December 15, 2022
PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series S | X
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Slavic folklore is peculiar. All folklore is strange in its essence, but the Slavic tales of witches and water goblins, those who survived invasions, cataclysms and religious cleansings, manage to maintain their strangeness. One story in particular, or rather one character, has outlasted and thrived above the rest – Baba Yaga. A character that Blacktail revolves around.
Blacktail is a deliberately uncomfortable game. There is something unsettling in the way she presents herself and the world she inhabits. First, and most noticeably, the game is not self-explanatory. There’s a nice glossary of creatures that gives extra detail as you discover them, and characters will explain new mechanics and areas as you find them, but don’t say what they actually are. You quickly get to know the sisters, the setting, the witch, and even the talking mushroom, but these introductions come with a sense of solid familiarity. The player character, who carries on the lofty tradition of talking to herself, doesn’t question spiders with eyes for bodies, a black cat teleporting around a map, or the voice of a witch whispering in your ear. All of these things make sense to her, even if they don’t make sense to you. As in Pathologic, the player is an interloper in this world, and it is not their place to demand logic, consistency, or answers.
Blacktail frequently uses other means to compound this unwanted discomfort as well. In the beginning, you are required to follow the path of evil or the path of good. There are suggestions that this choice will have consequences, but you don’t know the narrative yet, let alone the mechanical differences, so how do you make that decision? Other moments present different moral quandaries, such as whether it is good or evil to give directions to a demon mailman who happens to get lost. You are often forced to make decisions without knowing the circumstances, let alone the possible consequences, and this is clearly by design.
The player is supposed to feel like an outsider in this admittedly alien world, even if your character isn’t. Her goal, with the help or possibly intervention of the Witch and countless other characters, is to find her missing sister. Both of you have been banished from the village, which you’ll occasionally spy across impossible terrain, which seems to be about the most natural thing you’ll find in the game, out of reach and untouchable. But your sister has disappeared and you or the witch are to blame. Although when you stumble upon her hut much earlier in the game things change. For a start, you don’t actually see her, but after that point, she’ll be with you in some way that’s never fully explained. You have access to magic, cauldrons and tools, but it is not clear how much they are ready to help you.
To survive in the deadly jungle you will have to use everything you can, but every encounter will depend on your bow in some way. Offensive combat feels great. The bow has a nice weight and satisfying reflexes from the enemies you come across. The first game’s quickly killable enemies give you enough aim practice to feel like a powerful hunter. Various magic methods can be used to improve and alter your arrows, giving you a simple yet effective arsenal. Unfortunately, the defensive part of the combat isn’t nearly as satisfying or balanced. Dodging and running away from damage is awkward, especially since tougher bosses and enemies use hard-to-read area-of-effect attacks. No matter what, it can be hard to know if you’re getting the timing right or wrong until you’ve been hit. The whole thing looks a lot more floaty than the bow and acts as if it were completely disconnected.
While combat in Blacktail is a bit uneven, the exploration and tone make up for the clumsiness. The world is so strange, hostile and intriguing that it begs you to challenge it as if the world itself were the real boss of the game. The map may not seem huge at first, but it contains enough secrets to make you navigate its wild expanses and paths very carefully. And they look great. While it may not measure up to God of Wars and other great games, its bright and decadent color palette catches the eye at every turn, painting a truly inhuman space. Likewise, the music and soundscape of the jungle is the call of a siren, promising danger and beckoning you at the same time.
The cast of characters, while equally bizarre, is intriguing and delivered with such great conviction that you almost make yourself believe in the surreal. The Witch, for example, is full of hostile and sarcastic glee as she more or less judges everything she does. The only downside to the voice acting and script is that it sounds a little too American for a world that strives to be something else.
While navigating all of this, you’ll also have to manage a light crafting and upgrade system. Basic resources are plentiful, with more exotic ingredients that require you to go off the beaten path. It can be frustrating to constantly make your merge show out of arrows but it can feel like you’re punishing the player for not stopping every three seconds to grab more feathers.
But Blacktail isn’t a game that wallows in its flaws. The world alone is interesting and new enough to enjoy its adventure despite its imperfections. The intentionally unwelcoming atmosphere makes each step seem like a defiant victory. The combat could be a bit more steadily polished, but nonetheless, the world is interesting. Its unapologetic retelling of Slavic folklore puts it at the forefront of a growing community of developers and stories that are decidedly Eastern European. And it looks like Blacktail may grow to be yet another inspiration for more curious, weird, and unwelcome ones Stories.
Reviewed on PC (code provided by publisher).
Blacktail delivers a lot with a strong tone throughout. While some areas could have been a bit more polished, what we get is still pretty cool.
- Unapologetic situation
- Wonderful exploration
- Interesting to look at
- The combat is unbalanced
- Sounds too American
- Dart making becomes boring