The Witcher

Review by Scout
July 2008

In 1986, an unknown Polish writer named Andrzej Sapkowski took third place in a sci-fi/fantasy magazine’s short-story contest with a story called The Witcher. Not one to leave opportunity knocking, Sapkowski turned the story’s character, Geralt of Rivia, into a cottage industry. As of this writing, there are three short-story collections, five novels, a computer role-playing game, six graphic novels, a movie, a thirteen-episode TV series, and a pen-and-paper role playing game. Only one of the stories, The Last Wish, has been translated into English, so most U.S. gamers will only know of this franchise by way of the game currently under review.

The Witcher, a single-player CRPG,was published in 2007 by CD Projekt, a company that had until then been best known for releasing Polish-language versions of such titles as Baldur’s Gate, Planescape Torment, and Icewind Dale. The Witcher was CD Projekt’s first original release and was developed by CD Projekt’s in-house RED team using a substantially altered Aurora 2007 engine from Bioware. An enhanced edition of the game is slated for release in September 2008 featuring polished translations in all ten release languages as well as “new and improved content” and will be available at no cost to registered owners of the original version.

The main character, Geralt of Rivia, is a Witcher, a sort of mutant human, part mortal flesh and bone and part spooky magical warrior. Feared, respected, loathed, and lusted after in equal parts, Geralt, like all Witchers, makes his living as a freelance monster killer. It’s a tough career path and a deadly one. Young boys from mostly poor families are taken to the Witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen, a sort of Witcher University high in the mountains. There they are fed mutagenic herbal concoctions so lethal that seven of every ten boys die from the effects. This deadly passage is called the Changes because of the extreme mutations it causes. While those who survive the mutations are left with nearly superhuman powers, there is little cause to celebrate. Soon after, they are fed yet more herbs in a final round called the Trial of Grasses. This last test is so painful, so excruciating, it leaves only one of the remaining three applicants alive. The handful of survivors graduate to full-fledged Witcher status. They are immune to disease and magic and gifted with heightened physical capabilities, enhanced senses, quick minds, and insatiable sex drives. One of the side effects is total sterility. If your idea of bliss is a comfy day job and a bunch of kids crawling around the house, the Witcher path is probably not for you—not that you would have much of a choice in the matter.

As the game opens, the player is treated to a beautifully rendered cutscene depicting a battle between Geralt and a striga, a hideous Hulk-like creature with sharp claws, purple skin, red hair, and a bit of a dental hygiene problem. It’s a riotous fun ride of a prologue, enjoyable as sheer spectacle while serving as a succinct introduction to the powers of the Witcher: swordplay, spells, potions, physical ability, heightened senses, courage, intelligence, and a predator’s animal cunning.

After the cutscene, the game proper starts at the mountain stronghold of Kaer Morhen with a tutorial folded into the beginning of the first chapter. Powerful enemies are gathering at the gates, preparing to attack the last remaining Witchers with magic, mercenaries, and monsters. Minutes before the attack, Geralt discovers that several of his friends claimed to have seen him killed by a mob of peasants five years earlier. Yet here he is, alive and strong as ever. There’s also a small problem in that he has amnesia and can remember almost nothing of his past. His friends seem familiar; he recognizes Kaer Morhen but little else. One magician, a beautiful young witch named Triss, seems especially familiar. And especially friendly. And since she claims to have seen Geralt die with a pitchfork through his heart, she is more than a little puzzled. But before he can question her further, the attack begins.

Here the game takes you by the hand and lets you experiment and fail without consequence in a sort of temporary god mode. Once you finish the tutorial, you part company with your fellow Witchers and journey to the Outskirts, a sort of slum located on the edge of Vizima, capital of Temeria. Your goal is to eventually access the Royal Castle in Vizima, where you have some pressing business with the king. But because of your amnesia, you have forgotten crucial information. You have a few rudimentary sword moves but nothing special. You remember how to mix some necessary potions but not much else. Faces look familiar, but you can’t quite place the names. You’ll need to learn a lot to survive the upcoming battles and quests.

