'Blair Witch' Game Brings Moody Frights (and Dogs) to Life
The first thing players do in Blair Witch, the upcoming game based on the cult-favorite horror series, is pet a friendly dog.
Bloober Team — the same studio that previously scared the pants off players with Layers of Fear — invited a number of selected media members to try out the new title, a psychological horror game, but based solely on the demo's charming opening, it could pass for an adorable puppy simulator.
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Players assume the role of Ellis, an ex-cop who's accompanied by the dog (named Bullet) while searching for a boy who's gone missing in the infamous Black Hills Forest. Bullet isn't just there for companionship; he also plays a major role in shaping Blair Witch's story and gameplay, as he can be commanded to stay, seek and heel, as well as be reprimanded and fed treats.
Bullet can also hold his own, helping out even when not directed. His barks indicate a clue or interaction is close by, while his throaty growl and bared teeth mean something much worse is lurking nearby. What impresses most, though, is just how authentic he feels. Bullet's body and facial animations are incredibly realistic, while his presence feels more organic than a game mechanic's implementation.
Bullet isn't the only clever inclusion. The game's new, original story unfolds in 1996 — two years after the first film's characters went missing just outside of Burkittsville, Md. Given the time period, players have access to some sweet, decade-specific technology. In addition to an old-school Nokia-like cellphone, Ellis uses an 8mm camcorder, capable of playing tapes discovered throughout the game.
On top of providing some unsettling "found footage," the tapes can be manipulated to alter the world around you. One such example seen in the demo involved breaching a locked door by pausing a video that contained footage of the same door left ajar. The device can also be used in night-vision mode, providing some extra illumination, and the ability to catch clues that might otherwise go unseen.
While 30-or-so minutes with the game didn't provide nearly enough time with these promising systems, they did hint at the potential both Bullet and the camcorder could bring to the narrative, as well as how it's navigated and consumed.
The demo did offer a lengthier look at Blair Witch's setting and some of the secrets and scares it holds. The preview primarily took place deep in the woods, but the nuanced visual presentation delivered more than dirt paths and pretty foliage. Chasing Bullet through a swamp, boarding an old railroad car and cautiously searching enough decrepit interiors to fill a month's worth of nightmares filled a good deal of the playthrough. More than just distinct environments, however, it was the rich details within those areas that stood out. How the tree canopy reflected on the forest floor, and the way Mother Nature had aggressively overtaken the railroad tracks were highlights.
Of course, ogling the sights too long could leave you on the wrong end of an ancient curse. While the demo was more moody and atmospheric than full-on frightening, it did display ample potential to raise a few goosebumps. An encounter with a shadowy creature in the woods was a bit too quick and chaotic to be effectively scary, but witnessing the forest violently twist and contort — while Ellis and Bullet hightailed it from an unknown threat — definitely nudged everyone a bit closer to the edge of their seats.
Blair Witch is also peppered with the series' creepy calling cards, from mysterious, wood-carved talismans to walls covered in tiny handprints. There's also the matter of a typewriter message involving "...a man carrying the pelt of a skinned human."
Although it was only a brief jaunt in The Black Hills Forest, the polished presentation and the oozing atmosphere is enough to leave one eager to return to the woods. Genuine frights were in limited supply, but Blair Witch likely has more scares in store when it invites players back to the mysterious outskirts of Burkittsville on Aug. 30.
by Sheraz Farooqi
by Graeme McMillan