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  • Writer's pictureBarely Magic Mike

The Thaumaturge Review – An RPG Adventure with Demonic Twists

You’ve all likely had the same burning question on your mind from the moment you clicked on this video, so let me keep you waiting no longer.  Because I, too, asked what the heck a Thaumaturge is from the moment I heard of this game’s announcement, and frankly none of the trailers have, in my opinion, managed to explain it especially well.  So, after playing through The Thaumaturge’s fascinating slice of historical fantasy, let me describe it in my own words.

A Thaumaturge is someone with a preternatural ability to read people – not just through the subtext of their words or nuances of their body language, but through a seemingly invisible connection between a person, any objects they interact with and thoughts they had at the time.  Wiktor Szulski, who serves as the game’s protagonist and namesake, uses this to learn, manipulate and investigate through a wide variety of unique scenarios that make up the runtime of The Thaumaturge.

 The Thaumaturge begins as Wiktor learns of the untimely passing of his father, whose will is soon to be read back in their home city of Warsaw.  While Wiktor doesn’t take kindly to returning to Warsaw, a city he clearly has little fondness for, he reluctantly arrives and soon becomes embroiled with a cast of colorful characters who delighted, intrigued and disgusted me in sometimes equal measure.

As you’ll quickly learn, much of the strength of The Thaumaturge lies in its writing.  The game is extremely well-written, with a richness of lore and care toward its characters that often evokes memories of Disco Elysium, albeit without quite the same literary pedigree.  That said, just like with Disco Elysium, if you’re going to play The Thaumaturge you should be warned that this is a game with a lot of reading.  Much of Wiktor’s interaction with the environment involves scanning for letters, newspaper clippings, and other objects that give you information about Warsaw, the people in it, and often the people who held or read them prior.  Even something as simple as a discarded apple core will leave an emotional imprint readable by a thaumaturge, and give an additional clue as to what mindset the person who discarded it was in.  The result is that each time you find one of these objects, there’s usually a paragraph or three of fairly dense lore to read – interesting, well-written lore, don’t get me wrong – but lore you’ll need to read if you want to get much of anything out of the experience.  This is a slower-paced game were stopping and smelling the roses… or, investigating whoever last smelled them, as it were, is really the main conceit and one to be well-prepared for before you get into it.

That’s not to say that’s all the game consists of though, as The Thaumaturge’s turn-based combat system has a sizeable role as well, even if it ultimately takes a backseat to the plot.  But before I get to the combat, I’d be remiss not to bring up the subject of salutors.  In the world of The Thaumaturge, a salutor is a sort of demon – a supernatural parasite that, while invisible to non-thaumaturges, visibly latches itself to ordinary people who possess particular flaws.  Wiktor himself has a salutor named Upyr who has followed him through his life, latching onto his flaw of Pride, which is fed into each time you choose an egotistical conversation option when talking with others.  The level of pride you have as you make your way through the game will lock or unlock future dialogue options that may be relevant to it, making the decision to feed it feel impactful even if you’re not quite sure where it will lead.  

There are quite a few conversation options in The Thaumaturge, as this is a heavily choice-driven RPG.  I’ll admit that most decisions felt fairly minor, but several more major ones that influence your pride level, character relationships and story outcomes did start to feel more impactful as the story went on.  The bulk of the game has Wiktor searching for his father’s grimoire, a thaumaturgical tool of sorts that was left to him in his will.  His journey will take him across several districts of Warsaw, often finding people who are haunted by their own salutors who Wiktor will happily tame and use for his own purposes.  Sniffing these people out is a process of exploration, but not of deduction, at least not in the form that grants the player any agency.  Oftentimes revealing a character’s Flaw will be a matter of using your Thaumaturge senses – a collection of red particles that shoot out from Wiktor and work as a pathfinding system to lead you to your objective – to search around the environment for items associated with the Flaw until Wiktor assembles these clues into a connection that allows him to respond with a new dialogue option.  The experience of doing this was actually fairly compelling even if there wasn’t much gameplay to it, but I pin that down to the game’s strong writing and really great lore that makes Warsaw and its various inhabitants feel like real people with real problems.  It’s a game that tends to prefer well-developed and nuanced characters to good and evil caricatures, and that makes its narrative strengths feel all the more potent. 

