The Thaumaturge Review – World of Warsaw

The Thaumaturge Review – World of Warsaw

Platforms: Windows PC, Steam

Game Name: The Thaumaturge

Publisher: 11 bit studios

Developer: Fool's Theory

Genre: Adventure, RPG

Release Date: March 4th, 2014

The Thaumaturge by Fool’s Theory

The Thaumaturge is an ambitious RPG set in a carefully considered alternate history Poland during the twilight of the Russian empire.

We Are All Russians Now

Intertwining personal stories with the political and the mythological, its vision of Warsaw under Tsarist occupation feels remarkably pointed given current world events. Despite the numerous supernatural elements, it’s the presence of real characters from an exceptionally tumultuous era, especially for Russian and, by extension, all of Eastern European history that makes the largest impact.

Wiktor Szulski, our main character (and the thaumaturge referenced by the game’s title) returns to his home city just in time to see the installation of Georgi Skalon as Warsaw’s Governor General, for example. The historical Skalon was known for a heavy-handed approach to dissent that led to mass civilian casualties.

The Thaumaturge, game screenshot, Rasputin
Similarly, an important NPC throughout the game is none other than Grigori Rasputin, the imperial advisor, mystic, and magician. He’s a perfect thematic choice for multiple reasons, given the game’s integration of the magical, the political, and the historical.

The Spirits of the Times

Further building upon the blurred intersections of that particular Venn diagram is the game’s magical system itself, built around spirits called “Salutors” that draw from Slavic myth, attach themselves like vampires or succubi to humanity’s uglier impulses, and sew discord and violence.

The Thaumaturge, game screenshot, a Salutor called a Bukavac
Whether these spirits serve as a metaphor for the way conflict and propaganda turn patriotic sentiment toward jingoism, bigotry, and violence is probably too big a question to be answered by a humble video game critic, but I have my suspicions.

Thaumaturges and Evil Urges

Thaumaturges like our hero Wiktor are magicians that can exorcise and bind Salutors, then draw on their powers, but it comes with a catch: the more one leans into a particular Salutor’s powers, the more the spirit amplifies his own flaws.

Wiktor’s starting Salutor, for example, is connected to Wiktor’s own flaw of pride, which connects to a number of story and dialogue choices. Keep selecting the handily marked “Pride” responses in conversations, and both your powers and your “Flaw” grow, affecting later story and conversation arcs.

The Thaumaturge, game screenshot, the Upyr and its powers

Needless to say, there’s an old saying about what “goeth before a fall.”

Additional Salutors – you can capture over a half-dozen throughout the game, a bit like Pokémon if From Software did the concept art – come with their own powers and flaws, similarly affecting the story.

Fighting and Focus

While the game’s turn-based combat tends initially – and perhaps a little surprisingly – more to bar fights and tussles with Russian soldiers, the supernatural elements move to the forefront as things progress with the ability to switch Salutors mid-fight to address specific opponents’ weaknesses.

The “Focus” statistic is nearly as important as the standard health bar, and taking out an enemy’s Focus – with your Salutors’ powers, of course – sets you up to strike that all-important death blow.

The Thaumaturge, game screenshot, fight scene with a Salutor disabling an enemy
Enemies have specific defenses that require particular Salutor powers to demolish. Again, it’s a bit like selecting the right Pokémon for a battle, albeit colored by a little more complexity and a lot more bleak Slavic horror.

Boss fights against Salutors are a bit more complicated, with the Salutors sending multiple possessed humans after you, but fights are overall challenging enough to be engaging without being overly difficult or complicated.

Mystery over Melee

And combat isn’t even The Thaumaturge’s most appealing mechanic!

That honor goes to the psychic detection and mystery-solving. Wiktor can pick up traces of events just by touching objects, and once you’ve used your psychic senses on enough things to put a story together, you can even use your powers as a sort of hypnotism to influence other people into confessing their crimes or helping you in other ways.

The Thaumaturge, game screenshot, using magic to manipulate people
It’s a great way of using fairly standard adventure game and RPG tropes to lean into a more story and character-driven experience over the good old-fashioned fight-and-loot loop and puts The Thaumaturge into the rarefied company of such critical favorites as Citizen Sleeper and Disco Elysium.

Supernatural Sights and Sounds

The presentation matches the ambition of the setting and story, to positive results…mostly.

The monster design is especially fantastic, mixing the gothic horror of Dark Souls and its many imitators with a touch of Clive Barker creature design. Wiktor’s own psychic powers are depicted as a current of crimson, jewel-toned mist leading toward quest objectives, a masterful visual choice that works perfectly with the game’s mood.

The Thaumaturge, game screenshot, boss fight with the Bukavac

The environments are exquisitely done, from the run-down village of the prologue to the streets of Warsaw to the details of Wiktor’s family estate, all creating a world that feels both alive and historically accurate in all the right places.

A delicate score featuring soft string waltzes and haunting, wordless vocals enhances both the historical setting and the more ghostly elements.

Finding Flaws

On the other hand, the voice acting is a Las Vegas buffet of accents, which can be a distraction; some voice actors are great, like Wiktor’s uncle Voronin, while others are distinctly amateurish. The inconsistency is distracting.

The Thaumaturge, game screenshot, Uncle Voronin

The same goes for the characters themselves; some are stunning, and a lot of work obviously went into the character design, but some NPCs are on the wrong side of the uncanny valley. I also spotted some occasional glitches and weird collisions during cut-scenes.

That, along with a few other minor missteps like a joke character who “made a left turn at Albuquerque,” detract from the immersion, and it’s a bit frustrating because The Thaumaturge would have been equally compelling without extensive 3D animation thanks to its mechanics and story alone.

It would have been just as good with 8-bit graphics and still character portraits for dialogue scenes. The setting, story, and even the mechanics are that good.

The Thaumaturge, game screenshot, Wiktor and the Upyr

The Verdict

Still, my few complaints are trifling annoyances at worst. This an impressive effort on nearly every level, and I’d much rather play a game like The Thaumaturge that does something interesting and compelling with its setting, its characters, and its story despite a few rough edges than something that takes no risks.

Fool’s Theory, the studio behind this game, is currently at work remaking The Witcher, and based on what I’ve seen them do here, I can’t think of a better development team to take on such a project.

The Thaumaturge is available via the Sony PlayStation Store, Microsoft Xbox Store, and Steam.

Watch the trailer for The Thaumaturge below: