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The Thaumaturge (PC)

The Thaumaturge (PC) - Review

by Paul Broussard , posted on 31 March 2024 / 1,684 Views

Of all the literary genres represented in gaming storylines, historical fiction is one you don’t see very often. Assassin’s Creed is the only major series that routinely tries it that I can think of, and it generally approaches the subject by trying to make every major historical character as boring as humanly possible. Fortunately, we now have a new entrant in the no doubt very slim venn diagram intersection of historical fiction and video games: The Thaumaturge. It proves that you can write interesting historical characters into a gaming narrative, but can it avoid the same boring fate?

The Thaumaturge takes place in early 20th century Eastern Europe, and focuses on main character Wiktor (pronounced Victor) Szulski. As the titular Thaumaturge, Wiktor functions as a hybrid between a detective and a Pokemon trainer for spirits that prey on people’s emotional vulnerabilities. After making friends with Rasputin of all people in the prologue, Wiktor receives a notification that his father has passed away. The new BFFs decide to tag team back to Wiktor’s family’s home in Warsaw, where Wiktor winds up becoming embroiled in a series of mysteries revolving around politics, corrupt city high life, and his own complicated family.

The world of The Thaumaturge works a bit like The Witcher, where negative emotions or events can draw the attention of certain monsters. Unlike the ones found in The Witcher, though, these monsters are less the “destroy your house and eat your cattle” kind, and more of the “evil spirits that drive you insane” variety. As the only Thaumaturge in town, Wiktor spends a lot of time uncovering who is responsible for the appearance of a monster and then fighting them off. The former is where the detective part of Wiktor’s role comes into play. For most of the game, his surroundings are presented in a top-down, point and click perspective. You direct him around to find clues related to the cause of whatever the latest ailment in the region is, and then once you have enough clues, Wiktor will automatically draw conclusions about who or what you should investigate next, eventually discerning who is responsible.

The word “automatically” there is a somewhat unfortunate one, because the lifeblood of a mystery game is... well, uncovering the mystery. Despite playing as a detective, you’re given very little agency in actually having to think like one. The only real responsibility on your part is guiding Wiktor around and clicking on all of the items highlighted in red in the area; after that, you just sit back, relax, and watch Wiktor solve the puzzle himself. 

When you do find the responsible party (or just happen to stumble onto a particularly unpleasant individual blocking your way), the game shifts to combat. Combat utilises a turn-based format, with different attacks having varying speed and attack stats, which determine when they occur and how much damage is dealt, respectively. While fights aren’t particularly frequent, when Wiktor does pick one, it’s usually in a scenario where he’s outnumbered. To even the odds, he brings in those aforementioned spirits as backup. The whole “Pokemon Trainer” comparison was not made in jest; Wiktor quite literally instructs the spirits under his command (or salutors, as The Thaumaturge calls them) to attack or inflict various ailments upon his foes. Knowing how to use various salutors effectively is the key to victory. Or, at least, so the game tells me; even after switching to hard difficulty I got by unscathed for most of the game, just by focusing on maximizing damage in short bursts to make sure I didn’t have to fight multiple foes for too long.

I think the general idea of the combat is pretty cool in concept, but the relatively simplistic strategy - along with how infrequently it occurs - makes it feel more like something the developers felt they had to include for the sake of having combat, rather than being a natural addition. Combine that with the fact that the mysteries in the story largely solve themselves independent of player thought or decision-making, and the end result is a game that feels like it isn’t quite certain it wants to even be a game. The Thaumaturge struggles to find interesting things for the player to do to keep them invested while the plot unfolds largely independently.

In fairness, there are titles out there that do succeed with relatively minimal player input. The Wolf Among Us, for instance, is a great little mystery title that, despite the illusion of player choice, actually changes very little depending on what you do. Such releases generally succeed by having a compelling story and characters that I can’t help but keep watching, even if I’m little more than a spectator just pressing a button to move things forward. Which brings us to the next question: how good is The Thaumaturge’s story?

The answer is… fine. It’s certainly not bad, but I’d also be hard pressed to say it got me particularly invested until the very end. The Thaumaturge operates on a very, very slow boil, taking time to establish its characters, setting, and perhaps most of all, why you should care about any of it. This contrasts with great mystery titles, like the aforementioned Wolf Among Us, or Ghost Trick, which always immediately kick things off with some sort of major event, like rescuing someone in distress. While perhaps cliche, in a way that hook is necessary to draw the audience in and get them invested. The Thaumaturge’s attempt at a hook, conversely, is that… Wiktor has lost his powers and needs to ask around to try and get them back. This might work for an established character who we’re already familiar with and have investment in, but as a new protagonist in an entirely new IP, this has no real pull. There’s no reason for us to care about this character or his supposed lost powers. Heck, we don’t even know at that stage what his powers were even like beforehand, so it’s impossible to have anything to gauge it by.

Eventually, the plot speeds up and we get involved in a murder mystery, only for the setting to reset to Warsaw after about a couple of hours, so all the tension and intrigue has to rebuild all over again. This is something The Thaumaturge does repeatedly, self-sabotaging by finally building up an interesting pace, providing a very definitive conclusion to a particular mystery, and then taking a rather long time to build up and establish the next mystery.

The Ace Attorney series has something of a similar problem, in that its chapter structure necessitates each mystery be neatly resolved by the time the chapter ends, but it gets around this by quickly establishing the next mystery and why you should be invested when the new chapter begins. The average Ace Attorney case usually establishes a crime and victim within 5-10 minutes, at most, which is not only a good hook but a good reason to care about what the protagonist is going to investigate; people want to see justice done, after all. Tracking down a salutor in The Thaumatruge, conversely, usually starts with something incredibly vague, such as when Wiktor’s dad dies and the focus immediately shifts to… looking for something that’s missing from his office in order to finalize his will. As far as ways to get me invested go, that’s not one I would personally rate highly.

It’s a shame, too, because once you do finally get invested in the mysteries and the people being manipulated by the salutors, the experience is pretty interesting. There’s a lot of work done to make the various inhabitants of the world of The Thaumaturge interesting, and once a real reason to care is provided, this can be a hard game to put down. The world design and conflicts within it are also pretty interesting; the setting of Warsaw in 1905 manages to introduce a variety of intriguing real-world ideals that add depth to the narrative, such as classism, xenophobia, and a continent constantly on edge with World War I fast approaching. Talking to people and listening to what they have to say can get addicting very quickly, and there were multiple instances when I was in the middle of an investigation, ran out of time for the day, and had to force myself to turn the game off and go to bed. I think Fool’s Theory does have a real knack for writing some compelling, multi-faceted characters, with the dialogue to go with them, so I do hope that carries on over to whatever the developer tries next.

Speaking of dialogue, one final mixed point for the game comes from the voice acting. Like the story, it’s not bad, but it’s certainly not good either. Some lines are delivered well, while others are delivered with a degree of almost uncertainty, as if the voice actor had to pause and look back at their script to see what they were going to say. And this happens within the same characters; I almost wonder if the first take for each line was just used regardless of how good it sounded.

Overall, The Thaumaturge is an encouraging first start. All the fundamentals for a good story are nailed down, it’s just the presentation of said story that needs work, and ideally finding more meaningful ways to invest the player via the game’s interactive components. As for the final product itself, it’s certainly competent enough, if the prospect of a mystery with some light RPG elements sounds appealing, but don’t expect it to light your world on fire.


VGChartz Verdict


5.5
Acceptable

This review is based on a digital copy of The Thaumaturge for the PC, provided by the publisher.

Read more about our Review Methodology here

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