The Witness review: Brain Teased

There's been a great sense of anticipation behind Jonathan Blow's latest effort. The Witness has been at the top of many wish lists since it was first unveiled, but it's been difficult to determine exactly what it is. Is it a series of puzzles or perhaps something greater? That sense of curiosity carries on all the way through to the game itself and while the story gets a little too wrapped up in its own sense of mystery, The Witness turns out to be a completionist's dream and a nightmare for impatient players.

Death by Logic

There's no wasting time with The Witness. Players are greeted with a brief title screen and are immediately thrown into the action. There's a giant, exotic, deserted island and the player is certainly on it. Why are they there? How did they get there? What's happening here? Many of those are questions that the game is certainly not interested in answering. Players are simply thrown into the fire, Myst-style, and it's ultimately up to the player to find their own way by playing around with the tile puzzles that litter the world.

And that's the core principle that drives The Witness. It's about finding one's own way. The early puzzles act as an informal tutorial that offers only the most basic ideas of how the game's world works. There are panel puzzles all over the island. Solving chains of these puzzles have different effects on the world, whether it's opening doors, powering on certain pieces of the island, or activating a beacon that will help unravel the island's ultimate mystery. The puzzles' difficulty level quickly ramps up, going from 0 to 60 at a pace that comes across as unforgiving and quickly weeds out those with little to no patience. There are occasional hints nearby, but often times, they're extremely difficult to find, which gets immensely frustrating.

But those brave enough to stick around will quickly stumble into the many wonders of The Witness, not the least of which is the game's very setting.

Island Paradise

If there's a feeling that The Witness manages to encapsulate perfectly, it's the idea of being on an exotic desert island. There's a sense of isolation and mystery, but also of serenity. The game's setting is gorgeously rendered, filled with vibrantly-colored plants, running water, dilapidated architecture, and other remnants of nature that are just a joy to take in.

Frustration from the game's puzzles comes almost naturally, but then the instinct becomes to explore the rest of the island. That's when a sense of calm kicks in, as the striking visuals and level of detail captivate the eye. And along the way, a puzzle or two will pop, stirring the urge the jump right back in. That's what separates The Witness from something like an iOS puzzle game. If these same tile puzzles were presented as simply a mechanical puzzle game, it would be far too tempting to shut the game off and walk away. The Witness offers an enchanting beauty and a captivating mystery that makes attempting the puzzles worthwhile, even if they do inevitably lead to slamming your head against the table repeatedly.

But the importance of coming back is that it eventually leads to progress. Sadly, that's where The Witness started to fall apart for me.

Scrambled Pieces

The trouble with a game like The Witness is that its minimalistic approach quickly becomes its undoing. While I had every urge to give up on this game because of the difficulty spike or my own ignorance in the realm of logic puzzles, I still moved forward. And I gradually learned more about the game, I saw that there was more to it than just the puzzles, and I came to appreciate the setting. I also came to learn exactly how the island itself could give hints on solving puzzles, so I was quickly able to play catch up and start solving more and more of these conundrums.

Then an entirely new conundrum popped up. Exactly how far have I gotten? I came to realize there's no way to tell how much progress has been made in The Witness. There's no map, other than the one near the boat (the only source of "fast" travel, which is in quotes for a reason), so it's all too easy to get lost or miss a puzzle that may have been out of sight. There's no percentage to indicate how many puzzles in a region (or even in the entire world) have been solved. It's a brutal inconvenience, especially for anyone that takes the approach of solving bits and pieces of a sector at a time.

Bearing Witness

The Witness is an intentionally simple game to grasp, but enjoyment almost feels proportional to patience. These puzzles are absolute brain-breakers, so anyone that doesn't have the patience for them will get no enjoyment out of The Witness. I was certainly on the verge of being one of those people, but exploring the sheer beauty of the island and learning more about its central mystery turned out to make returning worthwhile.

The Witness is an ambitious piece of work, showing brilliance for creating a massive structure that runs on puzzles and logical thinking. It's not for everyone, though, and anyone not into these types of puzzles will quickly feel like they're on a deserted island.

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The Witness

  • Gorgeous visuals
  • Puzzle premise is easy to understand
  • Audiologs are interesting to listen to
  • No way to tell how much progress you've made
  • Puzzle solutions can get extremely obtuse
  • Boat travels very slow