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The Thaumaturge Review

Demons are unexplored fragments of our minds

I went into The Thaumaturge knowing nothing about it other than being drawn to its immaculate depiction of Warsaw’s industrialised cobblestones and the promise of a supernatural undercurrent. Only a handful of hours in, after the superb opening that perfectly sets the tone and introduces players, I started to think back to an influential roleplaying game from 15 years ago. The Witcher, you may have heard of it. It is only as I was nearing the credits that I realised that the developer Fool’s Theory is helmed by staff who worked on the seminal CD Projekt Red original and its upcoming remake! Before I jump into why this experience evoked similar feelings, just know that if you enjoyed Geralt’s now harshly dated initial outing, you’re probably going to love The Thaumaturge.

Welcome to glorious Warsaw, 1905. Keep your eyes down as you tread the muddy boroughs. Keep a cool head and a sharper tongue in the cobblestoned city centre, careful not to provoke striking labourers, the deceptive glares of your peers among the social elite, or the occupying forces of the Romanovs. As you navigate with your trusty leather grimoire bound at the hip, a spectre that only people of your talents can perceive hovers at your shoulder. Returning from miracle work abroad and uncovering your estranged father’s untimely death in Warsaw, we learn about the clashing politics of advancing, cold modernisation and the struggle to keep culture and folklore alive in the face of a dominating imperial presence. 

Face it, we’ve all been here

So, we’ve got a cold and grey world inhabited by this diminishing presence of magic in the face of urbanisation and industrialisation. Familiar, no? Well, let’s tick another box of comparison. Leading this choice-heavy roleplaying game is the silver-tongued yet soft-spoken magician, Wiktor (pronounced with a “v”, of course). Like our favourite white-haired monster slayer, we begin knowing nothing about Wiktor and his sardonic, dry wit. As we listen to his internal monologuing, deciphering the psychic essences imbued in this challenged world and times, we are slowly enveloped by this mysterious character and the stage on which he performs his miracles. And to sprinkle some spice into this twist on a historical time and place, we have our very own celebrity buddy to consult the one and only Grigori Ra-Ra-Rasputin!

The Thaumaturge is mostly about immersing yourself in dialogue, writing, and unsettling dilemmas. There is combat, but it is infrequent and scripted to only appear at particular junctions as the plot progresses. It is a nice, turn-based tactical wrinkle for when you need to let your eyes and emotions rest after or during a difficult investigation. As you seek the cause of your father’s demise, you will fall in (or out) with gangs, fascist cells, your prickly family, police, peasants, the Russian military, and the emotional ghosts that haunt them all. These otherworldly beings that lurk in an intangible space are called salutors, feeding on and influencing peoples’ emotions. Wiktor’s job as a thaumaturge is to seek out these beings, fighting them with his grimoire and finally liberating them to his own ends. They, in turn, will provide Wiktor the ability to harness the powers of their emotional manipulation. This leads to rich ethical dilemmas around how you, the player, will define Wiktor’s values as you learn more about his shady history and troubled relationships. 

The hubris of street gangs thinking they have you outnumbered

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Wiktor’s thaumaturge abilities do an admirable double duty between gameplay and narrative. You may gain skill points which can be invested in the game’s four emotional facets of mind, heart, deed, and word. Though these are linear and almost entirely locked behind your progress in the story, they are novel in granting powerful modifiers to your basic combat abilities, as well as unlocking hidden nuggets of narrative in the world that might inform your deductions. In combat, a certain adeptness in traits like mind may be necessary to counteract a strong-willed enemy trait. Likewise, your salutors each have a set of four skills that provide unique utility in combat. These range from specialising in healing to dealing damage over time or causing an enemy to become unfocused and vulnerable. Its rather prescriptive turn-based combat is not particularly deep or varied, to the point of becoming repetitive in the final hours, but it is nonetheless rock solid in its simplicity and execution. 

Players navigate Warsaw from the bird’s eye, with a fixed camera that can only be zoomed and not panned. As you run about its several modestly-sized hubs, the camera’s frame allows for every environmental detail to find its place in a way that draws the player’s curiosity. No single element of this world feels arbitrary or misplaced, and what can be interacted with will serve either the progression of your concurrent plotlines or draw you deeper into its worldbuilding by reflecting the effects of your decisions in the littered notes, posters, and newspapers. This is no immersive sim, and your interactions are signposted to you, but if you are willing to be led by the hand or your natural intrigue, you will be rewarded. Whether it be by stoking your fascination with the period setting or stumbling onto your next mystery. 

