The Thaumaturge Review – 1905 Warsaw Never Felt so Magical

8.6/10

An excellent RPG that offers a strong narrative, true player choice, and a fresh setting and magic system. The combat can be a bit repetitive, but its interesting systems mitigate that somewhat, and the real draw here is the role playing anyway.

Everyone has their own personal way of playing RPGs. Some folks like to clear the entire map and do all the achievements, some spend their time hoarding wheels of cheese in their house, and some people take the genre’s name seriously and role play their way through the game. Indeed, a big part of the magic of RPGs is the opportunity to express yourself through the game’s mechanics, whether that be dialog choices, how you level up your character, and whether you choose to help the people you meet or simply steal their stuff.

With Fool’s Theory’s new RPG, players who like to RP in their RPGs have a lot to sink their teeth into — and in a role and setting that isn’t the typical video game fare. The Thaumaturge takes place in the Warsaw of 1905, a city in the midst of cultural and social upheaval, and places the protagonist, Wiktor Szulski, smack-dab in the middle of these events. Naturally, you’ll get to decide if you care about the struggles of the people around you, or if you’re the kind of Wiktor who looks out only for Wiktor.

Perhaps The Thaumaturge’s biggest strength lies in the effective and well-researched way it presents it’s Warsaw (albeit a Warsaw that has magic). You get to see real life historical figures, and even interact with a few of them — the infamous Rasputin plays a critical role in the game’s story. The problems you solve for people are often ones that real people would have had in Warsaw in 1905 — excluding the more magic-related problems.

rasputin in game vs irl the thaumaturge
Rasputin IRL and in-game — the nose might be wrong, but otherwise it’s pretty close!

You see, it isn’t quite a 1:1 representation of Warsaw: there are people called Thaumaturges who use the power of spirits, known as Salutors, to perform feats of magic. Thaumaturges can read impressions on items like a kind of supernatural detective, and their Salutors can both influence people and harm them — Wiktor is basically Ash Ketchum meets Sherlock Holmes. Like the setting, the magic system is a fresh idea, and it’s used to great effect throughout the game.

bukovic cool character design the thaumaturge
The design of the Salutors is very, very cool

There’s a temptation to force information onto players here, especially when the game’s setting is likely to be an unfamiliar one. Instead, the developers at Fool’s Theory make much of the world building optional, or else weave it deftly into the game’s narrative and side quests. In fact, The Thamaturge does something I’ve never seen before with optional reading — they give you XP for it. Every single pamphlet on the ground, stray newspaper on a park bench, and mislaid shopping list gives you a decent bit of experience, even if you don’t actually scroll to the end. This encouraged me to wander each district of Warsaw I passed through, clicking on everything I could. Because of this, I also ended up reading a lot more of these sundry documents than I otherwise would have, and I think my experience was all the more enjoyable for it. (although I must confess I did not read the recipes).

I also found myself going through a lot more of the optional dialog than I usually would have. Not only does it often end up relevant to quests, but the writing was pretty darn good, and I continued to find myself engrossed in what was happening in 1905 Warsaw. I even avoided skipping the voice lines some of the time — usually I just read the subtitle and move to the next line, but the voice actors for the main character, Rasputin, and a number of other key characters do a fantastic job.

funny side dialog the thaumaturge

Sadly, the quality level of the voice acting is inconsistent, as are the accents; it was particularly jarring to have someone tell me in a very Western accent that they’re proudly born in Warsaw, and I kept waiting for the reveal that the girl with the New York accent was from New York — but unless I missed it, it never came. Given the general level of voice acting quality in games, however, the Thaumaturge still ends up on the right side of the aural bell curve thanks to the strengths of its main characters.

As alluded to earlier, you’ll be moving and shaking in this magically-flavored version of Warsaw, and the genuine sense of choice is another of The Thaumaturge’s strengths. Quite early on in the game, I ended up in jail (as is video game tradition), apparently due to a choice I made — but we all know that plenty of games make choice a bit of an illusion. So, I loaded up my save and approached the problem a different way, and lo and behold, I was able to avoid getting locked up.

This freedom exists throughout the game, as you’ll often be confronted with tough choices that have real consequences on not only the quest in question, but on the narrative as a whole: it was clear I did not get the “good” ending on my playthrough, and it seems likely there are at least a few endings to The Thaumaturge; the latter half of the game has a number of decisions that have real ramifications.

nice framing the thaumaturge
The cinemetography in the cutscenes is often quite nice

Additionally, you’ll often be confronted with dialog options and actions that play into your Flaw, which is a negative aspect of your personality that allowed you to attract a Salutor. Wiktor’s flaw is Pride, and while being prideful can certainly be a flaw, it can also be a source of strength: some dialog options will only be available if you’ve been prideful enough throughout the game. It’s risky, though: feed your Flaw too much, and it will make some dialog choices for you.

