In the interest of full disclosure, let me begin by saying that I don’t know anything about video games, so I encourage you to take this review with a grain of salt, or a ring of salt, in keeping with the theme. In fact, I’ve barely touched a controller since my older brother begrudgingly allowed me to hop on as Player 2 back in the good ol’ Nintendo 64 days. What I DO know, however, is horror. If it’s scary, bone-chilling, gruesome, eerie, sinister, unnerving, spine-tingling nightmare fuel, there’s a good chance I’ve seen it. So when the opportunity came along to play through a game based in the Blair Witch Project universe, I said “Well, if I was ever going to play a game, it would be THAT game” and play it, I did. Almost obsessively, as I’m sure my video-game-obsessed-boyfriend would smugly tell you.
You play as Ellis, a troubled cop and veteran, who is travelling into the infamous Black Hills forest to join a search party for a young boy named Peter. The first sign of trouble to come is made apparent by a phone call from your seemingly estranged girlfriend, Jess, who questions Ellis’ desire and capability to join in the search. From your subsequent contact with Sheriff Emmett Lanning prior to venturing into the woods, it’s clear Ellis is, for undisclosed reasons, somewhat of a Persona Non Grata presence in this investigation. Armed with nothing but a cellphone, flashlight, and your trusty companion, a dog named Bullet, you venture into the woods where you begin to decipher the mysteries of both Peter’s disappearance, and Ellis’ psyche.
The game is successful in this regard by disclosing that the choices you make, and the way your companion is treated will affect the eventual outcome. This actively contributes to the overall atmosphere of the game, as the self-doubt creeps in seemingly as quickly as the darkness by which you are enveloped. I found myself asking “When was the last time I pet Bullet?”, or “Is this real or is it just a vision?”, or, in a textbook definition of life imitating art, channelling Heather (one of the film’s protagonists) and experiencing the defeating mental anguish that comes with realizing that the log you’ve just come across is in fact the same log you walked by 20 minutes ago, and you are indeed very lost, and Oh God I’ve Doomed Ellis To Wander The Forests Of Burkitsville, Maryland Until His Inevitable Demise. Of all the places to die. Maryland? Really!? I’m sorry Ellis. I’m sorry Bullet.
Bullet! Your companion and Bonafide Best Doggo is your saving grace. Bullet serves not only as your literal guide dog through the forest, but he can also track the scent on items of Peter’s you collect on your journey, as well as search for nearby items that are crucial to the game’s progression. While there is much more to discuss in regards to the storyline, I find horror to be at its most impactful when the element of surprise is maintained. So I will leave you to unravel the remainder of the story (and the ending to which your choices lead) for yourself.
However, I did have some issues with Blair Witch that I feel could potentially put off more seasoned gamers. For one, there is very little to the actual game play (Editor’s Note: Very much a walking simulator). Despite the opportunity for multiple endings, the playthrough is fairly linear in nature, which at times leaves you feeling like the illusion of choice is more important than the choices you’re actually making.
Prior to starting the game for the first time, you are prompted to adjust the brightness until a box on the screen is barely visible. This is purported to be for the overall atmosphere of the game, but in my experience, rather than affect the creepy factor, it affected the annoyance factor as I spent a truly ridiculous amount of time squinting at the TV and running into invisible walls by straying off a path I couldn’t make out in the darkness. Of course, this could be easily fixed by just adjusting the slider by a few notches upon replaying, so it’s not really a criticism, more of a suggestion. Turn it up. Eye strain is serious business.
Other than the mechanics that a novice like me occasionally struggled with, and without spoiling the story, I will say that there was nothing particularly interesting or original about Ellis as a protagonist. In fact, the game does a poor job of having any aspect that is anything more than a worn out trope. That’s not to say it’s inherently bad, just that it’s been done. Over and over and over again. By the time I reached the game’s final setting, and had been proven correct about where the overall story was headed, I was a little bored with it. Which is doubly unfortunate because the game’s final chapter is dragged out much longer than it needs to be.
What was supposed to be the culmination of the search for Peter, and Ellis’ slowly dwindling mental well-being ends up being an overproduced, drawn out fore into every haunted house, PTSD, horror cliche in existence. All that being said, I am, and remain, a huge fan of the Blair Witch movie. Even my boyfriend (who gets spooked by a slight breeze, and sleeps with the lights on for three weeks after a pile of clothes flung onto a chair casts a particularly nefarious looking shadow in the middle of the night) enjoyed both it, and the parts of the game he watched me play through his fingers.