The Witness Review: A Puzzling Conundrum

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The Witness comes to us from Jonathan Blow and his team over at Thelka, Inc. It’s Blow’s  highly anticipated first effort since releasing the critically acclaimed, Braid. While The Witness released on PlayStation 4 and PC back in January, we peons on the Xbox One side of things are just getting a taste of it. But damn, it was worth the wait.

 

Time to Don Those Thinking Caps

If you’re unfamiliar with The Witness, it’s essentially a straight forward puzzle title. The game itself takes place on an island which you’re free to explore at your leisure. It’s nearly completely open to traverse from the outset. However, to progress deeper and deeper into this mysterious island, you’re tasked with completing ever evolving puzzles. And to complete them successfully, you better evolve right along with them.

The genius of The Witness comes in many forms, but perhaps the most elaborate is the complete lack of handholding within the puzzler. There is no tutorial. There is no introduction. There is no direction of any sort. The game just lets you go and trusts that you’ll be smart enough to figure the world out on your own. And due to the game’s expertly crafted level and puzzle design, you should be able to do that just fine. That is, if you have your thinking cap on tight enough…

“The game trusts that you’ll be smart enough to figure the world out on your own.”

The Puzzles

Within the game are about 9 distinct puzzle types that Blow and his team incorporates as different “levels” of sorts. The game’s introduction gets the player familiar with the controls. Here, you’re simply tasked with activating a puzzle and making it through rudimentary mazes with little thought involved. It quickly escalates from there.

The Witness - Maze Puzzle
One of The Witnesses more difficult maze puzzles. The maze puzzles are the easy ones…

Different portions of the island are responsible for guiding the player through the learning curve of the various puzzle types they introduce. Each “level” hosts on average somewhere in the neighborhood of about 20 puzzles. Each of those building upon the difficulty of the last. As you begin to master a specific puzzle type, curve balls are frequently thrown to make you think about the puzzle type in different light. Sometimes quite literally.

As you begin to get a knack for the variety of tricks The Witness throws at you, the game doubles down on itself. Individual puzzle types you have become quite adept with are then paired together to dramatically complicate things. As you progress further, this escalates even further. With certain puzzles, The Witness taunts you. Forcing you to recollect on all the skills you’ve learned and form a cohesive bond amongst them in your constantly fatigued brain.

The Witness - Cherry Blossom Puzzle
An environmental puzzle, the Cherry Blossoms are actually more pretty than hard – once you find the trick.

Because if there’s one thing The Witness can be at times, it’s exhausting. The game is not easy. There will be times when you stare at your television for what seems like an eternity. Constantly throwing possible solutions on the board just for the game to scoff at your futile attempts. I found it helpful to go to a different portion of the island when this became frustrating. Having to contemplate a different puzzle style for a while made it refreshing to go back to the ones that were besting me. Often, returning to a puzzle that had broken me previously wielded success after looking at it with fresh eyes. In The Witness, persistence above all else, is key.

“If there’s one thing The Witness can be at times, it’s exhausting.”

The World

Leading up to The Witness’ release, it was the visuals within the game’s trailers that enticed me most. The world was just absolutely gorgeous, and once you’re actually exploring it on your own, it doesn’t disappoint. The art style, while simplistic, is like candy to your optics. Sure, the title isn’t a graphical powerhouse. But it doesn’t need to be. It has that cel shaded feel akin to The Wind Waker that is just thoroughly enjoyable to see in motion on your television.

It doesn’t hurt that Thelka did a fantastic job implementing an assortment of unique locales on their handcrafted island. There’s an impressive desert pyramid. A lush, expansive royal courtyard. A derelict shipwreck. An expansive treehouse neighborhood. A section of gorgeous cherry blossom trees. A could go on, and on, but it’s more fun to walk into these individual worlds on your own. Each of them are unique, in both visual style and puzzle types, and each a joy in their own right. The island of The Witness is perhaps the biggest character of the game.

“The art style, while simplistic, is like candy to your optics.”

There’s a story to be told. Something happened here on this island. But The Witness doesn’t force that narrative down your throat. Instead, clues are sprinkled throughout the island’s various locations. “Statues” are scattered throughout the entire world which tell a story of their own right. There are also tape recordings littered throughout the land that help to fill-in this empty canvas of sorts. The game primarily focuses on delivering you it’s true genius – the puzzles. But for those that want to get something deeper out of The Witness, that’s here too.

 

The Verdict

I know, it’s almost redundant at this point. The Witness is fantastic. But that pedigree was pretty much confirmed back in January with its release on PlayStation 4 and PC. Well, Well, The Witness is fantastic on Xbox One too. And if you happen to be a one console guy like myself, then it’s a blessing the game made it to this console. The puzzles are fun and fair. The island is refreshingly original. And the way The Witness makes you feel as you progress through it is borderline revolutionary.

The key to The Witness though? Take your time. Don’t let the puzzles get to you. Turn the game off. Come back tomorrow if you have to. But come back. The biggest joys the game bestows upon you are the almost euphoric moments when you finally “get it”. The game doesn’t need to hold your hand or take it easy on you. You can do this. And it’s genius lies in the way it teaches you that yes – you can do this. My favorite game series is The Legend of Zelda. And it’s a magical feeling when you nail one of those environmental puzzles stopping Link from progressing deeper into a dungeon. Well, The Witness is almost comprised entirely of those moments. And a game where you’re nailing those “Ah Ha!” moments left and right – well it doesn’t get much better than that.


A Xbox One copy of The Witness was provided by the publisher. To learn more about our score, read our review policy.

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Growing up a 90's kid, Jeff found his love for gaming during Nintendo's heyday. Because of that, you could call him a "Nintendo Fanboy" (albeit a rational one) to this day. Outside of his passion for the gaming industry, he’s also an avid sports enthusiast (New York Giants and Philadelphia Phillies mainly) and enjoys quality/popular TV shows and movies.