Blacktail Review – Witchy Woman

Blacktail Review

As every writer in search of a story knows, there are only so many plot devices. Ever since the ancient Greeks — and probably long before — storytellers have been sending their heroes off on journeys of discovery and conflict. One of the most popular hooks is the “stranger in a strange land” device. In Blacktail, a young, would-be witch enters a strange, magical forest in search of her sister. Stranger? Check. Strange land? Also check. But does this ancient story work as a videogame?

Go to the Hut (not Pizza)

Blacktail is a first-person action adventure RPG based on a Brothers Grimm-like Slavic folk tale. In the story — and there are many versions and variations — Baba Yaga is a child-devouring witch. She lives in a hut perched on chicken legs, like a mobile home of evil. Fans of classical music might recognize this as part of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

But I digress. In the game, Yaga (no Baba, yet) awakens in a mysterious forest and sets off to find Zora, her missing twin sister. She has a vague idea of the direction to go in and a half-remembered instruction to find a darkly foreboding hut. While Yaga’s quest to find Zora is the engine that drives Blacktail, in the end it’s the journey that matters.

After a bit of nosing around in the woods, Yaga finds the hut, perched on stilt-like legs, She ascends to the top, where she finds a cauldron. This begins her initiation as a witch and the real beginning of the game. One of Blacktail’s main narrative and gameplay hooks is that Yaga can choose to be a good witch or an evil witch. There are a number of interactions with animals and NPCs that push her in one direction or another. Like many RPGs, Yaga’s point on the good/bad compass will change the availability of some quests or conversations. In theory, this encourages multiple playthroughs to see any missed content.

Into the Woods We Have To Go

While Blacktail’s story arc is familiar, the environment and characters are a blend of the natural world and the surrealistic. There’s a trippy, Alice in Wonderland vibe to both the saturated colors and the many talking insects, mushrooms, cats and other flora and fauna quest-givers. A great deal of Blacktail is having to go from point A to point B, only to be thwarted by a literal block in the path. Removing the obstacle usually means doing a series of favors for the inhabitants of the world. Of course no good deed goes unpunished. Protecting the Ant Queen might win Yaga favor with the ants, but not with another NPC who wants to see all the ant armies destroyed.

Most of the main NPCs are voiced, including The Voice, an omnipresent narrator and guide in Yaga’s head. Some players may find the range of vocal choices and accents a bit confusing. While Yaga herself has a British accent, The Voice is distinctively American. The range of accents extends across the other characters. It didn’t bother me. It’s a fantasy world, after all and there’s a narrative reason the accents are diverse. The voice acting is exceptionally well done.

Speaking of the world, it’s lush, colorful, both mysterious and inviting and barely hints at the indie-level budget. The forest feels vibrantly alive with creatures to interact with. It’s not an entirely open world, and while there are shortcuts, secrets and side paths, Blacktail is relatively linear. A magical black cat that appears near save point shrines allows Yaga to travel back and forth to the Hut, where she can upgrade her skills, weapons and hexes.

Survival Crafting Lite

Mechanically, Blacktail is a buffet of ideas. There is a survival/crafting element, and while Yaga doesn’t have to worry about thirst, hunger and fatigue (or stamina in general), she does need to pick up various materials to make arrows, brooms and other consumables. Yaga’s health is restored at shrines, and she can eat berries or meat to regain health as well. Crafting is easy and materials are plentiful. Unfortunately, there are a couple of ill-conceived mechanics that can, at the very least, be annoying. Cooking meat at the fire is based on a totally unnecessary minigame. Yaga can carry a limited number of arrows so she has to craft them constantly. It’s easy enough to do, except in the middle of a boss fight, where having to craft ammunition during combat becomes a deadly chore.

Combat in general is a mixed bag and unlike the incredible world, is an aspect of Blacktail that needs a lot more refinement. Yaga doesn’t do well in close quarters battle, instead relying on her bow at distance. Keeping away from enemies relies on a dash mechanic that only moves her short distances. During the course of the game, Yaga acquires several abilities or items that help distract enemies, and hexes and perks that make her increasingly more powerful. While combat becomes more interesting and varied deeper into the game, Horizon Forbidden West this is not. Some boss battles were less about skill or tactics than fighting the mechanics. In short, Blacktail has many, unique strengths. Combat isn’t high on the list.

Because this is a game made in 2022, there is a welcome awareness of the interconnection of species and Yaga’s Earth magic is attuned to the natural world. She honors the animals killed for food. She understands that helping one species to survive impacts others. I liked the fact that the developers kept the message subtle.

Sister Act

There’s really a lot to love about Blacktale. It’s an original story, and the writing and acting are good, with drama and humor nicely balanced. The world and its inhabitants are exceptionally engaging. The music is exceptional, too, with the title track highlighting the raw power of Slavic choirs.

In a landscape littered with copycat games, Blacktail’s originality make it a winner. Set aside the game’s mechanically frustrating and probably unnecessary boss battles. Blacktail’s world, characters and narrative are easily worth the very reasonable price of admission.

***PS5 code proved by the publisher for review***




The Good

  • Engaging, living world
  • Interesting and unique narrative
  • Great music and voice acting

The Bad

  • Questionable and unnecessary boss battles
  • Some clunky mechanics