I’ve finished my second playthrough of The Witcher a while ago and was planning on writing an opinionate in a timely manner. Which I failed at doing, as is the norm. But now that the sequel has been released it is high time for me to post my ramblings.
The Witcher (Wiedźmin) was the debut title of a Polish development studio called CD Projekt RED, which is a subsidiary of CD Projekt, the biggest Polish PC game publisher and one of the first to offer translated Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale series and Planescape Torment games (they later also launched the awesome GoodOldGames portal). The Witcher was, in my opinion, one of the most underrated RPGs of the previous decade. I’ll admit the game has its share of problems, but on the whole it’s a game any RPG fan can enjoy.
The game is based on the novels of Andrzej Sapkowski. I have yet to take the time and grab one of them, but they are supposed to be very good. Having a strong literary basis really shows in the game, because while it’s set in a fantasy world, it’s as far from a generic fantasy setting as you can get. It mixes the traditional fantasy elements (mostly from Slavic mythology and fairy tales) with influences from the feudal era in Europe and focuses on the real world problems of that time, with many of those being still rampant in the modern society. As a result the setting is quite dark and gritty, but at the same time vibrant, as life tended to be in the feudal period.
During your playtime you will see villagers living their happy little lives in their scenic villages, experience the vibrant and chaotic city life and get a glimpse into the sophisticated proceedings of the royalty and the upper classes. You will enjoy a drink or a brawl at the village pub, see the poverty and the raucous in the city streets, have whores trying to lure you into a shag and attend posh parties where the nobles will be getting drunk. At the same time though, you will get to see the underlying problems pestering the people of Temeria. Racism, xenophobia, violence (well naturally), slave trading, child abuse, drug abuse, diseases and more. And you will have a chance to (or try to) remedy it all.
The setting and how the developer built on it is definitely one of the game’s strong points, and morality and decision-making is what ties into it. In a world that is as corrupt as it is beautiful, there is no shortage of potential conflicts that the player can resolve. But deciding who to side with and who to condemn is almost never easy, as there are always two sides of the coin and the matter is never black and white. Most of the time you will be opting for the lesser evil, since all of the options will be hurtful for someone. It will be a matter of deciding whether the end result justifies the means. And if the decision proves to be too difficult to make and you decide not to act at all, the game will ridicule you or treat you with contempt at every occasion. The reasoning behind is based on the fact that the in environment the game is trying to mimic, the real world, ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. But on the other hand, sticking with what you believe is right and fighting for it, is a trait that should be fostered. One of the earliest examples of the decision-making system is the main storyline of the village in the suburbs you arrive in. There have been strange ethereal hounds manifesting that you need to deal with and a lot of the villagers believe it’s the work of a local witch. But when you confront her it’s quite clear that she provides healing and help to the villagers and even takes in an orphan. Do you believe her or the villagers? To further complicate matters you later discover illegal or immoral dealings in the seemingly serene village and a voodoo doll in the witches house. Who do you believe now? And this isn’t an isolated example, there are plenty more situations where you have to choose a side when both seem to be partially right or wrong. Some of the underlying conflicting themes dominate the whole storyline (racial conflicts, xenophobia and corruption are the main ones). It’s quite clear that the real threat, the real monsters you are fighting against as a witcher are humans, mostly because the game itself often hints at the human nature being the real monster.
With that being said, I found the storyline of The Witcher a bit weird. The beginning stages are quite lackluster until it develops enough for the player to really feel like they are in the middle of a storm in the making. Which is amazing considering the main story never really takes the main stage or forcibly demands attention, in the sense that there never really is a clearly defined ultimate goal, but it’s more a sketch of what you are trying to achieve and then the player fills in the blanks. Though it certainly feels like the story trails off into “weird but remarkably bland” territory towards the end, perhaps because the filling in the blanks part is suddenly ignored in favour of a finishing crescendo the developers imagined. Still, the story is worth paying attention to well after it blossoms in the middle portion of the game.
The complexity of the decision-making system together with the duality and the authenticity of the world are a strong contrast to two of the game’s biggest flaws. One of which is the linearity of some of the game’s environment. Some of the areas in the game (mainly outdoor ones) will be a set of pathways that are bordered by low fence or thicket that you can’t cross. Those areas are designed as a few semi-open focal points that are connected by pathways that you can’t deviate from. Of course it’s not all one completely straight road, but the experience is very linear and frustrating when you have to run around a bend in the road instead of jumping (raising your foot a few inches) over the fence. And it’s not like the inaccessible areas aren’t fully textured and designed, it just seems as if the developer chose to block those off.
Which is quite puzzling to say the least, when there are some dazzling areas in the game that are almost fully open and make for a gorgeous playing experience. It’s not all that bad though, because while there are some zones that play like described in the paragraph above, most of them are a mix of open space and linear pathways. In addition, all of the frustration of those areas is balanced by the gorgeous cities and settlements.
The second problem is the combat. As an RPG The Witcher is quite unique in the sense that it doesn’t have any melee abilities. You can cast spells (signs), toss bombs, drink potions or attack. Because not having to use skills would become boring quite fast, CD Projekt decided to break attacking down in styles and combos. You have six combinations of styles in total, with fast, strong and group style being applied to either a normal or a silver sword. You can improve styles by putting points into them when you gain a level and doing so will lead into stronger attacks and better combos. It all sounds great, but the problem is that the combos are individual attacks in a chain that you have no control over. You simply click on the enemy to attack and if you click at the right moment you can string together multiple attacks into combos. This quickly degrades into clicking on the enemy, waiting for the attack animation to finish, clicking again and waiting for the fight to be over in this manner.
