Surreal, imaginative, and formidable, Blacktail is a twisted, coming-of-age journey through the pages of Slavic folklore. Imagine Alice in Wonderland, except that Alice is a teenage Yaga – before she becomes the legendary witch Baba Yaga – and the Wonderland is an otherworldly forest that is somehow separated into sections based on the four seasons. If that wasn’t unusual enough, the game is also a first-person archery adventure where Yaga has to fight giant talking mushrooms and even larger corrupted trees. That all probably sounds very strange, but that’s exactly what indie developer The Parasight intends to create, a game with an original take on dark fairy tales with a focus on creative storytelling and combat. And except for several archaic systems and some unnecessarily difficult platforming sections, Blacktail mostly succeeds in its pursuit.
Now come with me into my Hut.
Compared to Roman, Greek, Nordic, and Japanese mythology, Slavic folklore isn’t seen too often in games. There’s a small resurgence in indie circles and various side stories, like Leshy in Inscryption and Baba Yaga herself as a character in SMITE, a DLC for Rise of the Tomb Raider, and The Witcher series as The Deathless Mother. As the quintessential hag, Baba Yaga is seen as a mercurial crone who acts as the guardian of the woods in one breath and a ruthless witch who will kill men and eat naughty children in another. Blacktail incorporates her ambiguous nature throughout the game, letting the protagonist Yaga choose between light and dark interpretations of her future self through a morality system, but not going so far as to have it impact the ending too much. Baba Yaga is too complex of a figure to be pigeonholed by passing notions of good or evil.
Yaga begins as a frail, apprehensive teenager who clings to her sister Zora, but suddenly finds herself alone after Zora decides to head deeper into the woods to solve the mystery of why three children have gone missing. The villagers already spurn Yaga for being a motherless child who hides behind an unsettling mask and has a strange black graft on her hand, so the disappearance of their children have only made their suspicions worse. But since we know that Yaga was born for a greater destiny, it's no surprise that within the first few hours of the game, she finds the mysterious transparent Hut where Baba is supposed to live and learns that she can cast magic through her hands. On the second floor of the Hut, she discovers a faceless idol that manifests a Voice inside her head that she has only heard in her dreams. Meanwhile, something called the Roots seems to be upsetting the balance of nature and corrupting everything it touches. Solving the mysteries of where the three missing children went, who the Voice really is, and why the Roots are spreading will eventually unlock Yaga’s past and ensuing power.
Where Blacktail's story excels is in its intentionally meandering dialogue and odd side characters. Very little is told directly, and conversations tend to wind and curve into places you wouldn’t expect. There are spots where the story can get too vague and indirect for the sake of being mysterious, but enough information is given to keep the interest going. The game’s world is full of eccentricities that you'll need to accept as part of its internal logic. Why does the Black Cat (the most adorable character of course) teleport you back to the Hut? Why can’t Yaga cross water? How is the forest temporally split into spring, summer, autumn, and winter in the first place? Why do you kiss frogs and then see them appear in stone birdbaths near the Hut? Why do you need red flowers to save at shrines? You're not really meant to make sense of it all, insomuch as you're supposed to roll with it. Besides, Blacktail is an origin story about one of the most powerful witches in any mythos, so it’s appropriate that the narrative talks in riddles.
The principal side character in the game is an odd couple that pairs Slippery Jack with Borvy Borko, a Cursed mushroom and a Grand mushroom, who are essentially tied at the hip and understand the inner workings of the forest. You’ll see them pop up multiple times throughout the narrative to give you side quests, though it’s never quite clear whether the stories they hear are true on the first passing. Working in the shadows is another giant mushroom named Spy, a roguish character who is able to commune with Boboks, creepy pinecone creatures that are usually perched on some branch or cliffside. Knocking a Bobok down with an arrow will give you a Shellok as a resource and give you a whispered reminder of your primary quest in case you ever get lost. You’ll also meet an insect who works for the underworld, an evil ant queen, a devil with a bent pitchfork, silent stones that move when you turn away, and other whimsical oddballs. Statues of Perun, the recurring use of the four-faced faceless idol (likely referring to Svetovit), and the mention of Forefather’s Eve (or Dzaidy) also help ground the world in Slavik myth.
