The Thaumaturge Review – An intriguing narrative RPG that blends early 20th century European history with supernatural fiction

Gare – Monday, March 4, 2024 7:00 PM
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The Thaumaturge is a game I’ve had my eye on for a while – created by developer Fool’s Theory, it transports players into a world of turmoil, uncertainty and conflict, mixing a very specific historical period with its own rich lore and fascinating supernatural elements, even reminding me of the illustrious Shadow Hearts series to a certain extent. It’s very much a narrative-centric RPG that utilizes some of my favorite elements of the genre: its morally ambiguous characters and multi-layered choices with consequences were right up my alley, while the storyline, tying personal drama into a larger context of political intrigue, has enough stakes to have an impact, but it never forces you into a clichéd, overly grandiose world-saving quest, either. The game has a few issues and flaws here and there, including some fairly glaring technical problems, but as far as I’m concerned, this doesn’t really change the bottom line that The Thaumaturge is an endlessly exciting and creative RPG with a lot to offer to anyone willing to dive into its world.

Warsaw revisited

The plot begins in the year 1905, with our protagonist, an exiled and deeply troubled thaumaturge named Wiktor Szulski, attempting to reconnect with his lost salutor – a personal demon of sorts that has been with him since childhood. Fate brings him together with none other than Grigori Rasputin, who manages to heal his condition, but Wiktor is then drawn back to his hometown of Warsaw upon learning of his father’s sudden demise. What begins as a fairly routine funeral visit soon turns into a quest for your father’s missing grimoire – as well as an investigation into the circumstances of his death – as Wiktor is forced to come face to face with Warsaw’s many prominent players, from the leaders of the upper elite to the schemers of its criminal underworld. The game’s historical setting of a Warsaw under the rule of the Russian Empire blends in seamlessly with the developers’ added lore concerning thaumaturges and their salutors – demonic beings based on Slavic folklore that only a select few can tame and control. Some are deeply impressed by their supernatural abilities, while others consider them a scourge on society – as a thaumaturge himself and a member of the prestigious Szulski family, Wiktor has to choose his allies carefully and decide how he intends to shape his destiny in these tumultuous times. As noted earlier, the plot never reaches a point where you suddenly need to slay a god to save the entire universe, but the stakes rise high enough where you can definitely feel the pressure of your choices and the impact of their consequences.

No secret is safe

The Thaumaturge’s gameplay elements are very much designed to complement the game’s narrative focus. While the adventure does indeed feature a decent amount of turn-based combat, the game’s focus generally remains on Wiktor using his thaumaturgical powers to solve mysteries, learn hidden secrets about people, and use all the information he’s gleaned to his advantage. As a thaumaturge, Wiktor is able to pick up on emotions and details about a person’s life by examining objects they had touched, meaning much of the game will involve poking around various locations in the city and slowly piecing together clues and morsels of information. Admittedly, this might get a little repetitive after a while, and it could very well turn some people off: The Thaumaturge’s basic gameplay loop, other than its occasional combat encounters, will mostly consist of following obvious waymarks, inspecting everything the game highlights for you, reading their contents, and... that’s about it – it’s Wiktor doing most of the detective work, not the player, so if you simply click on everything, you’ll never get stuck. However, for those that don’t mind looking at the game as more of an interactive book with turn-based combat, The Thaumaturge can be a veritable gold mine, as one of the main things that kept me invested throughout the adventure was the game’s terrific writing, and just how much there is to read – the dozens of journals, books, pamphlets and other bits of lore I found during my travels never failed to immerse me in whatever mystery or personal background I was investigating, and even after 30+ hours, I still enjoyed learning about the feelings, traumas and regrets of the people of Warsaw. The game’s unique atmosphere is further backed by a brilliant soundtrack that I’m sure will remind many people of The Witcher 3, with its somber, Slavic notes and dark, foreboding style.

That said, merely knowing people’s secrets is not always enough, and this is where your salutors come into play, with each one representing different psychological aspect such as Mind, Deed, Word and Heart. By gaining experience points and accumulating skill points, players will be able to allocate said points to improve these aforementioned aspects, many of which can be used in dialogue scenes to stealthily manipulate people or even potentially solve an otherwise impossible situation. How you play your cards and how you develop your thaumaturgical abilities can have a profound effect on the outcome of various quests; in fact, depending on your choices, some routes may end up being closed off forever, while certain other doors may unexpectedly open. The Thaumaturge places a heavy emphasis on letting the player feel the consequences of every decision, even the seemingly small ones, which the life-long roleplaying enthusiast in me greatly appreciated.

Upyr, I choose you!

Combat in The Thaumaturge is handled in a turn-based fashion, with players combining Wiktor’s physical actions (such as punches, gunshots and so on) with the psychic attacks of his salutors. You will tame four different salutors during the main storyline alone, and another four can be captured through optional sidequests for a total of eight – every creature has a vastly unique style, with each one excelling at different things, allowing you to try multiple different strategies when dealing with enemies. Wiktor’s physical actions can also be enhanced with optional and interchangeable bonuses that give each attack a secondary function of your choice, while salutors, other than dealing damage and dishing out various negative status effects, also serve another very important function: that is, disabling your enemies’ unique defensive traits. To clarify: most enemies you face in The Thaumaturge possess a unique trait that gives them a specific advantage, such as being immune to status effects or taking significantly less damage, just to name a few. By attacking these enemies with a specific salutor, you can then disable their trait and take them down much easier, which incentivizes you to use different demons in different situations. Another important aspect of combat comes in the form of the Focus system. Every enemy has a set number of Focus points, and you can think of them as sanity points, if you will. By using certain actions with both Wiktor and his salutors, you can gradually decrease your enemies’ Focus, eventually pushing them to a breaking point and making them vulnerable to powerful finisher attacks. Of course, it’s up to you to decide what strategy to use: the game’s many abilities, both from Wiktor and the salutors, interact with each other in a fairly natural way, making some of the more challenging combat encounters feel like a game of chess where you need to plan ahead and decide in advance which abilities and combinations would be best suited for your current situation.

The Thaumaturge isn’t a tremendously long game, with the main storyline being roughly 20 hours in length – in fact, a part of me wishes it was longer and slightly more fleshed out, just to give its characters more time to breathe. However, there is a decent amount of optional side content to keep you occupied. Some of these are fairly derivative collectible hunts, while others actually provide interesting and worthwhile side stories that not only flesh out Warsaw and its inhabitants, but can sometimes even lead to unlocking an optional salutor to add to your repertoire. I personally put a little over 30 hours into the game and still had several side activities unfinished when the credits started rolling (along with two optional salutors that I never ended up discovering), so while you shouldn’t expect The Thaumaturge to be a gargantuan epic like The Witcher 3 was, it’s certainly got a decent amount of meat on its bones to keep you busy.

Closing thoughts

The ThaumaturgePlatform: WindowsGenre: Adventure, RPGDeveloper: Fool's TheoryPublisher: 11 bit studiosRelease: 03/04/2024The Thaumaturge may lack the technical polish of bigger, higher-budgeted games, and it does suffer from pesky bugs and semi-frequent crashes, but such issues pale in comparison to just how gripping and enthralling I found its early 20th century world filled with dashing European demon-wizards and scheming, morally ambiguous historical figures. It’s a well-written, atmospheric journey where fact and fiction mingle boldly, supported by interesting side characters, political intrigue, and just the right amount of tactical, turn-based combat with a satisfying amount of customization. The Thaumaturge doesn’t shoot for the stars, but it doesn’t have to – even with its flaws, it’s got plenty of merits to make it stand out from the crowd and so, it gets a very strong recommendation from me.

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