Blair Witch manages to be the best and worst adaptation of a horror movie.

Welcome to Game Pass Gems. Join us on the journey through the underbelly of Xbox Game Pass. Maybe we’ll find your next favourite game. What’s scarier than being lost in the woods? As Blair Witch shows us, not much.

This article contains major spoilers for Blair Witch (2019) continue at your own peril

It started out as a hunt for a missing child. You and your faithful dog, out in the woods joining the search party. They’d headed on before you arrived but that’s fine, you and Bullet will catch up. You made some early headway, finding the boy’s hat got Bullet on the trail. Then you found a mysterious white tree, passed out and now it’s the dead of night. The tree cover blocking any moonlight. It’s just you, the dog, and your flashlight. Twigs snapping sets you on edge, you hear rustling leaves all around you. There’s something in the woods, it’s coming to get you, it’s… it’s… some kind of monster made out of light?

Blair Witch is something of a duplicitous creature. I went in with high hopes, as the game was developed by the hilariously named Bloober Team, whose previous efforts include the lofty genre alumni Layers of Fear and Observer, and does successfully achieve in the areas where those games achieved before. Namely, environments, atmosphere, and sound design. The game is essentially a narrative walking simulator with horror themes, and this is not to its detriment. The woods are absolutely stunningly realized. There are moments where, if you were to show me a screenshot and tell me it was from your vacation to the center of my nightmares I’d believe you. Sparse light shafts break through the tree cover in a stunningly realistic manner, and despite being a majorly linear experience, the routes you take through the foliage are entirely believable. Similarly, the soundscape on display is utterly phenomenal. Through 360 degree audio, you hear every branch snap and bird twittering around you, which is used to great effect throughout. It’s once night falls, however, that the culmination of these things is truly brought to life. A major part of the horror in this game comes from that which you think you can hear and see. Your flashlight glances from tree to tree in a manner that has you constantly on edge, just in case you see something looking back from the shadows, and every little noise coming from anywhere that isn’t directly in front of you sends your heart on an absolute marathon. It’s an absolute masterpiece of environmental build-up. But unfortunately, in a similar vein to the later Blair Witch films, it’s when things come to a head that the game tends to fall flat.

The Blair Witch Project was a whirlwind success because it brought one thing back to the horror genre that was long thought lost, that of the fear of the unknown. The viewer was terrified, not of what they saw on screen but what they thought they might see on screen. It’s quite telling that one of the most chilling images in cinematic history is simply a person facing the corner of a room, and the Blair Witch game absolutely revels in this. Throughout the search for the missing boy you’ll find the little stick effigies that the films are known for, and breaking them reveals polaroids of previous victims, standing bolt upright, facing a corner. It’s effectively chilling once more, but this is more or less where the truly unsettling aspects end.

An hour or so in, the player is met with the first real threat of the game and it’s extremely underwhelming. You are attacked by some sort of hulking monster, seemingly made out of the reflections from your torchlight, which you need to shine at it by following the cues that your canine companion gives through his instinctive body language. While points can be given for allowing the player to fight back in a creative manner, this is a tragically prophetic set piece for the majority of the actual ‘action’ in the game. Ultimately there’s really nothing scary about the monster itself, and, while the masterful sound design adds a not-insubstantial amount of tension, as you hear the monster rushing around before you can actually see it at any given moment, this carries forward throughout the game. It’s an unfortunate truth that a lot of the atmosphere in the environments was mitigated when I knew that what was stalking me was just a particularly reflective yeti. Later it’s revealed that there’s also a deranged, twig encrusted serial killer in the woods with you, and in a similar vein, this falls completely flat horror-wise. To the developers credit, they didn’t go the Outlast route and have him literally chase you through the woods. Rather, he acts predominantly as an antagonistic voice on your walkie-talkie, but nonetheless, the threat of the unknown is tainted. The Blair Witch Project would probably not have reached the heights that it did if it was revealed that the unfortunate filmmakers were being chased around by a man covered in mud, and similarly, these elements prevent Blair Witch from achieving the horror greatness that Bloober Team’s previous offerings managed to reach.

That would be the end of the review right there if it wasn’t for a few key things that elevate Blair Witch up past mediocrity. First would be the fact that this walking simulator has, dare I say it, gameplay mechanics. Throughout the experience, you occasionally find video cassettes that you can play through a camcorder that you find. These can be skimmed through and paused at certain moments to alter things in the alternate reality witchyworld that you find yourself in. It’s a clever little bit of game design, and despite not showing up as often as I’d have liked, it serves as an interesting and engaging complicating factor when it comes to progression.

The second redeeming quality would be the main character and the portrayal of his PTSD through visual design and gameplay. Ellis Lynch suffers from battlefield post-traumatic stress disorder after initially unspecified events during his time in the armed forces. Bullet the dog isn’t just a dog, he serves to help tether Ellis to reality. At certain points, Bullet will be otherwise indisposed, and without his faithful canine companion at his side, Ellis starts to panic. The sound of his rising heartbeat, coupled with the aforementioned environment design and the suddenly apparent visual effects, create a wonderfully stressful image of everything swiftly closing in around him, as he tries and fails to keep himself from slipping into a panic attack. It’s less “I can’t see where I’m going from all the snotters pouring out of my nose” and more “I can’t right now, every sense is screaming at my brain at once”. I don’t suffer from PTSD personally, but it definitely seemed that Bloober Team took care to include this more as a respectful and realistic element of character complexity, and less as a cheap way to make things go all trippy and make the game scarier.

But the absolute icing on the cake is the entire final sequence of the game, where the player finds themselves in the house from the Blair Witch films. This sequence sees you slowly making your way through the ever twisting and changing corridors, alternatively using your unreliable flashlight and the night vision viewfinder on your camcorder to find the correct path through the unsettling passageways. It’s a scene right out of the films, totally keeping the player on edge for a good 45 minutes or so. Truly matching anything out of any horror media you can think of. It’s like PT in the woods and it hits every beat perfectly. There was a bit where I actually screamed. Top marks for effort on the devs’ part, they really outdid themselves here, and the attention to detail is on full show.

I’m in two minds about Blair Witch. On the one hand, it feels as though Bloober Team would have been better served to make this their own IP, as it would have allowed them to operate without the looming shadow of one of the definitive works of horror media cast over them. This would have served to alleviate some of the issues with the unknown failing to remain unknown, and offered a greater degree of creative freedom over how to introduce their antagonists. On the other hand, however, I truly cannot overstate how effective the final hour of this game is, and that most likely would not have been the case where it not tied to an already existing concept. Without the license, this final sequence could have swiftly gone from Blair Witch game to Blair Witch knockoff, and I feel that a lot of the impact would have been lost. It’s more or less through this sequence alone that I’d recommend a playthrough of this game. There’s not much scarier than being lost in the woods, but a trip through the house of a supernatural being has it narrowly beat.

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