Good Witch Hunting
Blacktail’s focus on crafting and archery in first-person makes it feel familiar but unusual. It’s somewhere between using a bow and arrow in Skyrim while making tools like in the modern Tomb Raider games. Every seasonal biome is full of dangers at every corner, with spiders, carnivorous plants, poisonous mushrooms, and roaming monsters. The first spring biome is just a light preview for the pitfalls and more frequent enemies later in the autumn and winter levels. Yaga starts the game with very few hearts and she neither has a physical melee attack nor any armor to reduce damage, so getting hit by a gnoll or being surrounded can quickly lead to a game over.
Luckily, Yaga has a rechargeable dash ability and a broom that can pull enemies, so she can sustain her keep-away strategy. So long as you make sure that Yaga’s resources are topped off and you’re paying attention to your surroundings, she can continue to craft arrows and brooms throughout a fight while shooting arrows from a distance. I only died a handful of times to enemies on the default setting, but if you find the combat too difficult early on, you can set the game on Story difficulty instead.
Even better, exploration is well worth the effort in Blacktail’s semi-open world. The developers say that the game is about 15 hours long, but that’s only if you go straight down the critical path, which can mean missing out on more than half of what the game has to offer. I clocked in at over 25 hours after investigating as many nooks and crannies as I could, completing side quests that reward you with Lost Pages that unlock both active and passive abilities for Yaga. These upgrades can give her more mana, higher damage for basic arrows, larger resource limits, and more options for Hex arrows, all of which help in more difficult fights later down the road.
The morality system ties the story and gameplay together in a more intricate way than in most games that track good and evil choices, though it somehow manages to be loose, restrictive, and finicky all at once. Being a guardian of nature by freeing birds, giving flowers to bees, and not shooting the animals of the woods (apart from deer) banks Yaga points on the good track. Doing the opposite sends her down the dark path. Either way, it will empower Yaga’s broom, hocus, and/or resource gathering, so you are pressured to pick one side or the other.
The downside is that picking a morality narrows your dialogue choices with some NPCs, and there’s little incentive to remain neutral. It’s also too easy to accumulate morality points. I was pretty much able to max out the good meter before finishing the first biome. Also, to obtain the highest Pure Good status, you need to perform three randomly-chosen tasks, but doing anything considered evil, even by accident (like having a bird fly right into your arrow’s path), will force you to redo three tasks all over again to reach Pure Good again. Frustratingly, this reset happened to me at least six times in the latter half of the game.
Other systems in Blacktail are too archaic or too complex. Not having a robust checkpoint or auto-save system is all right for increasing tension, but there are more than a few tricky platforming sections where one mistake leads to instant death. The controls just aren't precise enough, like Mirror's Edge, to pull these off seamlessly, so losing twenty or more minutes of progress just because you didn't make one jump is harsh.
Several areas could be simplified as well. An item bag near save points sort of acts like a storage system, but it's so imprecise that a regular chest would have been more practical. Yaga eventually learns how to use color-coded teleporters to move around the map, though having the shrines be fast travel points instead would be easier to understand and reduce the clutter on the map. Then, after major boss fights, there are these time-rewind sequences and 2D platforming sections that have fairly awkward controls. The interactivity here is well-intentioned but still unnecessary, and they would have worked better as straightforward cutscenes instead.
Let the witching hour commence
Originality is a rare quality in games, and Blacktail has this in spades – the Slavic folklore, the surrealist narrative, the unusual plot structure, the craggy yet dreamlike artstyle, the archery-based gameplay. Sure, some of the systems could be simplified and streamlined, but at least they aim to test the boundaries and seek a different point of view. Blacktail may not be a graphical marvel or a masterstroke in action gameplay, but this indie title has a fascinating magic all its own that’s difficult to define and even harder to find in games today.
This review is based on a PC (Steam) copy of the game supplied by the publisher. Blacktail releases on December 15, 2022 on PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X|S.
- Creative and original, great use of Slavic folklore
- Surreal semi-open world
- Interesting dialogue and mysterious side characters
- Exploration is well-rewarded with upgrades
- Unusual archery-based gameplay
- Morality system could be more refined
- Archaic save system
- Instant death in tricky platforming sections