STAFF REVIEW of Witness, The (Xbox One)

Saturday, September 24, 2016.
by Brent Roberts

Witness, The Box art If we set the way back machine to 2008, we bear witness to Jonathan Blow and his creation called Braid; A puzzle solving game that involved time manipulation. Braid was a sensational hit, not just in the puzzle genre, but games in general. Now fast forward about 7 years ahead and we are privileged to have his next release called the Witness from developer Thekla Inc. Using similar puzzle layouts that we used to find in iconic puzzle games like Myst, The Witness offers the gamer a plethora of emotions ranging from euphoric excitement, to heart stopping rage, and a spectacular example of how less can actually be a whole lot more. Priced at $39.99 + tax, the Witness better deliver for that price. Does it? Grab your thinking caps and let's get exploring.

You have to understand something about the Witness, and that is the whole "story" concept is fundamentally different in almost every aspect than what we as gamers are used to. It's a far more cerebral experience and doesn't rely common plotlines like the world is ending, or mankind is on the brink of annihilation, etc. Instead you are given philosophical and theological quotes found on tiny (and I do mean tiny) voice recorders that are from famous historic people. These are found usually as you progress through the various puzzles, but while some will provide clues such as "crossing invisible lines", others will just flat out confuse. Even from the beginning you don't know who you are, where you are, how you got there, why you are there, and what you have to do next.

Instead you get a series of puzzles that, looking back on it, are some of the easiest to figure out in the game itself. Once you complete these then you will be able to solve a puzzle that will open a door to your new sandbox. This island that you're on is fully open to you and filled with puzzle after puzzle after puzzle. You also don't have to complete the entire series of puzzles either, as you can walk away from a puzzle to go find and explore more so don't feel frustrated if you can't solve a puzzle just yet, because through your exploration you'll come to understand the reasoning and logic behind some of the puzzles. Plus you just may learn the varying languages you need to solve them. I'm not talking languages such as French, Japanese, etc., but more of a symbolic language with varying colors and outlined patterns that provide you some form of insight as to just what you need to do.

This is key because I have lost count how many times I was left furious to the point of testing the breaking point of an elite controller, only then to figure out the language, and once again I feel like a dunce. That is The Witness' biggest and worst point all wrapped up into one. When you approach a puzzle in a series you will get the feel for how the puzzle operates within the first couple ones, however they do progress in difficulty, and sometimes will leave you so frustrated that it's best to just walk away and clear your mind. However, if you are struggling to complete a puzzle, and manage to do it, you're left feeling like you're one of the smartest people ever to walk the planet. That's until you go after your next puzzle and your euphoria is replaced by fury inspiring rage all over again. This emotional swing is surprising given the fact that the game's control system is one button.

Let me give you an example of the type of steps you'll need to go through to solve 1 out of over 500 puzzles. Picture a 6x5 grid of squares that require you to guide a light beam from an initial spawn point and move it in a certain pattern to solve it. Here are some of the 26 steps you need to do to solve just this one single puzzle out of a total of 5 puzzles:

Starting from the farthest left starting point move:

LEFT (x2)
RIGHT (x2)
LEFT (x2)
LEFT (x2)
and UP

When you originally approach one of these numerous puzzles you will have absolutely no idea what you are supposed to do or how to solve this. It’s here that you have to take notice of some form of environmental clue or factor that will allow you to solve not only this puzzle, but the remaining ones in the series. Now the game does have subtle ways of teaching you the languages of the various puzzles, so if you are having difficulty, sometime venturing to another area or solving a different puzzle will help you decipher the clues to learning the key to the previous one, allowing you to then go back and apply your new knowledge to the one that had you stumped before.

Outside of the grey matter stress test, it goes without saying that The Witness is also a beautiful game. There are varying sections of your playground island, each of which is designed differently and provides dynamic contrasts between each area, all of which are done in a very cel shaded-like style, full of bright colors and a multitude of shades. There are deserts, forests, castles, and more all waiting to be explored. Just walking around and exploring you will quickly start taking screen captures left and right because it's genuinely gorgeous, but you'll also notice that there is next to nothing in terms of a soundtrack which starts to develop an increasing feeling of exclusion.

The Witness is one of the most emotional roller coasters you will find in gaming today, and on top of that, it's one of the most cerebral and intellectually challenging games you will probably ever play. Completing this game will require the comprehensive ability to decipher keys which in turn will teach you solutions, and you will need to combine all of this together with the ability to adapt on the fly because every single puzzle is different.

Would I pay $39.99 + tax for this game? Regrettably no. Sadly, the game does do a good job at giving you a lesson in isolationism, and while that is unique, the game itself doesn't feel like one flowing cohesive experience with any sort of point. If this game was priced at $24.99 or below though, it would be a must buy every day of the week, and twice on Sunday.

Overall: 8.5 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.9 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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