The Witness review

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After the brain-scratching puzzles of cult indie hitBraid, it was only fitting that Jonathan Blow’s next project would be something equally mind-melting. Enter The Witness, a first person puzzle game that has some similarities to PC classic Myst, but with a greater cerebral twist than even its most clever forebears. You’ll definitely need to concentrate here.

And the game gives you the head space to as well; while chatty voice works seems to be in vogue, see Firewatch for example, The Witness leaves you alone to think. You emerge from your strange, underground prison to discover the game’s island paradise at your own pace. In fact, the only voices you do hear during the course of your travels come from mysterious tapes which are strewn around the island.

However, instead of containing witty commentaries about what you’re doing here and what kind of puzzles you’re tackling, they merely play recordings of quotes from well-known thinkers and philosophers, playing no role whatsoever (to my knowledge, at least) in the overarching plot of the game, except to give you a few moments pause as you journey across the island.

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^ The island is vast, and every area is absolutely stunning to behold

You’ll welcome the brief respite when you do stumble across them, though, as The Witness really does test and push your puzzle-solving skills to absolute breaking point – which is incredibly impressive when you consider that each of its 650-odd puzzles are all based off the same basic idea.

Instead of collecting items and figuring out complicated lever sequences, for example, every puzzle panel in The Witness can be solved by drawing a line on a grid of squares. Circles mark your starting point, while curved offshoots signal your destination. The hard part is figuring out what shape or pattern you need to get there.

It might be, for instance, that you need to listen to certain sounds to map their basic waveforms, or decipher various kinds of geometric shapes built into individual squares. Or maybe you need to catch the panel at an angle so the hot, perpetually midday sun reveals hidden markings showing you the way. I wouldn’t want to give away too many answers, of course, but it’s surprising just how much mileage Thelka Inc’s designers have managed to squeeze out of this single mechanic.

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^ You’ll encounter this set of puzzles early on, but can you figure out what the solution is?

The Witness’ real triumph, though, is how it builds and builds on each of its themes and ideas to make each panel even more compelling than the last. It’s the purest form of teaching by design that I’ve seen in quite some time, and many even had me reaching for pen and paper to try and figure out their solution. In my book, this is always a great sign that I’m really being challenged and made to think properly about the task at hand rather than simply making do with lazy guesswork, and there are several times when hazarding a guess will actually reset the preceding puzzle as well as turn off the panel you’re currently working on. It doesn’t happen with every puzzle, so it can feel rather mean and arbitrary when it does, but at least it forces you to really engage with the game’s various rules in a much more intellectual and considered way than most of its peers.

There’s a basic path that loosely connects each of its main areas in a rough order of difficulty, but within each hub you’ll find clusters of puzzles that can range anywhere from four or five variations right up to around thirty, with each one getting progressively more and more difficult than the last. Admittedly, some are a little more obscure than others, seemingly breaking their own rules laid down by previous panels, and the sound-based puzzles in particular have a bad habit of merging together to create a cacophony of incomprehensible noise. However, the moment the penny drops, you neither care nor worry about the problems that came before it, as you’re simply too busy basking in the glory of your latest cognitive victory – until, that is, you get stumped by the next one.

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^ Stuck on a particularly difficult puzzle? Try looking at it from another perspective

The brain-teasing doesn’t stop at The Witness’ panel puzzles either, as eagle-eyed players may well start to notice the island itself has a greater, grander design than first meets the eye. Again, I wouldn’t want to spoil anything, but the moment you discover one of these subtle strokes of genius for the first time (along with the deep, rumbling and immensely pleasing sound effects which accompany them), you’ll feel like the cleverest person alive. You won’t stop noticing them after that point either, which only makes every subsequent sighting that much sweeter when you catch them out of the corner of your eye. If you ever wanted to feel like Russell Crowe out of A Beautiful Mind, The Witness is most definitely the game for you.

Of course, it also helps that it’s set in one of the most luscious, vibrant and colourful worlds I’ve ever seen in this type of puzzle game. With its bright, primary colours and bold, cell-shaded art style, The Witness is as much a joy to traverse as it is to solve, and the sudden contrast of deep autumn reds, light spring pinks, dusty, yellow deserts and rusting orange tankers can’t help but draw your eye and pull you in another direction if you find yourself getting stuck.

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^ It might look abandoned and over-run, but every object in The Witness has been put there for a reason

£30 might seem like a lot for a puzzle game or an ‘indie’ game (whatever that means these days), but The Witness more than makes good on the price of entry. With so many solutions waiting to be unearthed, not to mention the number of hours you’ll spend trying to figure them all out, The Witness is a stone-cold puzzle classic that will have even the most hardened sudoku and cryptic crossword fans scratching their heads in disbelief. It’s immensely satisfying to play and the sheer brilliance of its design is absolutely top of its class. It’s a Best Buy.

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