Republished on Wednesday 27th February 2019: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of March's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
Jonathan Blow has, with help from his colleagues at Thekla Inc, finally released his follow-up to Braid, after spending the better half of a decade tinkering, adding, and perfecting. The result of all of this hard work is a game much bigger in scope than Blow's previous title, yet its main premise is – on the surface – just as straightforward. But while The Witness may feature hundreds of puzzles on its open-ended island, there is a fear among gamers that simply solving mazes on electronic panels may become repetitive. Thankfully, this couldn't be further from the truth.
Okay, so on a fundamental level this is a game about drawing lines through mazes. That's the core interaction that you have with the game world, and it's what you'll spend the bulk of your time doing. However, to view the game as just line puzzles is short-sighted: these puzzles are a means to a far grander end. They may be puzzles themselves, but they are often part of a bigger picture. The real puzzle is the environment around you – the island itself.
You begin the game with no explanation as to who you are, where you are, or how you got there. It's best to get used to the idea of knowing nothing, as the story's not told in a traditional way. If you want answers, you have to work for them, just as with the puzzles themselves. Thankfully, you're eased into the game via a short tutorial area. The minimalist nature of the interface means that you're left to deal with the first handful of panels yourself, which sounds like the opposite of a tutorial, but it does a fantastic job of conveying the way that the game works, and the way that it expects you to think.
Once you've unlocked the first gate, the island is yours to explore – and you will want to explore it. The visuals are absolutely stunning: the use of colour, the diversity of the environment, the painterly style – it's utterly gorgeous to look at. We spent most of our time with the game not holding L2 to sprint, just so that we could drink in our surroundings. The sound is just as well crafted, the ambient noises and distinct lack of music instilling a real sense of solitude. It also runs as smooth as silk, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise considering the prolonged development time.
What may surprise people, though, is just how much variety and ingenuity Blow and his team have managed to squeeze out of solving maze puzzles. To give a very early example, an intimidating locked door bears a puzzle full of symbols that, at first, mean nothing. It seems impossible. However, walk a little further down the path, and two series of panels will give you all of the information that you need to open the door – one detailing the squares marked black and white, the other showing you how to deal with the small black dots.
In this regard, The Witness is an extremely communicative game, despite the lack of music, dialogue, or tips. That door a little further back is now a far less daunting task, because the game has begun to teach you its language in a brilliantly smart, subtle way. The panels are not only puzzles – they are solutions. Blow has spoken of this idea in interviews and demos, and has made comparisons to door-and-key puzzles in other games: "I need a key to open this door, but the key is only knowledge."
Of course, as you make progress across the island, your brain will begin to overflow with the intricacies of the myriad panels, as more rules and quirks are thrown at you just as fast as you're sussing them out. It gets complicated, and there were moments where we found ourselves truly stumped. It should come as no surprise, then, that this is not an easy game – but luckily the open nature of the island means that you can always leave a troublesome area and find another mystery to wrap your mind around. Alternatively, a break may be all that's needed for you to conquer what was besting you earlier.
There's little else to the game besides the puzzles, obviously, but should you want to flesh out the game world a little more, you can keep your eyes peeled for audio tapes scattered across the island. These offer up lengthy philosophical or religious musings, and it isn't always clear what relevance they bear. Whether these add anything to the experience will vary widely among players, but as for us, they weren't something we actively sought out.
While those audio tapes may sound a little serious or stuffy, it should be made clear that The Witness is overwhelmingly engrossing, satisfying, and challenging. Make no mistake, this will ensnare your mind and test your brain, but it remains fun throughout, and getting the better of a set of panels you've been stuck on for hours is as rewarding an experience as anything on the PlayStation 4. Don't take our word for it, though – witness it for yourself.
The Witness is an intelligent, expertly crafted puzzle game with ceaselessly satisfying gameplay. It becomes bafflingly complex, yet the free-roaming nature of the island means that you'll never be stuck for long. In addition, the way in which it communicates new elements is nothing short of masterful. All in all, Jonathan Blow's latest is an enormous triumph.
Was listening to the usually exceedingly jaded Bombcast practically cry tears of joy over this last night and concluded I probably have to give it a go. Puzzle games like this aren't usually my cup of tea, but it sounds like this is something real special.
Sublime sub-headline by the way, @Quintumply.
Love the sub headline.
Can you buy the witness at retail?
Really good review, need to play this before spoilers splash across the internet.
Cracking game thus far, gotta say I slightly preferred Braid (so far) but they are both brilliant.
Great review. I best finish The Talos Principle as a warm up...
@themcnoisy I wouldn't worry about story spoilers per say, I expect the game never fully reveals itself and will be left open to interpretation and theories over the coming months
Great game so far, really has an awesome flow to it, and id say definitely worth the entry fee if you fancy an epic puzzle! Also, has stumped me so much but makes me want to complete it without spoiling it for myself.
Great review. Nice one Stephen!
