The Thaumaturge Review – A Spark of True Magic

The Thaumaturge Review

Last year was a banner year for RPGs, so I wasn’t looking for another gameworld to lose myself in. Let’s face it: what made 2023 so unusual was how many good RPGs came out. Any given year you can dredge through the depths of Steam and find dozens of new, uninspired RPG titles. Such was my hesitance in starting The Thaumaturge. Worry not, for I am here to tell you: The Thaumatruge is sort of undeniable.

It’s In His Veins

The opening moments of The Thaumaturge are all vibes. There is a bit of table setting: it is the year 1905, and the Russian Tsar has conquered Poland. The political system is a powderkeg, and nobody seems to be taking those upstart Communists very seriously, but you know and I know that they are going to successfully overthrow the Tsar in twelve years. The first cutscene follows Wiktor Szulski, a very dapper Polish guy who looks a little worse for the wear.

My impatience quickly got the better of me. Cool character design is a good start, but I need something significant. I need a hook. Where’s the RPG meat to really stick your teeth into. Then I meet my first major NPC, and his name is Grigory Rasputin. Aaaaaaaaand… I’m back in.

Rasputin is, of course, a magician of some talent, though at this point in the story he hasn’t quite risen to power yet. But the familiar face helped anchor me to the reality of this world, which allowed me to appreciate just the high quality of the game’s writing.

Join the Revolution!

I find this era of history fascinating, but it’s also a time that gave rise to a lot of really bad people with dangerous ideas. We are just emerging from a century of violent European colonialism. The fascist movement is beginning to come together. Two world wars are just around the corner. This story has a lot of potential for brilliance, but also a lot of potential for disaster. Fortunately, The Thaumaturge is whip smart, really taking the time to understand the dynamics underneath all this tension. The world feels deep enough that it becomes really fascinating to empathize with characters on their path towards evil.

All of this feeds into the story’s themes. Wiktor starts the story proud of his Polish heritage, which is a dangerous idea if Russian soldiers around. But more than his national pride, he is a Thaumaturge and he is seeking to grow his magical powers. A thaumaturge has special senses, which are a major mechanic in how you explore the game. Not only does it act as an excuse for the video game interface, but you can also read echos on objects to get an idea of their history.

Combat, an important part of many RPGs, is present in The Thaumaturge, and though it doesn’t feel quite as deep as the exploration, it feels pretty good. When in combat, an action bar appears at the top of the screen. Various combat actions take different amounts of time, which is the main resource you manage in battles Most of the time, you can see what the enemy is planning to do and so the strategy lies in the classic dichotomy between Fast and Strong. Do you get in a bunch of small hits or is it worth taking a beating to give a bigger beating out yourself? I wouldn’t say the combat is perfunctory, but I was grateful that for the most part, fights are brief. They remain exciting and rarely overstay their welcome.

A Bit of a Theory

The Thaumaturge is published by 11 Bit Studios, famous for serious titles like Frostpunk and This War of Mine. The company is based out of Poland, a country that is no stranger to hit video games, such as The Witcher. That’s not irrelevant either. The Thaumaturge is developed by Fool’s Theory, the studio who is also going to be responsible for the upcoming The Witcher 1 remake. That’s a series best known for its phenomenal writing but if you’ve never played the first game, you know it’s not flawless (Geralt can collect cringe nudie postcards of all the women he can bone down with). Not only do I believe that Fool’s Theory can adapt the older gameplay, I think they have the judgment to find the excellent story hidden at the core of a flawed but interesting 2007 release.

The more time I spend with The Thaumaturge, the more I settle into it. When you spend more time with any game you are bound to notice the edges of things, the literal and figurative invisible walls. But The Thaumaturge was more like a pair of shoes. As I learned the restrictions of what you couldn’t do in the game, it focused me towards things I could do, and they were all awesome. If you have been craving a dark fantasy RPG where you get to play as a John Constantine type, I have good news, The Thaumaturge is it. Anyone looking for their next interesting and original RPG, this is it!

***PC code provided by the publisher for review***

The Good

  • Fantastic setting
  • Well written story
  • Fun investigation and battle mechanics

The Bad

  • A lot of shades of brown
  • Music and sound design are unmemorable