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.