When you think of fairy tales, you probably think of Hansel & Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood, all of which take place in fantastical lands filled with witches, giants, and wolves dressed as little old ladies. It’s this type of fantasy that Blacktail nails, as every corner of its world hides another secret to uncover or kooky character to meet. It’s a place that’s ripe for exploring and the game constantly incentivizes you to do so, whether that be through upgrade materials or pieces of story and lore.
Blacktail has you play as Yaga, a young woman in search of her sister after being cast out of her village and accused of witchcraft. Yaga’s journey is a fairly lonesome one if you stick to the main path, with only a mysterious voice in her head – excellently performed by the wonderful Avalon Penrose – as company. It’s through exploring that you’ll meet the majority of the game’s characters, some of which will send you out on optional quests that feel far too fleshed out and memorable to skip over.
These are where Blacktail’s best ideas are, showcasing the game’s creativity. For example, one side quest has you take part in a war between two rival factions of rocks – creatures that only move when you aren’t looking at them. Think of the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who, but if they were boulders with faces painted on them. You charge into battle to help out your side, only for everything to remain still while sounds of intense fighting can be heard from behind, no matter where you turn or what you do. It’s a frustratingly brilliant idea because it’s one of just a handful of moments where the game doesn’t have everything revolve around its artificial morality system.
Every action in Blacktail affects your morality, whether that be feeding a hedgehog an apple or shooting down a bird’s nest. Most of the game’s quests give you a moral choice, but the option you pick doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. The characters you meet will change, but moral choices don’t impact the story or feel significant. Considering how morality systems struggle to prove their worth at the best of times, Blacktail needed to do something unique.
The only thing the morality system affects in any meaningful way is your skills. Being evil or good grants you different buffs, while there’s also a spell that functions differently depending on your moral standing. The rest of your skills are unlocked with materials or Lost Pages that you find in chests or obtain from completing side quests. As I said, exploring isn’t mandatory or forced upon you, but a lot of the game’s systems revolve around it. The game hopes you’ll take your time to search each area, and does very little to weave essential upgrades into the main path. If you’re a bit of a completionist, it’ll make no difference, but it’s something that could easily trip you up if you try to rush through.
You’ll need every skill you can get too, as Blacktail pulls few punches in its later stages. Ranged combat is the main focus, although there are a couple of close-range options like a broomstick and a spell that can give you some distance from charging enemies. Precision aiming can be a little bit stiff, and there were more than a few instances of arrows ghosting through enemies, but combat is serviceable and evolves nicely as new enemies are introduced. The challenge is just right if you unlock skills and upgrades at a similar pace to the game itself, really driving home the importance of gathering resources.
But while Blacktail does a lot to coax you into combing through the forest in search of materials, it also has a bafflingly archaic checkpoint system and is very stingy with autosaves. One of the resources you can collect are red flowers used to brew potions or unlock upgrades. They’re also used to activate manual checkpoints that are scattered throughout the game, as Blacktail will only autosave when you make progress in a quest. Couple this with the ability to stumble across some of the game’s stronger enemies and you can lose a lot of progress in the blink of an eye, collectibles and all.
This is a reoccurring theme in almost every aspect of Blacktail, in that wherever there’s something good to be found, there’s something bad holding it back. Side quests are engaging but are brought down by an arbitrary moral choice. Exploring is encouraged, but you’re heavily punished for making a single mistake. It even extends to the game’s visuals, as Blacktail is one of the prettier games I’ve played on my PS5 so far, but strange lighting effects and some of the worst screen tearing I’ve ever seen drag everything else down.
My time with Blacktail was frustrating. Not because it was a pain to play or that the writing was awful, but because there’s a strong game buried underneath some strange design decisions and disappointing performance issues. If you have the patience to see past some pretty major flaws, then you might get some enjoyment out of Blacktail. It’s one to skip for the rest of you though, and that’s a real shame.
Score: 3/5. A PS5 code was provided by the publisher for this review.
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