Review: The Witness

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DevinRogers

Update (01/21/2017): This was my first real review.  I nitpicked the hell out of this game.  It’s a 10 out of 10.  I will stand by my review scores going forward.

Update (10/30/2016): As I’ve been preparing for the 2016 Game of the Year awards, I’ve been looking over my reviews and the 6.8 score for The Witness stood out to me.  I realized that the low Story score sandbagged the game, but the game doesn’t really have a Story.  I gave the game low marks because it didn’t meet my Story expectations, an idea I very much opposed when the community ranked No Man’s Sky as low as they did.  I stand by my review scores, but after some consideration I decided that giving The Witness a Story score was unfair, and have thus decided to remove it.  This changed the final score of The Witness from a 6.8 to an 8.0.  I agree wholeheartedly with the updated score as I feel it accurately represents what the Gameplay, Sound and Visuals bring to the table.

Original Article:

The Witness is a game I have been waiting for since before the release of the PS4 in 2013. Originally intended to be a launch window title, The Witness was pitched as a spiritual successor to Myst with a heavy emphasis on line-based puzzles. The island setting and mysterious landmarks lent credence to this, and so I happily pre-ordered a PS4 (for The Witness and other reasons).

However, The Witness was delayed and eventually released a couple years later in January 2016.  The game that came out was not what I expected, for both good and bad reasons.

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Let’s start with the good. My first steps into the world of The Witness were spent admiring the scenery. The island has a pastel softness to it while still being bright and colorful. The environment feels like a painting in ways that Super Mario 64 only wished it could.

The puzzle panels also have a pleasant, visual softness, which is good considering how much time is spent looking at them. There are also some particle effects that fly around the island as a reward when you complete specific puzzles like a small burst of fireworks (though their relevance is more than just eye candy).

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The puzzles are the main draw of this game.  Even outside of the main line puzzles, there are hidden puzzles and even puzzles at the meta-level.  Just about everything in this game short of walking down the sidewalk is a puzzle (and even then there are some walking puzzles!).

The primary focus is on line-based puzzles.  They start off like you would expect them to: draw a line from the entrance of a “maze” to the exit.  There are rules that can make this a bit more challenging, such as the inability to crossover the path you’ve already started drawing.  However, rather than forcing you to traverse larger and larger mazes, the game changes the puzzle mechanics as your progress.

To figure out the mechanics on your own is a major point of The Witness, so if you don’t want some early gameplay spoilers skip this paragraph.  Once you exit the game’s tutorial area, gone are the simple maze puzzles.  Next up is a mechanic whereby there are black and white squares on a grid.  The goal is to get from the maze entrance to the exit while drawing a path that completely separates the white squares from the black ones.  Another simpler mechanic includes dots that lie on the path, and you must pass through all of the dots on your way to the exit.

By the middle of the game, your intelligence will be tested with some simple-on-paper but difficult-in-practice mechanics.  The Witness also combines previous mechanics at times, which makes for some incredibly mind-boggling scenarios.

Though it is not explicitly mentioned in-game, your goal is to complete enough puzzles in order to unlock the final area of the game.  The island has eleven main areas, and by completing the puzzles in each area you will open up a laser that points to the peak of the island’s mountain.  Once enough lasers have been activated (you need to activate most, but not all of them), you can access the game’s final trials.

Though the puzzles themselves are amazing, there are some minor issues that detract from the overall experience.  For one, the turn speed of your character is too slow.  This is a minor gripe, but in some of the tight-spaced environments, it is a pain having to wait until your character has fully turned in order to walk around the corner.

Another minor annoyance is the inability to jump.  While it was likely turned off in order to restrict access to certain areas before completing a puzzle set, the lack of jump introduces a number of invisible walls that shouldn’t be there.  Small inclines or landscape formations that you would think you could easily climb over are not always traversable.

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One very peculiar design choice the developers made was to exclude music from the game (with a very small exception).  Though it is understandable in the sense that music could wane on your ability to concentrate on puzzles, there are types of ambient music that I think would have suited this game quite well.

The lack of music does help the sound effects pop out, however.  When you complete a puzzle that powers on a generator, you’ll know it.  There are also some sound-based puzzles, though they are few.  There are audio recordings hidden throughout the island that contain thoughtful quotes read by industry talent, though they don’t have much of an effect on the game.

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The most disappointing aspect of The Witness is its story, or lack thereof.  Though I went into this game mostly blind and with little expectations, I did expect it to have some semblance to Myst.  Apparently the only correlation is in its puzzle-like gameplay (and even then it is handled differently than in Myst).  There isn’t really a story to be told here, other than the one you create on your own.  In a way, The Witness is a commentary on existentialism, and in that it does a pretty good job.  However, there was so much potential here for an actual tale to be told, but that never came to fruition.

It should be said that The Witness is not for everyone.  If you are not interested in puzzles, then this game is not for you.  However, if you do like puzzle games but are turned off by the thought of drawing lines over and over, you should reconsider.  There are many different mechanics at play throughout the game’s 600+ puzzles.  I can’t remember a game that gave me such a sense of accomplishment in the minute-to-minute gameplay.  When the solution clicks for a puzzle you’ve spent 20 minutes on, it is a wonderful feeling.

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Having completed the game, I can say that The Witness is one of the most unique gaming experiences I’ve had in a while.  The gameplay is very addictive, and on that alone I would recommend the game.  But as a complete package, I feel like The Witness could have been so much more than it turned out to be.

Update (01/21/2017): This was my first real review.  I nitpicked the hell out of this game.  It’s a 10 out of 10.  I will stand by my review scores going forward.

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