I'm Lost and Confused and No Longer Care
Although I'm a huge fan of both Diablo III and the BorderlandsConceptually, Borderlands is Mad Max but set on an alien planet, with magic. The game play might be action-shooter-RPG fare, with a bit of Diablo thrown in, but the aesthetic is pure, Australian post-apocalyptic exploitation. series, not every game I play has to be action-oriented or devoted to treasure hunting. Sometimes I like to explore other genres, and when something falls into my lap for free, such as The Witness when it came up as one of the free games on Xbox Live, I figured it was worth giving it a shot.
The Witness is a third-person puzzler. You're a nameless character wandering an island, exploring the various ruins across the small land. The thing is, there are monitors hooked up everywhere, usually displaying weird mazes and similar puzzles. Some monitors only come on after other puzzles have been solved, so it's up to the player to figure out the puzzles to activate the monitors to activate other puzzles to then progress through the game. And, at the start, this is great. It's a simple hook with an easy to understand cause and effect. I was able to grasp the basic concept and, with a little subtle nudging, the game got me to figure out how the puzzles were solved and what I needed to do.
That's fantastic. I like it when a game, puzzle-based or otherwise, is easily able to convey the basics of what I needed to do. I'm cool with being left to figure everything else out and this game, essentially, leaves you to do just that. There's no HUD, no real hinting, just you, and island, and some puzzles, and for the first couple of hours that seems easy enough to figure out.
The trouble comes after the first couple of zones. Once you get past the opening ruins, and then the similarly themes "Symmetry" puzzles (which are essentially the same kind of mazes from the first zone, just with two lines that draw, mirrored, so you have to navigate both of them at once), the game gets surprisingly hands off, quite to the point that you no longer have any clue where to go but also absolutely no idea what to do.
As an example, once I'd solved all the main symmetry puzzles I found a door to a "secret" area. This had another basic puzzle on it, but there were also blocks scattered through the maze layout as well as some dots across the maze path. I readily understood that I had to get my maze path to cover the dots (without my path ever being able to cross itself), but the boxes eluded me. I had no clue what I was supposed to do with them but I assumed the game would eventually show them to me in another puzzle and somehow explain, in simple terms, what I was supposed to do. It didn't. Sure enough the boxes showed up in some other puzzles, but I never once figured out what they were actually for. I did manage to get past those mazes, but it was through sheer dumb luck and not through any understanding of the parameters of the puzzle.
I shrugged this off at the time because I figured I'd done them right. But then I came to a new area, ruins in a desert. Here I stared at the various hexagonal puzzles for a long while unable to figure out what I was supposed to do. They all looked the same from where my character was standing, and I didn't see any clues on the floor, or other screens, to indicate some clues. What I missed, because this hadn't been introduced before (nor was there an obvious clue I could see) was that the puzzle monitors has scratches on them that would only reveal the solution from a very specific angle. After staring at them for five minutes clearly not getting this, I looked the first solution up online. Once I understood the puzzles for a little while were easy (although they got obnoxiously complex), but because the solution never clearly presented itself to me, the solution never felt "fair".
There's a lot of this in the game. You'll hit switches and something will happen but because you didn't hit the switches in the right order, what happens doesn't actually help you. You'll think it does, because something happened, but no. Not the solution you expected after all. Other times, the solution to a puzzle is so beyond obtuse that I don't know how anyone could have ever figured it out. One puzzle in particular has you walk through a series of four hedge mazes, each one allegedly with some minor clue to indicate the path to take. Once you walk the path you then solve the maze at the end by drawing a line along the path you just walked. This is great for three of them if you can figure out the clues (such as "don't walk on the weeds" or "don't walk on crunchier leaves") and are able to draw a path after walking it (something my brain balked at).
However, one of the four mazes has absolutely no discernable clue at all. And this isn't just me saying that -- the guides I looked up for that maze all were like, "we have no clue how you'd figure this out beyond brute force attempts, we just know this works." There's no clue they could find. At all. That's bad game design.
Eventually, after beating my head against this game for five hours and only getting through about 25% of the story (and that's why minor, but consistently needed, clues from guide just to be able to tell what the hell I should be doing), I gave up on the game. It's a pity, too, as some of the puzzles were fun and the game itself is rather pretty. It's just not overall a consistent or enjoyable experience. If a little more time had been spent nudging the player along, to help them understand the clues before abandoning them to figure it out themselves, that would have gone a long way to increasing my enjoyment.
I simply cannot recommend this game, for free or not, with the state it's in. The puzzles are obnoxious to figure out, and sometimes they're straight up impossible to parse. If you like puzzles games, there are plenty out there to enjoy. This is not one of them.