From the outset, The Witness [$9.99] is a video game that defies convention. After a loading screen that suggests ‘for the best experience, use headphones’, you immediately awaken in a dimly lit underground tunnel, amidst deafening silence. No title screen, no contextual introduction, no long-winded tutorial - in The Witness, you’re simply left to your own devices, and the curiosity that such a brazen start instills in the player serves as the primary catalyst to explore its luscious, vibrant and expansive environments. This core ethos permeates into every inch of The Witness, whether it’s solving puzzles, navigating complex terrain or attempting to work out how to access a seemingly out of bounds point of interest, and its respect for the user is one reason why the game received such universal critical acclaim upon its console release in 2016. However, the hands-off approach that is fundamental to The Witness’s identity is also its biggest source of frustration and, because of Thekla, Inc.’s impressive efforts in emulating the experience on mobile devices, a flaw that is as prominent as ever in the iOS iteration of the game.

In an era where procedural generation and sweeping sandbox worlds are the norm, The Witness excels through amalgamating experimental puzzle elements with a stunning, nonlinear environment that must be interacted with in numerous creative ways. The actual gameplay in The Witness revolves around the concept of a ‘maze puzzle’ - using the touch screen, you must draw a line on a panel that connects specified origin and ending points together. As would be expected of any decent puzzle title on iOS, new mechanics are quickly introduced, from self-explanatory symmetrical challenges to more cryptic symbols that have multiple requirements before any such maze can be cleared. This may sound initially confusing, though The Witness ensures all new concepts are introduced gently amidst its ‘show, don’t tell’ philosophy, with forgiving trial and error prioritized over immersion-breaking explanations. However, these ‘new’ mechanics can be found throughout the world from the beginning, and that light-bulb moment when a previously inaccessible panel suddenly makes sense upon a later discovery is one of the most satisfying moments in The Witness.

The other area The Witness quite literally shines is in its incredible aesthetic design. If there ever was a game to show off the Super OLED display of the upcoming iPhone X, The Witness is surely it. The approximately sixteen different locations in the overworld, despite being entirely devoid of activity, are brought to life through incredibly vivid and distinct cel-shaded graphics. With an impressive realistic lighting system that is as spectacular on the smaller screen of the iPhone as it was on consoles, the pink sparkle of the orchard or the mysterious gloom of the desert ruins looks stunning, despite its inherent simplicity. As with the puzzles within the game, the fluorescent and minimalistic design isn’t cluttered with details, but leaves it to the player’s imagination to make the most of the mysterious settings. After all, views that feature shimmering, reflective lakes and sprawling, accessible locations that are just longing to be investigated are worth taking in.

However, the breathtaking settings aren’t just there for eye candy. The most groundbreaking aspect of The Witness is how it incorporates its open world into the puzzles, in ways that will repeatedly surprise you as you dive deeper into the game. For starters, many challenges require light and color to bypass seemingly impossible puzzles. Certain areas require water and light reflections to reveal secrets, while others use colored filters to make you approach certain conundrums literally from a different angle - these clever twists expand the core maze gameplay far beyond what its genre contemporaries would ever have been able to without The Witness's gorgeous settings. But then, at some variable point when you’re just about sick of the seemingly infinite puzzles, you start to look at the in-game world differently. Suddenly, that strangely arranged collection of rocks shows itself to be more than just for show, and the island becomes more than a mere path to your next objective. Being able to drop into The Witness, leisurely stroll around the realm and stumble upon another hidden environmental challenge is a joy, and something that is perfectly suited to the portability of the iOS iteration of the game.

These qualities all embody the unique experience that The Witness refines so well, and the opening few hours are a delight. But The Witness is over 40 hours long, and quickly the repetitiveness and pacing issues begin to weather away at the patience of even the most committed puzzle game connoisseur. The absence of traditional tutorials results in hundreds of generic puzzles, which are normally just slightly harder variations of the previous panels. This is an inherent issue with both the nature of the game’s maze mechanics and its silent design philosophy, but it means it’s easy to spend hours with a particularly difficult challenge with little reward beyond more of the same. The Witness is also a very difficult game, and one that is suited to a specific type of player - those who struggle with abstract riddles or have a tough time with spacial awareness puzzles may want to look elsewhere. This challenge does result in immense satisfaction when a tricky teaser has been beaten, but also means it’s very easy to search online for solutions when you’re desperate to find out what’s behind a specific door and can’t even pass the first of five opaque panels ahead of you. Playing in short bursts, especially on a portable device, can prevent these pacing issues from being too distracting, but it’s a testament to the world design that the game’s difficulty and sheer number of puzzles preventing your passage can be its biggest curse.

