The Witness PlayStation 4 Review: Cast Away

The Witness PlayStation 4 Review: Cast Away

A clever collection of puzzles can't overcome an insufferably smug and sterile experience.

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[Editor's Note: This piece was originally published as a review-in-progress, written with roughly 16 hours of play completed. If you've already read the first installment, click here to move on to the second half and conclusion.]

Outside of The Last Guardian, it's difficult to think of a game burdened by the weight of expectations more than The Witness.

Eight years ago, Jonathan Blow's Braid essentially introduced an entirely new audience to the concept of "indie game." While Blow wasn't first to the scene by any means, this puzzle-platformer did much to pave the way for small teams making small games for consoles—until it soon became clear heading to Steam first usually works out much better. Much has changed in the near-decade since Blow last checked in, and today, it's not uncommon to see a game made by one person compete at awards shows alongside multi-million dollar productions. In short, thanks to Braid's impact on the industry, Blow unwittingly sabotaged his chance to make a second big splash in the world of indie games—something that's incredibly hard to do in the first place.

Nothing can could possibly be as revelatory as Braid, so it's a good thing The Witness doesn't aspire to such heights. In fact, what you actually do in The Witness is alarmingly simple, and not without its precedents. After just an hour, you may notice some similarities to other first-person puzzle games like Portal and The Talos Principle, though Blow's approach is far less organized. But that's part of The Witness' charm: From minute one, you're set free on a fairly large island, and given an almost intimidating amount of freedom regarding which puzzle to approach next.

Unfortunately, my embargo agreement means I've been sworn to semi-secrecy when it comes to telling you how specific puzzles function, but I can at least provide the overall gist of things. Nearly every challenge in the game exists in the form of a monitor which displays a two-dimensional maze you need to complete in order for something to happen. Often, finishing a puzzle simply powers the next puzzle, but you're almost always working towards some sort of overall goal tied into traversing the environment: building a bridge, opening a door, powering an elevator, and so on.

And while these mazes at first take the form of something you'd find on the back of a diner's menu, Blow continually comes up with new themes and variations on tracing a path through two-dimensional corridors. Sometimes, you'll have to hit a certain number of nodes without doubling back on yourself; other times, you'll need to corral certain colors into their own quadrants with the line you leave behind. At their best, these puzzles gradually build off of each other in difficulty to the point where it feels incredibly rewarding to finally finish off the last one of a set. (Even if, at times, The Witness feels like a prolonged SAT test.)

That's essentially all there is to The Witness—at least, at the point I'm writing this portion of my review-in-progress. You're given no overarching goal, or a reason you're there in the first place: The Witness simply asks you to solve puzzles for the sake of solving them, and see how your progress causes the island to expand (which mostly provides new puzzles). It's an approach that feels like a Metroidvania of the mind, in that your ability to overcome previously encountered hurdles relies on internalizing the logic of solved puzzles. Because of The Witness' open-ended nature, a certain element of a challenge you stumble upon may make no sense until you complete the more rudimentary versions of it elsewhere. Of course, you can always try to brute force things and rapidly prototype potential solutions, but most puzzles have too many variables to make this strategy anything but tedious.

The real problem, then, comes when you've solved all the puzzles you know how to, and have no choice but to scour the island for more you could potentially finish—which involves a whole lot of walking. This issue directly echoes a problem I had with 2012's Fez, where my last three or four painful hours amounted to wandering around, desperately looking for the last things I had left to do. Granted, The Witness provides a method of travel that's a bit faster than hoofing it, but Blow's lack of guidance can often turn exhilarating freedom into crushing boredom when you're not exactly sure where to go next—and there are plenty of places to go.

The Witness' generally hands-off nature can often throw a roadblock in the way of progress when you're dealing with puzzles that incorporate multiple elements of past ones. The puzzles that build off of each other work well, since you're provided with constant visual references as to the significance of certain elements, and their interplay with others. When several of these elements come jumbled together with no real context, progress relies on whether or not you've internalized their meanings from past experiences.

This is doable at first, but soon enough, The Witness provides so many different puzzle types that I eventually ran into trouble memorizing the logic of them all. I know it would break Blow's focus on minimalism, but some sort of expanding "puzzle legend" would have definitely been appreciated. After getting stumped one too many times, I actually took it upon myself to keep a catalog of puzzles stored as pictures in my phone for quick reference.

I can't tell how far I am in The Witness at the point—estimates have it weighing it at anywhere from 8 to 100 hours (seriously)—but I'm definitely enjoying it so far. Though I'm forbidden from giving any specific details about the story, I couldn't even if I wanted to: So far, I've found two "audio logs" that haven't really told me a whole lot about anything. Solving dozens and dozens of puzzles in near-silence has been rewarding so far, but at this point, I'm hoping for Blow to throw some kind of curveball my way. What's been presented to me so far has been deceptively straightforward, almost as if I'm being set up for something big further down the road. In any case, I'm still excited to see what happens next. Now, what am I supposed to do with those star shapes again?

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