Which would be infinitely boring if it weren’t for the addition of the styles and some of the most amazing and realistic swordsmanship I’ve seen in any game. I’m no expert, but I did recognise the stances in some of the styles as based on fighting techniques that were developed in the medieval period. The swinging animations also reflect the style’s purpose, with the swings in the strong style being slower and designed to carry the most weight they can, the fast style focused on delivering many blows within a short period by way of small arcs and short arm movements and the group style trying to cover as much area as they can, with pirouettes, twirls and the like. There’s also a visible difference between the normal sword and the lighter, silver sword. The styles used with the normal sword are all two-handed and work with the large weight as an advantage, with the styles in the silver sword focusing more on speed, allowing for punches with the free hand and even some acrobatics. Of course, there are a couple of moves thrown in there that are meant purely to be attractive and flashy, but in general the combat animations are very fluid and believable.
But enough with me drooling over the swordsmanship, as that really is one of the only saving graces of combat. Something that will accentuate the crappy combat is the AI of the enemies you encounter, because they won’t be able to attack as long as you keep hitting them and stunning them with your sword. Which is simply a matter of choosing the right style and not breaking the combo (a trivial task). I believe that in the whole game I only encountered three or four types of enemies that would give me any sort of trouble.
Casting spells hardly adds to the complexity of the combat as most of the signs are fairly weak and casting them breaks your combos, which puts you at risk by giving the enemy a chance to attack. I have yet to maximise the magic side of the things in my playthroughs, but from what I’ve seen it’s not really worth it.
Potions and potion making on the other hand, is quite an addition. On hard difficulty you will need to use these in every bigger engagement, because they give you a big advantage, but the toxicity gauge means that you can’t really take advantage of the enormous amount of different potions. And while keeping an eye on your toxicity and the associated drawbacks does add a layer to the gameplay, it’s really a shame that the mechanic segments a large portion of the alchemy, as you simply can’t use them all. Using potions is favourable even on normal difficulty because they provide a few shortcuts and make the experience more pleasant.
Another feature I really enjoyed is the journal. If I’m not mistaken, The Witcher was one of the first RPG games to utilise a database of unlockable information about the world that contains everything from descriptions of places, monsters, potions, characters, reagents to history and even the books you read during your adventures. The descriptions of monsters you could encounter are especially important since the knowledge about them (which you gain from books or hearsay) shows you the best way to fight them and the possible reagents you can extract from them.
Though the quest log in the journal has the annoying habit of not listing all of the information you have on a quest, not updating, being incredibly cryptic or sometimes giving away things you don’t know yet. The game has some other minor problems aswell. The music, while quite amazing at first, starts repeating itself (especially the combat one) and quickly becomes annoying. The sex card collection game is quite interesting, but since it doesn’t even have its own section in the journal it feels like it is there mainly to enforce the mature feel of the game. I can’t say much about the graphics apart from that they have aged really well, especially the facial features and models. Although the NPC models do get repetitive, especially before the game fully opens up.
I have to say that I enormously enjoyed the care and attention to detail that went into the game. Despite the it getting wrong some of the design and even though the first few sections of the game are quite discouraging because they seem so bland, the living and breathing world around you in the later portions of the game is sometimes enough to keep you playing or even make you just stand around watching everything transpire around you.
For example; the NPCs will abide the night and day cycle, with merchants being at their stalls during the day and heading home with the dusk. In the morning you can see them returning to their usual spots to peddle their wares. The pubs and taverns are quite a different sight during the night as they are during the day, as certain customers only visit when they come for a pint after a long, hard day, with the drunkards taking a nap in the afternoons and only waking up in the evening for another round. At night you can see guards patrolling the streets and vampires or bandits ambushing anyone still out. When it starts raining the citizens seek shelter, often remarking at how rainy the season is (my favourite is an old woman rejoicing at seeing the neighbours laundry get wet). You can hear groans or everyday remarks as you pass people on the street (“Oh, my balls itch.”), hear gossip from the women or see men taking a piss in the corner of the street.
I think it’s clear from the above paragraph that the main city, Vizima, is definitely my favourite place to be. The amount of attention to detail and care that has gone into designing the city ceases to amaze me. I would be running around in the morning, impatiently waiting for the merchants to waddle over to their stalls so I can buy some provisions and a few books to educate myself before I travel to the swamp in order to exterminate this or that monster. I would be on my way to the dike when I would bump into my old pal, Zoltan Chivay, and he would drag me off to have a few pints. A few thousand oren lost on gambling (damn cheating bastards), a few teeth knocked out by brawling (theirs, not mine) and a barrel of ale later I would drunkenly stagger out of the tavern to the nearest campfire. The hour being very late, I would smartly delay my foray into the swamps until the next day, because the ferryman doesn’t ferry during the night and I’m in no condition for swimming. And so the days would go by…
Despite its flaws The Witcher is one of the better RPGs I’ve played. I can only hope CD Projekt have recognised its flaws and made the sequel even better, because that would make The Witcher 2 the RPG game of the decade. I certainly hope so.
You can get The Witcher, or more importantly, the newly released sequel The Witcher 2 from GoodOldGames. I can vouch for the first, but recommend the second. Either way, you need to play one of them.