Ultimately, the biggest source of disappointment while progressing through The Witness is the fact that, beyond the aforementioned multiple mysterious doors, there isn’t really anything to discover. The island is so surreal in its abandoned architecture and ominously lifelike statues, so creepy with only ambient sounds creating an uncomfortable state of isolation, and so mysterious with random clues and maps hidden by cryptic challenging doors. The last time I experienced such a feeling on intrigue was when I first trawled through the forsaken vaults in the Fallout series, and the incredible cult fanbase surrounding The Witness underlines the atmosphere that Jonathan Blow and his team were able to conjure up within the game. All this remains unexplained, replaced instead with bizarrely indulgent audio logs from philosophers and scientists, as well as strange video footage that just feels out of place. The Witness occasionally begins to stray into parody territory, which feels at odds with the sensibility and complexity of its island location. You can say this is yet another intentional product of the game’s design philosophy, and you can argue that it’s all about the journey and not the destination, and you’re certainly not wrong. However, the multiple hours that The Witness so persuasively demands simply do not result in a satisfying conclusion.

The big selling point of The Witness's iPhone release is undoubtedly its portability, and it is truly a technological marvel to see one of the PS4’s most graphically remarkable titles look so good on the mobile device. Admittedly, a lot of this is down to the simple aesthetic style of The Witness, but credit is most certainly due to Thekla, Inc. for what is an impressive mobile port. Firstly, let me get it out the way - The Witness on iOS is not 60fps. If you have a problem with that, I'd recommend reassessing your priorities as it has no impact on the experience, or getting the console version instead. For the rest of us, The Witness runs extremely well on mobile, and features all of the content from the original release. That being said, there are some compromises, and while the mobile version of The Witness is in many ways the best version of the game, it is by no means a perfect experience. The actual maze puzzles are infinitely more intuitive on the touch screen, and while the smaller screen of the iPhone may make more sprawling challenges a bit unwieldy, they are perfectly suited to the screen real estate of the iPad and plus-sized phone devices. It’s in navigating the open-world environment that the iOS version stumbles somewhat. The tap to move control scheme never makes you feel as in control as with analog sticks, and makes solving certain puzzles like the desert ruin’s light challenges infuriatingly tedious. MFi support is an extremely welcome solution that ameliorates a lot of my issues with the mobile version of the game, and the addition of virtual sticks would also be a relief, but as it is The Witness is held back by its clunky controls, even if these are a necessary compromise.

The fact that The Witness can bring out such extreme emotions of both exasperation and astonishment is undoubtedly an achievement in itself. So many modern puzzle games strive to be as inoffensive and straightforward as possible, in an attempt to be accessible to a large and increasingly impatient audience of potential buyers - The Witness boldly shuns such expectations to simply do its own thing. As a result, The Witness can be relentlessly unwelcoming, but also invites and rewards intrigue, as paradoxical as that may seem. Similarly, The Witness is an essential experience for any enthusiastic gamer (especially at a bargain price of $9.99), although can occasionally feel like an ostentatious chore that is more hopelessly unaware than socially insightful. However, amidst its many annoyances lies a technologically impressive milestone of the modern gaming industry, arguably in its best form yet. In an App Store that seems to be perpetually afraid of failure, The Witness serves as a refreshing example of how scope, ambition and imperfection can shake up a genre.

TouchArcade Rating

  • FuZion

    Very nice review!

    • HelperMonkey

      Certainly well-written, Rob.

  • Repelstale

    I was hoping for a more bite sized puzzle experience, like The Room trilogy, which I loved. I haven't tried The Witness, but I'm a little put off by the size, difficulty, repetitiveness and lack of an actual storyline, as seems to be the consensus of several reviews.
    Of course, I could be missing out on a great experience. However, I think I'll wait for Six Ages to be the game to sink 40+ hours into.