@get2sammyb I'm not sure if you ever gave it a whirl, but as ive posted before I grabbed the talos principle during the last sale and have been nothing short of blown away. Some puzzles have however induced a migraine, but it's incredibly rewarding and a great philosophically challenging puzzler. Can't speak high enough words for that game, after the division this weekend I fully intend on bearing witness to blows new game.
@Quintumply Lovely review, nice job on avoiding spoiling parts of the game too as that seemingly is a struggle many writers are having. In fact this is possiblely the best review I've seen so far. I have to ask though, where did it lose the 1 mark from giving it a 10/10? Not disagreeing with it, just interested to know
@Hego Here's our scoring policy: "A game that scores a nine should be considered a must buy for fans of the genre. Of course if we give a nine to a racing game and you only enjoy RPGs then this probably won't change your mind."
Sounds like this game, for as brilliant as it is, may not convince someone who simply isn't interested in solving 100s of puzzles.
I remember when this guy was talking about creating a game dev black list for people with the wrong opinions just really distasteful, if it's really good maybe I'll check it out during a flash sale but I'd need some extended gameplay footage or a demo.
Thanks for your feedback everyone! I tried to stay as vague as possible - you're best entering this game knowing as little about the puzzles as possible. Learning how the game works is all part of the fun.
@themcnoisy It's not available at retail currently, although Blow has said it could happen later down the line, and he didn't want to push back the digital release just so that a physical version could launch the same day.
@Hego Thanks so much! To be honest, I thought about giving it a 10 a few times. I personally really love it. In terms of negatives, there are very few; obviously it's a very hard game once it gets going, and a lot of people will get very frustrated with it, no matter what. It can come across as extremely obtuse if you walk into the wrong area. The walking and running speeds are fine but turning around feels like it's in slow motion.
That's just nitpicking really. I guess the main reason I deprived it of a 10 is down to the story and those audio tapes - they may be very clever, but it seems needlessly convoluted. I would've preferred a more traditional way for the story to unfold but because you can go anywhere, it would've been a challenge to make it work!
I hope that's a good enough explanation. I'm pretty tired
Edit: Also, what @get2sammyb said!
I'm interested in this, but I'm not 30 quid interested.
I've got a stack of stuff to get through anyway, but maybe when it drops below a tenner.
Also, a certain other PS site is reporting that the game's wide field of view is giving a lot of gamers motion sickness who don't usually suffer with it. Anyone experiencing that? Apparently patches are being worked on.
@Paranoimia I've heard about the motion sickness. I haven't suffered from that during my play time, thankfully. You're right, I think Blow said on Twitter that they're planning a patch to add a cross hair, which will help.
Oh, and the game is totally worth the asking price
I'm sorry if this is discussed, I don't wanna read the review because of possible spoilers, but does The Witness indeed feel like "Lost: the game" while playing? Everything about the trailers and screenshots give me the sense that they took Lost's island as a premise and started working from there.
If this game doesn't get an iOS F2P release, where you can buy hints and clues which will ultimately destroy the very essence of the game, what will? They will make more money than 10 Braids combined!
@get2sammyb For the price of this game, is it also getting a retail physical copy too, or is it just a really expensive game to buy on the network???
Yeah, I'd like to try it when the retail version comes out or there's a demo. All the praise translates to me as obtuse, convoluted and vague puzzle conundrumness. My next 'puzzle' game will more than likely be the next sherlock floams.
@Boerewors Myst is a much better reference point. For many gamers born in the early 80s or before, this basically looks like a modern reboot of that series.
I mean, you mention the island thing as something that made you think of Lost. Well look at the cover of the first Myst game...
Google it and look at the screenshots. They look very reminiscent of this; the same sense of solitude, exploring slightly surreal locations on your own. There inexplicably being loads of abstract puzzles left around a seemingly abandoned island that you must overcome to figure out what's going on.
Edit And I only just noticed the reference in the review's subtitle!
Of course I remember Myst, every gamer from our generation does! But where in Myst I vividly remember solving puzzles towards a goal, here I get this feeling of impending doom. It's a bit hard to explain, but I had the same when watching footage of 'Firewatch'; although some pretty normal actions were shown, not to say boring, I felt really uncomfortable as if bad stuff was just about to happen.
The Witness gives me the sort of vibe that you're not solving puzzles to save yourself or others, but that in the end it won't matter at all because the island won't make you leave (muhahaha).
I know I'll have to find out myself, but I'm in this tough spot where I know if I spend $40 now I won't be able to play it because of the games I'm currently involved with, but if I don't I'll most certainly never get the chance to squeeze it in later this year and it seems like the sort of experience you wouldn't wanna miss. And I'm also afraid that it'll get PS VR support after I played it, which would be such a shame cause this game has VR written all over it.
@Boerewors Sorry, man. I wasn't sure of your age and I just assumed you were a bit younger because you thought of Lost rather than Myst. I see why you thought that, now, though. I feel like whatever the bad thing is has already happened and you're figuring it out - and you're the "witness" of the title. Then again, it could be that because you're the witness, something won't want to let you leave, as you say. Hmm...
