The Blair Witch Project is a landmark in the horror genre, a cultural milestone made all the more impressive by the marketing around it, pioneering the found footage genre that has since dominated the space. That's why anticipation is so high around this video game adaptation following its reveal during Microsoft's E3 conference, especially since it's none other than Layers of Fear and Observer developer Bloober Team that is taking on the project, a studio known for delivering scares of their own.
This sounds like an intriguing partnership, and that's why we were very curious going into the game during a recent preview event in London. Bloober Team invited us along, gave us a presentation, and sat us down to play five isolated chapters in the game, giving us a varied look at the mechanics and the approach being taken with a title that immediately seemed different from Bloober Team's other games.
That's because we weren't in a spooky house or a futuristic metropolis, both of which are closed spaces. Instead, we're in an open, sprawling forest in the Black Hills, two years after the events of The Blair Witch Project. The sense of scale is massive, as the trees extend upwards into the sky and the darkness stretches out in all directions, and it's only upon closer inspection that you realise things aren't as open as you thought; Bloober Team has set paths you need to follow and it's not an open forest for you to explore. That said, we never felt restricted or railroaded... just guided.
Bloober Team is actually working with property holders Lionsgate to bring us this game, but they made clear to us that this is an original story, not a version of the film. We play as Ellis, an ex-cop with a dog called Bullet who's looking for a missing kid called Peter Shannon. It still feels very much like Blair Witch despite this original protagonist and story, especially when you start seeing the iconic figures made out of sticks, and some other environmental clues we won't share with you now.
We were also told before our demo that "the main thing is what you don't see" and the team said in plain terms that we won't be seeing the witch in this game, which made us very hopeful. We were then informed of combat against "monsters" though, and that hope was dampened a little, turning into concern. In many ways The Blair Witch Project succeeded due to its lack of action, and so how would combat with monsters fit into this?
We're not clear what these monsters are, but in one section Bullet starts growling and long, lanky creatures emerge in the distance, although they disappear when exposed to torchlight. It reminded us a bit of Alan Wake, and after some whack-a-mole action illuminating these spectral beings, the danger passed as quickly as it appeared.
Speaking of Bullet, your dog plays an integral role in the game, and you can call him to your side and command him. He'll seek out items for you and growl if danger is nearby, and Bloober even said that the extent to which you care for him will determine what ending you get. Pet him lots and keep him close, and you could see a much better end result than leaving him to wander around unloved. There are several ways the game tracks your behaviour, in fact, as you have a choice to answer or make calls as well as destroying the totem figures you find, all of which will change what ending you get.
One section in an abandoned sawmill also shone a light on a mechanic that revolves around a camcorder. By playing tapes backwards and forwards, you can change the world around you, like playing the tape until a door opens to open the same door in the real world. The issue we have with this is that it wasn't contextualised enough, so when the game releases we hope that we find out that there's a reason for the camcorder having such magical powers.
That said, the camcorder isn't the only time that Bloober plays with these ideas, as the witch messes with your head and deploys time and space loops to disorientate you. This was evident when exploring the famous house you may remember from the 1999 film's conclusion, as we explored throughout just to come back to the same room again. We were also introduced to another feature of the camcorder as well, as it spotted a monster highlighted in red that didn't appear to the naked eye, and it also has night vision, although we didn't see that in action.
Despite these five chapters being isolated, we got a sense of the story-driven experience Bloober Team is going for. It's unsurprising given their previous works, but there were plenty of environmental clues to find, and pieces of the puzzle to assemble. We're told that we'll get details on Bullet and Ellis and their backstory, as well as more on the Blair Witch universe itself, so we have high hopes on what can be achieved, especially with Lionsgate helping out.
Visually we were really impressed, as the detail in our PC demo was great. Everything felt grounded in reality, with close attention paid to the atmosphere. There's always a vast expanse of nothingness stretching out around you in the forest, which is unsettling enough as it is, but when the darkness falls and you're reduced to just your torch for light, suddenly everything becomes much more threatening. We're also promised a seamless experience from start to finish without loading screens, which is rather impressive.
When things moved into the interiors like the sawmill and the house, we got major Resident Evil 7 vibes. The transformation of a 'normal' human space into a corrupted nightmare is very well-realised by Bloober Team and changes the way you play since everything is much tighter and you can't tell what's around each corner. Seeing the extra details like handprints on the wall is also a treat for Blair Witch fans, and we were at our most scared and tense when we were creeping around the house and wondering what was going to happen next.
Cautiously optimistic is probably the best way to describe our feelings about Blair Witch so far. It really feels like you're playing one of the movies, which is a really special feeling indeed, especially when we got to visit the house that scared us silly in the film. However, we hope that Bloober has been careful with things such as the monsters. The introduction of these kinds of elements could end up sucking the horror right out of a franchise that relies so much on the unseen, and we're very eager to see what the studio has come up with on August 30 when the game lands on PC and Xbox One.
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