The Witcher

May 6, 2008

CD Projekt Red has given us “The Witcher“, a remarkable single-player RPG that captures everything flavorful about lush, gothic settings and mature themes. Even more surprising is how refreshing and different The Witcher feels compared to preceding established RPG franchises. The reasons are varied but well worth exploring.

The primary (and perhaps most obvious) gameplay aspect that sets apart The Witcher from its peers is the mature and admittedly sexist content. Gamers can only play as the titular male protagonist, Geralt of Rivia, a two-fisted aloof sword-wielder monster hunter whose passion for monster-slaying seems only matched by his ability to score with the ladies. These “extra-curricular” opportunities abound throughout the game. If you’re careful and clever enough with your witty dialogue choices, you’ll share many an enjoyable evening with a wide variety of attractive and interesting female characters. You’re actually rewarded for this behavior with a card-sized picture of your, er, “conquest” in partially nude form, to show around to all your Witcher buddies. While this may be unpalatable to some, it lends The Witcher‘s world of Temeria a lusty medieval fantasy ambiance that catches one’s interest a bit more than the usual fare and even becomes a sort of mini-game unto itself for those so inclined.

Aside from the horizontal shenanigans, there are plenty of tricky moral dilemmas to tightrope across throughout the course of the remarkably involving storyline which involves a calculated plot to discredit and destroy the few remaining Witchers in the world. While the plot teeters on a trite precipice from time to time, the journey there is very much worthwhile, and things pick up towards the latter of the game’s segments. Dialogue is delivered by voice-acting that’s better than expected, but occasionally suffers from the random wonky performance. Adding to the game’s mature feel is the haphazard usage of fairly modern swear words. It’s one thing to hear an NPC cry out for your head on a stake but it’s an entirely different situation when some surly street-fighter tells you that one of your close familial members uh….sucks (that’s not what he said). If the cuss words were sprinkled evenly throughout this game and were more consistent with the flavor of the time-period, they would allow the player to be better absorbed in the game.

Another small but bizarrely anachronistic aspect of The Witcher‘s story is the frequently mentioned and apparently well-understood aspect of genetics. Last I checked, medieval peasant types lacked the basic understanding of even the most rudimentary forms of science, let along the nuances of a highly complicated scientific field. Not only is the term “genetics” mentioned verbatim but the characters referring to this challenging science seemed remarkably well-versed in it. It’s not a major gripe, by any means, but something odd that ruins a bit of the game’s ambiance.

The unique combat system takes time to get used to. Unlike traditional action-based click-fests, The Witcher provides a novel and approach to combat that involves the use of proper timing in order to chain a series of attacks together. To further enhance combat variety and boost the element of strategic thought while slugging things out, players need to be able to understand (and have researched) the monsters they’re facing in Temeria. Foreknowledge helps you know which type of sword and potion will best suit Geralt in even his easiest battles. Geralt fights with either a special Witcher’s steel sword (mostly for human or humanoid creatures) or a more monster-unfriendly silver sword. Each offers three styles: fast for quick-hitting, lightly-armored foes, strong for buff, muscle-bound sluggers, and group for tackling multiple enemies. Unfortunately, you never really seem to have any use for the other weapons you stumble across during the game – The Witcher‘s swords are far too potent. One cool aspect of combat that doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of review coverage is that CD Projekt actually enlisted the motion-captured aid of several bona fide medieval sword masters, so the wickedly cool combat animations that Geralt routinely performs look even better than they normally would. It’s something better seen to be appreciated but it ramps up the visceral enjoyment that much more.

Though it’s a small thing and something expected of these type of genre games, the leveling-up process is both thought-provoking and difficult to abuse. Every player’s version of Geralt by game’s end will look and play differently because The Witcher doesn’t strive to provide a fully-realized talent path as much as it does a “Jack-of-all-Trades” talent progression. Some may find this frustrating but it leads to characters better able to handle everything the game may throw at them, so in that regard, it’s definitely a good thing.

I also mentioned “potions” because one of the important tools every good Witcher learns to employ during his career involves the careful brewing of powerful magical concoctions that provide useful buffs or enhancements during combat. Everything from night-vision, to Matrix-style slow-motion perception and reflexes can be whipped up with enough of the right natural ingredients. This adds an amusing diversion to all the monster-mashing you’ll do while solving the game’s primary plot. This isn’t the only fun little mini-game, though – along the way you’ll be able to engage in gambling, drinking, and street-boxing events that offer experience, money, or sometimes both. These bring a variety to the proceedings that is sorely missed in other more determinedly single-minded RPGs. For those who hanker for a bit of spell-slinging, Geralt also utilizes a variety of different “signs” (read: Spells) to aid him during combat. However, these are all rather basic and in some cases they feel more like an afterthought than a useful addition.

Graphics seem to scale well, even on lower settings, while the highest settings are impressive enough to make combat just that much more enjoyable. Sound is another strong aspect, as ambiance-supporting musical themes grace many important areas while never reaching a level of annoyance. One unfortunate issue is that under Vista (at least) the game regularly crashes during loading screens. Thankfully a PC-friendly save-anywhere type system keeps this frustration mostly at bay but it doesn’t address the other main complaint – the annoyingly frequent need for loading screens. These loading screens seem less bothersome if you’re running at least 2 gigs of RAM but those without that amount should be prepared to be patient.

One final issue to consider is that CD Projekt has recently announced the future release of an “Enhanced Edition” of The Witcher, with improved graphics, better stability, and many other gameplay-improving changes. In light of this newly announced version, gamers interested in trying out The Witcher may want to wait for that version. It’s also worth noting that the North American version of The Witcher has edited out any nudity while the European versions have toned down the gore a bit – though the Euro version seems to have much better scripting and translation than its North American counterpart. Regardless of which version you eventually decide to purchase, one thing is clear: this is hands-down one of the most enjoyable, refreshing, and depth-filled role-playing games in years. Fans of the genre or even those just looking for an engaging story or setting will find plenty here to amuse them.

Score: 4/5

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