December 15, 2022
I played through an early portion of Blacktail, from the Parasight, a few months ago and couldn’t wait to play more. It’s a first person survival shooter with a twist, in that instead of playing some burly marine with an assault rifle, you play a young witch armed with a bow and a magical gauntlet.
Blacktail is something of an origin story for Baba Yaga, the terrifying witch of Scandinavian folklore (it sadly has nothing to do with John Wick). You play as Yaga, a young woman seeking her lost sister in a dark fairytale world. It incorporates elements of classical witch mythology such as missing children, magic treats, broomsticks and black cats.
It’s an open world adventure, one brimming with possibility; hidden secrets, intriguing mysteries and lethal dangers are everywhere, but everything you find brings you closer to the truth about the enigmatic, nightmarish legend that is Baba.
Light survival elements accompany the exploration, such as hunting deer for meat, picking flowers and harvesting reagents to level up, and gathering resources to craft a steady supply of arrows and antidotes. Everything you can hunt or pluck from the earth has a purpose, either for crafting or increasing Yaga’s repertoire of abilities at a bubbling Cauldron in a mysterious magical hut. In order to unlock or upgrade new skills, Yaga needs to mix a huge variety of ingredients in the Cauldron, from honey and mushrooms to bits of the venomous spiders you encounter everywhere. It means every encounter is worth it, as everything you collect is stored on your person or automatically stashed in one of the magical bags you find at campfires.
These campfires are also used to cook meat, or converse with the black cat who can transport you to the witch’s hut and back again. While it’s nice to have that option, it’s a fast travel system that left me wanting more from it. Blacktail’s world is large and requires a certain amount of backtracking, and a way to travel from fire to fire would have been useful. Which is not to suggest it becomes samey. There’s a great variety of locales, from sparkling rivers bedecked with giant lily pads to foreboding swamps in the shadow of huge, skeletal rabbit statues. The level of detail is high, and Blacktail’s world is just as deadly in broad daylight as it is beneath the night sky.
Yaga’s morality meter exists to steer your hand when helping or hindering the various denizens of the woods. A Queen ant and wizened termite appear frequently to request your help, and how you deal with them affects your overall alignment as well as which titles you’ll eventually receive. Other things such as helping a hedgehog to eat or freeing birds from flesh-eating plants also affect the meter. All the while you’re guided by a disembodied voice that seems intent on dragging Yaga down, offering help veiled in either snarky comments or outright cruelty. While Yaga’s voice actor is superb throughout, the Voice often sounds a little hammy and over acted. It may be the point, of course, but it’s still worth noting.
My biggest issue with Blacktail, though, is the combat. It’s not that it’s bad, since it’s actually more than functional when traversing the world. It’s more that it’s a little too clunky for someone shown to be lithe and agile and good with a bow. Yaga has a dodge that feels fast but clumsy, and most enemies are designed to just come right at you. When you’re trying to craft arrows while furiously backpedaling to avoid damage, mild annoyance quickly becomes frustration. You have a few things to help you, of course, including the Broom.
Instead of the usual mode of travel, the Broom acts as both a lure and AoE damage-dealer, pulling monsters in with its siren song before exploding. As with the bow it has various upgrades and utilities that will unlock as you progress the story. And what a story it is. While the basic plot is nothing new, the way it’s told is often beautiful and occasionally disturbing. The world is rich in detail and environmental storytelling, and the cast of characters is colourful and diverse. Talking mushrooms and scheming insects abound, mixing with trolls and gnolls, and imps and dragons (well, sort of).
There are moments where Blacktail becomes a little self indulgent, such as a few times that it actually switches genre completely and for arguably a little too long. It’s designed as a narrative mechanic, but there’s too much going on to pay much attention to the story it’s trying to tell. I’d have rather the Parasight spent more time explaining how the leveling system works if I’m totally honest.
Blacktail is a gorgeous game though, and one that weaves its narrative through a dangerous world both majestic and macabre. The main character is likable, armed with enough magical spells and craftable munitions to make her a match for any enemy, even if the difficulty has a habit of spiking around boss fights. There’s also a palpable sense of discovery, with each new objective leading you through locations filled with mystery and peril. It may not put every foot right, but it’s still an enjoyable, compelling romp through a dark and beautiful fairytale world.
Charming and inventive
Combat can be frustrating
Doesn't explain its systems
Blacktail may not put every foot right, but it's still an enjoyable, compelling romp through a dark and beautiful fairytale world.