Dark, wild, and foreboding, Blacktail is an imaginative origin story of how Baba Yaga became the legendary witch in Slavic folklore. If you don’t know much about the legend, apart from it being John Wick’s codename or a hero from SMITE, that’s alright. Developer The Parasight aims to create a first-person action RPG that will fill in all of the details about Baba Yaga, while giving you a chance to shape her destiny into a benevolent witch who tends to the forest or a malevolent hag who curses all who enter her domain.
Baba Yaga appears in many real-world stories and her personality varies depending on storyteller, but they generally depict her as a mercurial figure, a wizened enigma who can help, hinder, or even eat humans who meet her. She symbolizes the sometimes fickle brutality of nature, easily destroying those who fail to respect her and the creatures she protects in the forest. That said, Blacktail proposes that Baba Yaga wasn’t always a legend meant to frighten children and was at one time a fledgling teenager like the rest of us, just a girl named Yaga.
Double, double, toil and trouble?
In the approximately four-hour preview build for Blacktail, Yaga begins already shunned by the village. She doesn’t remember much about her upbringing, having lost her memories for a reason that will become apparent as the plot progresses past the preview. She’s already a strange child who wears a mask and has one of her hands covered in a black graft that she calls a gauntlet, so when children start to go missing in the woods including her sister Zora, the village starts to suspect that Yaga is to blame. So she exiles herself to the forest in the hopes of discovering where they went, all while unlocking her memories along the way.
After visiting a red oak that she describes as a safe place for her and her sister from the villagers, it’s not long until she finds an invisible hut at the heart of the map. Given that the hut actually materializes upon her footsteps and she begins to hear a voice from what seems to be a darker power residing within her, Yaga promptly understands that she’s more than just a normal teenager. I mean, the hut has a bubbling cauldron and an adorable black cat who allows you to fast travel around the forest. She might as well embrace the pointy hat now.
Not your ordinary witch
The developers boast that Blacktail is a one-of-a-kind experience, and from what I’ve played so far, they’re right. The game is mostly a light adventure that fits somewhere between Skyrim and Witch in the Woods — well, a darker version of that at least. It combines archery, spells, crafting, and a clear-cut morality system in an unusual way. Most of my experience involved gathering resources like branches and feathers for arrows, spider eyeballs for antidotes, and red flowers for shrines that function as save points. I also found Shelloks that are gathered by shooting down wooden owl figurines called Boboks, and I grabbed teeth and recipe sheets locked in treasure chests peppered about the nooks and crannies of the woods. These rarer ingredients are used to unlock nodes on the skill tree, providing more power for Yaga’s spell-casting and archery skills.
Most of the combat in the preview build was rather simple, but that might just be because the preview only goes through the opening section of the game. As I tend to play a sneaky thief with a bow in Skyrim, I didn’t have any trouble killing the bone rushmans, gnolls, and spiders with an arrow or two, while using Yaga’s dash ability liberally to dodge or speed through an area. Losing a few hearts wasn’t too much trouble either as there were plenty of blueberries around to restore Yaga back to full.
However, those fights were a breeze compared to a boss battle against a giant mushroom named Rebel. I’m not sure if I was supposed to experience such a huge difficulty spike, but the boss could cast these unblockable rock tornados that slowed down Yaga’s movement speed. And then on top of that, one hit from the mushroom’s charge attack would knock Yaga’s life in half. After dying several times, I had to refocus and more actively dash around the arena, making sure I had a full stock of arrows and eating the surrounding blueberries as soon as my health was down. In hindsight, I should have used Yaga’s broom more, which lures enemies toward it so that I could have gotten a clear and clean shot. But with the few tools at my disposal, I was able to slay the boss and give some powder as a quest item to a mushroom Knight that’s supposed to assist in killing a dragon later on.
Sabrina or Wicked?
But if the preview build had let me go past its stopping point, I would have likely decided not to help the supposed Knight with the dragon problem. After defeating Rebel, another mushroom named Spy suggested that the dragon wasn’t really the threat that it posed, and since I was going for a morally good runthrough, I doubted the Knight’s true intentions.
Choosing between good, evil, and neutrality is important in Blacktail as it bestows Yaga different abilities based on the game’s morality system, which goes as far as having a six-point scale from Rotten to Noble. Whereas having Rotten morality makes Yaga’s broom deal damage and enemies spawn blood orbs if she happens to die, having Noble morality makes her broom restore your vitality instead and resource nodes provide more material than usual. Minor decisions like saving birds from plants and major dialogue choices with NPCs like the evil Ant Queen will determine Yaga’s overall moral standing, which will likely impact both the state of the forest and the ending you’ll receive.
Yaga in Witchland
Blacktail has this je ne sais quoi that reminds me of Alice in Wonderland: a dark fairy tale with an alluringly mystifying tone and a wonderfully unusual cast of characters. I’m eager to learn how Yaga will transform into the legend she was born to become, for good or for ill. The witching hour arrives soon, as Blacktail releases on December 15, 2022 for PS5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC.