Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Witcher

Post-Launch Review
The Witcher
Developer: CD Projekt RED
Released: October 2007

Geralt of Rivia is one of the last remaining witchers - a monster hunter with unnatural, superhuman powers. Geralt has no memory of his past and is simply doing witchers' work, until their base is attacked by a powerful sorcerer and his lieutenant. The fortress is destroyed and the witchers' mutagenic secrets stolen, so Geralt and the others set out to take them back.
At Launch
The Witcher earned positive reviews, averaging out to about 81%. Opinions were more divided than usual for such a score. Some reviewers felt it was a deep and thought-provoking game, while others thought its plot, combat mechanics, and main character were generic and lifeless.

Post Launch
On September 16 2008, the Enhanced Edition was released. It included hundreds of new animations, models, and colour changes, monsters, expanded dialogues and translations, improved stability and load times, a new inventory, a new manual, and two new adventures. This release caused a few problems with cutscenes that were fixed in a later patch.
The Good
Like many epic fantasies, the story starts small and personal: an attack on the witchers' base results in several deaths and the theft of some of the witchers' greatest and most dangerous secrets, so you set out to get them back. Your quest gets you involved in a sort of civil war and international intrigue, and everything turns out to be connected. And it all makes sense, which is nice: the sacking of the witchers' headquarters is the catalyst for many of the major problems that occur later on, as the thieves put the secrets to good (or bad) use.
The main weakness is that the conclusion brings up a major point and motivation for the bad guy, but Geralt immediately dismisses it. I know he's the bad guy and he might just be crazy, but what if he's right? Isn't the kind of catastrophe he foresees worth looking into, at the very least?
Graphics (wilderness!)
The graphics are pretty good for the most part, with solid textures, water, and lighting; but it's in the wilds where they really shine. Any large expanse of natural terrain, be it swamp, field, forest, or lakeside, looks gorgeous during the day. There's a surprising amount of colour and a lot of variety in vegetation. Things get monochromatic at night, but that's to be expected.
I Have the Poweerrrrrrrrr!
By the end of the game, if you've played your cards right (by which I mean done most of the quests for the experience and money), you should be ridiculously powerful and swimming in cash. With careful use of potions, I was an unstoppable juggernaut by the end of the game, which made even the big boss battles easy – which is actually great, because Geralt is incredibly mad at some of the stuff that's gone down, and your power level expresses that.
In the lore, witchers have a strong reliance on potions to enhance their already superhuman abilities. In game, the potions you can brew seem incredibly powerful numerically. Of course, they are, but that's deceptive: for some big fights, and just about all the time on higher difficulties, you really need to make use of potions to stay alive and take down your enemies.
The brewing system is pretty neat. Ingredients you collect each contain one or two base components, and in, it's the components you need for a potion, not anything specific. So when a potion calls for phosphorous, any ingredient that contains phosphorous will do. However, there's a huge amount of complexity just below the surface: you can experiment to create your own potions, and depending on the particular ingredients you use, you can add additional effects to your potions, even with pre-existing recipes. For example, the Swallow potion (a staple that increases your health regeneration), you can add extra components to either increase its potency or add a +20% damage bonus. Neat.
Rediscovering Geralt
Geralt of Rivia died five years ago, but he's returned without much of his memory. Kind of a generic amnesia thing, but it works fairly well for character development. He starts out as a very neutral personality, guided mostly by his role as a witcher. Over the course of the game, Geralt is encouraged to take a stand on world events to help redevelop his personality, with the idea that these decisions will be guided by his unconscious memory of his old self. When you make these choices, Geralt's old friends comment on how that's just what the old Geralt would have done. Your choices visibly transform Geralt from a blank slate to a developed character, which is really exactly what you want from an RPG. It's a neat way to work the player's input into a character with an existing history, and works well.
Choices and Delayed Consequences
Most choices have an effect on the story, but what's neat is that the effects aren't immediately apparent. In most RPGs your choices immediately give you some morality points, or a different reward, or only affect the current quest, but in The Witcher, you'll have to wait a while to discover the true effects of your choices.
I'd heard about this feature before I started playing the game, and at first I wasn't impressed – when I helped Siegfried of the Order of the Flaming Rose, my quest log told me right away that I had “earned Siegfried's favour”. Oh, great. But what it didn't tell me was that by making friends with Siegfried early in the game, I'd later face the choice of whether to betray that friendship for my own ideals and goals.
The time delay on seeing the effects of your choices, combined with the tendency for “lesser of two evils” rather than “good vs. bad” choices, means that you can't load your game and reselect if you don't like the result – at least, not without having to replay a huge chunk of the game. Essentially, you're forced to commit and live with your choices more than in other RPGs.
One weakness, though, is that some choices turn out not to matter at all. There are a couple of characters that Geralt befriends, and he can later choose to annihilate that friendship and really piss them off – but then they happily resume their states as quest givers and plot points as if they completely forgot about the betrayal (Triss is one of them). These points really break the immersion and expose the fact that the game is telling you a particular story and you can only change it so much.
You can find these tiny gnomes beside a small shrine that
rewards you with a four-leafed clover if you leave some alcohol.
Hidden Stuff
If you stick to your quest log, you'll see tons of stuff, get plenty of cool loot, and learn a library's worth of lore. However, that's not everything. Talking to everyone and exploring thoroughly can get you some special items. For example, some old ladies around town might teach you a potion recipe if you can give them a suitable gift, or you might find a powerful sword on a corpse on wyvern island (hint hint!). You can also find extra journal entries that expand the game's lore.

