This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Blair Witch.
It's often the case that truly great horror plays upon primal universal anxieties, often the sort of things our parents warned us about as children, and Blair Witch is a prime example. "Now listen here, little Yahtzee," my father used to say to me. "Before you go out tonight, remember: Never ever expect much from any horror franchise that's more than 15 years old and only ever really had one decent film in it." But Daddy, I quite liked Freddy vs. Jason! "Ah, but son, you mustn't forget that while the crossover was certainly gratifying, it's difficult for modern viewers to get past the dated CG gore effects. Now run along and play, and if those rowdy boys next door dare you to go to the haunted forest again, remember: Nobody likes a pussy."
So Blair Witch is a new first-person psychological horror game based on "The Blair Witch Mythos"-- Oh, piss off, Lionsgate Entertainment! What the fuck is "The Blair Witch Mythos"? It's a spooky forest that kids go missing in? If that's copyrightable now, you'd better get busy suing the Brothers Grimm, and literally everyone who's told a campfire story. Blair Witch could easily be an adaptation of any story about a troubled protagonist in a spooky forest, meaning 90% of walking simulators. Speaking of which... Speaking of Blair Witch, it's developed by Bloober Team, the lads behind Observer and Layers of Fear, and it's been pretty heartbreaking watching their progress these last few years, as they fall off the walking simulator wagon again and again.
They knew they had a problem after Layers of Fear, so Observer tried to pace itself by breaking up the long walking simulator binges with the occasional puzzle; then there was a second Layers of Fear game, so I guess they felt they'd earned a cheat day. But now, with Blair Witch, it looked like they were really making a go at creating a game that you can't just get through by holding down the "W" key; there's puzzles, and mechanics centered around your doggy friend, and it's even got something one could slightly interpretively call "combat". For a while, it seemed like Bloober Team were making so much progress, but then, I guess the pressure of it all got to them, and they ended up calling on one of their enablers and collapsing onto a bare mattress to huff on a great big bag of walking simulator for the last hour or two of the game. Oh, Bloober Team, you've let me down, and you've let yourself down. All this walking just isn't healthy; you need to wean yourself off it with some lazy gratuitous violence.
Anyway, in Blair Witch: The Game, we step into the shoes of Original Character Do Not Steal Jonathan J. Genericman as he enters the spooky forest of Burkittsville to help look for a missing child, but complications arise because it turns out he's a war veteran with PTSD, and the Blair Witch apparently wants to get some use out of the correspondence course she took with Silent Hill and turn his own inner demons against him. To help him along, Jerome K. Normalbloke has a sort of therapy support dog thingy following him around named "Bullet". Now, I'm no psychologist, but if you're training up a therapy dog specifically for helping a traumatized war veteran who tends to have PTSD flashbacks when reminded of violence, naming him "Bullet" seems a bit counterproductive to me; it's either very misguided or the work of a very devious therapist trying to ensure a guaranteed source of income. "What's your dog's name?" "Bullet." "Did you say 'Bullet'?" "WHAT?! WHERE?! WHERE?!"
Anyway, Jeremy Q. Average ventures into the forest, swiftly loses touch with the rest of the search party, and finds himself lost and alone in a terrifying odyssey of self-reflection and spooky setpieces with nothing to help him but a dodgy camcorder and a dog named after a murder weapon. So gameplay begins with us wandering around a rather nice-looking forest waiting for the game to explain what the flaming urethra we're supposed to be doing next; we can tell IED the Wonder Dog to "Seek", but most of the time, he can just about manage to find his own balls. Blair Witch is taking on the Last Guardian burden of having the gameplay heavily reliant on the actions of an NPC animal character who technically does what we tell him to, but also has their own agenda filled with interesting buttholes to smell, so I hope you weren't planning to speedrun this.
Anyway, after a lot of stumbling around, you make the discoveries that progress the plot, and soon enough, night falls and we have to get our spooky flashlight out, so I turned it on and said, "No, seriously now, Bloober Team, where's my real flashlight? You're not trying to tell me that Jimmy Wingnut here ventured into the forest with nothing but the light-up eyes on an old Thundercats toy?" Blimey, I was going to say that at least Bloober Team does some pretty nice environment design, but it hardly counts when I'm basically looking at it through a hole the size of a teabag.
This takes on new dimensions of irritation when the I-hesitate-to-call-it-"combat" combat that I mentioned gets introduced; it's Alan Wake-ish in that you have to fend off flickering horrors in the dark by shining your light on them, except your flashlight is to Alan Wake's flashlight what a spaghetti hoop is to a steel cock ring, so the resultant gameplay feels like someone pulled a bag over our head and pushed us into a rowdy frat party where we stumble around confused for a while as guffawing strangers give us atomic wedgies. The idea is, you're supposed to watch White Phosphorus the Dog and point your light in the direction of whatever he's barking at, but visibility is so poor that you have just about enough time to find a brief glimpse of his little doggy bum before the monster switches position again and smears another coating of raspberry jam onto your spectacles.
Oh, but I'm sure this particular gripe will come back from the QA department with a big fat "Working As Intended" sticker on it; you're supposed to be confused and disoriented and scraping through the combat with barely a single square inch of your cotton Y-fronts left unbesmirched, which may or may not succeed. But this has the Alan Wake/Shattered Memories problem in that the gameplay demands the horror can only happen to you under specific circumstances: when it's pitch dark and while the dog's with you, so if either of those aren't the case, then you can skip unconcerned through the forest picking flowers, or more likely, disinterestedly holding down the "W" key.
One could hardly call the combat or the puzzles "core mechanics", though; not when, spoiler alert, Gulf War Syndrome the Dog does get taken away and there's still about two hours of game left, which is largely spent going through yet another of Bloober Team's trademark "Ooh, isn't it a shame Silent Hills got canceled?" push-"W"-to-power-the-ghost-train walking simulator wagon-fall-off sequences, tracking through the same rooms of the Blair Witch house over and over again and with the details slightly changing.
But I think what really kills my recommendation is the ending; I got a bad ending, this not being the sort of game that ends with a pizza party and the Wizard of Oz finally granting the main character a personality. But then I discovered that there was also a good ending, so I looked up what you need to do to get the good ending, and apparently, it involves not killing the monsters with your flashlight. Oh, sorry; kind of thought I should defend myself against the flickering, screeching thing that kept running up in the dark and kicking me in the balls as scary music played, but apparently, I was supposed to be the bigger man: get the bogeyman around the negotiating table, see if he'll compromise and just bite off the kidnapped child's legs. "Obviously, we expect you to defend yourself, Yahtz. You're supposed to get a bad ending on your first run; it's for replay value." Oh, well, in that case, up yours, Blair Witch; I'd rather replay my last prostate exam.
- The Constant Bitching Project: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I mean Slenderman is basically the same thing as the Blair Witch mythos and it'll probably be a whole two weeks before someone announces a remake of that
- Holding out for a Freddy vs. Jason remake with the Pinhead ending