The Witness feels like it’s living in the shadow of better puzzle games. While the graph-based challenges are about 20 hours of fun, and I could see me plowing my way through a book of them, there’s nothing to reward your dedication. It’s beautiful, but there’s no music, no story, no discernible themes; it’s a complete and utter wash outside of figuring out where to draw lines. If you’re looking for some enjoyable puzzles and don’t mind the sound of a developer sniffing their own farts, you may get a kick out of this entry. Everyone else would be wise to spend their money elsewhere.
WHAT WE LIKED
*Puzzles are incredibly innovative and rewarding to solve
*Visuals are stunning and well integrated
*The island’s design is spectacular
WHAT WE DISLIKED
*There is much more engaging puzzle games to play
*There’s no story whatsoever
*It comes across as a pretentious joke
When Jonathan Blow announced The Witness eight years ago, I was uncontrollably excited. Having loved the smash hit Braid, I was ready to see how he’d tackle an open-world puzzle game that has an aura similar to Myst. This new experience promised a strange, unfamiliar island with tons of cryptology and obscure puzzles, and I was ready with my walking stick. While the experience is a solid puzzle game that’ll really test your patience, there are some pretty huge problems holding it back from greatness.
First and foremost, the puzzles are well worth your time. When you first start out, you’re given some pretty easy challenges. This tutorial section teaches you the patterns you should be looking for- a circle, attached to a line that ends with a rounded nub. As you progress in the game, you’re suddenly given new bizarre symbols. Left with no alternative, you wander around the island, looking for the rosetta stones that’ll clue you into these unspoken and elusive rules. Only by harnessing these symbols will you be able to unlock every area’s ray beam- thing- that shoots lasers at- a mountain or something- you get it; it’s a mystery.
If that doesn’t interest you as a gamer, you may want to chalk this one up into the ‘don’t bother’ category. If instead, that makes you giddy with glee, then this game will not disappoint you. If you’re someone who’ll turn to a strategy guide faster than an addict to the pipe, then you’re going to be really disappointed inputting squiggly lines into a bunch of nonsense touchscreens. For the rest of us narcissists, you’re going to pull your hair out in-between celebratory gushes of dopamine from solving complex problems.
Now while most reviewers will try and spare their viewers from spoilers, considering the release date of this game, I guess I can reveal some ‘secrets’. Basically, there’s more than just line puzzles on screens as it would appear. Each location has a series of environmental puzzles to solve as well, dealing with perspective, lighting and sounds. When you first start out, you get pretty focused on finding these terminals, but eventually, you’ll come across something that makes you realize patterns in other locations. Sometimes it takes standing in one particular space to notice some of the cleverly hidden eggs, and I mean one place- like pixel perfect.
Sadly, outside of beating the game, these little collectables don’t really add anything to the experience. Sure, you may’ve found all of those hidden patterns nestled in a patch of grass, but collecting them all doesn’t reward you with anything at all and some kind of hidden narrative would’ve done wonders.
But there’s no story. When I say there’s no story- there’s no story. Your character is a blank slate, on a quiet island, with nothing to discover. Nothing! The game has all these mysterious people frozen in time and supplies from a resort, but there are no revelations or hints at what this can all mean. The only time the game attempts to have a narrative is when you find little audio recordings hidden around the island. The bland, lifeless voice actors do nothing to bring personality to what reads like an ‘enlightened’ twelve-year old’s twitter feed with unlimited characters. Sure, some of these quotes are from Einstein, but they’re completely out of context and feel like Blow copy and pasted his work from the website BrainyQuote. None of these lines seem to have any connecting tissue, and they don’t paint a larger theme or motif. Braid also had pretentious verbiage, but at least there was a story about a young couple and atomic bombs in that game.
Also, the pacing is extremely slow. I’m glad they included a run button, but overly abundant invisible walls and slow moving platforms feel like a huge waste of time to me. Even summoning the boat takes forever. Waiting for the raygun to get into position should be a moment of celebration, but all I can do is get impatient with it considering it’s the only offered reward in-game.
Back to the good points however, this game is beautiful. The colors, the layout of the island and the hidden nuances are spectacular. There’s nothing quite like boating around the exterior of the tiny landmass in the vast ocean, as you see symmetrical reflections in the shoreline. The game is a perfect excuse to do some self-reflecting in a stunning environment that’s been optimized to work on pretty much any computer. This game is filled with unique elements and every wall seems like it has its own textures. Because of this, the island itself has a personality, one that you’ll feel instantly connected to.
With that being said though, The Witness feels like it’s living in the shadow of better puzzle games. While the graph-based challenges are about 20 hours of fun, and I could see me plowing my way through a book of them, there’s nothing to reward your dedication. It’s beautiful, but there’s no music, no story, no discernible themes; it’s a complete and utter wash outside of figuring out where to draw lines. If you’re looking for some enjoyable puzzles and don’t mind the sound of a developer sniffing their own farts, you may get a kick out of this entry. Everyone else would be wise to spend their money elsewhere.