    • Brandon Smith

      I would argue with the impression you have of the game, but the end result is valid. I don't think you would like the Witness. It's not a rapid fire puzzle game. I would suggest maybe the Layton series, which just came out on iOS for you. That might be more what you are looking for.

      The Witness does have all the things you are wanting in a game. They just aren't surface level and neatly tee'd up for the player. The story, from what I took of it, is about a deep meditation on the nature of science and religion. It does this without characters or a linear narrative. And by eschewing those concepts, it's much more creative and meaningful.

      I would say that one could tell a "story" about going to a fireworks show. But the emotional impact and ability to change a persons outlook on life is severely limited by that experience. But GOING to a fireworks show can indeed be an emotional and transformative experience.

      The Witness seeks to put the player THROUGH a story more than "tell" one. Because, after all, to be "told" a story is to imply that the story is not happening to you. It happened or was created bfs someone else and was then communicated to you second or thirdhand. Is it not more fun to be the one making the story first hand?

      I don't know. People's life circumstances may dictate whether they have the time or patience to do that.

      • Repelstale

        I have to say, I'm intrigued though ...

      • Repelstale

        I have to say, I'm intrigued though ...

      • Bitcoin

        It's an amazing game. It's not a hand holding exercise. You need to scratch the surface yourself. I've double dipped as I've got it on ps4.

    • caius

      The Witness is the best puzzle game ever made. It might not have a narrative (though if you stop and think about the Room's narrative, is it really all that great, or a woolly justification for the game's succession of puzzles?) but that's because it's trying to get to a similar place that narrative takes you by a very different path. The Witness employs all the tools of game design to kindle deep and abstract feelings within you — it's an extraordinary and intricate machine for revelation, showing the ability of the mind to reach strange new places because that's exactly what your mind will do while playing it. It might not have a narrative, but nor does all music or art, and yet they're all capable of moving us deeply.

      I can't recommend this game highly enough. My only advice other than to buy it immediately would be:

      1) If you get stuck don't use a walkthrough, just go off to a different part of the island and try something else. Every puzzle teaches you something about all the puzzles' mode of communication and so often solving something in one area will lead you to see the puzzle you were stuck on in a new way and immediately understand what it's asking you to do. The game is designed to produce those moments of breakthrough and for you to feel them.

      2) The only exception to this, I'd argue, are the sound puzzles, which some people struggle with.

      3) Don't read any more reviews, lest they spoil the game for you. Almost every pixel of the game has a reason for being where it is and the best experience the game has to offer is figuring out how and why that is.

      • Brandon Smith

        I can't wholeheartedly agree with not looking up solutions. I agree that it ruins the experience if you give in too quickly, but there were DEFINITELY a few where I looked up the answer and thought, "Oh good lord. I NEVER would have figured that out." Oftentimes because I had the right idea, but not in quite the way that I needed to see things.

        But looking up answers does ruin the experience in a way, you're right. Especially because once you do that, especially if it was something you never would have solved, the temptation to look things up in the future is very high.

  • rseller1

    For me, both the normal and inverted controls feel "off" somehow, and unintuitive. I played a few minutes, switching constantly between both, couldn't get used to either, and closed the app. The world environment is stunning, however, so I hope to get used to them enough to play more.

    • Saveria

      I use an mfi controller and it feels very nice, it might be good to invest in one? They are a bit pricey but it saves me from what you talk about frequently as I often struggle with touch/swipe controls

  • Misguided

    "However, the breathtaking settings aren’t just there for eye candy"

    The latter part of this paragraph should be edited/cut. Come on, guys.

    • Jared Nelson


      • rhinofinger

        I'm guessing he was implying it's a tad spoilery. Not that much though.

      • Rob Funnell

        Edited it to remove specific location references, but otherwise I don't think there's an issue for anyone who hasn't played the game before.

      • Matt George

        When i first played the game I didn’t discover those puzzles for hours, and the joy of realizing they had been under my nose the whole time was one of the most memorable parts of the game for me. I think it would have kind of been a bummer to have been spoiled on them from the outset

      • Rob Funnell

        Thing is, I wrote this review for people who haven't played The Witness before, not for you. The way I described what is a pretty fundamental part of the game that I could not miss out of a proper review will not ruin anything for new players, especially with the sheer amount the game throws at you in the opening hours. People will still discover stuff by themselves - I've given no explicit instructions on how to find them. Environmental puzzles have been around in gaming for years.

