VR and horror titles are, in theory, a match made in… heaven? Hell? Having the monstrosities and evil entities getting right up in your face should be the ultimate adrenaline trip, perfectly suited for VR tech to have you changing underwear and investing in the brightest living room lights. The Inpatient spooked me a couple of years ago with its Wendigo inspired jump-scare ride but was somewhat short and lacked the real tension of great horror. So steps up Blair Witch to try and fill that insatiable horror appetite.
Blair Witch VR is, from what I can mostly gather, a port of the original 2019 game, scaled and adapted for the headset and wands tech. The Switch version of the game reviewed rather well here at Finger Guns (despite some bugs), so the question was whether it could make the most of the opportunity afforded to it by VR’s up-close-and-personal and increased immersion offering. Having watched the film a few years ago, I was intrigued at the prospect of a disorientating setting being put right before me and having to face the terror of a foreboding forest locale where anything can happen.
The story centers around our protagonist, Ellis Lynch. A past soldier and police officer, Ellis is suffering severely from PTSD, combat stress and other unresolved trauma. Along for the ride with him is the trusty canine companion, Bullet – easily the best (and maybe frustrating) horror game buddy you could have. Ellis’ recent history has led to some pretty dark events occurring, leading him to join a search party for a missing boy in Maryland’s Burkittsville Woods. As we the audience already know, these forests certainly never hold anything pleasant in store.
Set two years after the events of the film, Ellis and Bullet arrive to start the search and promptly enter the woods to investigate. The set up is straightforward enough and there’s some subtle clues that all isn’t quite dandy with Ellis from the reactions of the other search party members and some… reassurance… from the local Sheriff, all delivered via walkie talkie, of course. The story is worth experiencing without having anything spoiled, but suffice to say that the mystery develops pretty slowly, with the second half of the game ramping up the pacing, while the first half drip-feeds some strange goings on and odd phenomena.
Time suddenly shifting, waking up from trances, locations abruptly changing, noises seemingly occurring from nowhere and everywhere. There’s plenty of the usual psychological horror tropes happening. Some are used more effectively than others and in VR the transitions can be effective at generating disorientation and confusion, helping place you into Ellis’ warping mindset. The approach to Ellis’ PTSD inspires uses of flashbacks, lucid trigger experiences and visions or hallucinations relating to trauma and combat stress. It’s not a perfect or even ideal representation of these elements at times, but it’s incorporated well enough to generate interest and motivation for the story to progress, and to unearth the underlying mystery.
The conclusion and overarching story can vary depending on your choices and how you play Blair Witch, so it provides some replayability value. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exactly tackle PTSD or trauma in a comprehensive way due to the game’s available conclusions. It’s common for a horror title, especially those about personal psyches, to be dark, gloomy and somewhat nihilistic, but coupling this with the way Ellis’ PTSD is presented didn’t quite work for me.
As you wander through the forest, you’ll be doing lots of… well, wandering. Gameplay in Blair Witch VR is pretty standard. You’ll walk through linear paths and some more open expanses, interact with collectibles like trash (yes, really), notes and story-integral objects. Early on you’ll come across a video camera which you acquire tapes for which act as extremely simple puzzles. Find a tape, watch the tape, figure out the nearby area it relates to and then use the surreal to progress. You can play and rewind tapes, only this camera has a supernatural trick up its sleeve – objects in the tapes can become reality in the present. Effectively, puzzles then revolve around finding the right spot on the tape, pausing it, grabbing/interacting with the item, then moving on.
It’s very basic but at least in VR it’s more immersive and in the second half of the game there is a sense of urgency and tension as you use the tapes to figure out what the hell is happening around you. You also have the previously mentioned walkie talkie, a mobile phone (which predictably never has signal), flashlight and the best item of all, Bullet’s whistle.
Bullet, being the very best video game doggo that he is, is highly amicable to all the things we as people love. You can pet him, shake his paw, give him treats, ask him to seek out items or simply stay by your side. He acts as your guide (helpfully barking at where you need to go) and will even act as a spotter for the more nefarious evils roaming the forest. The only thing that bothered me about Bullet was that he simply would not stop barking throughout the entire run time. Other than that though, he’s the best.
Speaking of spotting, the forest is, predictably, inhabited by creatures not especially appreciative of your presence. There’s a small smattering of encounters, where you rely on Bullet to find your foe and then promptly show them the end of your flashlight to scare them off. This is probably the one area where VR likely works better for ratcheting up the tension. The creatures move incredibly fast and use the trees and greenery for cover, making them hard to spot and it gave me some genuine moments of panic as Bullet alerted me to their presence without knowing where in the green hell they were, though after a few times you’ll likely find yourself unperturbed by them. There’s no other combat mechanics (aside from minor stealth, more on that later) which is probably for the best with the Move controllers.
There’s little else to report gameplay wise. But, what is here works surprisingly well and competently. The flashlight is responsive and the inventory is less clunky than some other VR titles. Opening doors and interacting with some objects can be fiddly but generally work too. The customisable options for VR are once again pretty good also. I relied on teleport movement throughout, with only one instance of needing free movement to get me through a troublesome doorway, and the special effects can be toned down or off if needed too. Though, keeping them on is pretty essential to getting the full effect the game can achieve in VR.
One particular blemish of my experience was the late-game sequence which simply drags on too long. In VR, it becomes quite a long stint, which disappointingly undoes the level of tension and adrenaline-fueled anxiety the first chunk of it achieves. The longer it went on, the less I was scared or fearful, and the more I became disinterested, wanting to just get on with it. This is where those stealth sections appear. One of them is fine, two maybe okay, but it repeats it a couple too many times which leads into boredom rather than terrified excitement. It’s a shame, because if the sequence was halved and the actually interesting story bits were delivered more quickly, it would have been an excellent finale.
Technically, Blair Witch VR ran well. The teleport mechanic worked smoothly the majority of the time, with only a couple of geometry hiccups (chalk it up to some reality-bending forest sorcery perhaps), and one glitch with the camera not working to progress the story forward. The graphics for VR are pretty good and the animations for Bullet especially, while choppy, are nicely done. There’s the usual blocky edges, muddy textures and early PS3 era polygon counts, but the sense of isolation and foreboding is palpable as you trudge your way through the forest.
Much of this comes from the sound design, with long stints of no ambient music whatsoever coupled with some jarring and striking scores to set you on edge. It works tremendously well with the earphones on the headset with some excellent directional audio design and eerie sound effects.
Blair Witch VR as an overall package then achieves what it sets out to do. It’ll unsettle you, have you tense and very occasionally even have you scared. It’s not the most original or terrifying game or story by any means, but it has its moments. Importantly, I genuinely believe I’ve enjoyed it more as a VR title than I would have done playing the regular console release with a traditional controller. There’s just something about placing yourself in the perspective of Ellis that makes this haunted, eerie forest that much more intimidating.
As a regular game, this title would likely have underwhelmed me somewhat with its basic gameplay and simplistic puzzle-exploration nature. The story is intriguing and hits its stride in the second half, but follows some usual tropes, doesn’t land all of its more complex themes and is relatively predictable. As a VR title though, the atmosphere of the forest, the foreboding sense of dread and the feeling of unease is ever present and amplified from the immersion of the headset and excellent audio design. It’s a great experience in VR and worth having a go with if you love all things horror or psychological thriller, just don’t expect to be scared to death or for anything deep gameplay-wise.
Blair Witch VR is available now on Oculus Quest and PSVR via PS4 (version reviewed).
Developer: Bloober Team
Publisher: Bloober Team / Lionsgate
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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