The Thaumaturge review: Wiktor's Bizarre Adventure

In this supernatural adventure in 1905 Warsaw, demons are the least of your problems. Or are they?


It’s easy to take magic in RPGs for granted. Even Final Fantasy VI, in which the characters are so shocked to see magic they break the fourth wall, treats it as a simple exchange: MP for big boy damage. It’s rare for a game’s story to contend with magic as something more complicated or costly. Fate/Stay Night emphasizes a great physical burden for example. In The Thaumaturge, magic isn’t about throwing fireballs; it’s about exploiting forces not to be trifled with, dancing with one’s own self-destructive flaws and dipping into a well of madness. There’s always a temptation to reach for more, and most who do don’t climb back out.

Magic as a complicated, brutal force that defies both reason and nature is The Thaumaturge’s backbone, holding up a story that’s one part familial drama and one part historical fiction combining the turmoil of Warsaw, Poland in 1905 with supernatural folklore and myth from Eastern Europe to elsewhere around the world. It sounds like kind of a mess, and yeah it certainly can be. Thaumaturge is a RPG that combines deep player agency with real life historical events, Persona-like gimmicks with almost roguelike-inspired combat, and investigative gameplay with open-ended, branching storytelling.

I'm still not entirely sure what a Thaumaturge is

Investigation as seen in The Thaumaturge
Source: 11 bit studios

It’s a lot to take in at once and more than a lot to actually construct and execute well, but to its credit developer Fool’s Theory makes a commendable effort that doesn’t compromise on its vision to make players feel comfortable. There’s a lot of reading to do, mistakes to make, systems to tinker with, and content to inevitably miss. I don’t think Fool’s Theory nails all its targets, but overall The Thaumaturge is a fascinating game with a compelling setting, kickass monster designs, bizarre scenarios, and cerebral combat that’s a pleasure to succeed in. Failing can be frustrating as hell, but we’ll get to that.

For now let’s talk about Wiktor. The star of the show, Wiktor Szulski is a Thaumaturge (magician sort of?), returning to his hometown of Warsaw after 15 years away. Part of being a Thaumaturge is commanding a Salutor, a sort of Eldritch horror that is drawn to a person’s most defining character flaws. They can wreak havoc on entire populations without anyone noticing, but a strong Thaumaturge can basically turn them into really screwed up Pokemon. But usually only one at a time; we meet Wiktor after failing to tame a second one, and his mind is slowly cracking like glass. Luckily, he befriends a guy named Rasputin (yes, that one), who helps him maintain himself and ultimately tame multiple Salutors.

At first it seemed like Thaumaturge was going to be a wacky, horrifying globetrot with Wiktor and Rasputin encountering creepy monsters and solving mysteries around the world. You know, Jojo-style. But turns out there’s plenty of messed up stuff happening in Poland in 1905, so after a major event brings the pair there shortly after meeting, that’s where the story settles in. That’s fine, but due to the need for new scenarios and Salutors to encounter and tame, the pacing often wobbles around and the story meanders for hours at a time. It doesn’t help that Wiktor is kind of boring as a protagonist. But it isn’t entirely Wiktor’s fault.

I blame Mass Effect for this tomfoolery

An example of dialogue choice in The Thaumaturge
Source: 11 bit studios

Sometimes it feels like player agency was one of the worst things to happen to RPGs, you know? It’s hard to tell a solid story when you want to let players do whatever they want. Some games pull it off, but it feels like Thaumaturge’s biggest whiff is setting up narrative guardrails. Things happen, Wiktor reacts to them, but who Wiktor is feels deeply ill-defined to the story and character’s detriment. It’s also kind of contradictory to Thaumaturge’s themes as they intersect with the gameplay.

Key example: Flaws are a big deal. Wiktor’s Flaw is Pride, which defines his relationship with his first Salutor. Not that the Salutors speak or anything, but the game constantly tells you, or warns you rather, that your Pride going out of control can be a problem. But what is Pride? An optional dialogue choice. Using Pride more and more will level it up and open up more choices, but it’s hard to feel the impact. You can go out of your way to never make those choices, and there isn’t a clear in-game indicator of what your Pride is doing or what its level is, or anything really. Presumably using it changes the outcomes of exchanges and stories, but it’s not communicated in a way that’s intuitive.

