Friday, January 13, 2023.
by Peggy Doyle

BLACKTAIL Box art The Nordic folklore tale of Baba Yaga has fascinated me ever since I first heard it, so when I saw a trailer for BLACKTAIL and heard it was a sort of reinterpreted origin story for Baba Yaga, I was extremely interested to play it. BLACKTAIL is a first-person action-adventure RPG developed by The Parasight S.A. It’s the first game from the Polish studio who proudly proclaim to be a game studio focused on creating “wonderfully unsettling games based on dark legends and fairy tales” and is published by Focus Entertainment. There has been plenty of proof that folklore, mythology and dark fairy tales make for interesting video games, and BLACKTAIL is just the newest to tackle this genre.

The story of Baba Yaga has a few variations, but she is primarily a child eating witch who lives in a hut that sits on chicken-leg like stilts. As anticipated, BLACKTAIL is a highly reinterpreted origin story. We are not introduced to the old witch from the Nordic folklore, but to a young 16-year-old girl named Yaga, who has been kicked out of her village after being accused of witchcraft. Yaga is searching for her twin sister, Zora, at the beginning of the game. Zora told Yaga to meet her at the giant red oak, but as Yaga is heading there to meet up a voice starts to speak to her telling her that she must reconstruct her memories and fragments of her past in order to find Zora. After a bit of looking around, you find a hut on stilt like legs, and start working at a cauldron to begin your initiation into witchcraft. Will you be a good witch, or a bad witch? I won’t give you too much more to the story than this for fear of spoilers. The story and journey in BLACKTAIL really are about discovering who Yaga and Zora really are, what happened to the village and everything that happens in between.

The plot and narrative are intriguing and partly what took me so long to get through this game. I didn’t want to miss a single snippet of the story. I spoke to everyone and interacted with everything that I was able to. Yaga interacts and speaks with giant talking mushrooms, stick insects, ants, beetles, imps, black cats and so many more creatures.

Most of us think of fairy tales as lighthearted although, in reality, most of those stories come from darker origins in folklore. BLACKTAIL is technically a fairy tale, but not the kind most people think of with that word. Funny and friendly woodland creatures are replaced with dark characters that have no intention of helping Yaga in her journey. In fact, most want to prevent her from discovering the truth and don’t want to let her pass unscathed. Since this is based on real Nordic folklore, I applaud the strong use of narration and word building by The Parasight. It’s probably the strongest part of BLACKTAIL and some of the best I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing in gaming.

As for the gameplay of BLACKTAIL, it’s best described as a combination of linear story and open world map. Meaning you are given a main story line and directions to follow, but there is really nothing keeping you from wandering around the world uncovering secrets, lore, and NPCs who may give you some secondary side quests. Some of these side quests help to determine your alignment (good vs evil) and I’ll touch more on that shortly. You will follow the primary quest and backtrack multiple times normally during each branch of the main story. While the world is not totally open, you have a bit more freedom in how you get from place to place. Some of these alternative paths also open some side quests.

There are ample save points where you place a red flower on an alter to save the game. Each save point also has a black cat that you can pet and will morph you back to the hut where you can upgrade weapons, skills, and hexes. You will also place any items found on a ‘lost and found’ shelf here. There are also small fountain-like pedestals here to place magical frogs you find in the world. Your primary weapon is a bow, and you start with just basic wooden arrows available to you. As you level up and unlock skills you learn to craft and use modified arrows that will be used against ice, or are sticky, magical, etc. You’ll also earn a magic broom type of object that you can stick in the ground that will attract enemies’ attention for brief period of time, allowing you to get an advantage in battle or run away. You have some limited magical abilities like stunning enemies to give you a buffer.

