It’s hard to imagine an Xbox game called Blair Witch being released in 2019, and it’s even harder to imagine that the title would somehow end up being just so…. average, especially given the track record of the franchise. Sure, the title is based on the 1999 cult horror film The Blair Witch Project, an absolute classic, but the horror franchise certainly hit rock bottom with its abysmal 2012 Book of Shadows and 2016’s Blair Witch (they couldn’t come up with a better title?), setting the bar either tremendously high or fantastically low depending on who is asked.
When announced at the Microsoft E3 press conference in Los Angeles, Blair Witch appeared to be a major studio release in the vein of the Outlast or Silent Hill franchises, taking spooky night-vision action for a fright-filled romp in the woods. However, it’s a disappointing duty to say that no description could be any further from the truth. Although Blair Witch for Xbox One is supported by some great endgame moments and some absolutely next-level dog mechanics (yes, dog), the title is ultimately just an average low-budget thriller with occasionally frustrating gameplay elements and sub-par level design, making for a pretty run-of-the-mill overall experience, and a pretty average entry into the Game Pass library.
In Blair Witch, players are placed in the shoes of Ellis, a discharged police officer and war veteran searching for a missing boy in the woods outside of Burkittsville, Maryland. With his dog, Bullet, Ellis must brave the terrors of his past and the horrors of the forest during his journey, using his wits and flashlight to stay alive while being hunted by something fierce and evil.
Over the course of the adventure, Bullet the German Shepard absolutely steals the show, and is the highlight of Blair Witch, serving as an essential part of the experience while leading players to clues, signaling the direction of enemies, and offering cute breaks from some of the more suspenseful action. Controlled by a skill wheel that has ‘heel,’ ‘stay,’ ‘search,’ ‘reprimand,’ and ‘pet’ commands, Bullet actually has the most intuitive dog mechanic incorporated into any game on the market. Even better, he also serves as a driving force in the narrative, giving players more emotional stakes to play for than any missing kid.
Speaking of story, Blair Witch honestly makes a genuine attempt at capturing the magic of the franchise, striking some relatively high notes that are overshadowed by primarily low points. The beginning has Ellis primarily getting his bearings (and subsequently losing them) in the forest, and is relatively painful and monotonous, playing like a hiking simulator full of aimless wandering, invisible barriers, and retracing steps. To create an uneasy atmosphere, the game attempts to play psychological tricks on players by having paths lead back to the same location, but it mostly just leads to frustration. It’s understandable why Blair Witch would have such features incorporated into its level design, but the overuse becomes unwelcome as the game progresses.
That being said, the title does find its stride more towards the end, and actually settles in for some pretty emotional, terrifying, and impactful moments of gameplay — although even these highs are worn down as the setting and narrative begins to outstay its welcome. Even for the six or so hours that Xbox’s Blair Witch clocks in at, the repetitive ‘getting lost in the forest’ mechanic makes it a chore to get to the conclusion. Supposedly, the story features multiple endings that are decided by how players choose to move through the narrative, but it’s debatable whether it would be worth going back for another run to see what other outcomes could be found.
Besides Bullet, Blair Witch also has another interesting gameplay element that makes for some rewarding moments: a camcorder that can manipulate the environment depending on its tape. Often used in puzzles, the watching and rewinding of found footage tapes provides some fun moments — although fleeting and short-lived — that hearken back to the roots of the series. For most of the narrative, however, the camera is generally sidelined in favor of the trusty flashlight, which has a stronger beam and illuminates more surface area.
Unfortunately, the most disappointing part of Blair Witch is that the experience feels so unexpectedly low budget, detracting from tension and atmosphere. The environments and textures look woefully outdated and formulaic, the voice acting is fairly mediocre, and the sound design is pretty bland. Sure, Blair Witch stands on its own and definitely slides by as average as far as comparable horror games on the market, but in a genre that survives on building an immersive and frightening world, it’s hard to want to cut the title any slack.
That being said, with Xbox Game Pass and a free weekend, the title might be worth a quick playthrough for someone that enjoys the Blair Witch franchise or a good scare. For those willing to take the ownership plunge, Bullet is absolutely the highlight of the experience, as the cute doggo’s gameplay and narrative experience is probably worth a few hours of time. To get to these moments, however, players should be ready to endure some otherwise mediocre gameplay and graphics. While certainly not great but definitely not terrible, Blair Witch could serve as a fun Friday night group game or a Saturday binge experience, making for a casual diversion worth the Game Pass price.