The Layer of Fear devs deliver some effective horror with a side of smart ideas, though it's not without its faults.
Disorientated and overwhelmed, I'm lost. Again.
It's not surprising, really. This place is terrifying; it's pitch black, my torch is useless (why do horror game protagonists carry such shite flashlights?), and when my canine buddy and I started this stroll, the camera panned out to show a very disquieting symbol stamped irrevocably, if surreptitiously, onto the footprint of Black Hills Forest.
Also, we're in Burkittsville, Maryland, home of the infamous Blair Witch. As anyone familiar with the movie(s) knows, she's not known for her hospitality (although to be fair, she'll cheerfully invite you in - just mind the corners).
In many ways, this Blair Witch horror game is every bit as terrifying as you might be expecting. The woods are dark and confusing, full of twisted trees and rotten roots, secret whispers, and spooky totems. Sometimes a pathway will pull you back to where you started in a way that defies all logic and geography. You'll move between times and places that shouldn't co-exist, losing all sense of time and reality. Sometimes an old videotape can inexplicably manipulate the real world, pulling objects out of thin air, or sometimes it will show you something the naked eye alone cannot perceive. Sewn together, they're an evocative patchwork of sensory spooks that emulate the crushing claustrophobia and terror of the (good) movies thanks to its stunning visuals and masterful use of sound.
Blair Witch delivers a twisted tale that's neither unique nor particularly subtle - enough that I anticipated several of the major plot beats hours before they dropped, I'm afraid - but it's to developer Bloober Team's credit that my desire for resolution and corroboration kept me powering on in spite of the suffocating darkness. You play as Ellis, a former cop, as he and his canine partner head out to help search for a young lad that's gone missing. As night falls, however, you'll soon realise that the missing boy isn't the only one at risk in the woods tonight.
The Blair Witch herself requires no introduction, of course, but the real star here is Bullet, Ellis' German Shepherd. Achingly well-realised in every way - from the cheeky barks to the heartbreaking yelps - you'll swiftly realise that Bullet is not just Ellis' companion, but his protector, too. The dog's well-honed senses are often his master's first line of defence, and keeping an eye on the mutt's body language will help you gauge trouble way before you see it.
Though Bullet can often find, and retrieve, items or alert you to something spooky skulking in the undergrowth, his "Seek" ability - just one of a number of skills Ellis can select from a wheel, such as "Stay" and "Stay close" - was not as useful as I'd initially hoped, and what could've been a subtle waypoint mechanic is instead woefully underutilised. It didn't take long for me to realise that asking Bullet to Seek was more likely to elicit a lacklustre "Nothing, eh?" response than something helpful.
For while you'll spend a lot of time lost and frightened, you'll also find yourself lost and frustrated, too. Individual sequences are delightfully chilling and there's plenty of variety in the environments you'll visit, but the journeys between them - which usually involve running aimlessly through the woods - can be unnecessarily laborious, and playing without clear signposting dissolves that skillfully-layered tension. It's an issue that's further compounded by the puzzling order in which Ellis finds key items and props; some, such as the code to a padlock on a door you'll never revisit, come way too late to be of use.
Whereas Bloober Team's other recent offering, Layers of Fears 2, hogtied you to a rollercoaster ride of corner-of-the-eye treats and tricks, Blair Witch - despite the expanse of the woods - feels altogether more claustrophobic. And while it's every bit as linear as its predecessor, too, Blair Witch manages to shake off LOF2's "walking simulator" reputation chiefly due to the unexpected appearance of shadowy enemies that require a little strategic combat.
Yep, that's right - there's combat.
Whilst not quite as infuriating as Layers of Fears 2's instakills, there's plenty of opportunities for Ellis to unfairly snuff it, too. Some enemies stalk the undergrowth and require you to shine your torch to disperse them; others require you to look away entirely, keeping your light suppressed. In other sequences you'll encounter a - well, I'm not too sure what it is, really, so let's call it Weird-Wind-Leaf-Funnel-thing - that'll take you down if you spend too loitering on terra firma.
Whilst the conflict does, admittedly, add a welcomed sense of peril and consequence, I can't help but feel these sections are a little misplaced, though. Whereas the bulk of the game creeps you out with ambient twig-snaps and whispers and did-I-just-see-that-shadows, the sudden arrival of Very Bad Things sacrifices the slow, drip-drip fear for a couple of cheap jump-scares. They're also mechanically clumsy, too, as Bullet isn't quite as effective as tracking them as you might hope, and Ellis turns with so little urgency, it's a wonder I got through the fight at all.
That said, the origins of these demons are suitably ambiguous, and even now - ten hours (you could probably complete it in six or so; I just got lost a lot) and an ending cut-scene later - I'm unclear if they were ever really there.
Which, of course, is the appeal of psychological horror experiences. As you might expect from Bloober, Blair Witch plays you just as much as you play it, the small, subtle choices you make - who you call when your phone picks up a signal, perhaps, or how often you stop your pooch for a snuggle - reportedly affects which of the multiple endings you'll receive. It's a delightful conceit, especially as so much of this unfolds organically, attuned to your own particular playstyle and preferences.
This jerking from cinematic to combat to fruitless exploration, however, muddies the pacing. Too many of Ellis' scavenged items are never used or explained. The videotape recordings you use to alter your reality - a system that's briefly explained but in scant detail - must sometimes be used out of sequence. A tape you'll discover tells you how to combat enemies, but only after you've encountered one. And while the very Layers of Fear-esque final chapter was initially terrifically terrifying, it went on entirely too long, bloating what could have been a remarkable experience with recycled scares and tedious stealth sections.
It's buggy, too, I'm afraid. I can't speak for its console performance, but on PC issues ranged from the mildly irksome - like popping assets - to the mind-numbingly infuriating, such as the numerous instances where Ellis rendered himself completely immobile in a bush, forcing a reloaded checkpoint and losing several minutes' worth of progress. Other peculiarities include a bizarre sequence in which Bullet inched himself slowly along the ground as if he had worms and was wading through tar (he wasn't).
Though its lack of polish, pacing problems, and predictable story make it difficult to recommend unreservedly, Blair Witch is nonetheless packed with a number of successful scares and memorable set-pieces that draw admirably on the franchise's lore - and oh, do I love that dog.
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