Gamers everywhere were being terrified this time last year when we were dropped alone in the forest with no one but Bullet to keep us company as we searched for a missing boy. The already atmospheric and intense experience of Blair Witch, by Bloober Team (Layers of Fear 2, Observer, The Medium), has now had a Virtual Reality makeover, bringing along some improvements and changes to deepen the experience and make it that much more interactive and immersive.
Even though you may have already played the game (like me), this review will be a fresh look where I’ll talk about the game in general as well as the new features integrated with the VR version. I enjoyed my first playthrough of the game a lot (non-VR), this second time, it wasn’t quite so enjoyable – but for both good and bad reasons…
*Please excuse the low-quality images, the game looks better in VR but the Occulus Quest takes very low-quality screenshots*
Despite being called ‘Blair Witch‘, it’s not quite the same story as the famous found footage movie. Instead, we play through the eyes (literally) of Ellis Lynch, a former police officer and veteran. Determined to prove himself able, (both to himself and the police) he takes it upon himself to find a boy that’s gone missing in the woods. Ellis isn’t the most mentally stable person, so he relies on his trusty ‘good boy’ K9 companion, Bullet, to keep him calm.
Having a dog is both a story element and a clever gameplay mechanic, as you become more anxious the further away from Bullet you get. To go much further into the story would ruin the experience for you, as the way it progresses is through various interactive objects in a fun and unique way. For example, you can learn lots about Ellis just by opening up his mobile phone and reading through his text messages to discover random things about his relationships, his mental health and even his food preferences.
There are also collectables, of course, such as pictures, notes and video recordings, which really help immerse you in this creepy world and adds to the experience more naturally then it felt playing the game in ‘flat mode’.
In the VR version, the main story sequences and flashbacks happen in a 2D screen that appears in front of you, rather than as a full-on VR experience. This feels a little bit rushed and takes away from the immersion a lot. If you’ve played Resident Evil 7 in VR, you’ll know what I mean, as the introduction plays out as a 2D screen in that as well.
However, it’s not just at the beginning, it happens throughout Blair Witch: Oculus Quest Edition, making you feel separate from the game somewhat.
Once you get through the nightmarish woods and discover the truth about the missing boy, the game still has some replayability as there are multiple endings based upon your actions. However, one playthrough was more than enough for me as I didn’t really feel tempted enough to jump back in to try and get a different conclusion.
Blair Witch is a lot less about in-your-face jump-scares and more about being alone with your imagination and psychological fears, just like the movie. That being said, there are some genuinely creepy parts of the game that elevate far above the movie. For long stretches, the game is a slow burn through dense and narrow woods. With each step, you’ll hear various noises that you will slowly start to believe is something sinister, though it rarely is. The fact that your mind tells you it is though, is what makes the experience so much better (especially in VR with headphones). The game puts you in the world and with one simple question, ‘are you stable enough?’
The creepiest parts come through your interactions with various devices and objects that you find. There’s one part, in particular, involving a car which I found both creepy yet very impressively presented. The later stages of the game really starts to ramp the tension up massively, with the final stretch of the game in VR being beyond terrifying.
So what do you actually do? Essentially, you’re following a trail and discovering clues by using Bullet as your guide. It’s refreshing having such a helpful companion that doesn’t repeat voice lines or block your path, he’s just genuinely useful and (mostly, barring some weird AI glitches) works fine. Bullet can sniff out scents for you to follow, find collectables, and you can whistle him back on command. Of course, you can also pet him, feed him snacks and play fetch with him too – you’re going to want to do these a lot because he definitely helps with the anxiety (just like a real doggie).
As you progress deeper into the woods, your grip on sanity slowly wanes and more and more horrible things start to happen to you. Weird photos of spirits lay scattered around while strange noises and screams come through the radio. The tension builds steadily but inevitably and it doesn’t relent. Amongst the silence, you will sometimes come across various creatures that will attack you. These creatures need to be fended off with light, ‘Alan Wake’ style, before they get too close. It’s a simple mechanic that is performed within VR by having to look at the creatures head-on, which is far from pleasant but definitely ramps up the horror from the original version.
