The Witness review: Brain Teased

The Witness is a hard nut to crack, seemingly running solely on frustratingly-difficult logic puzzles. But frustration quickly leads to clarity. Our review.

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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.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

Review for
The Witness

7

Pros

  • Gorgeous visuals
  • Puzzle premise is easy to understand
  • Audiologs are interesting to listen to

Cons

  • No way to tell how much progress you've made
  • Puzzle solutions can get extremely obtuse
  • Boat travels very slow

From The Chatty

  • reply
    January 29, 2016 5:30 AM

    Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, The Witness review: Brain Teased

    • reply
      January 29, 2016 6:05 AM

      You can tell how much progress you made by looking at the name of your save file.

      • reply
        January 29, 2016 6:20 AM

        Feels like Blow purposely left any other way of tracking progress out of the game other than the save file. If for full immersion into the game and not being like I NEED TO KNOW HOW CLOSE I AM TO FINISHING IT or other reasons, I think its a pretty great thing. It leaves me wanting to explore more rather than say "ok well I know I finish the game when I complete x amount of puzzles and there are y puzzles total in the game...". It lets me just wander and come across puzzles naturally, or not at all if I take a different path. Idk I think its a good thing personally.

        • reply
          January 29, 2016 7:03 AM

          Yeah, it seems like a conscious design decision. I like it, nothing rushes me in the game and my OCD is put to rest, mostly. I just explore and solve puzzles. I'm happy that the game is not "gamified" by additional counters, progress meters and stuff.

          • reply
            January 29, 2016 7:04 AM

            One single achievement. Perfect.

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              January 29, 2016 7:08 AM

              At least on PC, PS4 has a few because of dumb achievement/trophy standards heh. Still, barely paid attention to the ones I got so far.

            • reply
              January 29, 2016 7:41 AM

              Motherfucker, put spoil tags on those 200 screenshots you uploaded to steam!!

              • reply
                January 29, 2016 10:53 AM

                ah! shit! I wasn't expecting people to look in there, I'm documenting everything that way. I'll have to fix that tonight.

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                  January 29, 2016 11:20 AM

                  Haha, it's cool though. The problem is that I have no self control when it's right in my face like that, so I miiiiight have spoiled a little obstacle I'm facing in the desert ruins.

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                  January 29, 2016 11:20 AM

                  Plus they show up in the feed in steam. And you don't have to upload the images as you can access them locally. Hugs n kisses.

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                  January 29, 2016 4:23 PM

                  When you go to upload them, there's a drop down for public or private.

                  • reply
                    January 29, 2016 4:24 PM

                    Well you can also tag as spoilers, but they don't let you change that after you've started uploading

              • reply
                January 29, 2016 2:14 PM

                I've not uploaded any of mine on purpose.

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                January 29, 2016 2:36 PM

                What is really irritating is that the Image Spoiler field on Steam is that they permanently expire after three weeks. So it's useful for avoiding it in the Friends Feed, but nothing beyond that.

              • reply
                January 29, 2016 7:57 PM

                I just marked everything that has puzzle content as private, there are actually a couple I recognize as environmental puzzles now lol, but you'll have to figure those out

        • reply
          January 29, 2016 7:40 AM

          I like that the whole game is a mystery with made up names.

        • reply
          January 29, 2016 6:23 PM

          There's an in-game way to track your progress on everything in the game, it's the lake

    • reply
      January 29, 2016 10:49 AM

      Played a little here and there, pretty cool

    • reply
      January 29, 2016 10:52 AM

      The big link to this article on the homepage goes to the wrong article.

    • Zek
      reply
      January 29, 2016 2:06 PM

      Really cool game, I like how they lay out very simple rules about how you're capable of interacting with the world and yet are still amazingly creative about where they take that concept. It's hard as balls but rarely feels unfair. My main complaint is the absence of a clear narrative - I'm not expecting NPCs or cutscenes or anything but the Bombcast brought up a valid complaint that the only real reward you get for your progress is the privilege of solving more puzzles.

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      January 29, 2016 6:15 PM

      I have to pick this up. Another win for Blow. I had always heard he never made much on Braid. What at amazing game. It will always stick with me. Glad this is a home run.

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        January 29, 2016 6:37 PM

        He made a small fortune on Braid, that's how he self-funded this at $6m.

        • reply
          January 30, 2016 11:45 AM

          Really I heard he sunk his life savings into Braid and didn't make that much on it.