      • Saveria

        You wrote an excellent review with some fair criticism but i must agree revealing the specific environmental puzzles was spoilery, just perhaps cut back on the ones you specifically list? Having watched a little bit of video gameplay and read some reviews last year, j knew something was up with the puzzles and the island itself but didn’t know exactly how the environment plays a factor . I’m not angry or anything, just saying reading that part did feel surprising and I would understand some people not wanting to know those examples

      • nonen

        Discovering this for yourself is a huge moment in the game, and by explicitly describing it to people, you are spoiling that revelation for them.

      • Rob Funnell


      • Brandon Smith

        Weird that you're digging your heels in about this when so many people are politely saying that they find it to be a disservice to site readers who come to you guys for reviews.

      • Rob Funnell

        My job is to review games, which means elements like this have to be covered. If it was a true spoiler, reviews for virtually every game would be impossible. I've removed the screenshot, but can't remove anything else without dramatically altering my review. I appreciate your passion for this game, as is evident from your comments, but you need to understand people may have different perspectives on it.

      • I-Am-Boss

        I agree with everyone else. I think even mentioning that there are puzzles hidden anywhere else than in the panels is a spoiler that I can't remember ever reading in any review of the original release. Pretty much every reviewer knew that was a MAJOR part of the joy of discovery and didn't go beyond words like "there's more to be found but saying anything else would spoil the joy of discovering it yourself".

        Your edited version still reveals the existence of them, even though it doesn't say where.

        Just sayin. I know you disagree. I don't know why, though.

      • Brandon Smith

        Because it literally gives away the solutions to the world puzzles and defies half the point of the entire time.

        Discovering the solutions to the world, and how and why they are different is the chief enjoyment of the game.

      • Misguided

        This. I've given my .02. It's still a problem, imo.

      • Brandon Smith

        In this game more than any other. Because the experience of grappling with the game's puzzles IS the story of the game.

      • nonen

        It's spoiling one of the biggest moments of the game.

  • Graeme

    The Witness is one of my favourite games of all time. I played through it twice on the PS4 and I can not wait to play through it again on my iPad!

    Please, Mr Reviewer, remove that screenshot in the desert region. That’s a huge spoiler for one of the biggest “Oh frak” moments in the game, don’t take that surprise away from people.

  • Brandon Smith

    I feel like this reviewer is missing pretty big points about the game. I hate, for example, when reviewers claim that games have "pacing issues". Movies can have "pacing issues" because a movie moves along as a set pace that the viewer has no control or input regarding. The viewer relies on someone else.

    But a game, in it's true sense of not being a movie-game, puts the pace in the hands of the player. Saying a video game has "bad pacing" is like saying your morning run has "bad pacing". If it does... it's entirely your own doing.

    It feeds into the trendy modern-gamer belief that any time a player encounters an obstruction, it's immediately bad. "I feel frustrated! I should NEVER feel frustrated! Bad game!". In reality, it could be the POINT of the game to be a little frustrated. The Witness mitigates this by giving the player MULTIPLE fronts on which you can be progressing at any given time. If you are stuck someplace, go someplace else. Work on that for a while. And not all the puzzles need to be complete in order to finish the game. This is by design.

    The pacing criticism, and other criticisms of The Witness gameplay mechanics, is especially egregious because they are so delicately considered. In The Witness, the gameplay IS the story. So no, the philosophical and religious audio-logs are not self-indulgent. Listening to them and allowing them to influence the way you see the world is fundamentally integral to the "story" of the game. And indeed, The Big Plot Twist hinges on your being able to accept "Science" and "religion" together. Being able to accept the logical an explainable and also the unexplainable and supernatural.

    • Lanster27

      The pacing of average games is very dependent on the player. Some might enjoy a slower pace where it let you explore (typical for sightseeing and puzzle games) and others starts off strong and keeps you moving.

