so well. But if you’re a fan of the movie, like yours truly, it’s almost impossible to enter into the game with no expectations. The storytelling doesn’t align with the original movie’s at all, quite frankly, which is disappointing. But what it does align with is the rest of the studio’s oeuvre, so your level of satisfaction with the game may well be a matter of perspective. I’m confident in this: if you’re a fan of horror games and somehow are not familiar with The Blair Witch Project, this game is probably right up your alley. For the rest of us, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.
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