Chances are the youth of today are unfamiliar with the insane level of buzz surrounding The Blair Witch Project. Created on a budget of just $60k, the 1999 psychological horror flick went on to gross almost quarter of a million dollars, fuelled by pre-release hype including reports of cinema-goers being so scared that they were, quite literally, puking in the aisles.
While this may sound implausible, it was in fact true. Well, kind of – the constant shaking of the protagonist’s camcorder caused some viewers to suffer from motion sickness. Outside of a few unnerving moments, the film itself wasn’t particularly scary. As an attempt to do something different with the genre though, successfully managing to avoid many of the tropes associated with horror movies, it’s well remembered…even if many cinema-goers felt that it failed to live up to the hype.
Influential is probably the best word to use. It was so influential, in fact, that the Blair Witch name still carries enough weight twenty years later to support a vastly belated video game tie-in. Could Bloober Team’s latest exist without the license? Not without heavy scrutiny – rather than simply using the name to arouse interest, it features many familiar sights to its silver screened counterpart, set entirely within an eerie forest. The 1996 setting puts it in line with the events of the movie, too.
You play as Ellis, a former police officer with a troubled past. He’s trying to prove his worth by volunteering to find a missing child, somewhat against the will of his former colleagues. Headstrong and rational throughout, he displays unwavering determination. Ellis heads into the forest with his canine companion Bullet by his side while also taking a flashlight, a walkie talkie, and a top of the range – by 1996 standards – Nokia-esque mobile phone.
The mobile is fully functional, including a few backstory-expanding saved messages, and a phone book with a dozen numbers you can call. It’s even possible to give the local pizza takeaway a buzz, leading to one of the lighter moments. It also features two mini-games – a clone of Space Invaders overshadowed by Cobra, an equally brazen Snake clone. That missing child will have to sit tight.
Throughout the adventure, or at least whenever there’s phone signal, Ellis receives calls and texts from his former partner Jess. Taking the opportunity to call her first puts Ellis on track to patching things up, which in turns adds an optional side story to the proceedings.
The walkie talkie, meanwhile, is used to contact Ellis’ former police officer co-workers, who often call in for updates. That’s until somebody else makes their presence known, anyway – a mysterious individual comes to light roughly an hour in, hijacking comms to make demands and a few false promises concerning the missing child’s whereabouts. They cross your path several times, with an abandoned house and disused logging camp being two locations to which you’re summoned.
Thankfully, Bullet is by Ellis’ side to put him on the right track. Bullet can be given a handful of simple commands, with retrieving items playing a crucial part early on. Although he does occasionally vanish into the undergrowth, as well as bark unnecessary, he still obeys your every command. And yes, you can pet the dog.
There’s a long list of collectables scattered around the forest, including photos of the witch’s victims (with their faces turned to the wall, naturally), psychological reports, discarded litter – sometimes mistaken as clues – and the iconic handmade wooden totems the movie is widely known for. If any of the missing child’s belongings are found Bullet can pick the scent; something used to drive the story forward initially.
Once the premise has been outlined, a camcorder is added to the inventory. It’s no ordinary camcorder, though – items and events seen on tape are replicated in the real world, providing you’re stood in the same location the footage was shot. It’s around this point Ellis beings to question his sanity, making fallen trees upright one again by rewinding footage, and opening locked doors by finding stills of said door being open. It’s an intriguing mechanic that’s mostly used to good effect. It isn’t particularly well explained at first, however, prompting us to needlessly backtrack for a half an hour while thinking we had overlooked something.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking Bullet will lead you to the next location either. He simply runs ahead, which led us to walking in circles early on. It’s quite easy to become lost in the forest too, although this was perhaps intentional. That said, there are clear signs the developers tried to include as many landmarks and varied terrane as possible to prevent aimless wandering. Most fascinating of all is the fact that there are no clear mission objectives and only a few vocal prompts, forcing you to pay attention. Thankfully, the forest is split into relatively small areas, as opposed to being completely open, and items that can be picked up are highlighted from quite some distance.
A couple of puzzles also feature. One is far more elaborate than the other, taking Ellis on a slight detour to find missing machine parts. During this section, which takes around half an hour, Bullet doesn’t really come into use, putting the focus on puzzle solving, scavenging, and map reading instead. Bullet is however used within the few instances of combat – commanding him to stay by your side can make fending for yourself slightly easier. While this may sound exciting, combat is used only a mild diversion, being one of the few occasions it’s possible to fail (die).
While the story and focus on finding the missing child does manage to engage for the game’s entire 5-6-hour duration, spurred on by threats from the mysterious stranger, it does feel that everything is simply going through the motions. I came to Blair Witch expecting to get lost in the woods at nightfall while suffering from the witch’s hallucinations, occasionally stumbling on something sinister. On all these accounts, it delivers, but it rarely goes beyond that.
Upon reaching an abandoned house it soon falls back on the usual horror game tropes, relying on flickering lights leading to moments of darkness, jump scares, slamming doors, blood trickling down walls, and other well-worn ideas. It had run its course by this point.
With occasional moments of brilliance shining through and some reasonably slick presentation, this is still the best thing to be associated with The Blair Witch Project. There’s no disputing that it’s a decent use of the license. But with a little bit more time and attention (it crashed on us twice, and there are times when the means to progress is unclear) it could’ve been greater still – an extra month or two of development time wouldn’t have gone amiss here. Doggone it.