The Thaumaturge review – ghosts of Warsaw

The Thaumaturge review – ghosts of Warsaw

The Thaumaturge – 20th century magic (Picture: 11 Bit Studios)

A Baldur’s Gate style RPG set in 1900s Warsaw, with yōkai style supernatural monsters, makes for one of the most unique games of the year.

As the video games industry blunders blindly into a new era, one of the big questions is whether major publishers will go back to making AA games. That is, games that are not indie but are also clearly not on the scale of current blockbusters. Every publisher used to, up to the end of the Xbox 360 era, but nowadays the attitude is all or nothing when it comes to video game budgets.

In the last decade or so indie developers have, to some degree, helped to fill the gap, to the point where we’re not really sure whether to classify The Thaumaturge as indie or AA. It’s definitely higher budget than many traditional indie titles, and its ambitions are higher still, even if it’s clear that Polish developer Fool’s Theory has bitten off more than they can chew in some areas.

As an old school computer role-player we’re sure they had an eye on the success of Larian Studios and Baldur’s Gate 3, but while this is nowhere even close to that quality it is good to see the old genre still thriving, especially when it comes to a game with such a strange and unique setting as this.

We’re not convinced that calling your game something nobody can spell is a terribly good idea, especially when it comes to Google, but for the record a thaumaturge is someone who works miracles or uses magic. In this case you take the role of a thaumaturge named Wiktor Szulski, who can see and interact with supernatural beings call salutors, that work essentially like a Polish version of Japanese yōkai.

The game is set in Warsaw in 1905, when the city was still annexed by the Russia Empire but on the cusp of revolution. That’s an interestingly unique setting for a video game but spoiled by the American voiceovers and poorly translated script. It’s a shame the dialogue is so poor, because the actual story is interesting, with Wiktor having been away for 15 years, as he returns to investigate what happened to his deceased father and why his powers are waning.

Wiktor is essentially a supernatural detective, with one of his primary abilities being psychometry – allowing him to gain information from objects, and whoever has interacted with them, via touch. Often this is just raw emotions, which all seems very spooky and exciting, but mechanically speaking all you’re doing is clicking on glowing objects one at a time, until you’ve hoovered up all the information in an area.

As usual in games about detectives, there’s no actual detective work. But while it is admittedly very difficult to make that work in a game, the likes of Return Of The Obra Dinn and The Case Of The Golden Idol have managed the feat. Here’s it’s essentially busywork as you track down a salutor and then try to remove the character trait that is attracting them to a particular person, from pride to recklessness.

You’re able to use salutors you already have to influence this, along with traditional dialogue choices, but the game’s very inconsistent about when you can use your powers. It seems a lot of time you should’ve been able to conclude your business without having to get into a fight or use your salutor to avoid dialogue options that are clearly a bad idea.

The Thaumaturge – most of your opponents are surprisingly mundane (Picture: 11 Bit Studios)

Salutors can also be used in combat, which is turn-based and not dissimilar to Persona. This offers a wide range of different abilities, with different status attacks more effective against different enemies. It’s fine, but outside of boss fights it never offers much of a challenge, especially as you can change salutors almost instantly. As a result, your enthusiasm for what is otherwise a perfectly entertaining combat system quickly begins to fade, especially as the vast majority of enemies are normal-looking humans.

In gameplay terms, The Thaumaturge has its moments, but we were always most interested in the historical setting and began to wish that was the focus, without the supernatural element – or maybe just the psychometry. Given his long absence, Wiktor is treated as an outsider by many, even those that knew him from before, and the tension between the various ethnic groups and social classes is very well drawn.

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We’re convinced it’s just the translation of the dialogue that’s a fault because there is depth to the characters, just a lack of polish to their presentation. The most interesting parts of the games aren’t the increasingly routine fights but the exploration of nationhood and identity, in a country that technically hasn’t existed for a hundred years, at the time the game is set, and is clearly ready to explode.

There’s lots of interesting aspects to The Thaumaturge but as an overall experience it doesn’t really add up. The combat feels increasingly like an afterthought, the voiceovers are distractingly bad, and even the overarching story falls apart in the final hours. The most successful element by far is the evocation of early 20th century Warsaw and you do get the feeling that was the part the developer was most interested in too.

The Thaumaturge review summary

In Short: A historical supernatural role-player whose portrayal of Warsaw under Russian rule is highly compelling but where the combat and simplistic detective elements fail to engage.

Pros: The setting is interesting and well-drawn, with lots of engaging characters and conflicts. The concept of salutors is interesting and had potential in terms of both combat and detective work.

Cons: The combat is overly easy and features too many human enemies. Detective gameplay requires no skill or deduction. The dialogue is bad and the voiceovers worse.

Score: 5/10

Formats: PC (reviewed), Xbox Series X/S, and PlayStation 5
Price: £29.50
Publisher: 11 Bit Studios
Developer: Fool’s Theory
Release Date: 4th March 2024
Age Rating: 18

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