The Witness: Technical Review
Software development is a tough old game and deadlines can be regularly set only for unforeseen complications to arise. Maybe feature creep, budget, unrealistic target, theory versus reality and more are all good ones and many more that can and do arise. But Jonathon Blow and his ambitious new project after Braid really pushed the slipping to a rare level along with its initial target platforms.
This game was set for a 2011 release after a 2 year development from its announcement in 2009, but that changed.It was planned to launch on the then generation of the X360 and PS3…and yes that changed. In the end nearly 7 years after its first showing it finally lands and not on the last gen machines but instead a console exclusive on the PS4 and PC platforms. But has the games plan, visuals and style changed? , just what does it deliver across both its formats? These and more puzzles will be all be solved. But unlike the games colossal collection of cortex challenges (say that 5 times fast) these are much simpler to resolve.
Before we dive into the aesthetics lets first look at the game and what it is doing, taking its inspiration from a much older puzzler in Myst that centred around you (the stranger) awaking on a deserted island, no help or guide and puzzles to solve to unravel its mysterious. Being originally released for PC and later consoles like the Sega Saturn which is where I played it for the first time as a kid. Using pre-rendered stills rather than real time visuals it looked impressive and was a real moody game with the deserted near Greek and Jules Vern inspired setting. The later remakes that have cropped up on PC and pretty much any device you own have lost some of that mood with them now using real-time renders but the puzzles were and are still very challenging and I loved it’s slideshow presentation whilst its CD format was used for a great soundtrack.
And the parallels with this old classic and The Witness are striking to say the least, with you a “stranger” on a mysterious island with building’s and creations all holding increasingly devious puzzles to resolve. But from such an enthralling muse this is nothing but a bonus and they have really upped the game in both settings, visuals and the complexity along with the ingenuity of the games enigma’s that have to be solved to escape the island and solve its riddle. The intelligent process has the island split into 10 zones with each getting more complex as you progress but the core method is learned from the games early and thus primary conundrums that all revolve around a maze structure. As you knock the required amount for each section a Gold turret will raise and point you onward's and inwards further into the island. But these puzzles get more subtle and although the core aspect remains they merge into the scenery becoming more cerebrally taxing in more areas. And this hook to challenge your logical ability is the game’s biggest draw as even when one stumps you (and they will) you are compelled to solve it no matter what. With it even coming to you while at work with a sudden epiphany and it is supremely satisfying when they do, only to be slapped again by the next. And this dip in and out of the game and its puzzles trying to understand the purpose of it all is just as satisfying to me now as when I played Myst all those years ago. If you are not into puzzle game and slow paced non action based adventures this will not change that but for a game that tests your brain power it really is superb.
But in this day and age it needs to still have eye catching graphics to draw in those crowds and with the games long development process and shift of more powerful platforms helps it achieve this well. Also booking the most common path for independent developers Jonathon Blow created and used his own engine, which would have been a large reason for the delay. But this was chosen so that the team of around 11 could tailor every single aspect of the game even shrugging off using the standard repository of shared code base and updates. Instead rather scarily using a serialised text file system as the entire game is treated as a single area rather than sectioned off like most open-world games, artists… The island has a bright and colourful pastel shaded Mediterranean palette, similar to Rime’s art style. As you wander amongst this surreal island it feels like you are lost within an expensive all-inclusive resort…just one that is incomplete, shutting its gates leaving you trapped inside. The bright, warm feeling was intentional as it sets the happy mood and allows you to relax into the setting and be keener to look around your surroundings which is the key to solving the puzzles. The dotted around stone carved statues and trance like state also adds to the feeling of wandering a painting or someone else's dream, lost and confused are something you will feel often. You have to trace cable locations as they link up, look at the island and how it connects and unfolds.
