A couple of weeks ago, Bloober Team’s Blair Witch was released on the Oculus Quest in time for the spooky season. While it’s essentially the same game that was released earlier this year on the Nintendo Switch (and last year on PC, PS4 and Xbox One), the Quest Edition delivers a wholly different experience as it was designed with this platform in mind. This impression piece will reflect on the VR experience but I encourage you to read our full review of the Switch version to have an idea as to what to expect of the console version and the game in general.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, the Blair Witch game takes place in the Blair Witch universe, set after the 1999 film The Blair Witch Project. The game follows the story of Ellis, a war veteran suffering from PTSD, searching for a child lost in the Black Hills Forest. Things quickly turn paranormal for Ellis as he begins seeing other-worldly creatures in the woods, hears cryptic voices and relives wartime memories as time and space get distorted.
But Ellis isn’t letting go of his search for the missing boy as he discovers that he was in fact kidnapped and wants to free him from his captor; an action that would also help redeem Ellis from his past actions. Luckily, Ellis isn’t alone in his quest as he has by his side his trusty dog companion Bullet. Bullet not only offers emotional support to Ellis but also helps in guiding him through Black Hills Forest by sniffing for clues and growling in the direction of those menacing monsters.
As pointed out in our official review for the Switch version, the gameplay is rather linear, with an emphasis on exploration and some puzzles to solve in order to progress. I did not play the console or PC version myself but I found the VR version to really simulate the creepy woods atmosphere, especially with the binaural audio which easily startled me when I heard some unexpected rustling of leaves or the voices in Ellis’ head.
Actions are also performed in ways that mimic real-life ones. For instance, when using items attached to Ellis’ jacket such as his phone, camcorder and flashlight, I’m physically using my hands to reach out and grab them from the chest pockets they are attached to. When “fighting” creepy monsters that are afraid of light, I’m swinging my arms, flashlight in hand, in the direction Bullet is pointing me towards in order to scare them away.
Other actions such as opening doors and car trunks, pushing buttons or picking up items to progress or using the camcorder to solve a puzzle are performed in a similar fashion requiring physical effort. This does add the “immersive touch” that virtual reality platforms boast over traditional gaming. Additional nice-to-have features like snapping branches with your hands, playing a knock-off retro Snake game on your phone and stacking objects are gameplay aspects that wouldn’t translate well in a platform other than VR. Performing those VR-optimised actions in a 360° environment really felt intuitive and immersive.
One of the highlights with those VR controls is your interaction with Bullet. You can play fetch with the adorable companion, give him treats from your hand and have him sniff items for clues. I found the latter to be a rather clever way to point in the direction to follow in areas you might otherwise easily get lost in. This feature really does make Bullet a companion worthy of the title of man’s best friend. Oh, and yes, you can pet the dog!
Even if the controls don’t use the Quest’s hand-tracking feature (which would make the experience even more immersive), using the controllers to perform actions still enhances the immersiveness. If you have a room large enough, then the roomscale mode is as immersive as it gets. You’ll get to physically walk across Black Hills Forest up to where the boundaries of the room allows you to. You can then use the control stick to teleport to another area or recenter your position and walk around again. I played the game in standing mode due to a lack of a large enough area for the roomscale experience and I did not come across motion sickness, or like I call it VR sickness, when moving Ellis around. That’s in part thanks to the “teleport” effect Bloober Team used in the VR version as Ellis moves from one point to the next in a “blinking” effect where the screen briefly fades to black before showing up in the new area he moved to. I think that’s what primarily helped me have a comfortable experience and allowed me to play the game for longer than I thought I would.
In fact, VR might probably the best way to experience Blair Witch as the 360° depiction, immersive controls and spooky audio all condense to make for a rather memorable experience; even if the gameplay is straightforward and the plot somewhat underwhelming. Having played other games from Bloober Team like Layers of Fear 2 and Observer, I came to notice that they heavily focus on the game’s atmosphere, often at the expense of the story and gameplay. With VR though, the developer might have found a new home as their focus on environmental storytelling and dramatic depiction of scenes translates well in VR as do the optimised controls. Now, I’m even l hoping to see Observer coming to the Quest to experience their cyberpunk title in a more immersive way.
By adapting the game to the Oculus Quest, the developers made some expected concessions. Firstly, the VR version on the original Quest is a significant visual downgrade, with textures that are often reminiscent of the PS2 era. Additionally, the cutscenes are not optimised for VR, meaning that you’ll be looking at a floating screen when such a scene rolls, which somewhat breaks the immersion (and they also point to the stark difference in graphics). I also found the random chapter transitions to be quite annoying as these can happen at unexpected plot points when I thought I would continue on the same path.
Graphical comparisons aside, I believe that the VR version of Blair Witch is a net improvement over the standard version. I didn’t play that version myself but having read reviews, I don’t think I would enjoy it as much as I did in VR on the Oculus Quest. If you are looking for a horror title to experience in virtual reality that does not rely on jump scares but rather translates the horror from its atmospheric depiction, I would recommend Blair Witch. The plot might be underwhelming, and disorienting when it jumps back and forth between places and events but the immersive gameplay and overall experience it offers is quite memorable.
Blair Witch: Oculus Quest Edition is now available in the Oculus Store for $29.99 and is also planned to release on other VR platforms later.
Blair Witch (Nintendo Switch) Official GBAtemp Review