If you go down in the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise – FBT wandering about lost and pissed off.
Nine year-old Peter goes missing in the Burkittsville woods. Joining the search party is Ellis, whose mutt, Bullet, picks up Peter’s scent. Breaking from the search party they find a destroyed campsite, where a camcorder shows Peter was abducted. Determined to find him, Ellis goes deeper into the woods as night falls…
Blair Witch never has a happy ending and we know that going in. Ellis is primed for the Blair Witch to mess with – an ex-solider with PTSD and survivor’s guilt, now a cop currently on stress leave after a bad shooting, as well as dealing with a broken marriage; he doesn’t have a chance. I don’t care, I just want to make sure Bullet gets out alive…
At first, this is amazing stuff. The woods are disorientating and deep, you can walk anywhere, get lost, see things out the corner of your eye. It’s incredibly atmospheric and disturbing. Bullet does a good job of ferreting around and pointing the way, but really you’re just glad for the company. You always feel utterly isolated and a real sense of unease creeps in. Problem is, boredom also creeps in.
Blair Witch was developed by Bloober team, the maniacs behind Layers of Fear, Observer and the recent Medium, and just like those games, once Ellis is lost you can’t trust anything; but rather than be disorientating or dream-like, it’s a bit distancing. Rusted trucks revert to being new, dry riverbeds turn into surging water stopping you retracing your steps and so on. We’re just here for the witch to toy with, but it’s nowhere near as visceral as the original film which kept everything lifelike and matter of fact, which is far more unnerving. Here we have time-loss, time-travel, flashes of events to come and things changing around you. So, you just blunder on, waiting for the next change.
And again, just like Layers there’s a reality-bending element. When you find a video cassette, Ellis can watch, rewind and pause, which affects the world around him. Sometimes it’s a great little clue-reveal mechanic, like pausing on Peter dropping a baseball causes you to discover it on the path, other times its just a bit daft, like being able to rewind a tree falling to get past it. Those are standard Bloober team tricks, but they make this feel more closely aligned to the much-maligned sequel, Book of Shadows.
Thing is, being lost in real woods is scary, but being lost in a video game is just frustrating. Pretty much our only action here is to ask Bullet ‘which way’ then go that way, but if he doesn’t know, you’re just going around in circles staring at trees until something triggers and all the fear drains away. And sometimes its unintentionally confusing – you run into invisible walls, get turned around if you step outside the area and don’t know if you’re on the right track or not - I was expecting this to be terrifying, to be unable to take a step, but quickly you realise this is little more than a walking sim.
Much like Layers of Fear this is largely a story experience, but it's not the Blair Witch's story or Ellis' battle to survive we're experiencing, it's his issues - not to dismiss PTSD but its not what we're here for.
The other problem is we’re not alone out here. Here, you’ll discover those tree-sprite things, like a pissed off Ent. If you shine your light on them they’ll attack, so you need to be careful with the torch, or use the camera’s night-vision which is scary, but while its tense and all, it feels like filler to have some monster jumping about. What made the original movie so scary was you knew ‘she’ was out there but you never saw her.
And Bullet, for all his good-boy-ness isn’t really used. He wuffs away and does his thing, but you never really fear for him or feel a bond. Ellis gets stressed if he’s too far away, but that too feels forced and since the wood is all the same, chasing him into a dark corner is no less worrying than anything else we trudge through. At least it means something might happen. Their relationship is oddly lacking, he’s more of a cool sidekick than part of the plot.
Ultimately, this feels shallow and a bit manipulative. It’s not really Blair Witch, it could be any witch. The camcorder time-altering feels gimmicky, the manipulation of time and space is pointless and tacked together to reflect PTSD as if its implying its all in his head when we know it's not - its called Blair Witch. Ellis is a great character, haunted by his soldiering days and failure as a cop, he’s just a guy trying to do good – he only goes into the woods to try to help, finding Peter is his salvation and you feel sorry for him. And that’s the problem, we know how this is going to end the second he steps into the woods, but the game doesn’t do enough to make us hope for a different outcome. He's just really unlucky.
I get that it would be a struggle to recapture what the movie did, games need to have input and actions, and maybe my hopes were set too high for this. Blooper Team have knocked out some great games (Layers of Fear) and some bad ones (Layers of Fear II), and if anyone can bring the witch home it’s those guys. It does have its moments, but even they can’t compete with the real Blair Witch. I was hoping to go back to the purity of the original film; basically, be so terrified snot rolled out of my nose.