Blacktail Review: Season of the Witch

Blacktail, the first game from indie developer The Parasight, explores the origins of Baba Yaga, the infamous boogeywoman of Slavic folklore. While this first-person exploration-adventure covers themes that would fit well with the horror genre throughout its roughly 12-hour campaign, it’s probably not as dark or as grim as you might have imagined. There is a lot of light and life here, even if the story revolves around dead children.

You slip into the role of 16-year-old Yaga, a girl shunned by her peers save for one true friend, and banished from her roughly medieval Eastern European village. She’s on a quest to find her missing twin sister Zora, and that means solving the witch’s mystery in the forest and uncovering the truth behind the ghosts she finds along the way.

Blacktail is a surrealistic fairy tale book brought to life. Full of brooding character, whims and magic, it bursts with personality in a beautiful, if eerie, fairytale-like world filled with wildlife, anthropomorphic mushrooms and spiders. Lots of spiders. There’s also a skeleton fish that’s obviously kite-high. It is strange.

But it’s all so incredibly endearing, compelling and unique. Roaming through forests, valleys, mountainsides and frozen wastelands, there’s a definite sense of place with a capital P. I’ll certainly remember Blacktail for its story, setting, and lore, all of which stand out as welcome changes to the quintessentially Greek and Roman mythologies so often explored in games.

Image via The Parasight

Blacktail is also memorable for its fight and traversal, but not for the right reasons. Moving as a yaga is sluggish, as if our heroine were stuck in a thick, viscous mud. Perhaps it’s a physical manifestation of her traumatized psyche, but while this interpretation satisfies the thematic meaning Blacktailactually makes playing the game no longer fun.

Progress is slow. Turning is slow. Dodging is slow. Jumping is slow (and especially unpredictable and awkward). So when everything but you is moving as fast as Perun’s lightning bolts, death can come swiftly, even if you’re prepared for what’s about to come down from the trees, teeth bared and rocks held overhead, ready to toss.

Her only defenses are Yaga’s bow, a few spells, and a broom that briefly distracts enemies. Also camming and firing arrows is a slow affair, not nearly as fast as Aloy’s bolt in either horizon Plays or shots from Atreus in God of War Ragnarok. It doesn’t help that every enemy has one except for the terrifying Eyeball Spiders very deep health pools that fit the definition of ball sponge.

Special attacks, like firing a volley of arrows or spawning Poison Mist, shake things up a bit and add a strategic layer to encounters once unlocked, though they never feel effective enough to turn the tide, if you do only the smallest calculation errors have managed to do this, especially later on. Enemies will attack you, overwhelming you and quickly draining your health. And that doesn’t mean the fight is hard fickle and unbalanced as it is. Spells are cast faster, but their power is underwhelming for the most part, just stunning most enemies to retreat, aim, and fire another arrow.

It all comes together in small wars of attrition, following the same attack pattern from a distance, backtracking while firing arrows, dodging, dropping a broom to gain distance, firing more arrows. BlacktailThe frustrating save and checkpoint systems of are of no help, where one wrong move or step can ruin 20-30 minutes of exploration and progression.

Image via The Parasight

The side quests are interesting sidebars to the main action and expand Blacktail‘s mythology while evoking the larger Slavic pantheon of legends. It’s in those moments that you find the really weird and endearingly unique characters, and where Blacktail underscores the need for more diverse voices and cultures in gaming.

But the further you get into the core narrative throughout the game’s four seasons (chapters), the more peripheral these side quests become. They move further and further from the narrative epicenter, most having little to do with the actual main task and feeling less committed and more at will. Very few, if any, need to be completed to get the power and skill books needed to face the final boss and roll credits.

That’s fine in a vacuum. Many side quests in hundreds of other games fit the same bill. And from a certain point of view it’s nice not to be forced from side quest to side quest. But the ones found here are so absolutely captivating and funny that it actually doesn’t do them any good are not imposed and offer better rewards.