      However, games can still suffer from general pacing issues. An example will be an RPG with a great and exciting opening mission, then suddenly you are doing boring fetch quest for the next 5-10 hrs until you reach a certain checkpoint where the story mission opens up again or the game opens a new area. An example on the opposite side of the spectrum is a adventure game that starts off slow for 10-20 hours, then suddenly all the action, plot twist and ending is cramped into the last 2-3 hours (a typical offender is Indigo Prophecy on PC).

    • Jared Nelson

      Holy pretentious comment, Batman.

    • Jared Nelson

      Holy pretentious comment, Batman.

    • phuzz

      The walk speed can be annoyingly slow, I'd call that a 'pacing' issue.

      • triwolf

        It's possible to run though.

      • phuzz

        You realise that comment was mainly so I could use that atrocious pacing/walking pun right?

      • Saveria

        Idk I like the walking speed. I feel like any faster and I’d be missing things. Note I only have played a couple hours so maybe it’ll drag later.

    • TF

      IMO there is a legitimate pacing issue in The Witness...but it's not related to the player getting stuck on one particular puzzle or the plot (as it were) not being revealed quickly enough. The pacing issue comes instead from a couple of the zones simply having too many puzzles, with not enough variation or difficulty progression from one to the next. The desert ruins and the mountains in particular became very tedious to me. I suppose an argument could be made that some measure of tedium is integral to the story, but I would have been just as pleased with a little less tedium in those parts.

      That said, after considering Myst to be my favorite puzzle game for nearly 25 years, I now consider The Witness to be my new favorite. The thing that I always loved about Myst was that the solution to every single puzzle can be discovered through observation and experimentation. The clues are all right there in the environment. The downside to Myst is that it's actually too many cases the solution to a puzzle is literally written down on a sign or a piece of paper and does not require much thinking beyond spotting that object in the environment and figuring out which puzzle it's connected to.

      The Witness takes this to the next level. The clues are all there, often near or directly attached to the puzzle they help with, but they are rarely obvious and even the ones that appear obvious at first always have some twist that keeps you on your toes. I only sought help for two puzzles in this was very early on before I realized what The Witness was about and that many of the puzzles are literally broken. I thought it was just a bad puzzle. But then as I played and saw all the other broken puzzles, I went back and had another look at that early puzzle and of course by then I saw the clue as clear as day. There is truly not a single puzzle (and there are hundreds of puzzles) that can't be solved using only your own intuition and the resources in the game (and maybe a pencil and paper).

      The pacing issue is a minor criticism on such a well done game. I am really happy to play this on a touch screen device, which is probably where it should have started anyway - while I was actively working on the Mac version of The Witness, when my TV was switched off you could often see a grid pattern on the screen...I would stand there in front of the TV drawing solutions on the screen with my finger, and then have to reproduce them with the controller once I figured it out. It's so nice (and more immersive) to interact with these puzzles using your finger as if you were actually standing there in front of the devices. I've always felt that the iOS ports of Myst and Riven are the best ways to play them for much the same reason. While I don't 100% agree with the way movement works in this game, I do think that having more conventional dual-stick controls would lead to a lot of shifting hand positions when going from moving around to puzzle solving. With the control scheme as it is, you can hold the device in one hand and play seamlessly with the other hand, which I think is important in terms of getting the interface out of the way of the experience as much as you can.

      I am really looking forward to spending some late nights re-playing this kicked back in my recliner, in the dark, with my best headphones.

  • nonen

    Five-star game for anyone who loves puzzle games, or enjoyed Myst, etc. The fact we have this on iOS is a gift.

    Hope the reviewer will remove major spoiler screenshot that I won't point out here. Someone else already mentioned it.

  • jdelstrother

    Anyone get the impression the reviewer didn't make it to the actual ending? That was one of my favourite gaming moments on pa4

  • jdelstrother

    "However, the multiple hours that The Witness so persuasively demands simply do not result in a satisfying conclusion." - anyone else get the impression the reviewer hasn't made it to the actual ending? That was one of my favourite gaming moments on PS4

    • Rob Funnell

      I completed it on PS4 at launch, was not impressed, but this statement is more generally applicable to the game as a whole. You can spend hours on a set of puzzles with no real reward. The ending location is neat but one hell of a slog, and meant the ultimate conclusion really didn't feel worth the effort.