Successfully coercing salutors to show themselves upon revealing a person’s flaw felt satisfying even if I didn’t really do much other than walk around and read things.  To that effect, I actually highly recommend doing the game’s side quests.  While I didn’t do every single one, the ones I played were incredibly interesting, and varied between learning about an anti-Thaumaturge society, investigating a party that ended in a man falling off a balcony to his death and using my thaumaturgy to investigate what happened and why, or learning about Wiktor’s past by having one of his Salutors take him on a walk through his own memories.  The main side quests are worth doing, but the “urban secrets” category of side quests are… less so.  These are less related to Wiktor and more about the goings-on of the citizens of Warsaw.  They add to the game’s lore in a charming way, but don’t offer much beyond a bunch of additional reading, which is a good thing if you’re into it and not a huge loss if you aren’t.

I’ve mentioned Salutors in the context of The Thaumaturge’s story, but they also play a major role in combat, and the recruitment of additional ones will give you more options against your enemies.  Combat isn’t an altogether frequent thing in The Thaumaturge and I think that’s a good thing – because while the game’s combat system is fun and requires a bit of thinking to get through unharmed, its design clearly favors simplicity and approachability over anything else.  And this is a point I want to get across really firmly to major fans of deep, complex RPGs who are looking to The Thaumaturge for their next fix – this game has a lot to offer, but a rich, highly customizable combat system isn’t one of those things.  The Thaumaturge quite intentionally lacks many hallmarks of a traditional RPG – there are no shops, no currency, no items of any kind aside from ones relevant to the story, and no stats to level up as you gain more power.  In fact, while combat does give you experience to gain Thaumaturgy points that go into your skill tree, most experience is gained outside of combat through conversation and exploration.  When you enter combat, there is literally nothing to prepare for aside from accessing the skill tree to ensure your Thaumaturgy points have been spent.  That’s because you enter each combat encounter with full health and heal up entirely once the encounter is done.

The skill tree is another aspect of the game that, while well-done, is on the simplistic side.  While you can choose what skills to focus on first, you’re not going to be making any huge game-changing decisions here, as ultimately you’ll end up buying most of the skills on the tree without having to make any difficult choices.  While many skills come with a passive buff like increasing your maximum health or adding to your pool of focus points (more on that in a bit), most of them give buffs that can be assigned to particular attacks.

Combat is turn-based, but whose turn comes first depends on which attacks are chosen, as can be handily viewed on the timeline at the top of the screen during each combat scenario.  In any given round you may do a light, quick attack, or skip the round to save your strength and unleash a heavier attack in the next one.  Each attack in Wiktor’s repertoire will have a certain waiting period associated with it, and selecting the attack itself will show you on the timeline at what point it’s expected to land.  While Wiktor’s basic attacks vary in damage by how long you’re willing to wait for them to execute, he also has a focus attack that whittles down an enemy’s focus, and an extra powerful attack that can be performed only when an enemy’s focus has been entirely broken.  Determining whether your best course of action is to break an enemy’s focus or just hammer them with regular attacks until they go down is a common strategic necessity in The Thaumaturge but is also made a bit more complex by the presence of your Salutors.

See, for each attack Viktor gets, he’s also allowed to summon one of his Salutors to execute one as well.  Each of them has a completely different set of moves, and sometimes enemies will have buffs that will require a specific salutor to break.  Unfortunately, this is much less interesting than it sounds in practice.  For example, one enemy may only take 20% of the damage you deal unless you use any one of Upyr’s attacks to permanently disable the buff.  Which attack doesn’t matter, and as soon as it’s done, the buff completely ceases to matter for the rest of the combat encounter.  It’s a mechanic that feels like it needs higher stakes to truly feel strategically interesting, and mostly just began to feel like a brief nuisance the further I got into the game.

There are some debuffs in the game’s combat that can make things a little more interesting, but oddly enough the Salutors’ abilities can be so overpowered that many of these cease to matter much at all.  For example, if an enemy slashes at you with a sword you may get a bleeding debuff that causes you to gain additional passive damage.  But one of your salutors has the ability to transfer all of your debuffs to an enemy and take a notch off of their focus, with no limitations as to how often you can use this ability; it merely takes up a turn.  The result is that while there’s some strategy required in determining which enemies to take out, how and when, paying even the slightest amount of attention will all but assure victory every time.  Seriously – on the balanced difficulty option, which serves as the normal setting, I only ever died twice, and both times were in the same battle and due to me misunderstanding a mechanic.  Once I figured it out, I had no trouble winning.

There is a more challenging difficulty level that I tried for a bit, but it doesn’t seem to do much more than make you take more damage, and given the lack of complexity in the overall combat I didn’t feel like losing more often would add much to the fun.  So ultimately, if you want a challenge, you can up the difficulty if you so choose, but know that the game really wasn’t designed to accommodate a high level of challenge, so those looking for it are likely to be disappointed either way.

