The Blair Witch video game that released last year is the second-best piece of Blair Witch media ever made, but if you’re familiar with the series you know that doesn’t mean too much. The first film was a low budget and simple horror movie that popularized the found-footage genre. A group of college students went out to make a documentary film about the myth of the Blair Witch, that supposedly lived in the Black Hills Forest in Maryland. It was a surprise to many that the game was announced to be coming to the Nintendo Switch this year, especially when realistic visual styles rarely make the transition well on Nintendo’s portable. I did not play the original release of this game, and after playing the Switch version I’m not sure if I want to.
Ellis is a former cop and war veteran who goes into Black Hills Forest with his dog Bullet to search for a kid who went missing. They arrive late and have to try and catch up with the search party. Obviously everything goes horribly wrong from here, leaving Ellis and Bullet to survive the mental and emotional onslaught of the Blair Witch. The story isn’t anything groundbreaking, but the voice acting and dialogue are solid enough to keep you invested in the characters. If the game was designed better, it could have easily been my favorite Blair Witch property.
Ellis isn’t an exceptional character, but the game offers a rather mature take on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and his relationship with Bullet is hard not to get invested in. It’s a rather cheap tactic to have the relationship with a dog be the driving force of the narrative in a horror game (who WOULDN’T want to take care of a cute dog that loves you unconditionally) but I have to give them credit for spending the time to make him also a crucial gameplay mechanic.
Bullet helps you search and advance through the sprawling forest, and progression without him is almost impossible. You can issue him commands such as Seek, Pet, Stay, Stay Close, and Reprimand (and if you do this you are heartless, how dare you). The ending you get relies on many factors, but your relationship with Bullet is an important one. He’s a damn cute dog though, and I spent a large amount of time early on petting him constantly. How you use Bullet will determine how effectively you play the game, since he can search for the next objective and point out the location of enemies.
Unfortunately, his AI is not the best, and I’m not sure if that’s from the port or if he was always like that. In the first 15 minutes of playtime, he got caught on a branch and refused to move, forcing me to reload an earlier save just to continue. The AI didn’t get that bad after, but it never really got good. Bullet doesn’t ever seem to do exactly what you want him to do, and I’m not sure if that’s intentional or an oversight. He is a dog after all, but even if he doesn’t function the best he is exceptionally cute.
Early on you get a camcorder, which is another crucial mechanic for progression and puzzle-solving. With this you can play tapes you found hidden throughout the world. Some of these will just tell you backstory, but others have a puzzle associated with them. These will show the area you are in and involve manipulating the footage to pause it on mysterious segments, and doing this will affect the real world. It’s innovative, works very well, and is my favorite part of the game (outside of the dog, did I mention how good the dog is? It’s a good dog).
You also have a phone that can be used to take calls and messages, but most importantly play games. This is a bit of a silly touch that could easily take you out of the tense horror atmosphere, but a nice one all the same. The games aren’t anything special and they’re only good for short distractions.
I think the biggest flaw of Blair Witch is that once you understand exactly how the ending system works, you realize this is the kind of game that punishes you for exploration. I’m the kind of player that goes out of their way to examine every single thing I come across, but doing that (as early as the first few minutes) will lock you out of the “good” ending. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t wish to spoil anything, but it’s something I really hate seeing in games that supposedly are all about exploration on paper. The game can be cleared in about six to seven hours, so replaying it for the different endings isn’t that difficult.
Unfortunately, these mediocre aspects and flaws are only highlighted by the visual downgrade required to make this run on the Switch. The pre-rendered video the game starts with lulls you into a false sense of security, but as soon as you see the game in-engine you’re met with an awful surprise. It really kills the solid atmosphere the game has going for it when the resolution and texture quality look so bad. Pop-in is egregious and it can be incredibly difficult to tell what you’re looking at a lot of the time. I commend the porting team for getting it to run on the system at all, but if the visuals had to take this level of a hit I don’t know if it was worth it.
At the end of the day, this is a sub-par port of an average game. The story in Blair Witch isn’t anything special even if the main character was good, poorly programmed AI hampers innovative mechanics, the game design isn’t that thought out, and the game’s atmosphere and aesthetic are hurt by this port’s low resolution. A great set of ideas that fumble when it comes to the execution, and an adorable dog doesn’t really save it. I love the Switch and want as many games as possible to come out on it, but Blair Witch really shows that not every game should.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Bloober Team