The traditional style skill tree throughout the game is simple in design, but well rounded. I never really felt at a loss during fights once I learned the skills I needed. You can be very underpowered or under skilled if you decide to wander and take on boss fights before your time. Survival skills are also important in BLACKTAIL. As you wander through the world you must gather and collect materials that you’ll combine for crafting weapons and potions. The system is fairly straightforward and basic. Materials are abundant and rarely will you need to take a break from the story to gather missing supplies. While this introduces a survival/crafting element to BLACKTAIL, thankfully Yaga doesn’t need to be concerned about hunger, thirst or stamina in general. Berries are ample in the world, and you can consume them or cooked meat to replenish any health lost or visit one of the shrines in the world for a full refill.

Cooking meat is a tedious and unnecessary minigame unto itself, however and I disliked it so much that I only did it perhaps three times in my playthrough. You have a circle that surrounds the meat with a single opening in it. You must rotate this opening using your controller sticks to capture the flames that shoot in from random locations. Although not complicated in theory, I found it annoying and time consuming. Just let me cook the meat at a fire. Also of note is the fact that all materials are harvested ethically, small amounts at a time and acknowledgement of sacrifice is given if you hunt an animal. Morality plays into many things in the game, even from deciding if you should free a trapped bird or end its suffering by killing it.

As briefly mentioned earlier, along with the main story, you get to interact with some secondary characters. Often these characters will have optional missions for you. Depending on your dialogue and choices, you will forge your alignment to the light (good) or dark (evil). Helping the Ant Queen may win you favour with her alliances but will cast you in a negative light with those against the Ants having control over humankind. These choices do affect your narrative and overall gameplay to an extent, but I wish this were fleshed out a bit more. Good is the harder choice, and the game seems to want to steer you towards evil. Choosing good morality means you have more limited options for healing early in the game, and as you progress, different skills will only be available if you align to one side versus the other. Because of this, the game encourages multiple playthroughs to see any missed content because of your alignment choice. The morality bar is easily seen at any time, and you can choose to balance it as you see fit. It is an interesting mechanic but not really explored as much as it could have been. It’s also not always clear which is the good or bad choice when making decisions. I guess in some ways this is like real life. You may not realize consequences until decisions are made. Some choices it’s clear what the game wants you to do, others not so much.

There is definitely a bit of an Alice in Wonderland feeling to BLACKTAIL, from the saturated colours, to talking insects and cats, as well as the other flora and fauna quest givers you encounter. The forest and world feel lush and full. The voice acting was wonderful and whimsical, and it carried the story in the dreamlike way fairy tales often do. Some players might find the choice for voices unusual as there are multiple accents - Yaga is British, but the omnipresent voice in your head is American for example. There are a variety of other accents too. All characters are voiced well. I didn’t find any of the mix of accents unusual, it is after all a fantasy world.

The black cats you use for fast travel were a delightful surprise, and without spoiling too much of the story, I can say when he uses a human voice to say ‘meow’ it made me laugh out loud. The original soundtrack for BLACKTAIL (composed by Arkadiusz Reikowski) is the foundation and emotional backdrop of the vibrant world you navigate in BLACKTAIL. Traditional Slavic themes, mixed with modern motifs and synthetic sounds, reflect the contrast and duality of the light and dark themes you discover in your journey. I was so enamoured with the soundtrack that I immediately found it on Spotify and have been playing it for weeks now on repeat.

The only real downside to BLACKTAIL is the limited gameplay. It is mostly linear and your skills only expand minimally. You will explore and you will backtrack (a lot) over the 15-20 hours of gameplay. With a price of $29.99 (USD)/$39.99 (CDN) I think it’s outstanding value in terms of what you get for the price. I was surprised to see the sticker price after completing it. While nothing really stands out as new for the gameplay in BLACKTAIL, it has an outstanding setting and fantastic narrative. The voice acting is top notch. While Yagas quest to find her twin sister Zora is the engine that drives the story, you’ll quickly discover that it’s really the journey that matters.

**BLACKTAIL was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 8.5 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.5 / 10
Sound: 9.0 / 10


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