When I got through a scenario I didn’t have a good, felt sense of who Wiktor was or what my choices really did for me or my surroundings. There are a few “this character will remember that” notifications, but there’s so much going on with so many people and moving parts, once again the impact feels dulled. It feels like in games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead, those kinds of gimmicks hit harder because they’re simpler in scope and execution so it’s easier to feel the results and connective tissue. In something more complex like Thaumaturge, it’s all muddled.

Nuts, bolts, and ghouls

An example of a Salutor creature in The Thaumaturge
Source: 11 bit studios

Much more clear and fun to play around with is Thaumaturge’s character progression systems. This gets filled out as you interact with the world, solve mysteries, and of course recruit more Salutors. Your Grimoire has powers that run on multiple tracks or disciplines (Mind, Heart, etc), and filling those tracks out give you more abilities to use in combat, more passive effects you can stamp on top of those abilities, and additional dialogue options which help flesh out the story. Leveling up comes from just about any interaction, from combat to simply reading newspapers you find on benches and tables.

Not only does reading stuff give you more powers faster, you also get to make powerful observations, the other main tool in a Thaumaturge’s bag of tricks. Examining specially-marked objects give Wiktor various clues imbued with lingering feelings and histories only he and his peers can sense. If you are thorough and find all the connecting pieces in an area you can uncover hidden truths, which can change the course of a story, give you more dialogue trees, and of course help you power up even further.

This is the good stuff; Fool’s Theory did an impeccable job incorporating the titular practice, the in-game reward systems, and greater lore into a coherent and compelling loop. I normally couldn’t give less of a crap about “codex” storytelling, but read almost everything here. The detective work didn’t amount to more than pixel-hunting, but seeing the pieces come together and learning more about the stuff happening as opposed to background details was a great time.

Can I at least get, like, a potion or something?

A combat scenario in The Thaumaturge
Source: 11 bit studios

Combat is more of a mixed bag. I loved learning new tools and ways to think about combat, but the actual loop was often somewhere between awkward and frustrating. The pace is slow, the UI is cumbersome, but more importantly I often felt like I was suddenly playing a card-based roguelike pretending to be a turn-based RPG in a normal video game. Even playing on easy, it felt like combat often gives you the bare minimum in terms of resources, stacking the odds up against you just so that while each fight is soundly winnable, there was a clear divide between right and wrong answers.

If things get out of hand there’s no real way to salvage it, so I found myself having to just (slowly) reload from the auto-save if I hadn’t surmised the right strategy early enough. Or gotten lucky enough with enemy behavior not punishing me properly. So even though I leveled up a lot through being thorough, I never really got more durable, never got better than okay healing, and there aren’t things like items to help in a pinch. I don’t mind a challenge, but the challenges here often felt out of place in this structure. It made trying new things and experimenting feel unwanted and discouraged.

The Thaumaturge’s biggest problems are a result of trying to do so many different things at once. It’s a juggling act on the best of days, and if you’re a working-class person in 1900s Poland you aren’t having a bunch of great days. Not consistently, anyway. This is a deeply interesting game with a lot of cool imagery, historical storytelling hooks and complex systems that are a blast to engage with. There are a ton of swings, and not every one is a hit. Sometimes the voice acting is wacky, the protagonist feels underdeveloped, and combat can be annoying and burdensome. But I also accidentally stayed up way past my adult, parent bedtime on multiple nights playing it. I feel and probably look like Wiktor after catching a new Salutor, but it was worth it.

The Thaumaturge is available on March 4, 2024 for the PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC. A code for the PC version was provided by the publisher for review.

Contributing Editor

Lucas plays a lot of videogames. Sometimes he enjoys one. His favorites include Dragon Quest, SaGa, and Mystery Dungeon. He's far too rattled with ADHD to care about world-building lore but will get lost for days in essays about themes and characters. Holds a journalism degree, which makes conversations about Oxford Commas awkward to say the least. Not a trophy hunter but platinumed Sifu out of sheer spite and got 100 percent in Rondo of Blood because it rules. You can find him on Twitter @HokutoNoLucas being curmudgeonly about Square Enix discourse and occasionally saying positive things about Konami.

Review for
The Thaumaturge
  • Cool setting that is explored from many angles
  • Salutors are cool, with neat powers and wild, creepy designs
  • Reading materials and game mechanics are woven together well
  • Protagonist is undercooked and story meanders a lot
  • Combat feels like Slay the Spire in a way that doesn't fit the vibe
  • Focus on player agency feels at odds with the storytelling
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