The Witness Review

Puzzle quest.

At times The Witness feels as though it was never meant to be placed in the hands of your archetypal gamer. When I say that I’m not retracing that vague line commentators are fond of drawing between casual and hardcore players, but with such a unique identity, in both how it looks and plays, developer Jonathan Blow and his studio Thekla Inc. have carved a niche for their latest project. It’s clear to see that plenty of hard graft and passion has gone into making The Witness, but it’s also safe to say only a handful of those who embark on this puzzle-solving pilgrimage will walk away one hundred percent satisfied.

Despite that intimidating introduction, the game’s core is easy to get your head around. With no immediate narrative of story thread to follow, you find yourself navigating a lush island composed of various locations and biomes, from mountain and monastery to windmill and marsh. Clustering together to form a seamless open world, each of these environments plays host to a string of puzzles alongside towering machines that fire laser beams into the sky. Naturally, there’s more than meets the eye and it’s not before long you’ll find yourself searching for whatever secrets the island may be hiding.

As you’ve no doubt gathered from the handful of screenshots and trailer above, this is all done in first person, exploring through the eyes of a mute avatar that players control using rudimentary actions. This mode of navigation, using one stick to move and another to change the camera position, will feel instantly familiar to most gamers and it provides a perfect vehicle for the player, allowing them to explore the The Witness and marvel at it’s many lavish backdrops.

Needless to say, The Witness is one of those games where you’ll find yourself stopping every five minutes in an attempt to snap postcard shots using the DualShock 4’s share button. It carries a vibrant aesthetic that continues to morph as you step from one area to the next while remaining both elegant and blissful. Like very few games out there, it will leave you breathless without resorting to the kinds of photorealistic imagery many studios employ on the current console generation. My biggest gripe with The Witness, however, is how all of this visual splendour can seem like an illusion when taking into account the game’s raw essence.

Although stunning to look upon, the island is essentially a winding path punctuated by many variations of the exact same puzzle. It’s a gargantuan collection, spanning several hundred puzzles in total, yet they all share the same common goal. Using either the left stick or directional pad, you’re tasked with drawing a line between two designated points on a grid. Do so in accordance with the puzzle’s particular rules and you’ll unlock the next puzzle in a sequence, triggering doors, bridges, ramps, and opening pathways as you go.

Naturally, these puzzles start out fairly easy, adopting smaller grid panels and a limited set of rules. As soon as you clear the first area, however, the stabilisers are torn away with no compass or rulebook to guide you. Chances are, wherever you dare to venture on the island, you’ll come up against a new set of variables to overcome. These will take the form of small icons or glyphs that will influence the route you sketch, as well as other, less obvious layers. For example, many puzzles will look to obscure your view in some way while others require the player to stand at a specific point in the 3D world before making an attempt.

Instead of levelling up or acquiring upgrades, it’s the player’s own learning that is the measure used to chart your progress in The Witness. Much like studying a new language, there are specific chunks of theory that need to be consolidated and combined in order to speak clearly through the game’s cacophony of mind-bending mechanics. To that extent, The Witness feels more like an virtual puzzle book rather than an actual game. It’s something I can see myself going back to whenever I need to kick my brain into gear, but it also shares some negative traits as well, fatigue being the main culprit. In the same way that I can’t bring myself to tear through twenty sudoku challenges a day, I can’t boot up The Witness and play it for hours on end.

If there’s one advantage puzzle books have over The Witness, it’s the ability to turn the page whenever a particular arrangement is simply too challenging. Getting stuck while exploring the island, meanwhile, will often force players down one of two routes. They can either keeping banging their head until a solution presents itself or backtrack with their fingers crossed, hoping the next puzzle they encounter won’t prove to be such a roadblock.

Of course, this sense of being impeded is exacerbated by the complete lack of any written tips or guidance. Don’t get me wrong, I love the game’s minimalist approach, but to neglect implementing any kind of hint system whatsoever seems like a misstep which restricts accessibility. Maybe Thekla Inc. simply ran out time, or maybe they felt that any hand-holding would be seen as “dumbing down” their great vision for The Witness. Either way, the game suffers for it. As a result, there will doubtless be plenty of players who resort to turning to the Internet and online walkthroughs at some point, robbing of the satisfaction of piecing together the solution, even if it had been diluted by hints.

TheWitness-ILpuzzle

At its worst, The Witness can feel like a test, stroking the egos of those who excel at problem solving with one hand, while dealing a backhand to those who don’t with the other. This unexpected vein of intellectual elitism presents itself elsewhere in the game, through a string of scattered videos and audio clips. Take a moment to pause and they’ll indulge you with chatter about art, science, and other high brow concepts and debates that seemingly have no impact on what’s happening in-game. The fact that they exists suggests that they have some purpose, yet trying to work out why can feel like another unnecessary complication and an unwelcome barrier that feels mocking in a way.

To me The Witness is kind of like that one guy who always shows up to a party with the most convoluted joke you’ve heard all night. However, when the punchline drops and no one’s laughing, instead of clarification all you get is a smirk and a condescending “Don’t worry, you wouldn’t understand anyway.”

It’s a bizarre analogy, I know, but one that helps illustrate my ongoing relationship with The Witness. This feeling is no doubt inflamed as I look for comparatives within today’s gaming industry. Where most developers look to accommodate their players in every conceivable way, The Witness is unapologetic in its silence, quietly watching from the windows of its imaginary panopticon as players explore its vast island complex.