The first skill you must master in The Witcher, and one you’ll need throughout the game, is swordplay. Witchers are above all else brilliant swordsmen. They carry their blades on their backs, unsheathed (though in the opening cutscene we see a sheath) and crossed in an X. Close-in combat is mouse-based and takes some getting used to. Click on an opponent and Geralt will draw whichever sword is currently highlighted in the inventory panel. There are two main blades, steel for humans and silver for monsters, and three styles, Strong, Fast, and Group. If you are playing in easy or medium modes, after striking the first blow, you’ll see a flaming sword icon appear on screen. This is your cue to initiate another attack. Strike while the icon is on the screen, and you’ll deliver a nice sequence of moves that do a lot of damage. If the icon switches to a sword in a circle with a line through it before you can click the mouse button, you’ve missed your chance and must wait for the next opportunity to try again. There is a rhythm to this, a tricky timing to the attacks, but watch and listen and get it right and you’ll be rewarded by a perfectly executed combination of whirls, streaks, and slashes. If you resort to mindless mouse-clicking, the battles will drag on much longer and often end in your death. True confession here: I never quite mastered this rhythm trick and often found myself watching for the little icon instead of immersing myself in the combat. Lots of people liked this style of swordplay, though I prefer the real-time combat I get in a game like Gothic 2.

One thing to watch for is the inevitable pause before a fight. When an opponent confronts you and you click to begin the attack, Geralt doesn’t respond immediately. Instead, he takes a beat to unsheathe his sword and another beat to position himself in a stance. Then he waves his sword as if in warning. All this takes a few valuable seconds during which quicker opponents can easily land a series of stunning blows. If this happens before you have enough health early in the game, or if your health is dangerously low, you can die without striking a blow. While frustrating, this built-in delay does quickly teach you to be aware of everything around you instead of depending on the old slice-and-dice. After all, you’re a Witcher, right? The Alt key can help here. Hit it and you’ll see everything of importance within range, including potential opponents. When faced with mobs, my favorite strategy, and one I used to the end, was to immediately back up or run away, putting distance between me and the enemy. You can string enemies out pretty quickly, and once pulled from the mob they are much easier to pick off. Dashing headlong in the middle of a pack of wraiths will end predictably with you staring at the reload screen.

The only ranged attacks available in The Witcher are spells, but they are instantaneous and refreshingly effective for such a melee-oriented character. True, it’s sometimes just easier to pull your sword and bash your way through a game, bashing your way through levels, bashing your way through quests, leaving a trail of hacked-up corpses in your wake. While this is admittedly great fun, in The Witcher magic is a powerful weapon, often critical for turning the tables in a fight. Like everything in this game, there is a steep learning curve at the outset, but if you take the time to master potions and spells, by the end you’ll easily be able to stand up to the most powerful bosses. Note that different opponents require different spells, and it usually takes a round or two to figure out what the right one is.

Inventory is limited by space, not weight, and since you’ll be carrying a lot of potions and potion ingredients around, you’ll need to decide what to keep and what to store or merely drop to the ground. To store loot, you have to find special NPCs with storage options. This is usually the local innkeeper, though a select handful of more important NPCs also have this option. You can loot any chest or container in your path and no one will give you the slightest notice, even when you busily strip a room in full view of its occupants. There are a lot of dark areas, and you’ll either need a torch, which takes up a weapon slot, or a potion called Cat, which lets yous see in the dark. Like most potions in The Witcher, it’s toxic and directly damages your health. Drink too many potions at once and your health drops. Cue scary heartbeat sound and little blinking stars. If your health drops too low, the screen drains of color. When this happens, you must stop everything and deal with the situation by drinking a potion or finding a place to sit and heal. If you are into making your own potions from scratch instead of the using the automatic mixer, you can whip up less toxic brews. Once imbibed, potions’ effects have time limits, and some last much longer than others. You can check on your potion and several other status elements by mousing over the Witcher medallion at the upper left side of the main screen.

If you don’t want to waste potions, you can heal yourself by clicking on a fire, fireplace, or NPC with a meditate option. This brings up a game clock, or Meditation mode, that allows you to meditate (Witchers don’t actually sleep, see ...). Meditating restores health and endurance and reduces toxicity, and it’s free. As money is often scarce, this is an all-around good thing, meditating. You will also use the Meditation mode to distribute ability and skill points after leveling up. You distribute points via a Hero panel, a complex skill tree offering subtle variations on strength, dexterity, stamina, and intelligence. Tellingly, there is no charisma path for Witchers. You can also build up signs, simple casting spells that knock down, protect, incinerate, stun, cause pain or fear, etc. I found Aard and Igni, the telekinetic blasts and the fire spells, the most useful. Finally, you can also distribute points among different types of sword skills.

