Review: The Witness


Almost seven years after its announcement, The Witness is finally here. But does it deliver?

Developer/Publisher: Thekla, Inc.

Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC

Release Date: January 26th, 2016

The Witness almost certainly isn’t for everyone. With its “show, don’t tell” approach to storytelling and the deliberate lack of hand-holding, the game makes few concessions in its commitment to providing a real challenge, even to masters of the puzzle genre. But, in doing so, The Witness excels in what it sets out to achieve, and the result is an engrossing experience that rewards those who can endure the brain strain.

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You begin The Witness as an unnamed character stranded on a seemingly uninhabited island; an island nevertheless littered with remnants of a past civilization, not to mention hundreds and hundreds of 2D puzzle panels. The basic concept behind the puzzles appears simple at first, in which you trace a path through a 2D maze from one end to another. Don’t expect an easy ride, however, since independent studio Thekla (under the creative direction of famed developer, Jonathon Blow) has managed to turn this familiar maze puzzle into an entirely new language, where even some of the earlier panels require immense focus, intuition, and forward thinking.

To use a well-worn Chinese proverb; give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Jonathan Blow and his team have definitely applied that mantra to their design approach with The Witness, as the game skillfully encourages the player to figure out each problem on their own. Just check out the video below, where the game introduces a new dimension to the puzzles through progressive steps. I apologize in advance for my painfully slow attempts to solve some of these easier puzzles; this brainpower (or lack of it) is a burden I must carry.

This style of visual messaging to the player is utilized too rarely in video games, but The Witness establishes it as a core feature of its design throughout the entire experience. As a result, a solution to the puzzle is always achievable and never an unfair in its difficulty, even if your brain might turn into noodle soup in the process of figuring it out.

On the subject of visuals, The Witness features a gorgeous art style, effectively employed through smartly designed environments that beg for attentive exploration. The island is huge, and it’s easy to get lost in the various ecosystems as you uncover clues or symbols about what exactly happened here and why. With no actual soundtrack to speak of, walking around the landscape in silence can feel rather haunting at times, but short motifs or sound effects pepper the experience at certain landmarks, letting you know that you might be onto something of significance.

If you are interested in The Witness but were put off by the recent announcement of the $40 price tag, don’t be.

The narrative and world of The Witness — which is best left undiscussed for you to discover on your own — is cryptic, to say the least. Like the maze puzzles themselves, the game expects the player to figure out the story on their own terms, with even the audio drops littered around the island providing ambiguous quotes from various real-life scholars, scientists, and poets. The environment is important, however, and often plays a big part in solving certain puzzles and revealing the island’s complex history, so be sure to look beyond the beauty of the scenery for juicier details.

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If you are interested in The Witness but were put off by the recent announcement of the $40 price tag, don’t be. I’ve already spent 20 hours in the game, and though I’ve reached the technical “end-point” (if you can call it that), I still have plenty left to discover. Despite its “puzzle game” label, The Witness might as well be called an RPG, as you “level up” your understanding of the increasingly complex puzzles and mechanics, which then allows you to progress through the more advanced stages of the open-world. On top of this, completing the game is an immensely satisfying experience, and not just because you get to see just how many panels you’ve managed to solve (hint: there are literally hundreds). Without giving too much away, the more you learn about the context and history of the island, the more absorbed into the game’s world you become.

In its ability to get the player to really think for themselves, The Witness is a tremendously clever game.

The Witness is a masterwork of immaculate design, but is sometimes falls short of its lofty ambition. In many areas, if you fail a certain puzzle, the game will force you to backtrack to the previous panel. This could have worked as an effective form of player discipline but, with the previously answered panels already displaying your solution, backtracking is rendered as mindless filler, as you simply walk between each puzzle without any mental engagement. It’s a nitpick for sure, but in a game where everything else is crafted with such excellence, it stands out as an annoying misstep.

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The Witness not only redefines our traditional perception of what makes a puzzle game, but it’s high standard of quality in almost every aspect of its design results in a game that interacts and engages with the player in a way that is rarely experienced in video games. Don’t be fooled by the serene beauty of the island’s visuals, you’re going to get stuck, brain-fried and even frustrated at times; this is, after all, a puzzle game from the creator of Braid. In its ability to get the player to really think for themselves, The Witness is a tremendously clever game. The resulting experience is one that pulls you in and refuses to let you go.

A copy of this game was provided to GameSided for the purpose of this review. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.