With interest in the forthcoming Wild Hunt gaining ever more traction in the mainstream gaming media, I thought now might be a good time†to share with you all my thoughts regarding the great old game that launched the Trilogy: The Witcher - Enhanced Edition
As Iím sure most of you are already aware, The Witcher is a western RPG for the PC based largely on a series of novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Developed by CD Projekt RED STUDIO and published for an English speaking audience by Atari, The Witcher is set in a medieval fantasy world and follows the journey of main protagonist Geralt of Rivera, an enigmatic Witcher assumed dead by friends until unexpectedly discovered alive - if not totally well - as our story opens.
Praised by fans of the novels for being the most sympathetic adaptation of their beloved series, I (as someone who knew nothing of this world prior to picking up the game) found The Witchers story to be brilliantly conceived. The story itself is multilayered, with a non-linear path and, though a little slow to start, early events eventually conspire to frame a narrative that is wonderfully ambiguous, challenging and - if you and I are of similar mind - utterly compelling.
In terms of presentation, one has the option of viewing the action from one of three perspectives: high isometric mode, low isometric mode or over-the-shoulder mode. I found that the game looked and performed best in over-the-shoulder mode, though itís fair to say that The Witcher really does offer up a mixed bag in terms of production value. The games environments for example, be they large bustling towns, small homesteads or lonely country roads are nothing short of inspired. Locales are realised with such skill and attention that one often feels transported into the middle of a living, breathing world.
The Witcher is full of superb little graphical details which add to the overall ambience and feel of each environment: birds will scatter from their hidden nests as you ramble by, stray dogs will wander the streets of Vizima, local militia will patrol alleyways with flaming torches at nightfall and peasants will huddle together for shelter and grumble when the skies open. In addition The Witcher employs day\night\weather cycles and occupants of this breathtakingly detailed world will go about their daily business seemingly unconstrained by the whims and fancies of any player. Brilliantly done!
Character models however vary in quality to a quite startling degree. Geralt himself is wonderfully designed and animated - watching him pirouette, parry and tumble during combat can be immensely satisfying and his general animations are handled equally well. On the flip side, non-key NPC character models are often horribly designed and the distinct lack of variety (there are perhaps 15 different NPC base models used throughout the game) became a real problem for me.
Ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, The Witcherís audio elements will gently caress the inside of your thigh with one hand only to deliver a sharp, sudden slap to your face with the other! But first the good.....
Composed largely by Adam Skorupa and Paweł Błaszczak, The Witchers brilliant score fits the mood and tone of the game world wonderfully well and does a fine job of using music to evoke different 'feels' appropriately throughout the piece. Similarly, CD Projekt RED STUDIO make excellent use of ambient sounds throughout the game in a way that brings many locales bubbling to life. Taverns will hum with the sound of music and conversation, city streets will reverberate with the chatter of merchants, street performers and disgruntled locals and the wilderness will softly resonate with the pitter-patterings of local fauna. The sounds of combat are of similarly satisfying quality.
The quality of voice acting however is at times borderline absurd! Like many Slavic games the voice acting in The Witcher is - at best - little more than passable and is sometimes so excruciatingly bad (think of a Polish Jim Sterling trying to impersonate Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins) as to take one right out of the game. To further compound things, it appears that some of the script didnít translate to English all that well leaving me confused as to the point and purpose of many an important conversation. Perhaps Iíve been spoiled by the outstanding voice acting in Biowares recent RPGís but I actually considered playing through the game in Polish before learning that the foreign voice work was equally lame.
The simple but elegant combat mechanics in The Witcher are unusual for an RPG in that the game utilises a timing, dare one say rhythm, based fighting system. Basically, clicking over a target once will initiate an attack and subsequent timed clicks (prompted by a flaming sword icon) allows one to chain together attacks into ever more intricate combos. When an enemy is stunned, one can execute a flamboyant finishing move by clicking once more over the target.
In addition, players are required to choose between three distinct sword-wielding styles when fighting. Each style (fast, strong and group) is best suited to certain types of encounter and choosing correctly between each will determine how well one fares in combat. Each stance can be switched easily on the fly or by action pausing the game and attack styles gain in strength and complexity the more skill points are allocated to each.
Whilst simple, the mechanics of this action-oriented system are sophisticated enough to keep one interested and thankfully combat never degenerates into a rabid clickfest. I eventually grew to appreciate this approach as it introduces an (albeit very small) element of skill into what otherwise might have been a tedious and passive affair.