There’s much more to the player interface than described above, but a close reading of the manual will tell you most of what you need to know. What the manual won’t tell you about are some of the more egregious failings of the game.

The most common complaint, and the one that nearly broke the game for me before a patch came out, was the tediously long load times. Entering a building sometimes took a minute or more, a minute spent staring at a static load screen, waiting, waiting, waiting, while the red bar at the bottom inched slowly to the other side. More than once I wandered off while waiting only to return to find my character almost dead because he had stumbled into an enemy’s lair while I was in the next room. I can take these long load times at the beginning of a gaming session and when moving to another map since I assume that once the game has loaded I will be able to move freely. But to have to wait forever when I only want to scout out a building for loot became torturous. To make things worse, the game would often save automatically at the end of one of these loads, making me wait even longer. How The Witcher got released with such a glaring flaw is hard to fathom and is the main reason I gave it a Thumb Up instead of the Gold Star it otherwise would have rated. To its credit, CD Projekt RED team responded with a patch that speeded things up in places, though it didn’t completely fix the problem. Since I finished the game, a second patch has been released that supposedly further shortens load times. Because it was also reported to occasionally break save games, and because I wasn’t prepared to start the game over from scratch before filing this review, I didn’t install it. In case you’re wondering, here are my computer’s stats: AMD Athlon 64×2, core processor 4400+ (no overclocking), 2.21 GHz, 2.0 GB RAM, ATI HD3870 graphics card, XP Pro with SP2. Not the beefiest rig by any means, but it handled Far Cry, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Oblivion, and Gothic 3 without a lot of fuss.

There were also some minor annoyances that bear mentioning. For one, the Witcher’s superior powers apparently didn’t extend to jumping. This isn’t an open gameworld, and I understand that the devs had to create barriers to keep the player on track, but when those barriers are foot-high logs a child could hop over, then it just gets silly. I laughed out loud more than once when Geralt bumped helplessly against a tipped-over chair or small board. To make it even more surreal, in some of the cutscenes we see him leap wide chasms with ease only to be stopped by a softball-sized rock the next time the player takes control.

Also, some of the characters' movements during conversations were just downright odd. Arms would swing into the air and hands waggle about for no discernable reason. Characters would suddenly clench their fist and bob up and down on tiptoes. A few times I missed what the NPC was saying because I too busy was staring at his crazy, half-mad gestures. Also, you quickly notice the limitations of the NPC models. All merchants were fat dandies, all old ladies snaggle-toothed and stooped with a mole on their face, all young women were built like the proverbial brick outhouse with plunging bodices.

I did experience a small plague of game crashes around the middle of the game, but once I installed the patch I had no further problems. Other than the interminable load times, none of these quirks and bugs were overly annoying, and once I had patched the game I played compulsively through to the end. There is far more good than bad in this game, much more to admire than to begrudge.

For one thing, and for what it’s worth, it’s a game for adults ... in every sense of that word. Geralt is a hot-blooded heterosexual male in his prime, and like most young (and not-so-young) men, he takes every advantage of his position to get sex with attractive women. As attractive women make up about half of the female population of Temeria (the other half appear to be ancient and homeless crones ... Temeria is apparently pretty hard on older women), Geralt has a lot of opportunities. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of skillfully navigating the dialog tree. Other times, the gift of a flower, scarf, or ring will curry favor. Still other times, you have to complete a series of quests. Each time Geralt and his paramour du jour do the dirty, the player gets a reward in the form of a “card,” a static screenshot of the woman lasciviously posed in her birthday suit. In the game forums dedicated to The Witcher, this is referred to as “collecting,” though you don’t physically store them anywhere in-game unless you count the data files in the program folder. Instead, you just get a few seconds’ peek and then the images fade. Also, and the devs might have missed an opportunity here, these tête-à-têtes didn’t add anything to Geralt’s abilities. Mostly it’s just sort of a pointless minigame. I guess fantasy-style airbrushed boobs is considered reward enough if you’re into that sort of thing, but it would have been nice if all this fuss had somehow, you know ... boosted my stats! If you are deciding you’ll just skip this part, be aware that strict prurient behavior will close off a few plot points. While there is nothing crucial to the main plot, if you want to see all there is to see and hear all there is to hear, be sure to take a few walks on the wild side. If you have wee kids around, you might want to be careful lest you find yourself having to explain why the pretty lady on your computer screen has no shirt on. When this game first came out, there was a lot of talk about the uncensored European version and the censored U.S. version. Basically the difference is nudity versus partial nudity. I played the uncensored version. I got topless sex cards and full frontal nudity (male and female) in some of the monsters. What all this means to the individual gamer is no doubt open to endless discussion, but I did appreciate the way The Witcher dealt, however superficially, with how the dynamics of lust and power play out between the sexes.

