I’d never really been into the whole Blair Witch mythos. Being twelve when the first film initially rolled around, my curiosity was somewhat piqued. But as time passed, the enthusiasm dulled and I just generally didn’t care.
I’ve seen the parodies over of the years. Laughed when Scary Movie did it, chuckled at the other imitations over the decades that by now I’m desensitized to it. I don’t hate the franchise, just had no real interest in it. Only through impartial lottery did the review code for the Switch version fall to me that any spark of interest for the “Blair Witch-iverse” has been rekindled.
But instead of going in with tired cynicism over a worn out film franchise, I wanted to go into Blair (S)Witch with some open-mindedness, and see it as a fresh new horror take on an established property. The question is, then, does this make me want to go further down into the woodlands, or turn and leg it the other way? Grab your torch and trusty canine companion and we’ll find out…
If You Go Down In The Woods Today… Good Luck
Set in the heady days of 1996, two years after events in the first film, this story sees one Ellis Lynch join the hunt for a missing boy. Lynch, a former police officer, feels a personal responsibility to the missing Peter Shannon. This connection is a pivotal motive for Ellis’ involvement, but to give it away too early would spoil it.
With Ellis is his faithful companion, a dog named Bullet. Like Lynch, Bullet has had a rough time, so pairing the two up seemed like a natural fit for the pair. But Bullet is more than just a sidekick: he’s your tracker, your bridge to sanity, your clue finder and your best friend in one furry package. The immersion is somewhat spoiled in that you can customise Bullet’s features, in lieu of character creation, but we’ll go with it.
Starting behind the search party, Ellis and Bullet arrive at Black Hills Forest and quickly pick up the trail. Armed with a torch and “borrowed” police radio, it doesn’t take long to get the gist of what’s going on.Yet far from being a simple case of finding the breadcrumbs, events start getting weird pretty early on. Well, it wouldn’t be a Blair Witch game if it were a simple search and rescue, would it?
All Is Not What It Seems…
Of course, it doesn’t take long for things to start getting all weird in Black Hills. Ellis suffers from PTSD, and on random occasions will start to freak out and lose vision, sometimes blacking out. That’s not me trying to diminish or simplify PTSD, by the way. It’s just how it’s represented in this particular game.
After stumbling upon the remains of a camp site, in which he finds a camcorder, Lynch has one such episode. Coming round at nighttime (because it’s a horror game, natch), Ellis takes another look at the then-cutting edge tech of the camcorder. Here’s where it starts to get weird…
Watching on the tiny screen, Ellis discovers that it has reality manipulating powers. An item in the video materialises in-game, providing another clue for Bullet to sniff out. Tapes come in two varieties: blue topped ones are straightforward continuations of the story, where red ones are a certain kind of special.
Whilst the first “clue” in these tapes is easy enough, as the item you need appears in front of you, they get harder as you progress. Certain locales need to be recognised in a clip, for you to pinpoint what item is being brought into the world. Some you need at the right place for, and you may need to rewind or reverse the tape to get the certain on-screen plot contrivance to happen.
Naturally, no one believes Ellis and his camcorder shenanigans, so for the longest time it’s just you and your dog against a world of disbelief.
Man’s Best Friend, The Swiss Army Dog
Now, being a psychological horror game, it’s usually par for the course for the protagonist to have some sort of “dark past”. Squeaky clean heroes work for things like Alien: Isolation and Dead Space, as it’s you against the clear and present danger.
But when it comes to these types of game, especially the first person ones, there’s always some drive, some past, some kind of… something affecting our player character. In Lynch’s case, it’s PTSD brought on by a fatal shooting.
As such, his flashbacks come as backstory with the following: a failing marriage, depression and contemplation of suicide, before Chief Lanning assigns him Bullet. It’s not the most original when it comes to “tortured cop” rhetoric, but in this sitting, it fits.
It fits because your connection with Bullet is more than just as a peripheral sidekick. You rely on him to track clues, rewarding him for being prompt or not deviating if you let him loose too often. You can strengthen this bond by petting him regularly, or giving him treats when he completes a task like leading to you to the next part of the story.
I don’t want to give away why it’s integral to look after Bullet. I mean, you could choose not to and have the story play out differently, but what kind of monster would do that?
