Game Review: The Witness

I don’t know what I was a witness of…

Developer: Thekla, Inc.
Publisher: Thekla, Inc.
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (reviewed), OS X
Available on: Steam

Usually I really like puzzle games, even though ironically, I tend to suck at them. So given that people’s reactions to this game were so positive, I was quite anxious to see that this was part of the last Humble Monthly Bundle. Because I had a feeling that paying $40 for this game would be quite steep from what I’ve seen and heard, but at $1.50 I’ll certainly take a look.

Having now played the game I can’t really say that I enjoyed myself for the bigger part of the experience. The developer may claim that this game has over 500 puzzles, but in reality, there are maybe a dozen repeated ad nauseam. Because the central mechanic is based around line-drawing puzzles that incorporate a variety of different rules you have to follow. Some are based on blocked paths, sometimes with the addition of a symmetrical line being drawn on the board so you have to keep track of two lines simultaneously. Some require you to divide the board up as indicated by Tetris shapes or by colored rectangles and suns and all of them have different rule that sometimes get combined. So in essence there are these few rules that apply spread out over hundreds of more or less identical panels. And it gets boring after a while.

Now don’t get me wrong, the game does evoke a sense of wonder. Traversing the island, finding secret passages and making quick progress through the first couple of puzzles is interesting. But eventually, you’ll hit a roadblock. Because the rules are not properly explained at any point. You have to infer them through tutorial puzzles that are way too easy to accidentally solve or brute force your way through, that they hardly ensure you’ve actually understood the concepts they’re trying to teach you. And the fact that the island is open for exploration means that you’ll almost certainly wander into an area that uses rules from other parts of the island that you haven’t even encountered yet. Just take my word and ignore the town at the center of the island until you’ve done everything else, because you’ll be gnashing your teeth.

With this lack of direction also comes a lack of narrative. The only payoff for solving these puzzles is opening up doors to even more puzzles. Sometimes you’ll find audiologs and they’re seldom of any use. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a room containing a hexagonal pattern that can be input at a certain point in the game for some videos that ostensibly have to do with what the game is about at its core. But honestly, the game does such a terrible job of informing the player both mechanically and narratively what it wants to be about that I simply couldn’t care less about the artsy fartsy bullshit it’s trying to communicate.

Once you get the hang of it, the puzzles become entertaining again during the mid-game and if you keep your eyes open you’ll see environmental puzzles as well hidden literally in plain sight, right before your eyes and that revelation is really cool. However, it just drags on and on with puzzle after puzzle giving you no reward whatsoever. And the difficulty spikes between certain puzzles are insane. Sometimes you’ll be breezing through a handful of puzzles without breaking a sweat but every so often in confronts you with one that you can’t easily solve. And if you’re anything like me, in those situations, you’ll look up guides online to find the solutions because god damn it, I understood the mechanic, I just can’t be arsed to sit here with my thumb up my ass for 10 minutes trying to figure this shit out. And once you get to that stage, you’ll notice that none of the guides provide explanations on how they’ve reached the solutions. They’ll just give you screenshots of the correct lines you’ve got to draw, which made me want to choke each and every last one of those motherfuckers. But that’s not the fault of the game.

What is are the people the game will most certainly exclude from playing it. If you have any sort of color deficiency in your vision, just skip this game altogether, there’s no way you’ll be able to beat it on your own. The same goes if somethings wrong with your hearing, some puzzles rely heavily on what you’re able to hear.

Speaking of which, for some utterly bizarre reason, there’s no music in this game. The only thing you’ll hear are your footsteps, a few environmental sounds and the aforementioned sound indicators for certain puzzles.

In the end, I enjoyed certain sections of the game, no doubt about it. But it just goes on way too long with terrible tutorials and absolutely no payoff whatsoever. I didn’t 100% complete it, because fuck that noise, but I’ve seen the secret ending on YouTube. Sure, it expands on the point the game has about seeing things from a different perspective, since that also what most of the game is about, but there’s no actual point being delivered, no argument made. It tries to sound deep and meaningful when it isn’t. And as such, I can’t recommend it, especially not at the ludicrous price they’re asking for. Get Antichamber instead, it also taxes your lateral thinking muscles way more gracefully than this with far more varied puzzles. It’s got the same amount of narrative as well but isn’t pretentious about itself and only costs $20, so there you go. Sorry Blow Johnny, didn’t like it as much as I did Braid.

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2 thoughts on “Game Review: The Witness

  1. Great write up – I’ve also done a quick review of The Witness after it came through on the Humble monthly! You and I had quite different experiences though I think.

    I interpreted the lack of explanation with the puzzles as part of the puzzles themselves; figuring them out was part of the challenge. Though you’re right, some of them were just utterly obtuse and not fun to deal with (the red sun puzzles in the desert come to mind…).

    What did you think of the other titles in the monthly? Bit of a mixed back I reckon…

    Like

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