I wasn’t though, to be clear!  I actually quite enjoyed the game’s combat, as it was infrequent enough to not become a bother while being just complex enough to make me have to think.  I don’t think it’s interesting enough to avoid wearing out its welcome after 20+ hours, as I felt some stinging repetition in the third act, but overall, it does a surprisingly decent job of adding a dimension to the game without taking the focus away from the story.

While the story is the focus of The Thaumaturge and a strong one at that, I do want to set a couple of expectations around it.  While I found the game to be fairly polished and stable, there is some jankiness around continuity and believability that are worth a mention.  Some are very minor, like a scene where Wiktor introduces himself to someone he’s already met, or weird hiccups in dialogue where somebody will say something like “are you coming with us?” and all Viktor will say in response is “Thanks!”.  For those who heard that and got Vietnam-war-style flashbacks to playing the abysmal Shenmue III where these issues were so widespread as to turn the entire game into a parody of itself, know that it’s not remotely as bad as that here, even if it can add an aloofness to the game in the grand scheme of things.  My favorite example is a pivotal moment early on where a man is extremely angry with his wife at something she’s done, and I, as Wiktor, urge him that he loves his wife, and to hear her out before doing anything rash.  To this, the man replied “ok” and then he and his wife hug with no additional dialogue and that’s the end of the scene.  You can, of course, kind of infer that he had a change of heart, but the way this actually plays out is far too mechanical and abridged to make much actual sense.  Another example is a side quest where two women are flirting with you and up comes a challenger to fight you and win their hearts.  Well… you fight.  And you defeat this ignorant challenger that doesn’t realize you have a bunch of demon Pokeballs, so to speak, in your back pocket.  And then… literally nothing happens.  There’s no additional dialogue with the women and the side quest just anticlimactically ends.

I didn’t see many examples of this, but there are enough of them to make a few of the quests feel a little bit unfinished.  Add into the mix that the subtitles often don’t quite match up with the English dialogue, and there’s just enough narrative jank here to occasionally break immersion.

What thankfully doesn’t break immersion (at least not usually) is The Thaumaturge’s presentation.  The art design especially here is really on point, presenting us with a version of early 1900s Warsaw that feels alive and full of character.  You’ll explore lavish parties, poverty-stricken districts high in crime, churches, synagogues, seedy bars, brothels and everything in between.  Each place feels distinct and appropriate for the tone it’s trying to convey, and overall I really enjoyed the game’s look.  Technically, the visuals can be a little more of a mixed bag, though.  While textures and scenery look great overall, character models look quite a bit more dated, but ultimately get the job done.  The salutor designs, on the other hand, look pretty universally excellent and very creative.  Graphics settings are pretty robust thankfully, with options for just about any upscaling method or graphical setting you can think of.  Despite having system requirements on the slightly higher side with the recommendation being a 3060Ti or higher, I committed most of the game to playing on the Steam deck where it was playable, albeit not without its problems. 

The settings of the game do have a Steam Deck-specific configuration that turns most settings to their bare minimum and requires the use of an upscaler, resulting in decent visual quality and a frame rate that mostly hits 40 fps but sometimes dips below.  In the most demanding areas, I did see it dip into the high 20s and have the game chug along in the process, but given its slow-paced and turn-based nature, it didn’t affect the gameplay in any way.  I will say though, for all interested, I’d recommend using TSR as your upscaling method rather than FSR3.  While it’s nice to have FSR3 available and it does a good job of cleaning up the image, it often takes a moment to do so every time there’s a change in camera angle, resulting in a ton of scenarios where you’re briefly looking at a blurry, pixelated mess that, in a split second, forms itself back into a cleaner image before doing so again the next time a new character speaks.  It’s not horrible, but it’s definitely distracting and can often make the game look much more noisy than it otherwise would.

On the sound design front, I have very few complaints about The Thaumaturge.  The music is really well done across the board, and the voice actors, especially Wiktor’s, do a fantastic job of bringing the game’s narrative to life.  There are some minor supporting voice actors that are pretty bad, but they are minor enough roles that it’s hard to notice it much in the context of the rest of the game.

Overall, I found a lot to like about The Thaumaturge.  The story is great and kept me compelled throughout, the writing does a fantastic job of bringing Warsaw and its characters to life, and while the gameplay systems are pretty simplistic to satisfy die-hard RPG veterans, everything exists in service to the story and does a good-enough job in that regard.  I don’t suspect this will be a game for everyone, but those who can handle all of the reading and heavy story focus will be treated to one of the richest, most interesting settings in a modern game, and an experience that’s likely to stick with you for some time to come.  The Thaumaturge gets a silver genie lamp of approval!

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