You’ll have the opportunity to collect other Flaws as the story progresses, and although they don’t give you new dialog options, they do come with Salutors attached. Let’s talk about these Salutors now, since they’re an integral part of the game’s combat — and we should probably talk about the combat at some point here. The Thaumaturge does a fairly standard turn based thing, but with a few unique wrinkles.

Both Wiktor and the Salutors get a turn, and you can use any of your available Salutors once it’s the Salutor’s turn. The challenge in combat is about how to use your powers and your Salutor’s abilities in conjunction, as the combat is combo-heavy. Additionally, Wiktor’s moves chain into other moves, but the second (and sometimes third) move in the chain is only available for one round after you use the initial move — planning a few rounds ahead is crucial to success.

combat scene 2 the thaumaturge

The different Salutors are all quite unique in how they operate, and all have different strengths. Furthermore, most enemy’s will have a trait that lets them resist damage or shrug off negative status effects. These traits can be removed by attacking the enemy with a specific Salutor, or by reducing their Focus to zero.

Unfortunately, the Focus removal mechanic is probably overtuned: I found that one of the Salutors I picked up about midway through the game — one that let me attack my enemy’s Focus — was incredibly effective when combined with Wiktor’s own Focus removal skills. Except for occasionally healing via one of the other Salutors, I pretty much stuck with the Focus draining strategy through the rest of the game, and was able to win most of the combat encounters first try (even after setting the difficulty to the highest).

Still, for players who aren’t dirty min-maxers like me, there are a lot of Salutors to play with, and there’s a fairly expansive upgrade tree that lets you hone in on the style of combat you like. That said, even with a lot of toys to play with, combat can get kind of repetitive. You spend the whole time fighting the same handful of dudes with swords or guns — even the boss fights when you’re capturing Salutors simply have the Salutor summon ghostly version of the same human enemies you’ve been fighting the whole game. I kept waiting for more interesting enemy types to show up, but it never happened.

boss fight the thaumaturge
The start of one of the boss fights

The combat encounters aren’t that long, fortunately, and I was enjoying them despite their repetitiveness up until I cracked the code and made them too easy — the sounds are nice and meaty, and the animations are also very cool, especially the Salutors’. Naturally, you can also avoid a fair number of combat encounters if you want, either by properly exploring the environment or by not always picking the Pride dialog option like I kept doing.

And properly explore the environment I did — Warsaw has been lovingly rendered, and you can tell the team is proud of their work, as there are plenty of spots that let you stand and admire the view. You’ll navigate the city with the help of your Thaumaturge powers, which serve both to highlight quest-related objects in the environment and to guide you to your currently selected objective. Each object has traces of the people who have interacted with it, and you use multiple traces to make a conclusion about the person’s actions and motivations — basically mind reading that requires you to first touch a chair someone sits in a lot.

investigating the thaumaturge

While there isn’t much to the system gameplay-wise — no puzzles to solve or any real challenge — the writing for the traces Wiktor finds on the objects is excellent, and really give you a sense of the person/event you’re currently investigating. Even though all I was doing was clicking on stuff in a room, it was still satisfying when the Draw Conclusion screen came up and I “figured out” what I was investigating. Besides, the real agency comes from the choices you make with the information you gather.

There’s arguably too much back-tracking through places you’ve already been, but it never really bothered me, as there seemed to always be new things to pick up and read (and gain that sweet, sweet XP). I was also motivated to keep jogging through the cobblestone streets thanks to the engaging story, which has multiple threads that come together in a very satisfying way. The story makes sense, and it always teases just one more secret, one more thread to pull. The characters have understandable motivations as well, and never did or said things that made me go “…but why?”, which I found refreshing.

There are also a ton of side quests and little “secrets of the city” to check out — the side quests are varied and interesting, and the secrets of the city are these small events that give you a bit of XP and a sketch of a scene. It’s a minor mechanic, but one I found very effective at helping me role play as Wiktor.

And ultimately, that’s what The Thaumaturge is all about. You get a chance to explore a time and place that is likely unfamiliar, do some cool magic, and engage with the story in a way that offers quite a lot of freedom. While the Thaumaturge isn’t a triple A game, and it is ocasionally rough around the edges, it does a great job of honing in on its strengths: being an RPG with a story to tell.

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DanielD
DanielD

Unabashed FromSoftware fanboy still learning to take his time with games (and everything else, really). The time he doesn't spend on games is spent on music, books, or occasionally going outside.

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