Final Cutscene
After everything is resolved, you get a nice rendered cutscene. I won't spoil anything, but it's pretty awesome and sets up the next game nicely by throwing in a couple of major bits of intrigue.
The Neutral
The game's character animations are a mixed bag. The combat animations flow nicely and are complex and awesome, but facial animation is practically nonexistent, and characters are frequently rigid and awkward – particularly when the Lady of the Lake is giving you a sword.

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the combat system. Fundamentally, all you really do is click on enemies until they die. There are wrinkles of complexity – you need to get the timing right to pull off combos which increase in power every hit – but at its base, you just click on stuff. There's a lot of choices, but a lot of them seem like wrong choices.
You have two main weapons: a steel sword for humans and natural creatures, and a silver sword for monsters. If you use the wrong weapon, you'll deal very little damage.
You also have three combat styles: strong, fast, and group (area of effect). Certain enemies can easily dodge if you're using the strong style, or ignore the weaker hits if you're using the fast style. Worse, enemies with shields or very high evasion can block your group style, meaning you have to be very careful with that style sometimes.
You also have two sidearms: a small weapon (torch, dagger, or axe) and another large weapon (flail, axe, sword, club, etc). These are less interesting, since they don't use your combat styles, generally making them incredibly weak since one of the main sources of weapon power is levelling up your styles.
You get five signs, which are essentially simple spells. It could be because I didn't focus much on them, but they seem pretty weak to me. I focused on the Aard sign because it has a chance to stun enemies, and you can one-shot the vast majority of all enemies while they're stunned. You can hit enemies with fire, or try to hypnotize them to attack their allies, or create a shield (which breaks if you attack), or paralyze (I think?), but they don't seem terribly useful compared to actually killing things. If I'm wrong, I'd love to hear about it in the comments.
There's tons of nudity and sex in The Witcher, and it has its pros and cons.
For one thing, certain supernatural creatures – dryads and vampires, to be precise – are naked all the time, but it's not mentioned at all, which is good. It's treated as a natural state of being instead of just eye candy. That is, until you realize that there are no naked men at all, and the boob bounce animations are better than the facial animations.
Whether or not you like having sex in your video games is a personal thing, but one warning for this one: you'll occasionally have sex without even realizing you propositioned someone. For example, when talking with the Lady of the Lake, you can crack a joke, and then suddenly BAM, sex. There's no dialogue option for it – you're just making a joke, and then it happens.
One thing I do appreciate, though: the developers actually put some thought into why your character would have so much sex, and worked it into the game's lore. Instead of just sexing everyone up for no reason (like in some RPGs), the rituals and mutations involved in granting a witcher his disease immunity and enhanced speed, strength, and stamina have a side effect: sterility. Since they never have to worry about getting anyone pregnant or catching an STD, witchers have developed a reputation for debauchery.
The Bad
Clunky Movement
When you move forward, Geralt sprints. If you hit forward and sideways, Geralt continues to move forward but also to the side. But if you're only strafing or moving backward, your speed is slowed to a crawl. It feels awkward and clunky to shift between such drastically different speeds without using a sprint key.
