When I first played CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher roleplaying game I had come straight off the back of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, an open-world behemoth that remains to this day one of the best videogames I’ve ever played. I didn’t know anything about the books by Andrzej Sapkowski, nor did I have any familiarity with the universe or characters, all I knew was that I was after another fantasy RPG to play and this game had received some good reviews. Initially, it was quite jarring, as not only did I suffer the switch over from first to third person perspective (Oblivion was often borderline unplayable in third person) but also the constraints forced upon the world seemed severe after the open-world of Bethesda’s game.
The Witcher is not an open-world game, but a game of large levels and explorable areas linked together through the narrative. Rolling fields, distant villages, and dense woodland are all fenced off, literally sometimes with knee-high fences, taunting your character’s lack of a jump button. Looking at the mini-map in fact reveals a complex network of corridors and paths through which to navigate the environment without off-road shortcuts or true open exploration. However, the environments themselves looked absolutely fantastic in their day; richly detailed townships and large cities surrounded by lush grasslands or dark filthy swamps. There was a lot of good variety in settings and enemies as the game progressed, not to mention a wealth of interesting NPCs to talk with and who occasionally offer up side quests or exposition regarding the world and lore.
Unlike many western RPGs you also don’t get any character creation, instead you step into the boots of Geralt of Rivia, the titular Witcher, who is an established central protagonist from the Sapkowski novels that The Witcher is based upon. Geralt is a fantastic character, well written and well voiced, who does not fall into the “hero saves the world” trope, or the recent trend for the “dark hero”. Instead, Geralt comes across as a neutral outsider and somewhat of a blank slate for the player to act through and effect the course of events in ways that they deem fit. Supporting Geralt is a fine cast of ancillary characters, like the redheaded enchantress Triss Merrigold or the angry dwarf Zoltan, who are all really well fleshed out in some excellent side-stories. The core narrative of the game is the real highlight here though and is so well written and contains so many surprising twists and turns, I was blown away and thought it completely *superior* to anything The Elder Scrolls has produced; especially coming off the back of Oblivion.
The combat in The Witcher uses unique rhythmic mouse-clicking to pirouette and parry your way through fights against other armed opponents or groups of savage monsters. This is further enhanced and enriched with three available stances: one for swift light attacks, one for precise heavy blows and one for sweeping movements designed to hit several foes at once, which is ideal for groups. Geralt also has two swords at his disposal, a steel one to meet steel-on-steel with human enemies (or non-humans armed with weapons), and a second silver sword used to tackle the inhuman monsters and gribbly horrors you meet out in the swamps or deep and dark forests. These swords can also be coated in special oils, which act a bit like elemental weaknesses do in other more traditional RPGs; knowing which oil certain enemies are susceptible to is sometimes the difference between life and death… or at least giving you a fighting chance.
Similar to The Elder Scrolls, there is a lot of herb gathering and looting in The Witcher, especially in order to gain the necessary ingredients for the robust ‘alchemy’ crafting needed to progress through the game. Health potions, stamina regen boosts, damage increases, even being able to see properly in the dark, all these potions must be crafted by hand and kept an eye on in terms of stock just in case you run out. You don’t have to find a special crafting table or anything like that as Geralt is perfectly capable of making elixirs anywhere out in the field, but sometimes that last vital ingredient is inside the guts of a particularly nasty monster or perhaps is extremely rare and requires finding a merchant to buy it from. While you might be able to get by in other RPGs without touching the crafting systems in place, in The Witcher it is an essential and enjoyable part of the game. Other optional parts of the game include gambling money on petty games, or sleeping with various women in order to get “love cards”, which are unique pieces of erotic artwork that may not be especially feminist (it leaves a bad taste in the mouth), but is a fun challenge nonetheless – and keeping with the spirit of the Witcher universe portrayed in the books.
While they’ve obviously aged, the graphics for The Witcher were great at the time of release, especially the bustling and busy town of ‘Vizima’ or the dense outlying swampy woods. Character models were also very good, especially Geralt’s flowing loose locks, and the animation in combat was fluid and spectacular with the use of magical signs and potions. I also really enjoyed the soundtrack to the game, and although it wasn’t a full classical score performed by a live orchestra, it captured the medieval feel of the environment and setting well. Overall, for an, at the time, small studio in Poland this was a fantastically made videogame and an a standout RPG that remains one of my all-time favourites; to the extent that even though my gaming rig is long gone (PSU popped and took out all the other components with it – RIP ‘Navi’) I’ve still kept a copy on my games shelf.
Before I sign out, it’s worth mentioning that this review is really for the “Enhanced Edition” of the original PC game, which is I assume the only version currently available. The original version of The Witcher was, rightly, criticised for having copied-and-pasted NPCs all over the place, lots of repeating dialogue, some clunky animations, etc. All this and more was extensively fixed with the “Enhanced Edition” as well as bundling some expansions packs and additional content in with the bargain. This revised version of the game also allowed you to run with Polish dialogue and English subtitles, which in my opinion is *definitely* the way that the game should be played; in the same way that I much prefer Japanese audio for JRPGs. My copy of the “Enhanced Edition” also came with a bunch of awesome physical extras, setting the standard that other CD Projekt Red games would continue, right through to the maps, stickers, books, etc. that I got with The Witcher III: Wild Hunt.