Just over a year after its initial release, Bloober Team’s Blair Witch has finally made its long awaited jump to virtual reality. I enjoyed the original version, but was critical of the short running time and its failure to really push the more interesting aspects of its puzzles and setting. The VR version is billed as an entirely new version redesigned from the ground up for VR, so I was excited to strap on my headset and check it out.
Would the result be a horror story for the right or wrong reasons? Dim the lights, check the windows and doors are locked and join me for a suitably spooky Halloween review.
For the moment, Blair Witch VR is exclusive to Oculus Quest with only vague plans to make it more widely available. This is, of course, perfectly timed to coincide with the release of Facebook’s shiny new headset, the Oculus Quest 2, but my playthrough was on the original Quest, losing out on some enhanced visuals that include a more realistic dog and more convincing foliage. Such improvements would be welcome as the downshift in graphics from the original to this is striking.
Graphically, the flatscreen version wasn’t quite cutting edge but it offered a detailed and claustrophobic gameworld with more than enough fidelity to get across the sense of place. The Quest version is an altogether more impressionistic vision. Textures and resolution are redesigned to fit the limitations of the standalone headset and this felt hugely jarring at first. Fortunately, the innate immersiveness of the VR format soon kicked in and I adjusted.
While the short running time was one of my main criticisms of the original game, VR is well suited to more compact experiences. That being said, I was surprised to discover that the playing time has been cut down even further for this version. Bloober Team have spoken about deliberately condensing the gameworld to minimise the amount of travelling through the forest as they felt that this didn’t work as successfully in VR. While this may be true, the result is an environment that feels unnaturally confined and the sense of being lost in the woods is replaced with something that often comes across more like a forest-themed escape room. The woods were always an uncanny space that wrapped around and lead you back to where you started, but this makes the level design more linear.
The storyline of the original is kept intact, as are the main story beats. You play as Ellis, a troubled veteran suffering from PTSD who finds himself lost in the forest whilst searching for a missing boy, Peter. Accompanied by your loyal support dog, Bullet, as well as a handful of 90s gadgets (Nokia phone, handheld camcorder and walkie-talkie) you must face your fears and survive the dangers of the forest while trying to get closer to the mystery at the heart of the forest.
The Blair Witch setting is more context than plot, although she does make occasional audio appearances. The PTSD aspects take an important social issue and represent it in mostly sensitive fashion through Ellis’ wartime hallucinations. These episodes, in particular, were hugely effective in VR despite the visual downgrade, and felt more essential than they did in the original version.
Navigating the world offers up a range of VR control options. You can choose to manually move using the Touch controllers or to teleport, with direction either being controlled by your head movement or the right-hand analogue stick. There are also options for seated or standing gaming with the necessary height adjustments. I opted for manual movement with head direction and found this to work pretty well for me. The alternatives are welcome, as everyone’s comfort level for VR will be different. I did struggle to set up the height for seated play and either towered over or couldn’t reach the table in the game’s main menu, but had no problems with standing mode.
As well as the amount of movement being cut back, the puzzles have been redesigned with VR in mind. The tactile immersion of opening doors and pulling levers still feels novel to me, but it is a shame that the changes mainly involve simplifying or removing puzzles. As an example, in the original you have to rearrange fuses to get a car’s headlights to switch on. Here, this was simply removed and the process was automated. I can understand the desire to avoid more fiddly operations, but again, the result is a more linear and directed experience. The most interesting mechanic, freezing or rewinding time using the camcorder, is retained and works brilliantly in VR.
While it didn’t take me long to adjust to the lower resolution and graphical downgrades, the same can’t be said of the slew of immersion breaking glitches. Most of these were minor – Bullet clipping into the scenery was always a bit unpleasant – but I did encounter a couple more serious bugs that stopped progress. Chapter 5, in particular, refused to trigger properly until I loaded an older save. Having played the original, I knew roughly what I needed to do, so likely picked up on this being a glitch quicker than a first time player would.