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The Witness

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Number None Inc.
Release Date: Jan. 26, 2016


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PS4 Review - 'The Witness'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Feb. 8, 2016 @ 1:30 a.m. PST

The Witness is a puzzle-exploration game that is philosophical, quiet, and places a heavy emphasis on the way things look, and will be refreshing for those who value nuance.

Buy The Witness

Since I grew up playing computer games in the '90s, Myst is indelibly stuck in my mind. It's difficult to match the sensation of wandering around a complex world that's full of absurd, obtuse puzzles. There's a reason it was one of the primary sellers of strategy guides at the time. The Witness is simpler and more straightforward, but in many ways, The Witness is the first game since <i<Myst to really capture that feel for me. Jonathan Blow's previous game, Braid, was a clever and creative platformer, but The Witness is an entirely new ballgame, and he knocks it out of the park.

The plot is very much in the background and limited in scope. You awaken on an island and must explore it to figure out what the island is. It's difficult to discuss without spoiling it, but at no point did I feel driven by the urge to find another audio log or cut scene, and the answers weren't particularly satisfying. Rather than providing clear answers, The Witness seems designed to provoke discussion in ways that occasionally feel artificial. There are interesting tidbits here and there, but for the game's many other strengths, this element felt hollow.

Fortunately, the core gameplay is immensely engaging on its own. The basic idea is that you're trapped on an island, and as you explore, you'll find puzzles. The majority of the puzzles are mazes, where you try to get from Point A to Point B. It starts off simple enough, but it gets more complex. One puzzle may ask you to take a specific path through the maze to get there. Another may have no clear start or end point and require you to find the solution in the environment, which can be a puzzle on its own. It could be hidden in a reflection of water or be an apple growing on a nearby tree. You may need to solve a different puzzle to find the solution to the one you're currently doing, or a twist is sometimes added halfway through. It's pretty simple until you're 20 minutes into solving the latest frustrating puzzle and are almost ready to declare that it's completely unsolvable — right up until the moment you solve it.

The best way I can describe the puzzles is as a language. You start off knowing only the most basic things. Gradually, the game teaches you new and more complex words until you start getting its grammar. The puzzles build upon themselves and upon other puzzles. You may find a puzzle with strange Tetris block-like markings or inexplicable triangles that make no sense until you find a simpler puzzle that serves as a Rosetta Stone for the symbols. By the time you get far enough into the game, you'll solve puzzles simply by understanding the game's language and deciphering the provided clues. You're soon reading the puzzles like a book and tearing through complex mazes with ease.

When it comes to teaching the gameplay mechanics, The Witness is masterfully designed. Rather than lengthy tutorials or intrusive pop-ups, it largely teaches you through doing. Puzzle rules are introduced slowly and in ways that encourage the player to figure out the mechanics through context instead of being told. You'll get a puzzle with a simple solution to give you an idea of how the mechanics work, and then you get another one that is slightly more complex. This goes onward subtly and naturally until a simple line between two boxes becomes a complex zigzag back and forth in a way that feels delightfully natural. Then you start getting new twists until the puzzles go from simple kid's stuff to maddening puzzles that you nonetheless feel compelled to finish.

The thing that really sold me on the game was that it made sense without tutorials. Not long after leaving the initial area, I came across a door that was locked by a puzzle with a number of new ideas I hadn't seen before. In many other games, this would've been unsolvable. Here, I was able to look at it and realize exactly what it was asking just from the design. It took me a few moments of trial and error to make sure I understood, but once I did, I was able to solve it. There are some puzzles that don't instantly become clear until you've seen similar ones, but you can solve others long before you should because they make sense. There are a lot of times when I'd get stuck on a puzzle because I was overthinking the solution, and there were other times when the solution was so fiendishly well hidden that I was shocked to solve it at all.

This is both The Witness's greatest strength and one real weakness: It is at once simple and obtuse. Some puzzles are genuinely frustrating. One early brainteaser involved me having to figure out the correct place to stand to reflect sunlight on a screen to see a solution that felt like busywork. There's another set of puzzles involving the pitch of background sounds that could be infuriating if you don't grasp it quickly. It's easy to see someone wander into a puzzle and get frustrated enough to stop playing. There are several puzzles that require thinking outside the box or being in the exact mindset of the developer. Of course, using a walkthrough feels like it would blunt any satisfaction that The Witness offers.

Fortunately, this is where another of The Witness' strengths comes into play. The game is nonlinear, so once you leave the opening area, you can basically wander around and solve puzzles as you'd like. Sometimes, you encounter puzzles that you don't have the context to solve, but that's half the fun. If you can't solve a puzzle yet, move on to one you can. Eventually, you'll find something that makes your previous puzzle more understandable. Repeatedly bashing your head against a puzzle until a solution pops up is the worst way to play The Witness. It's better to take a break and go to another area or turn off the game for a while. I found that any troublesome puzzles looked a lot more reasonable after 20 minutes away.

There's also a good amount to find just by exploring in The Witness. There are neat little environmental puzzles and optical illusions. There are hidden puzzles that can shed some light on the island and its mysteries. There are even the aforementioned audio logs, which contain snippets of dialogue, famous quotations and more. It's not quite an open-world game, and most of the exploration is limited to looking, but it's a fun world to see. There are bigger puzzles that you're never guided to and will only find via exploration or noticing a subtle contextual clue. You don't have to solve these puzzles, but they're fun and interesting and well worth the time investment.

The elephant in the room when discussing The Witness is the $40 price tag, which is hefty for an indie title. It's a lengthy and meticulously crafted game that more than earns your playtime, far more than numerous pricier games. It's easy to see why a common criticism is that it doesn't feel like a $40 game. It's simple, straightforward and can be viewed as a lot of puzzles in a pretty package. I'm loathe to say that such a well-crafted game isn't worth the full price, but how much value you'll get from it depends on how well it clicks for you. If you like solving puzzles and exploring worlds, you'll more than get your value from it. If you're unsure, it's perhaps better to wait for a price drop. If you seek to solve every single puzzle, you'll be here for hours. As of this writing, people aren't even sure if they've found every puzzle in the game, and based on Braid, it's entirely possible there are still greater secrets to find.

The Witness has simple but colorful graphics. The entire game feels like a dreamlike watercolor painting, and it makes wonderful use of the visuals to draw the eyes where they need to go. I enjoyed looking over the various island vistas and seeing the disturbing hints of what may have been going on there, such as wandering into a deserted town and finding a statue that looks like a human frozen in stone mid-scream. The world is filled with surreal touches that make it fun to look around in your quest for more puzzles. The audio is a bit weaker, and the only memorable things I can think of are quotes and clips found in the audio logs, but that doesn't detract from the experience since The Witness is such a visual game. There are a few puzzles that rely on sound, but they are pretty hit-or-miss. I found them awkward, and a friend of mine was unable to solve them.

The Witness is a masterpiece of game design and an early contender for one of the best titles of the year. Boiled down to the basics, it's a series of increasingly complex puzzle-mazes, but the presentation and execution are stellar, and the sense of exploration really adds to the game. It captures the right sense of maddening and enticing to keep you moving forward. Its high price might scare off some gamers, but those who give it a shot will find it to be a worthwhile experience.

Score: 9.5/10

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