Horror and fantasy are two genres that go quite well together, and they have pretty much since the dawn of popular media. Heck, even the best parts of The Wizard of Oz are more horror-esque in nature. Few things are more intriguing than a piece of media that nails the darkness that can exist in a fantastical world. It's not all like The Neverending Story, kids. For those willing to engage in a more hands-on form of dark fantasy storytelling, the upcoming video game Blacktail may do the trick, as it promises to be an entertaining, colorful, and deceptively twisted journey. And all you'll get to tackle the forces of the darkness is a damn bow and arrow.
I recently had the good fortune of playing through a demo of the game, which hails from the folks at Focus Entertainment, developed by The Parasight. While one can't get the entire picture from playing through a chunk of a game, I can confidently say this is an engaging bit of hands-on horror/fantasy worth putting on one's radar. The game, very basically speaking, centers on a girl accused of witchcraft and expelled from her home. It's then all about survival in a land filled with strange, alluring, and deadly creatures.
Any great work of twisted fantasy begins with being thrown down a rabbit hole of sorts and having to figure out the lay of the land, much like Alice in Wonderland. That's exactly what we get here after our hero, Baba Yaga is banished and must learn to survive on her own. Only, in the case of Blacktail, there is much more death and whatnot. The player is literally filling her shoes, provided with very little information, and forced to survive in an unfamiliar land. You aren't even given a bow and arrow at the outset - you have to craft the damn thing using feathers and sticks. It's hunting and gathering to survive. Kill or be killed. Not to mention the mysterious witchy nature of it all. Let's just say a society not big on witchcraft might have actually had justifiable grounds for this banishment, even if our protagonist didn't necessarily mean any harm.
This is a first-person, POV-driven game. It functions almost like an explorative shooter, sort of like Far Cry but without the bullets. Rather importantly, this game allows you to choose a path: do you want to go down a dark road or a friendly one? Do you want to help the creatures of this land or be selfish and angry due to your banishment? It's entirely up to you! Being an agent of chaos, I wandered the dark road for my time in the game. No regrets.
One thing that I personally found refreshing is the lack of an irritating get-to-know-you part of the game. There's nothing worse than playing a Halo sequel or something of the like, and the early part of the campaign still forces you to get to know the controls in a tutorial that just so happens to line up with the story. Blacktail does an outstanding job of incorporating the tutorial elements without making them feel boring. A large part of that is owed to the stellar design of the game, which is just mesmerizing to look at, even when it's kind of terrifying.
While the game does require a great deal of crafting to keep your arrow supply up and whatnot, it's not overly tedious. On the one hand, it makes the game feel true-to-form, maintaining the "surviving the elements" of it all while not overdoing it by making that an arduous or taxing part of the process. It's balanced. I should note that I played the demo on my Steam Deck, and, in my case, the game ran smoothly, looked great, and played great. The controls were intuitive, sensical, and never felt clunky. The first-person perspective also adds much to the experience, making you feel it more personally. This is all about you learning as the character learns. It's all new to her, and it's new to you. It's not all laid out on a silver platter - and that's okay! There is some element of confusion while questioning the surroundings, but that's by design, and it works.
Mileage may vary on the functional gameplay elements of Blacktail. I'm pretty easy to please in this department and quite enjoyed my time shooting little goblin creatures with my hand-crafted arrows or hunting a deer for meat to survive. But one thing that stands out for just about everyone is the stunning look of the game. It is, at times, a truly gorgeous thing to behold. One almost wants to pause to take it all in. That's also part of the trap - these beautiful things can hurt you, and that's worth remembering.
The landscape and elements are equal parts lovely and haunting, but the creature design is also a lot of fun. We have odd, plump bee creatures that are inviting yet deadly. Giant spiders minding their own business that can be an issue, weird water blobs that are amorphous yet harmful, and a great deal of talking mushrooms that ride the line between friend and foe. It's a wonderfully realized world full of exciting creatures. And the interactions with these forest residents largely depend on your alignment and how you choose to play the game. No run-through is going to be exactly the same for that reason. While I only played a chunk of the game, one imagines this would lend credence to a replay down the road, wandering down a different path. Sort of like playing Resident Evil 2 with the Leon S. Kennedy or Claire Redfield campaign: two very different experiences.
What we're left with (in my admittedly incomplete time with the game) is truly beautiful to look at and pretty damn haunting just beneath the surface. Mysterious, intriguing, visually compelling, and, most importantly, fun to play, this could be an under-the-radar title for gamers to add to their lists this holiday season.
Blacktail arrives on December 15 for the PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, and PC.