Baba Yaga is a name familiar to fans of Russian and Eastern Slavic folklore. The ancient story of the fearsome witch in the woods who rides on a flying cauldron, devours children, and resides in a hut sitting on chicken legs for stilts, is as shrouded in mystery as the dark forest she calls home. Therefore, when the newly formed gaming development studio The Parasight announced Blacktail as an origin story of a young Baba Yaga, they had quite the yarn to spin. The result is an endearing and passionate adventure that sometimes may fall short of its ambitions but never loses its beautifully crafted identity.
Blacktail tells the story of Yaga, a young girl hailing from what is only known as the Village, a town stricken by a mysterious curse. Yaga and her twin sister, Zora, were raised by a foster family in the Village after the disappearance of their estranged mother. As more and more kids from the Village start to disappear, suspicions are raised against Yaga due to her strange appearance and the mask she hides under. However, it was only after her sister Zora disappeared that it became too much for Yaga to bear, as Zora was the one person who would protect Yaga from the world. What follows is a mystical adventure through a wildly fantastical land as Yaga tries to find answers about the disappearance of her friends, what happened to them, and most importantly—what happened to Zora.
At times, the narrative of Blacktail can feel a little too confounding for its own good and might lead many a few to lose the plot halfway through the experience. Due to the mysterious nature of every conversation you have, it will require multiple playthroughs to truly grasp the timeline of events being narrated. This leads us to have more questions than answers, and it's hard to believe Yaga isn't just as confused. As the story moves forward, players are drip-fed little anecdotes from Yaga's past. Thus, helping us to slowly but steadily put the pieces of a stupefying puzzle together. Even something as trivial as shooting down a Bobok and listening to their remarks can shed light on Yaga's situation. The narrative really comes into its own through the beautifully hand-drawn frames, which play out as cutscenes after pivotal points in the game. These scenes are narrated wonderfully and sometimes segue into mini-game platformer sections violently charged with emotion, creating a chaotic storm of visual effects and self-realization.
Score: 4/5 Stars
Within the first few hours of the game, the world of Blacktail might trick you into believing it has offered you all it can. However, as you travel farther and wider, you constantly come face to face with structures that you'd quickly mistake as having no business being where they are. As the story progresses and we unlock new skills, new ways of exploration also come into the fray. Frame-like structures spread across the world, with seemingly no purpose, suddenly become useful blink-pads to cross large sections easily. A fortress made from honey becomes the arena for a tower-defense mini-game. Stone pillars become teleportation points. The real incentive for exploration lies in revealing as much of the map as possible, opening chests to gain new skills, and anticipating encountering the next strange being to talk to—or fight.
Admittedly, the traversal in the game leaves a lot to be desired. Apart from sprinting, dashing, and using Idols to teleport between locations, little else is offered. The world's layout is built in a way where Yaga's Hut is at the heart of the world, with five different paths around the Hut leading to different sections. This results in the world feeling less open, and more contained within these five different sections, with little to no option of crossing over from one section to another. The problem is further exacerbated due to the scarcity of climbing mechanics, which means to reach a section of the map quickly, your best bet is to teleport back to your Hut and then sprint to where you need to be.
Score: 3.5/5 Stars
Related: Is there a New Game + in Blacktail?
The combat in the game feels surprisingly rewarding for a first-person game with only a bow and arrow as your weapon. As the game progresses, Yaga gains new skills to craft different arrow types, brew antidotes and potions, and unlock magic tricks known as Hocus to further aid in combat. She can also place down a broom to lure nearby enemies away from her.
While it feels good to be able to down multiple enemies with a swift special attack, I feel the combat does begin to age after a good few hours of repeating the same tricks. Furthermore, the broom, one of the most essential items for combat, can only be crafted one at a time. This can prove to be tedious in the long run. The combat is at its lowest during lackluster boss fights, which are rather predictable and void of the intensity we expect from such encounters. Most bosses are stationary, and their attack patterns can be learned in one cycle. It's almost to the point where randomly spawning enemies in the open world feel more like a threat than the bosses themselves.
Score: 2.5/5 Stars
If there's one thing that The Parasight studios have nailed down to the T with Blacktail, it's the wonderfully crafted atmosphere. The underlying sense of mysticism is never once lost on the player, and the game reinforces that through its beautiful setting, at times juxtaposed by eerily haunting music. Yaga might be the only person in the game, but the world always feels alive. The music fades in and out seamlessly, the lighting is gorgeous, Yaga's footsteps sound distinctly different on varying terrain, and every living being is in a constant state of motion. As a result, it feels like a world that existed far before Yaga's adventure and will continue to do so long after we put down our controllers.
Score: 4/5 Stars
Verdict - A fascinating journey of mystery and wonder
Coming from a newly developed studio, it's safe to say that Blacktail had a lot to prove. Thankfully, The Parasight studios have developed a game that oozes character and style. It has glaring shortcomings like the lack of traversal features, close-ended regions, and repetitive boss fights. However, the game's strangeness allows it to burrow a place in your head that not many games in today's day and age can do so succinctly. If you're looking for a hardcore RPG with looting and crafting elements, this might not be the game for you. But, if you're a fan of great settings, music, dialogues, witches, and cats, Blacktail is well worth sinking your time into.
We received this code from Focus Entertainment for reviewing purposes.