Friday 30 September 2016

The Witness review: Riddles wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma

The Witness (PS4, PC); rating: 9/10; Age: 12+

Published 02/02/2016 | 13:03

The Witness: Full of mysteries
The Witness: Full of mysteries

“A RIDDLE wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” – Winston Churchill was describing the inscrutable motives of communist Russia as World War II began in 1939. But the phrase applies perfectly to the design of this marvellous puzzler, a triumph of layered thought.

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From Jonathan Blow, the creator of time-bending platformer Braid, The Witness openly proclaims its affection for the cryptic setting of Myst. It plonks the player on a picturesque island and provides not a single pointer as to what’s next.

The Witness: A gorgeously rendered landscape filled with saturated colours – and secrets
The Witness: A gorgeously rendered landscape filled with saturated colours – and secrets

Architecturally splendid and yet completely uninhabited, the island offers up no help, with Blow consciously avoiding a soundtrack he felt would distract from the eerie atmosphere.

Largely free to roam the colour-saturated landscapes, you encounter a series of maze puzzles, with each grouping becoming progressively more obscure. In the beginning, little more is required than moving the cursor from A to B. But Blow gradually introduces new rule sets, sometimes combining two or more, yet never explicitly explaining.

Often, one puzzle leads to another. Maybe a power line snakes off into the distance, tipping the nod that your current task is part of a chain. Blow is not above a little bit of magician’s misdirection, occasionally bamboozling the player with sleight of hand. Keen observation usually puts you back on the right path.

Experimentation works sometimes to crack the conundrums, of course, but often The Witness guides your eye subtly with clues in the scenery, burying its secrets in layer upon layer hidden in plain sight. It’s frustrating, yes, but across the 600-plus riddles to decipher, few appear impossible. Just stand back and think for a bit or, better still, go off and solve another to calm your brain.

The Witness: The island is bigger than it looks
The Witness: The island is bigger than it looks

An overarching narrative is difficult to divine, even with the scattered audio logs, so The Witness’s island tourism can feel a tad aimless. With a sprawling topography to explore and no map to orient yourself, getting lost is an occupational hazard. If you stumble into the middle of a set of brainteasers whose rules you haven’t learned, it can be tricky to locate the starting point that gets you going again.

For all the maze variations, you’re still cracking just one kind of puzzle. Sometimes, you long for a palate-cleansing zinger that completely changes the pace.

The Witness: A typical series of maze puzzles
The Witness: A typical series of maze puzzles

But Blow’s seven-year slog to produce The Witness was time well spent, crafting an intriguing workout for the mind and senses. The audience clearly agrees, with the game comfortably outselling Braid’s first-year tally in the opening week alone.

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