Sinister Music
The game's music is just fine, but the problem is that it insists on playing sinister music almost all the time when you're outside a city - even in broad daylight. It gets pretty distracting when you're getting jarring, off-key tones that are meant to sound unnatural and scary when you're having a pleasant stroll through a quiet field at noon.
Where's My Stun Immunity?
There's a potion you can brew that claims to grant you total immunity to knockdown and stun, which is great, because there are a few nasty enemy types that can very quickly kill you by stunlocking in large groups. Unfortunately, the potion doesn't seem to work. I'd see it on my effects monitor... right alongside the stun indicator. Very frustrating.
Before and after dialogues, and after a loading screen, the game slowly fades in. Often, enemies start attacking you before you get a chance to draw your sword. Irritating, and it feels unfair. And even when this doesn't happen, you still have this awkward couple of seconds where things are slowly fading and you can't move or take any actions whatsoever. Especially bad is when it fades out, shows you an NPC walking across the room to Geralt, and fades into dialogue. Slows things down and breaks up gameplay in a bad way.
Non-Playable Epilogue
Okay, so I'm exaggerating a bit, but still. By its name, you'd expect the final chapter, Epilogue, to be mostly peaceful and wrapping things up. Nope! Geralt tears through more enemies with plenty of badassery. However, there are so many cutscenes, dialogues, and loading screens during the epilogue that maybe half of it is actual gameplay. If the game had smoother transitions between gameplay and cutscene, and if the developers had found a way to reduce the number of loads in the epilogue, it would have been better. The epilogue is actually great, wrapping up old plot threads while bringing in new mysteries, but it's a bit annoying to play through.
Skippy & Crashy
Every so often while I was playing, the game would hang for a second, interrupting my combo flow. It's not a major issue, but regular enough to be quite irritating.
Worse are the crashes, which seem to occur at random. You'll see less of them if you run the game from the .exe in the install directory, but it won't prevent them entirely.
The Verdict
Recommendation: play it.
The Witcher has some flaws, but it's a pretty cool fantasy game with some very neat lore, especially surrounding the witchers. It looks very nice, and there are a lot of choices that deviate from the standard good/evil binary you see in most RPGs - for example, do you help the freedom fighters who have lost their original just purpose, or the noble order of knights who are deeply racist at the core. There are many flaws, but overall they tend to be relatively small in comparison with the huge amount of gameplay open to you. 


  1. Nice use of the word debauchery :) I hope I get around to playing this; sounds like fun!

  2. Nice review! It's been a few years since I've played the first Witcher, but from what I can recall I agree with you on most points (though I don't see how you couldn't tell when you were propositioning the women in the game :P Then again, after Geralt hit on the first couple of women, I just kind of came to expect it).

    Also, I don't know if you intend to get it any time soon, but the Witcher 2 improved on a lot of the first one's negative aspects, in my opinion. It has a good deal of post-launch content, too!

    1. I do plan on picking up the second one eventually, likely during the Steam summer sale since it'll probably be discounted. I may want to wait to get a better PC for some of the more graphically-intensive games, though.