It’s also another example that highlights the game’s mechanically unbalanced combat. Because the basic abilities and those unlocked exclusively through story can carry you through most encounters (no matter how frustrating they are mechanically), and because there’s no XP system in play, you never can feel forced to complete them to gain more power. When you pick up Blacktailskip the side quests at your own risk.

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Screenshot of GameSkinny

Blacktail has a fairly sprawling open world. Don’t go in expecting Skyrim, GTA5or dying light 2but considering The Parasight is not a big budget developer and Blacktail is their first game again, there is a sizeable world to explore.

Lush, bright landscapes of rolling hills and open pastures dotted with rustic windmills intertwine with dark, foreboding caves and snow-capped mountains dotted with castle ruins. The variety of locations is impressive, although it falters a bit the further you get in, with some environments getting a bit repetitive. The silver lining is that every setting fascinates in its details and colors. And the legendary House on Chicken Legs is one of the most unforgettable places of 2022.

Yaga can place collectibles there as another world building element. More importantly, this is where you buy new abilities, upgrade your arrows, carrying capacity and more, and choose sorceries from a group of four after unlocking the required number of abilities from their group. These hexes grant Yaga passive abilities, like the ability to carry more arrows or deal more damage at the cost of more damage. It’s a nice system that adds a few levels to combat and acts as a secondary difficulty if that’s what you want.

Added to the game’s pseudo-dynamic difficulty system is the morale system. You can choose the path of good or evil, a throwback to Baba Yaga’s folkloric real-life portrayal of evil-sometimes-good. While there are moments in the story that allow for these binary moral choices, they don’t affect much of the narrative or dialogue choices. Instead, these honorable or dishonorable choices will take you further in larger batches in one way or another than the actions you can take during moment-to-moment exploration.

Screenshot of GameSkinny

Blacktail should be a survival game. And that’s it – in the loosest interpretation of the category. There is a hunger mechanic, although it simply exists as a mechanical McGuffin. You may Hunt deer and some other animals to cook their meat on the campfire and gain large swaths of health alongside some volatile buffs like haste. The problem is that the system isn’t all that helpful given the inexorably long time it takes to find an animal, hunt it, find a campfire, and cook the meat – before completing a cooking mini-game, in order complete the process.

The other loose survival elements involve scouring the environment and dead enemies to craft items like wood, feathers, eyeballs, gems and teeth, which you can use to purchase new abilities in The Hut or brew antidotes for the Hut case that you are poisoned.

The moral system is most involved in this systematic gathering of resources (again and again). If you follow the good path you have to pick up feathers from the ground; Criminals can simply shoot bird nests to the ground. Goodie twoshoes must drop flowers for bees if they want honey, another crafting material, but those undecorated by virtue can shoot down hives for the stuff, though they’ll have to deal with the swarm as penance.

All of these deeds and actions ultimately bestow their own passive buffs along a scale of good and evil, broken down into three tiers for each path. For example, those on the evil path can heal more easily with the first two passives in the lane, while those on the righteous path can gather more resources or deal damage over time.

Blacktail Review – The Bottom Line

Screenshot of GameSkinny

Advantages

  • Beautiful semi-open world.
  • Beautiful picture book art style.
  • fountain of personality.
  • Exploring underrepresented folklore.
  • Awesome voiceover for Yaga.
  • Fun side scrolling sections.

Disadvantages

  • Repetitive, sluggish struggle.
  • Anachronistic dialogue with way too much swearing.
  • Inconsistent narrative tone.
  • Mostly ineffective skill tree.
  • Barebones (if any) survival system.
  • Incredibly frustrating save and checkpoint system.

Blacktail tells a sad story about a girl who is ridiculed and shunned by her community and how through self-actualization she becomes a force to be reckoned with. Though the game falters at explaining grander, more philosophical ideas like the differences between good and evil – going so far as to say that those binaries don’t matter if you’re being true to yourself – it manages to harness the power of Baba Yaga as to recognize more than one witch.

[Note: The Parasight provided the copy of Blacktail used for this review. Featured image via The Parasight.]

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