Besides, when it starts getting hairy, I’d rather have Bullet by my side against the darkness…
Sometimes, The Night Bumps Back
Much like Bloober Team’s previous effort, Layers of Fear, there’s no offensive combat mechanic in Blair Witch. Instead, it adopts a more Alan Wake-ian approach, in that you use the light to your advantage.
At set points, you’ll be attacked by humanoid shadows, like the one above. There’s nothing really complex to it: you stand your ground and shine your torch at them until they poof into darkness. It’s keeping track of them that’s the hard part.
You have to rely on Bullet to point them out, lest they rush you and cause incremental damage. The trouble is that Bullet, being a dog, has a lower on-screen focal point. That is, you have to look down at Bullet and look toward the shadows that are rushing you. There are moments where looking at down at your dog takes the focus off of the dark, and that’s when they strike.
Death doesn’t have that much of a penalty, instead resetting the encounter with Ellis muttering something about trying harder. It is, however, annoying to repeat a “battle” because you took your eyes off of the prize to see where the damn prize was. Ironic or irritating, I’ll let you be the judge.
There are also scripted scares and frights as part of the story continuation, but I won’t spoil them here. Some were painfully obvious, whilst others did genuinely make me jump. Now, this comes down to your resolve and how accustomed you are to this kind of title. Fear is, of course, purely subjective.
It’s Not Just The Woods That Are Full Of Bugs
I would love to say that this version of Blair Witch is a faithful port to the Switch. I haven’t played the “proper” console versions, but I’ve come to understand that they’re very well presented. Sadly, the same can’t be said for Blair Switch.
It’s part of the narrative that the nature of the forest changes for certain events, but there’s no excusing the abysmal pop up in the game. It’s not long distance, either. It’ll be hedges popping in right in front of your eyes. There’s only so much you can push a psychological disorder, and badly loaded textures aren’t covered by that.
The same can be said for the collision detection, or the “invisible walls” that keep you confined. There are times when the game shepherds you on a preset path, making wandering off the beaten path literally inaccessible. Then, after a minor line of dialogue, you can clip through a hedgerow once blocking you. It doesn’t make the game feel dynamic, more restrictive despite what looks like an open area to explore.
The other disappointment is the mishandling of the game’s audio component. The title screen advises headphone usage, putting binaural spooks through stereo channels to your brain. For the most part, it works. Much like Senua’s Sacrifice, hearing whispers around you is genuinely unnerving.
But unnerving takes a backseat to grating, as Bullet will not stop barking. I get that he’s your faithful companion and all that, but there’s a limit. Spookiness and immersion is ruined by constant woofing in your ear. But then, I’d still have him next to me that buggering off on his own somewhere.
Spooky, Scary Shenanigans
Minor technical issues (or limitations) aside, The Blair Switch isn’t actually a bad game. Once you get over how slightly janky its presentation is, there’s some depth to its shallowness.
Alright, that sounds a bit oxymoronic, but hear me out. At a base level, the game is little more than patrolling the woods with your dog, finding some clues and tapes that add rudimentary puzzle solving in the midst of battling shadow monsters. It becomes routine to solve something, see either you or your dog freak out, then expect the music to rise as you vanquish enemies with your magic torch.
Yet conversely, the story that the game tries to tell is actually very decent. Without wishing to spoil, the forest isn’t really the focal point of the story. The later game really delves into Ellis’ psyche, which presents some genuinely disturbing imagery and gripping narrative.
Imagine it as a roller-coaster: the first half is an unconvincing ghost ride, riding a slow uphill with ghosts that jump out at you in a half-arsed attempt to scare you. When you finally reach that peak, the descent is a trip. A wild ride through all the psychological mess that comes with war crimes, PTSD and depression… that can be conveyed to video game, at least. Again, it’s not a wholly accurate representation, but it’s done a good job in this setting.
So, if you are looking for something to whet your horror appetite, and you only have a Switch, then you can’t go wrong with Blair Switch. However, if you have an Xbox, PC or PS4, then you’re better off experiencing it on something with a bit more technical capability.
Whilst a bit janky on the Switch, Blair Witch offers a decent first-person horror title based on an established mythos. And a dog!
The Blair Witch is available now on Nintendo Switch (reviewed on Switch Lite), PS4, Xbox One and PC.
Developer: Bloober Team
Publisher: Lionsgate Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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