You will also be solving puzzles as you progress but, in most cases, they’re very simple fetch quests to open up the next area. The more interesting puzzles are the ones where you find cameras with footage on there that you have to watch and pause in a certain spot. Getting the right frame will reveal a hidden item in the real world that you can interact with. The VR version of the game has toned down the puzzles somewhat, with only the simpler puzzles remaining. While this makes the pacing a little better, it also drains the game of any variety, limiting the experience to mostly just walking through dark areas until the next clue or story beat happens.
One frustration I had with the game when I played it in Flat mode was that it’s very easy to get lost. However, in this version, I didn’t struggle with that anywhere near as much, it felt a bit more linear overall with the removal of certain puzzles. Also, I found that Bullet simply runs in the direction you need to go, instead of wandering around, so you just listen for his bark and follow him. Being so close to the action and immersed in the world also helps as you can see more landmarks which helps you navigate.
What’s the VR like?
The VR itself adds a lot to the experience of Blair Witch and definitely improves the game in terms of immersion for the most part. Even the little ways you interact with objects just feels so much more involved. To flick through the items that you are carrying you literally have to reach to the corresponding pockets and pick up whichever item you want to use. For example, if it’s your phone, you reach down to your left pocket and grab, where you can then hold the phone and flick through the messages, call history, contacts and games. Yes, you can stop for a game of Snake and forget all about what may be stalking you – something I spent more time doing than I should have.
You also carry a radio, a torch and a whistle. All of these have a specific place on your body that you reach to so you can grab them. This mechanic has been used in many VR games, such as Killing Floor: Incursion, but in Blair Witch I found it a little bit fiddly. Too many times the game would grab the wrong item despite me clearly hovering over the object I intended to pick up. Once you have hold of them though, they’re mostly fun to hold and interact. What I really liked was that the tracking of the headset shows you physically moving your fingers across the different buttons on the devices you’re holding – I thought that was a nice little touch.
Where the VR falls down is obviously in visual fidelity. Despite the Quest 2’s decent resolution, the game itself didn’t exactly look amazing. Bullet especially was disappointing with some derpy faces and there being some awful textures when you get even remotely close to objects. The draw distance of the environment for some reason is massively shorter too, probably due to the limited power of the Quest 2’s Snapdragon processor, with trees and objects seemingly appearing when you’re just a few metres away from them.
I’m not sure if the AI has been altered in this new VR edition as Bullet seemed much more ‘broken’ in comparison to the ‘Flat’ 2019 version. For me, he frequently ran into objects and continued sprinting on the spot, sometimes he would jump through the floor, or he’ll have this weird glitch where his legs would raise above his head. It was definitely an immersion breaker that made me laugh moments after seeing images of dead people, so the experience was ruined somewhat.
Since it was in VR, the game should have been a lot scarier than the original but unfortunately, it wasn’t. The tension was higher for sure, especially when you play with headphones as the sounds and overbearing treelines are horrific to walk through when in your face and to scale. Speaking of, the sounds are fantastic in the game, with each snapped twig, whisper through the trees and each burst of radio raising the hairs on your body. It’s not pleasant at all. However, the actual ‘scares’ have been limited, with just a few jump scares added to make it feel more intense. Again though, they didn’t quite land with me and it was more the sound that made them scary than what was actually in front of me.
It’s strange to be saying that a horror game in VR is less scary than the Flat version, but it was. There were a few moments which felt more intense within VR but that was simply down to the format of the game (VR) and not the game itself.
Blair Witch: Oculus Quest Edition is a bit of an enigma. The use of VR adds so much in terms of tension, immersion and interactivity, that makes it feels both awesome and terrifying. Then, the removal of certain sections and the addition of very basic scares makes it feel a bit rushed as the scares don’t really pay off from the tension that’d been building. It’s only really the crazy ending that feels truly spooky while the simplistic wandering through the woods picking stuff up feels like a limited experience.
If you’ve never played the original Flat version, I still think that’s the best version to play, but it’s worth jumping into the VR edition if you’re a fan of immersive psychological horror games or the original release and want to experience some of the thrills up close and personal. Bonus: You can pet Bullet in VR – so if all else fails, at least the game has that.