Every once in a while, one of those horror games comes along that gets mythologized as a harrowing experience best left alone by anyone without a taste for relentless, oppressive fear. Blair Witch definitely deserves a spot in that pantheon alongside Amnesia, Silent Hill, and their like.
Blair Witch, a game set in the same world as iconic horror film The Blair Witch Project, makes the illusion explicit — then promises you ways to exploit it. It’s a fitting, fascinating, yet often self-defeating idea. I want to play Blair Witch over and over. I also never want to see it again.
The many ways it manages to build tension and make me wonder if I’m losing my mind with a fairly simple premise of being lost in some woods creates a wonderfully unsettling journey. And it even manages to break with the tradition of recent horror games by giving you limited ability to confront the nightmares without ever turning into a power fantasy.
Blair Witch was released in 2019 by the Polish studio Bloober Team, best known for cyberpunk detective game Observer and the Layers of Fear series. It’s set in Maryland’s Burkittsville Woods (home to the eponymous Blair Witch) in 1996, shortly after the disappearance of three hapless campers in the original film. In Blair Witch, a child has gone missing in the woods. Your protagonist has joined the search party with his dog Bullet, although nobody wants him there — for reasons that are both highly enigmatic and eminently understandable.
Ellis, the voiced protagonist, has his own complex, layered, and bone-chilling backstory to discover along the way. As someone with firsthand experience of post-traumatic stress and panic attacks, this is probably one of the most accurate artistic depictions I’ve seen of those things. It was almost too real at some points, and I would caution others with similar experiences to be aware of that before jumping in.
There is also sort of a combat system, but it’s hard to even talk about it without spoiling some of the better surprises. Suffice to say that Blair Witch differentiates itself from other horror games in that you’ll almost never be running from anything. Every enemy requires either tense confrontation or teeth-clenching stealth to get past. There’s even a segment that borrows the night vision camcorder mechanic we saw in Outlast, but I’d say Blair Witch actually does it much better.
There were a couple segments that felt like they relied a bit too much on cheap jump scares, or where things went from spooky to straight-up psychedelic in a way that harshed my horror buzz, but that was the exception rather than the rule.
All the while, the sound design and music are expertly poised to enhance the tension and terror around every turn. If you’re an aficionado of this type of game, you probably already know that they’re meant to be played in as dark a room as possible with some good, around-ear headphones to get the most out of what’s been carefully arranged to creep you out.
Menacing whispers, the crunch of dry branches, foreboding basso melodies, and the reassuring panting that reminds you Bullet is nearby each served to transport me into the witch’s dread domain.
Blair Witch is one of the most successfully terrifying horror games I’ve ever played. More so even than any of the Amnesia games, it made me feel like I’d been dragged feet-first through Hell by the end.
Discovering Ellis’ troubled past and the often relatable demons it left him with grounded it all and made each eerie or excruciatingly frightful moment personal. Some small technical issues and poor feedback about progress on optional objectives aside, it’s excellently constructed from the tops of the trees to the depths of its madness. If you’re as much of a glutton for punishment when it comes to horror games as I am, you definitely won’t want to pass this one up.