Last week at Gamescom, we got a chance to play Blair Witch ahead of its release — it's launching as an Xbox Game Pass game in just a couple of days — and we very much enjoyed it. Our only problem? We're seriously worried that the game's fantastic AI companion won't make it to the end.
You may already know Bloober Team from their work on the unsettling Layers of Fear series, and while Blair Witch represents a first foray into the world of licensed adaptations, writer Barbara Kciuk saw it as a natural fit for Bloober's "more psychological" brand of horror.
That certainly plays out in the gameplay — though there are creepy monsters and jump scares galore in just the small sections we played, there is also a lot of trademark psychological weirdness going on — trees will jump about and disappear as though they are on old celluloid film in a skipping projector, and Bloober's particular penchant for trapping players in rooms full of doors even made an appearance in the demo's finale.
But there are two literal game-changers from Bloober's familiar approach that elevate the experience — firstly, the addition of a 90's style camcorder. While at first glance the camera might seem like a straight lift from Outlast (itself riffing on the original Blair Witch movie), the camera in Bloober's game carries a much more interesting functionality. In the demo, we were able to see how finding a recording and replaying it — while standing in the spot where the video was shot — can alter reality itself. A locked door barring progress can be opened by watching a video of a man being chased inside; pause the video on a frame with an open door, and the door is suddenly open in front of the player. Later, we saw that looking through the camera screen instead of at the interior of a creepy house revealed white paint marks; clues as to where to go and what to do.
These were all welcome touches to expand the gameplay, but it was nothing compared to our new favourite companion Bullet. The dog really does change and in some ways re-energise the creepy walking simulator formula, and it does so by going above and beyond the usual dog companion AI we're used to in other games. That was important for Bloober Team when considering adding a non-player friend into the mix. "You're not a master of puppets", Kciuk told me, "[Bullet] needs to know what you want from him, and you need to learn what he needs from you". Bullet doesn't just attack and defend on cue, or instantly find the object you need in a scene. He can be petted and called, and doing so isn't a gimmick but a part of establishing a relationship. Kciuk warned me off petting Bullet too much, as I am prone to with real life dogs: "If you make him too cute, he won't be as effective!"
We were struck by how realistic the dog's reactions to commands were, sometimes obeying instantly while at other times getting distracted out in the environment. But it never bleeds over into frustration with a misbehaving AI — another unfortunate staple of the horror genre — and this is a deliberate design choice on Bloober Team's part. "It's a tough task to balance realism with usefulness [in AI]. We wanted to create something more sophisticated."
Unfortunately, all of this hard work led to me getting very, very attached to this dog even in the short snippets of gameplay I was exposed to, and that elevated the horror aspects dramatically. It's chaotic enough trying to ward off weird tree spirits with a torch in near-darkness; throw a desperately barking dog into the mix and emotions quickly run ragged. There were a couple of gameplay examples in which the dog was mysteriously absent, which makes me fear the worst; Kciuk, naturally, refused to let me know whether Bullet gets out of this OK. A fair response, but not the one my dog-loving heart was happy to receive.
We'll all have to brave an encounter with the Witch and find out Bullet's fate for ourselves when the game arrives on August 30th. We already have the Blair Witch achievement list — be sure to check in often, as our community will surely have some excellent collectibles guides for you soon.
Check out our Best Xbox Adventure Games Available in 2018 article for a compilation of other great games in this genre.
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