I couldn’t think, I couldn’t sleep, I could do nothing but replay that movie in my head for days after: The Blair Witch Project was, and is, horror gold. Sure, everything else emblazoned with her insignia has been shoddy, at best, but for those 81 minutes The Witch was queen. The film embraced subtlety. The fear was in what you thought you saw, more so than what you laid your eyes upon. Occasionally, developer Bloober Team foolishly disregards delicacy, in survival horror Blair Witch, and shows you what you should fear. Although, when it allows your peepers to play tricks on you, or whispers shit nothings in your ear, it’s truly terrifying.
The Black Hills forest of Burkittsville, Maryland, is as beautiful as it is foreboding. Every autumnal leaf crinkles as you saunter through the fallen floor; every trunk stands proud and immovable; every stream breezily babbles along: it’s all rather lovely. When day turns to night, though, that crinkle becomes a roar and that trunk becomes a threat; Blair Witch convinces you there’s peril around every bush by playing with the dimmer switch, and ratchets up the tension with a crow’s caw. Wonderfully, it’s picturesque and chilling in equal measure. As it is both sprawling and claustrophobic.
Granted, the atmosphere Blair Witch brilliantly builds would dwindle if your destination was signposted with a glowing path, but a nudge in the right direction certainly wouldn’t go astray from time to time. That tree, looks like that tree, looks like that tree: I now understand why so many have gone missing here before. By going off the beaten path you’ll find collectable polaroids of those who have been offed by The Witch before, but you’ll also likely lose your patience. Tension turns to irritation as you run up against invisible walls, poking around every shrub, looking for a hint on where you need to go next. And the folks on the blower aren’t much help.
Ellis – an ex-cop who’s found himself in these woods searching for a lost young boy – is a serviceable protagonist; like far too many in media that aims to spook, his petrification is hilariously intermittent. His story is… adequate, showing its hand in the early stages and refusing to waver. But, then, your outcome could differ from mine. Ellis has two things on his person that he can use to contact other characters: a mobile phone, and a three-channel walkie-talkie. You’re informed that making and answering calls from particular individuals will affect how your game plays out, but refreshingly, you’re not told how. There’s no bar that fluctuates depending on your decisions, which encourages you to follow your gut rather than choosing the ‘right’ option. Destroying twiggy Blair Witch symbols that are scattered throughout also impacts your ending, as does the way you treat your trusty companion, Bullet.
Bullet is a German Shepherd. Bullet is an (mostly) obedient dog that helps you search for the lost little fella. Bullet is the best. Your pooch is well-trained and will act on your command, searching the area for items of interest or returning to your position when beckoned. If you’re an absolute bastard, you can reprimand him, whilst those of us with a heart can pet Bullet and tell him what a good boy he is. And why wouldn’t you? In those aforementioned hopeless moments where you’re stumbling around, man’s best friend can sometimes lead you to the next objective. He also warns you of where danger is lurking.
With his paws planted and his teeth showing, your canine pal will growl in the general direction of a metaphysical menace. This is where your torch proves to be even more beneficial than it first seems. Blair Witch often requests you don’t engage with it’s supernatural terrors, instead suggesting you look away or head in the other direction, but as well as illuminating your surroundings, your flashlight can obliterate baddies during certain sequences. Jumping into battle with your Light of Death™ is sufficiently decent, enabling you to embody a John Rambo out for first ectoplasm, but it’s not where the game shines. The supernatural, aptly, dazzles in your camcorder.
Unlike Heather, the heroine of the original film, you can manipulate the environment around you with your video camera. By scrubbing through tapes and pausing the footage at the right moment, you can open previously locked doors, ignite a fire that had quenched, and make pertinent objects appear out of thin air. Y’know, magic stuff.
This simple reality-bending mechanic is rarely brainbusting, but always a delight. This isn’t the only otherworldly trick your once seemingly modest bit of tech can perform either: later on in the game, you can see ghoulies hiding in the dark with demon infrared. If anything, the camera should’ve been utilised more. Sadly no snot takes, but you can’t have it all.
The reliance on the paranormal, which ramps up during a vexingly long conclusion, is ultimately a shame. A smattering is expected – encouraged, even – but the true dread in Black Hills forest comes from the unknown: that feeling of doubt as you open a door or turn a corner. Yeah, I’ll probably be able to sleep tonight, but I might get a German Shepherd to watch the back door.
Developer: Bloober Team
Publisher: Bloober Team
Available on: PC [reviewed on], Xbox One
Release Date: August 30, 2019
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