      • jdelstrother

        Fair enough 👍

      • dotheearth

        Out of interest did you get to the alternative ending? I don't want to spoil anything but it's enough to say it has FMV it. Because personally, I found that, when combined with the recordings you can only reveal once you've completed all the challenges, to be the true conclusion, and a satisfying one at that.

  • gingerbeardman

    So much spoiler in this review 🙁

  • Patrice Kouame

    Hi - How different are the ipad and desktop (mac) version?

  • dotheearth

    Just to add my tu'pence worth, I think The Witness isn't just one of the best puzzle games to appear in years, it's one of the best games full stop. It does what it does so well that it transcends genre. I take issue with the reviewer's point that the game is somehow unrewarding though, and in explaining why I might stroll into the **slightly spoilery** though I hope not to.

    After 10 or maybe 20 hours of play, discovering what those obelisks were for--and I dare say no more than that, for I'd hate to steal this moment away from another player--was utterly mind blowing: a gaming experience unparalleled. The fact that you could uncover it after 10 minutes, or maybe never at all makes it all the more wonderful. It's supposed to feel like a religious experience, and it actually delivers on the awe.

    Also, the reviewer mentions recordings of scientists and philosophers--strictly that's not true. The recordings are of four specific characters reading the quotes. Who those characters are and why they are reading them is a large part of the story, but it can only really be understood by completing all the challenges and getting access to a very special area (which includes a challenge that took me days to complete and when I did, again, total satisfaction.)

    The game's real problem is that it's so unassuming, a player could come across it, solve a few puzzles and decide there isn't really much going on beyond that. That player would be absolutely wrong, but still it's a problem with any game that refuses to demonstrate or explain itself.

    The only thing stopping me from downloading it again is that I don't know if, having experienced it all already, one can really go back to it. But if you haven't played it before, it comes with the very highest recommendation (on PS4 anyway--haven't played it on iPad yet!)

    • Rob Funnell

      I have no idea why I'm getting back into this, but as they said in 2013, YOLO!

      Totally appreciate how people can feel like this about a game, and it's great that you got so much from the experience. However. (honestly mild spoilers from here) we fundamentally disagree on many points, and I don't think either of us are necessarily 'wrong' from our contrasting perspectives. The obelisks epitomise the unrewarding nature of the game for me - yeah, discovering what they are is great (imo not as MIND BLOWING as you may find it), but after that, at least from my experience, they don't actually lead to anything else. They have no purpose. If you're a goal-oriented person, and put in a lot of hours and work into this game for nothing to happen (especially for what is essentially bonus stuff like this), it's deflating. Either way, my main issue with the whole 'unrewarding' thing was how some areas had SO MANY PUZZLES, and it felt like running on a treadmill with a serious incline. Again, my impression.

      In relation to the whole audio logs, I did get to the end area, but thought the whole context around them was a bit ridiculous, especially for the build-up that the conclusion gets. But again, it's a positive review, I just didn't revere it as much as you may, which is cool. My conclusion states this is definitely worth playing - people can make up their own minds. No-one needs to have their opinions validated for others, and this review is purely to help people decide whether they want to buy the game.

      • dotheearth

        Hi Rob--thanks for the reply. I hope I didn't come across as having a pop at you: while I disagree with you on certain points, I don't think you're wrong to state your opinion, that's your job after all. And you gave the game an excellent score which I also agree with (and if the control system is a bit fidgety I'd probably have docked it a point too!) But we'll have to agree to disagree on the mind-blowingness or otherwise of those 'obelisk puzzles'. Discovering my first one literally made me look at the game and it's world in a completely new way. It's easy enough to do this with a plot device (as Nier successfully achieved this year) but to do so in a game without any narrative is I think a pretty incredible trick. I wonder if you might have heard or read about it before discovering it yourself? If so, I think it would greatly diminish the effect of the game (which is why I'm so desperate to avoid details here.) And while you're right that no one should need the validation of others in order to enjoy something, when, in their Xmas round up, the crew at Giant Bomb chose this twist as their gaming moment of the year I was really chuffed to know others had been affected by it just as strongly as I had.

  • Chq

    Imho it's a shame to rate this game with only 4,5 stars. Maybe it's the best game since i play videogames (about 30 years).

The Witness Reviewed by Rob Funnell on . Rating: 4.5