On both PS4 and PC the target is set for a 60fps presentation but as I have not had time to look at the PS4 release this review and Analysis is looking at the PC release only, and performance is not its high point, at least on my AMD 7870 rig, specs in article on site and video notes the game engine shows a clear divide between a 16 and 33ms frame time and it jumps between the 2 quite regularly dropping from 60 to 30 creating jarring stutters as you venture into heavily overdrawn areas with grass, trees all looming through, as this can be direction based my first thought is this will be culling related with areas not visible still being drawn by the GPU. A fast update is not a requirement in this style of game, but as you spend much time admiring the picturesque world you have been dumped in you could be in much worse conditions. The option on PC from the menu is limited, 2 tips if you want to adjust the resolution then add the required resolution in the shortcut properties or using your driver panel options. As here from the AMD panel, this can also lock the frame rate to 30 helping the games consistency, or you could use another DX plug-in like Afterburner. The CPU is not largely taxed, helped by the game not having AI to consider or destruction, but it does have great draw distance, long and dense grassy areas and it succeeds with its dreamscape painting come to life direction. Anti Aliasing is decent with most likely a Multi Sampled edge solution like MSAA or EQAA at work to keep a world with such long, sharp edges so pristine, it may also have a temporal element helping to remove shimmer and accentuate the games cartoon target (also helped by its art design and asset creation) with only distant edges being particularly noticeable within such an angular world with steps sometimes shimmering as you twist and turn. Again the distance views are Grand in design and to behold with dithering applied to alpha coverage on tree/leave textures and the like to soften any frequency concerns further. A sumptuously gorgeous game that improves the further you explore the island and highlights the intrinsic connection between the visuals and mood. Much like colour correction that you see in films and more and more in games as I covered before the colours start to fade, the palette grows darker, you enter more dank areas as the puzzles become more difficult being mirrored as the funky, fun lighting fades. Giving way to a pessimistic tone that affects your state of mind as much as the increasing challenge. The game is more of a bold and strong statement for Artistic design that was down to the hard work of a recent graduate from Art College Orsolya Spanyol among others in the team. The lighting is simple but striking with it looking at times like it is vertex based but heavily altered with a similar cell shaded tone, effects work is bright and incorporate lighting, shadows, particles. With global illumination part of the engines make-up, likely baked in you get soft bounced light into coved areas, colour bleed through trees and bounce that all looks as clean as the geometry it radiates over. Bloom reflects off brighter white petals and other areas, PBR is also incorporated with a Fresnel specular model, diffuse used across the island as sun hits the puzzle screens or the sand, again accentuated to accompany the desired look the game is going for. It also refrains from screen space reflections with High resolution dynamic Cube maps use instead. But mostly it is a tranquil experience with the chosen visual direction delivering it impeccably but 60fps leans more towards my 970 machine (The CPU is rarely the issue here) it can have some minor dips but only the long view from the top of the island causing any momentary issues, it runs a near 60 throughout that and when it does it feels as smooth as the visuals, with the 7870 possibly having the cap to 30 chosen.
Sound is nearly as well thought out within it specification as the pixels, using the natural ambient sounds of water, wind through the tree’s, birds tweeting, your footsteps on stone, grass or sand and later the echo in caves. The lack of music adds to it this with tapes dotted around allowing you to listen as you explore and try to resolve the next challenge. But this again takes a stronger more prominent shift later in the game becoming almost a character itself in the game, raising tension and urgency of puzzles as you feel the impending doom looming ahead. Like the entire soundtrack in many things it can almost be forgotten and ignored as it does such a great job adding to the atmosphere of the game, even though it never stands out at any point it also never lets the package down and increases its impact.
PC selections are relatively low with no real options for FOV, you can change resolution if you have a lower spec PC from my tip above, shadows and texture quality can all be lowered from the main menu low/medium/high by default is the safest choice,
The fact the world is not a huge expanse of 100’s of kilometers and rather a densely structured single zone it rarely suffers from streaming issues or stutter.
You can check out the metrics on the left along with details on the PC specs and hardware usage.
As far as the difficult second game Jonathon has managed to Blow off any worries that he could follow up such a successful launch game and it stands out from most other games at present with many Indie games falling into the 8-Bit Pixel copycat style and platform design. Here inspiration comes from a much older and more iconic title that they have managed to breathe new life into one of the most engaging and gorgeous puzzlers created with over 650 puzzles that although do not need to all be completed to conquer the island if you choose to then 100 hours is your charge, and for the £30 asking price that is superb value for money. More of a crossing over game that straddles the Indie and AAA status line more so than others from its 6 year gestation and rumoured $5 million budget it feels anything but small and I have enjoyed being Witness to their second title, buts it slow, almost comatose pace will not be for all and it is a game to drop in and out of as a mind puzzler, in a Spanish or Greek island.