Alchemy is an important part of The Witcher universe and this central (and at higher difficulty settings, absolutely necessary) gameplay element is handled particularly well. Basically, alchemy can be used to concoct blade coatings, bombs and a variety of potions, but in order to do so Geralt must first study. Knowledge is everything so learning about local flora and fauna, as well as developing Geralts herbology skill, is key if players are to fully explore, and make proper use of, this fundamentally important part of the game.
Knowledge with regards to alchemy is made available to Geralt through literature and conversation. Learning about creatures from books, scrolls or NPCs for example enables Geralt to harvest important body parts from their corpses. Similarly, learning about specific plants allows Geralt to identify them and harvest their alchemical components. Once ingredients are gathered, Geralt is able to combine them into items using learned formulas or by simply experimenting.
However, this otherwise excellent arrangement is somewhat ruined by an inability to organise ones inventory effectively. Itís really no exaggeration to say Iíve literally spent hour upon accumulated hour manually systematising my gear and itís no fun, no fun at all. Indeed, until such time as a patch or mod is made available to take care of this quite staggering oversight, I think it perfectly reasonable to consider the games (otherwise outstanding) alchemy system broken.
The world of The Witcher is not rife with magical items or users but the game does make use of a rudimentary Ďmagicí system. Essentially there are five Ďsignsí (which are more akin to Jedi force powers than magical skills) which Geralt can learn by visiting special shrines. Each Ďsigní can be levelled up during the game and cast during combat using your right mouse button. Abilities include such RPG staples as telekinesis, mind control and fire.
XP is earned and levels are gained by killing enemies and completing quests (though curiously for an action RPG, more from the latter than the former). Levelling up earns talent points that can be assigned to raise a particular stat or skill; each stat and skill has 5 basic levels which can be unlocked by assigning bronze, silver and gold talents appropriately:
Bronze talents are used to upgrade the first 2 levels of skills; silver talents grant access to 3rd and 4th levels, and gold talents unlock 5th tier skills. Whilst simple, this system has some depth to it and works well enough. If it has a flaw, it is that players are pretty much forced to invest talent points equally across all three sword fighting styles if they wish to remain effective in battle.
Thankfully, The Witcher does not make use of level scaling and instead adjusts the level of XP gained from kills by factoring in the players current level (a level 1 Geralt for example, will earn more XP for killing a Drowner than a level 30 Geralt). Simple but brilliant, I wish more RPGís would adopt this approach to scaling.
Loot-grinders beware; The Witcher will in no way scratch this particular itch for you! As previously mentioned, there are no magical weapons to be found in The Witcher and no great variety to the type and number of conventional weapons made available throughout the game (an even smaller number of which that are actually useful)! Blade coatings aside, the only weapon buffs come by way of specially forged swords - providing blacksmiths with rare ores, runes and no small amount of gold will persuade them to fashion a new sword with special abilities for you.
Typically, Witchers carry only two weapons of any great importance: one a silver coated sword, for combating supernatural creatures, and a steel sword, for combating everything else. Geralt is no different in this regard and since only two types of sword are directly linked to Geraltís fighting style, using any other type of weapon is pretty much pointless. Again, like the issue of levelling up, I found it more than a little disappointing to have my choices limited in this way.
More important than any weapon, The Witcher features a quite brilliant journal system. Divided up neatly into eight tabs, your journal starts off empty but rapidly fills with important information the more Geralt learns about the game world. Crucially, much of what is learnt, whether that knowledge is gained through conversation, reading, or by simple exploration, is often of very real (and sometimes game changing) significance.
Questing in The Witcher is also handled extremely well. The quests themselves are pretty standard fare for seasoned RPG gamers but are presented well and offer just about enough variety to keep things fresh and interesting. The games quest tracking system however is excellent; Geralts journal succinctly details the progress (or lack thereof) made in each quest, allowing players to look up information in a variety of ways and clearly marking quest locations on the in game map. Veterans of The Witcher claim that completing every quest should take somewhere in the region of 100 hours, so thereís plenty of good content there for those who are willing to wade through it all.
Very briefly, The Witcher includes a number of shitty minigames that donít really deserve much coverage here. Fist fighting, drinking and dice poker all offer Geralt a little light entertainment and the opportunity of earning some coin.
There is also of course a pretty juvenile sex minigame which allows Geralt to woo and *ahem* bed various women throughout the game. Successfully bumping fuzzies will earn you a saucy little trophy card. Enough said.
Clearly a labour of love, and despite its faults, The Witcher is an outstanding RPG and I wholeheartedly recommend it to fans of the genre who have yet to play. For the price of a pack of lewd playing cards, you will receive an enjoyable, addictive and deeply satisfying game.
Thanks for reading.