Warsaw is home to some utterly memorable reprobates

Outside of the few dozen brief combat encounters and exploration, conversations and reading are the primary drivers of this game. Every conversation is cinematically framed and believably written. From every chosen dialogue option to handwritten notes and mysterious dreams, the expertise of the writing seeps into every detail of the world. If you approach this game on its terms, there’s an unforgettable world within where turning over every stone feels as though you’ve deduced your own path and uncovered secrets that empower your version of Wiktor’s story. There is nothing superfluous about anything that you see or encounter in The Thaumaturge, which is a wonderful philosophy of this team’s craft in action that was very much evident in The Witcher. 

There is the opportunity for dry comedy to occur in the conversations you encounter on Warsaw’s politically mired streets. I had Wiktor encounter a rally of frustrated townsfolk believing their modern grievances to be the work of the city’s thaumaturges misusing their emotional magic. Surrounded by this disgruntled rabble who identified Wiktor’s grimoire, effectively his vocational badge, I tested the waters. I succeeded in talking my way out of an impending fight by choosing the unorthodox option from one of three provocative dialogue choices. With no guarantee of success, I was amused to see Wiktor telling the rabble that there are many common causes for their struggles, such as not sexually satisfying their partners. Off they run home to test this thesis, convinced by the calm wisdom spouted by our gentlemanly fellow.

There’s more than a few emotional kicks to the gut

Not all is perfect, however. The third act of The Thaumaturge sped by at a fraction of the time its excellent preceding portions did. It was crammed with arbitrary fights at every turn, throwing aside plot threads with abandon and rocketing to one of a decent variety of endings that was resolved in very underwhelming slideshows or fades to black. By the close of the second act, and having completed every inch of the game by this point, I had barely accrued more than half of the salutors and was teased with much more gameplay to come. Going back to try another ending, I was shocked to discover that the third act continues to speedily shuffle Wiktor down a very narrow corridor and flaunted my powerlessness in my face by greying out entire conversations because I didn’t meet arbitrary narrative or skill checks that the game gave me no possible way of meeting. I hate to suggest that a game has potentially rushed its scope when I have no understanding of its developments, but my conclusions fell mightily short of the stakes leading up to it on both the narrative and combat fronts. 

Final Thoughts

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There is a very specific person who will find this game utterly compelling and won’t be able to put it down. This tale of industrialisation colliding with culture and superstition in pre-WW1 Poland has every confidence in itself and begs for your curiosity as you get to know the mysterious Wiktor Szulski and his hunt for emotion-hungry demons. This game is an immediate, though flawed, all-timer and belongs in the Polish canon of interactive literature for generations to come.

Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher

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The Thaumaturge Review
Click To The Heart
Wiktor Szulski battles with Geralt as my favourite Polish RPG protagonist in this impressive dialogue-driven mystery that deserves a franchise.
The Good
Expert worldbuilding and attention to detail
An immersive, deeply political Warsaw that feels authentic despite its supernatural themes
Wiktor is an excellent protagonist with outstanding writing and acting
Every element of writing is cleverly placed
The Bad
Building your character is prescriptive and can feel gated by the plot at times
The simplicity of combat eventually becomes repetitive and tired
Final act felt rushed and unsatisfying
8.5
Get Around It
  • Fool’s Theory
  • 11 bit studios
  • PC
  • March 5, 2024

The Thaumaturge Review
Click To The Heart
Wiktor Szulski battles with Geralt as my favourite Polish RPG protagonist in this impressive dialogue-driven mystery that deserves a franchise.
The Good
Expert worldbuilding and attention to detail
An immersive, deeply political Warsaw that feels authentic despite its supernatural themes
Wiktor is an excellent protagonist with outstanding writing and acting
Every element of writing is cleverly placed
The Bad
Building your character is prescriptive and can feel gated by the plot at times
The simplicity of combat eventually becomes repetitive and tired
Final act felt rushed and unsatisfying
8.5
Get Around It
Written By Nathan Hennessy

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