Of much more interest, and really the core of the game, is the role of choice. As I mentioned earlier, this isn’t a sandbox style of gameplay. While there are some partially open areas, like the swamps and fields, and you can dally forever in the inns, gambling and drinking, you’re hardly free to roam at will. To progress, you must follow a linear path, literally and storywise. Freedom of choice in The Witcher isn’t so much about good versus evil (I’m looking at you, KOTOR) as it is the personal and political, the slippery slope of ambiguity we navigate as we make the choices we make, thinking we know all we need to know.

There are three main paths available to you. You can side with the humans by becoming a knight of the Order of the Flaming Rose. You can side with the nonhumans by consenting to aid the Scoai’tael, a band of elven commandos. Or you can stay true to your inner Witcher and remain neutral. The symbolism is pretty obvious. Humans represent the status quo, elves and dwarves the outsiders, and neutrality, the middle, selfish, path. Refreshingly, there’s not a right side or wrong side. Little love is lost between human and nonhuman; racism runs rampant, and neither side is especially ethical in its treatment of the other. (Hmm, what does this remind us of?) You are complicit in bad deeds no matter what. You can choose early or play far into the game before you have to take a side. I waited because by waiting, by playing with both sides for as long as possible, when I finally came down on my chosen side, I felt that choice deeply, felt the gains and felt the losses.

What finally moved me to decide which side to support was my experience of the game’s characters. By the end I was deeply invested in certain characters and cared greatly for their well-being. They were more than just flesh shields or convenient ways to collect experience. I reacted to them as I would a well-defined character in a novel or movie. I cared, I hated, I loved as much as is possible in a computer game. And this is one of The Witcher’s great strengths, the way it engages the player with characters that live and breathe. These are not particularly likeable people, either. In fact, there were really no all good or all bad characters but instead real, flawed personalities acting with recognizable motivations.

Among the most compelling characters is one who is especially mysterious, one you encounter early on. This character forces you to decide between the only two women in the game you will come to love. This character drives the narrative relentlessly forward all the way through to the whiplash-inducing ending. I’ve long been a fan of open-style gaming such as that served up by the Elder Scrolls series and to a lesser extent the Gothics, but after experiencing what a tightly controlled, gripping story with a slam-bang ending can do, I’m starting to change my mind. I’m starting to advocate for a more linear gameplay with a fully developed story that travels in a recognizable arc and for characters who serve and drive story. These types of games have always been available in one form or another, and as people become saturated by dazzling graphics and numbed by endlessly iterative gameplay, story-driven games will become a more popular option. And as anyone who recently experienced Bioshock can attest, it’s not story instead of gameplay, it’s story as well as gameplay. More of this, please.

What this particular story does, as the credits finally roll and goosebumps rise on your arms, is to force you to think back to your actions in the game, to question your assumptions, and to think hard about what you thought was real, what was right, and what was wrong. There is no way to progress in The Witcher without making these choices. It’s been said that a sign of sophistication is the ability to live with and accept ambiguity. It’s a difficult path, especially with the familiar trope of good versus evil dangling so temptingly low on the branch. Still, if you want to climb a little higher, reach a little further, in this game you can. In The Witcher, this path is really the only path, and, at the end, for the perceptive gamer, the payoff is every bit as big as it promises to be at the outset. The End

 

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: CD Projekt RED
Publisher: Atari
Release Date: October 31, 2007

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

P4 2.4GHz or AMD Athlon 64 2800+
128 MB Video RAM or greater with DirectX9 Vertex Shader/Pixel Shader 2.0 support (NVIDIA GeForce 6600 or ATI Radeon 9800 or better); #
8.5 GB free hard disk space

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