Blair Witch is a faithful recreation of the infamous Black Hills Forest, for better or worse
How does one recreate the twisting, sinister locale of The Blair Witch Project in a video game? Developer Bloober Team's answer is a faithfully confusing adventure through the Black Hills Forest, but I can't help but wonder if this was ever a good idea to begin with.
Blair Witch is for the most part a self-contained story, containing only a passing reference to the original source material. Its protagonist is a former cop and PTSD-afflicted military veteran named Ellis who, along with his dog companion Bullet, joins the search party for a missing boy. This boy, Peter, has disappeared in the forest infamous for being the alleged stomping ground of the titular Blair Witch, which only means bad news for everyone involved. This being a modern horror game, much of the events of Blair Witch unfold at night, with plenty of exploration and puzzle-solving to advance the story. You’ll interact with objects, read documents, and even keep monsters at bay using your flashlight.
Blair Witch’s most unique feature involves a video camera Ellis carries with him. Tapes are found in the forest that, when paused at the right time, will alter the environment around Ellis. A closed door can be opened by viewing a tape in which a character busts through it, for example. It’s neat being able to rewind and fast-forward changes in the environment, but it isn’t used very frequently and when it is, it often isn’t anything more than moving something out of the way.
Similarly, there are a few ways Ellis can interact with his dog, but you never have to outside of certain story moments. You can pet the dog, feed him treats, reprimand and praise, and even have him “seek out” items to find for you, a feature that never worked for me. The game indicates that how you treat the dog will affect its behavior later in the game, but I mostly ignored him and didn’t notice much change.
On top of underutilized features such as these, the level design of Blair Witch feels likely to turn away many players. The Black Hills Forest as depicted in the films is one that effectively traps its visitors with paths that unexpectedly twist back onto themselves and with the perception that no matter how far you walk, you only ever get deeper into its confines. Blair Witch recreates this quite well, often to a fault. While the forest is wonderfully rendered and looks especially menacing at dark, it is an absolute chore to navigate. The flashlight isn’t bright enough to make out anything but tangles of brush and branches. Combine this with the fact that you’re often looking for small objects in the environment to progress the story and it can become a true nightmare to play, and not in the way a horror game intends. It all becomes even more disorienting whenever Ellis, whose sanity begins to degrade as things get worse, passes out and wakes up in a different part of the forest more than once in the story.
It’s interesting because in a way this seems like what a Blair Witch game should be. I should be getting lost. I just didn’t count on it being so frustrating. Were it not for this, Blair Witch might be a bit more successful at its attempts to center the story around Ellis and his post-traumatic stress disorder. The game even demonstrates what could have been with a late game section that is more focused and direct than anything before it, but even this stretches on comically longer than it should, to the point of completely exhausting its ideas and then some.
Thanks to its availability on Xbox Game Pass, Blair Witch is an easy game to recommend at least a session with. But this is perhaps too harsh. Blair Witch is nowhere near terrible, and its terrific sound design alone is worth checking out. I would have loved to see its ideas, like reality-altering video tapes and themes of trauma and self-esteem, in a tighter experience enveloped by the paranormal horrors of the Blair Witch. It’s easily the best game in that universe, but not quite the one I might’ve wanted.