Blair Witch

I’m the rare person who likes everything about The Blair Witch. I like Book of Shadows. I like Blair Witch. If I had a chance to play the first trilogy of The Blair Witch games, chances are that I would have liked those too. Imagine my surprise when the game Blair Witch was revealed at E3 this year. It had what I wanted. Woods. Darkness. Dilapidated buildings. Even a dog! But, much like my feelings about 2016’s Blair Witch movie, this game doesn’t quite coalesce until you get to the end.

Blair Witch is a first person horror game in which you play Ellis. You have volunteered to scour the Black Hills forest for a missing boy. You brought your dog Bullet and little else. As you make your way through the woods, you find a trail of breadcrumbs that lead you closer to the boy and further into the forest.

Blair Witch follows Bloober Team’s recent forays into horror, namely Layers of Fear (a haunted house) and Observer (a cyberpunk haunted house). Layers of Fear‘s did a lot with atmosphere and loud noises because there wasn’t a whole lot of capital G Gameplay, but Observer added in some monster avoidance sections, ala SOMA, in which you could run face first into some kind of monster and die. Blair Witch throws in some portions where you are expected to look where your dog is barking and blast tree monsters with your flashlight. It’s clear that Bloober Team is trying to expand their horror horizons, but this felt kind of hokey. These parts weren’t terribly difficult or frequent, just sort of annoying.

If most of the gameplay is a progression of Bloober Team’s prior works, the rest is carried by the Blair Witch movies, namely wandering around in the woods and spooky rundown buildings. There’s no map and the feeling of being lost in the woods is really effective. Minus the hokey tree monsters, the horror mostly works. It builds effectively and, even with a companion dog, it’s hard to feel safe. This is what Bloober Team did well in Layers of Fear and Observer.

Where this game falters is in its narrative. Ellis never really becomes a sympathetic character and the story is built around slowly revealing his dark past and whether or not he can be saved. Bullet is a more sympathetic character here, and he’s a dog. The game also sort of relies on the player having seen some parts of the movies, leaning heavily on the most recent film. I knew what was going on because I’ve seen all of them, but I think a non-fan would be rather confused about a lot of the things that go unsaid. There’s also a laundry list of collectibles, and no way to go back through the game after you’ve beaten it to collect them or alter your ending. You can make game saves mid-game and return to those, but there’s no chapter select. Once you finish it, you’re going to have to play it again from the start if you’re chasing achievements.

I’m a tad disappointed. I saw a little Silent Hill 2 in the trailer, and I see a sliver of it in this game, but it’s not quite there. Hard to recommend for those who haven’t seen the Blair Witch movies, which I obviously enjoyed, but even fans may not enjoy this because of the weak antagonist and silly tree monsters. The scares are here, the tension is here, but it’s far from perfect.

Reference: Bloober Team. Blair Witch (Bloober Team, 2019)

Source: Free via Xbox Game Pass

Control

Control had some work to do right out of the gate. Quantum Break wasn’t exactly an unqualified success and Remedy’s relationship with Microsoft seemed to disintegrate from it. Now back out on their own and paired with 505 Games, Control is a bit of a return to form for Remedy. Smaller in scope than Quantum Break, but doing more with less.

Control is a third person shooter with mind powers. You play as Jesse Haden, a woman who walked into the Federal Bureau of Control, and assumed leadership by bonding with the weapon of the former director. If that sounds weird, we haven’t even scratched the surface. The FBC is charged with protecting the nation from supernatural threats, and it’s been invaded by a threat called The Hiss.

Control is a pitch-perfect blend of creepypasta, Lost, and The X-Files. There’s lot of talk in memos and audio logs about containment and neutralization of Altered Items and Objects of Power. Jesse can bind with some of these OOPs to get new powers, starting with the ability to throw stuff with her mind. Littered all over this game are collectibles describing the supernatural effects of these items and how the FBC are working to contain them. There’s also a series of videos that look like someone took the Dharma Initiative videos from Lost and made their own. These all star the same guy who played Alan Wake. Speaking of Alan Wake, there’s also a series of videos starring the guy who voiced Max Payne. This whole game is stuffed with creepy fiction and Remedy all-stars and I loved it.

The gameplay is also well suited to the atmosphere. This is no cover shooter. Jesse has the archetypal shooter weapons: pistol, shotgun, sniper, etc. Augmenting these are the mind powers, with the first and most useful being Launch, which throws stuff. Essentially every piece of set decoration can be picked up and tossed at the enemy. It does a healthy amount of damage right out of the gate and it’s extremely satisfying. More abilities trickle out later, but Launch is a mainstay through out of the game. Both weapon ammo and mind powers are on a delayed recharge, so combat is usually a matter of emptying one of those meters, and then emptying the other while the first recharges. Enemies also explode with health pickups when they die, so it makes no sense to sit in one place and shoot things in the distance. Eventually you need to get up close to heal. There’s a good variety of enemies, so the mix of weapons and mind powers have plenty of uses and combat essentially never gets boring.

There are two things that take away from Control, and that’s the environments and difficulty spikes. The whole game takes place in the same extradimensional building (think House of Leaves or the Tardis from Doctor Who), and eventually I noticed that it’s an awful lot of poured concrete. It’s good looking and well designed but there’s just so much grey I can look at. Jesse is also fairly fragile, and I found numerous points in the game where difficulty spiked really hard, to the point that I sometimes just walked away from a mission and did something else, or quit out of the game entirely from frustration. There’s a brutal section near the end of the game that took me at least a dozen attempts to get past, and required that I play the game differently from how I spent the rest of the game playing it. It wasn’t fun. Even now, there are a couple side missions I may not finish because I’m past the ending and they’re annoyingly difficult.

Despite these fairly minor quibbles, I absolutely loved Control. It’s creepy, it plays well, and it looks great. Control is an excellent storytelling game.

Reference: Remedy Entertainment. Control (505 Games, 2019)

Source: Purchased from Epic Game Store