BABA YAGA’S BACK, AND SHE’S PACKING HEAT
It’s rare one finds a game as enchanting as Blacktail. Equal parts American McGee’s Alice and Sony Santa Monica’s God of War (2018), players embody a young Baba Yaga as she charts her way through the forest to save her sister. It’s like walking around in a classic Grimm’s Fairytale, with all the bite and wonder of classic mythology brought to life right before your eyes.
And if my time with the alpha build is any indication, the developers at PARASIGHT have a sleeper hit in the works that you absolutely need to play.
WHICH WITCH ARE YOU?
What catches you by surprise out of the gate is how Blacktail doesn’t subscribe to being a specific genre. Instead, every design choice is a deliberate storytelling device, feeding into the central theme of becoming either a heroic or menacing witch of the woods. At every turn, even the act of acquiring basic resources hinges on whether you’re kind or mischievous.
Freeing a bird from the maw of a carnivorous plant may be a good deed, but you could just as easily shoot it with an arrow to claim its feathers for more arrows. Sacrificing one of the game’s limited-use save flowers can entice happy honey bees to give you some of their honeycombs. Or, you could just shoot their hive out of the tree and claim their honey without losing a save opportunity.
For a game with binary morality, Blacktail manages to make each option legitimately tempting.
The storybook aesthetic of it all leads to an odd mirth to these events. There’s a foolish but polite postman larva from the underworld that you can play tricks on or aid. By contrast, a bloodthirsty ant “empress” with a dozen swords in her thorax demands your loyalty in aiding her conquest, which you can politely decline to the ant’s chagrin. Or play it neutral and tell either party you’ll consider it later.
In the demo, the opposite moral spectrum I chose came around to haunt me as the game’s first boss fight. You’ll either find yourself helping a pompous mushroom knight or a barbarian rogue literally named Rebel. Each looks like they were handmade by Jim Henson himself, as do their fellow mushrooms. Choose to be a friendly neighbor, and the cursed mushrooms of the woods will jeer and mock you, while the calmer mushrooms despise cruelty. Not only do story events change by your alignment, but also your perks.
Those who are positive can forage additional resources, while antiheroes earn back life from every enemy slain. Each is incredibly useful, as foraging takes time and your health starts off rather low. There’s even a rare blessing totem that gives you the perk of both for a limited time.
BLACKTAIL IS LIKE WALKING THROUGH A STORYBOOK
Yet for all these fascinating little choices, none of it would matter were it not for Blacktail’s scrumptious presentation. The sun in the sky looks like a crude drawing while gnarled trees resembled the husks of rabbits. Colorful flora blur like watercolor paintings. Will’o’wisps dance in the air with a sickly yellow hue as they bob forth, charging at you to explode in an acrid burst. Little gnomes claw out of the ground, clutching the skulls of dead animals as their beady little eyes gaze up, glowering at you.
Everything from the HUD to the menus looks handcrafted. Outside of certain menus like settings, Blacktail achieves what only Dead Space and God of War can brag about – a nigh-seamless, immersive experience. Much of the game world is entirely intuitive, despite the odd tutorial here or there. You’re actively encouraged to make mistakes, with the older Baba voice in Yaga’s head noting alternatives both morally and mechanically.
By having the two argue while working together, we have a clear narrative understanding of how genuinely conflicted Yaga is as a person. Something metaphysical befell her and her sister, and now there’s a second personality along for the ride. The world of Blacktail is mysterious yet harsh, with a cynicism that’s ironically quite genuine. There is cruelty and kindness in this world in every facet, and it will stomp you into the dirt without a moment’s hesitation. That it achieves a state of euphoric, child-like wonder amid this is a true testament to PARASIGHT’s skills as a dev team.
BLACKTAIL IS AN ENCHANTING SLAVIC EPIC IN THE MAKING
All of these fantastic elements are knit together by a solid if simple archery and magic combat system. However, as you can see above, there’s an extensive array of skills to be unlocked, with a map full of resources to scavenge. You won’t be crafting a base or anything, just practical tools like arrows and cures for poison. In the demo, I unlocked an initial repulse blast of energy that could also be combined with my arrows to create a shotgun blast of splinters. It’s tricky at first, but it proved quite handy with the first boss.
Every input is simple and elegant. There are no cumbersome combos or tedious grinds. Blacktail feels like a long-lost PS3 game, free of trying to copy anyone while drawing inspiration from all over. Cooler features were merely teased at, like a beast almanac, and certain skill unlocks stacking bonuses if they have the same animal sign. If you overfill your inventory, there’s even a cute bag guy who croaks like a frog and can be accessed for any surplus loot you acquired. They really thought of everything with this one.
Though it may be far from finished, with no firm release date set, Blacktail has made an impressive first impression. We’ll be keeping a close eye on this one. You can wishlist Blacktail on Steam now.