What’s Good:

  • Boasts one of the prettiest game world you’ll ever step foot in.
  • Diverse environments.
  • Puzzles are immensely satisfying if you can actually beat them.
  • Plenty of content to justify the premium price tag.

What’s Bad:

  • Puzzles lack substantive variety.
  • A complete lack of in-game guidance.
  • Can feel condescending in tone.

Despite occasional pangs of belittlement, The Witness refuses to release its hold on me. Although there are aspects of the game that I clearly dislike, part of me longs to be immersed within its fascinating world. It feels strange, therefore, to try and put a score on this review, given how each individual will react differently to it. That term may be overused but if you were to spend just an hour or two with the game, you would know it to be true. Unique, divisive, and fiendishly clever, there are bound to be those who love it and those who absolutely hate it. Then there are those, like myself, who fall somewhere in between, able to appreciate Thekla’s achievements but frustrated at how The Witness continues to build a wall around itself, as if guarding a secret from its players.

Score: 6/10

Version Tested: PS4

16 Comments

  1. Wow, that score really surprises me. Not because I’ve played it but because the general scores seem so high.

    Unlike you, I love doing a crap tonne of puzzles a day (particularly nonograms) so I’m hoping I really take to it. Nothing beats getting the old brain ticking.

  2. I’m really surprised at that score. As kjkg says, it’s one of the low ones from the many 8s and 9s I’ve seen. I disagree that it’s condescending in tone, not sure what gave you that impression? And marking the lack of in-game guidance as a negative is kinda missing the point, I feel.

    The whole point of The Witness is to give the gamer free rein on the basic rules needed to complete a series of ever-increasingly difficult puzzles, and for the gamer to then expand on those rules by themselves and discover the sections of the island in whatever order they choose.

    I love that it doesn’t hold your hand. It’s never unfair. It’s perfectly balanced.

    And the sense of satisfaction you get when you finish a puzzle or notice something you hadn’t spotted before is for me, unparalleled in most of the games I’ve played over the last 5 years.

    10/10 from me.

    • I’m also surprised at the negativity regarding no hand holding as demon souls is crushing difficult but isn’t marked down for it. Additionally fez doesn’t explain half the puzzles and leaves you to figure it out

    • As I mentioned, the lack of hand-holding isn’t the problem here. It’s the lack of options The Witness presents to those players who are having a hard time getting stuck on puzzles.

      This combined with the diversity of the game world contrasted against the small variety of puzzles, is what ultimately brought The Witness down to a 6.

      To its credit, I’m still able to appreciate why people would score it higher and hold it in such high regard.

    • Right there with you. The tone is not really condescending, but the game acknowledges you as a smart person. That said I’m only about 220 puzzles in and I have so far been 100% satisfied as a puzzle maniac and science lover. I need no hand holding in a puzzle game, this game is based on the concept that you are intelligent, you can do this. Any hand holding would break the game’s foundation.

      So far, this game gets a 10/10 from me as well. It’s unlike anything else I’ve played and is so articulately done with so much detail that it is one of the best games (not just puzzle games) I’ve played. I think it, along with others like The Talos Principle is helping move the puzzle genre to an incredible new level.

      But I agree, like every other game, it may not be for everyone. Not everyone likes to take their time to solve a maze puzzle, only to be able to solve a harder one. But the reward in solving a puzzle is the solving, and that’s perfectly enough for me.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed playing this (got the platinum on Saturday night). The later puzzles get fiendishly difficult and on many occasions I had to go away and do other areas before returning for a fresh look at what had stumped me previously.
    I still have plenty of stuff to do/find and will continue to enjoy exploring the island for a significant amount of time.

    @kjkg – If you want a look at it before deciding whether to buy or not then just fire me a message on PSN. (I’m usually busy on Monday and Friday nights but other than that I’m preety much free).

    • Platinum already?

      Damn fine work! TBH I love the game but doubt ever I’ll get the platinum.

    • Nice offer mate, thanks. Had actually bought it before hand though. Started playing it last night, so much fun. Determined not to use a guide in any way. So far so good although slightly stumped by one puzzle and it isn’t even the puzzle itself that’s confusing me. Will investigate more tonight though.

      • Best avoid guides. I’m only one thirds of the way now but whenever I got stuck, I always ended up solving the puzzles eventually. Don’t give up, take a break, look for another area.

  4. I’m confused now. It costs about 3 or 4 times as much as it should do, and it’s just a nice looking world with hundreds of similar puzzles in? And that’s enough content to justify the silly price and also only 6/10?

    One to pick up when it’s on sale, I think. Shame, because it sounds like I’d enjoy it, just that price is ridiculous. Even if plenty of people seem to disagree.

    • If you connect with the core puzzle-solving element, there’s enough content on show here to warrant the premium price tag. That also reflects the presentational quality – although never mentioned in my review, I didn’t encounter a single glitch or bug when playing The Witness.

    • It really doesn’t do it justice though. It’s not just an empty area with 600 puzzles dumped in. I had the same fears as you did before I got it, and I now can’t believe I would have been foolish enough to skip on this. Amazing game.

  5. So is this like the modern day Kula World?

    • Oooh, I remember that. A fine game it was too.

  6. I just can’t see myself playing a puzzle game religiously until i complete it, usually i’ll just dip into them now and again for a change of pace. I still want to play it but i will watch out for a deal later on.

  7. How many puzzles did you complete? The way you interact with the puzzles is always very similar but the variety in how you solve them is huge. I don’t get the criticism on substantive variety.

    In terms of getting stuck you simply go on to a different part of the island and try there. There are walls, but lots of places to try something different and new.

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