But I'm with you. I'm interested in the game but I don't really know where to fit it in. Street Fighter V comes out soon, Gravity Rush is out soon and for only £20. Then the rest of this year is just packed. I also agree with the VR thing.
I imagine the first years of VR gaming to be filled with games like these; they aren't too taxing, there isn't any action that'll make you sick and you'll enjoy the scenery so much more.
For me SFV is also the reason I'm not to keen on buying anything else. I'm just finishing up on Xenoblade where I've spend way too much time on and the moment SFV hits I'm gonna be all over that. The first few weeks when a fighting games gets released I'm busy learning all the ins and outs which is really time consuming and because of my age it just takes so much longer to get at a respectable level. I'm just not as quick as I used to be, not have the time I had, so I'm leaning on my experience so to speak; where the young guns usually throw the few combos they know out real fast, they tend to spam it too often and with my experience I can punish that... But I just can't go head to head with them like I used to. From what I've played in the beta I really liked SFV, but because of the more offensive and aggresive playing style it caters too I'm already 1-0 down before the match has even started it feels. But I'm sure most of us feel like this, whenever there's a new fighting game out people always want to go back to the older version
"Myst the embargo"
(But did you delay the review just so you could use this subtitle?)
@Boerewors In terms of PSVR, Blow has said it's not happening, because they would have needed to design the game for it from the offset, and that it would be difficult to introduce it now.
I believe it's getting Oculus Rift support on PC though.
Edit: @Dodoo Haha, no, the delayed review was not intentional!
@JoeBlogs I would say that The Witness is considerably harder than Portal 2 once it gets going. Many people online have said they're using a notepad or graph paper to help them figure out some of the puzzles. I think part of the reason it's harder is because it doesn't explicitly tell you anything, but the genius of the game is that the answers are, for the most part, right in front of you. It's so satisfying figuring this game out
@Quintumply Good review, and you've got the smarts and conviction to not just hand it a ten like some other review sites.
I'm now deep into it, and I agree a lot with your take on it. The progression of the puzzles and the way in which you learn as a player feels organic and the way the nature of the puzzles evolve is amazing.
But... the game has a very distanced and emotionless tone. I'm still yet to finish it but it doesn't seem to tie in to a larger narrative. And when thinking about Braid, that is what made it more than just a puzzle game. Who knows, maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised come the finish. Still, it's a great puzzle game no doubt about it.
I'm glad you're enjoying The Witness! I know exactly what you mean about the tone, and the narrative. It's certainly different! What impresses me is just how atmospheric the game manages to be just with ambient sounds. Most of what you hear is wind blowing through the trees, your footsteps, and water lapping on the beaches. A brilliant case of less is more.
@Quintumply Definitely. I'm aware my issue with the narrative is a much more personal one, as some I imagine will prefer being engrossed in the puzzles and the rational thought behind it all. It's partially because of projects like Braid which joined the narrative with the nature of the puzzles. I think at the moment, a lot of the game lacks some context. I can't help but think: who the hell put all of these cables around and clearly has a puzzle fetish?
As for the atmosphere of the game, I agree. It's an interesting choice that really pays off and the minimalist approach fits the nature of the puzzles and exploring. And the sound design that is in there stands out a lot more because of it.
If nothing else, the puzzles themselves and the variants on a single idea are amazingly well designed, especially when it comes to the more environmental approaches.
@Swiket I've used the Share button a few times to do the same thing, although a smart phone would definitely be quicker!
@Paranoimia I get motion sick playing first person games with no reference point and I notice I do get it with this. With that knowledge in mind though I just take it carefully not jogging everywhere and turning carefully, also whil doing bits like this I'll look away for a bit to ensure I don't feel sick. It's that good a game I'm willing to risk it, it's also useful that you are only walking between puzzles so a good ten minutes solving a puzzle gave me enough of a break. Hope that helps!
Well...I did say I was going to wait...But I am a weak man and ended up buying it the next day xD
But I am really glad I did! I am enjoying the game so much! It's really pretty and the puzzles are kind of addictive
I find myself writing on papers like I'm crazy...papers full of squares, lines, dots and so on...
Not so many games make me so determined to finish it...without looking for help at all!
9/10 for me too
@Quintumply @get2sammyb Thanks for that, ya all that makes sense, I understand the review policy and were it's coming from, actually sounds like a really solid review policy. And I get that those gripes would detract from the game certainly Was just curious is all
Great review Stephen! I'm getting this as soon as my backlog clears, can't wait!
The puns on the subheading of reviews is almost on the same level of puns used by the teletext 'Digitiser' page from the mid nineties. Ahh teletext, the memories....
@Mizanur it lives! http://www.digitiser2000.com
@kyleforrester87 oh wow. Rolling back the years!
An alternative view.... Before you buy....
Braids way better, though.
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