The Witcher

Sex, violence, politics, intrigue. Alliances, friends, enemies, innocent bystanders, and agitators. War, oppression, racism, religion, environmentalism, magic, monsters, swords, and sorcery. If you're looking for even half of that, then you've found the game. If you're looking for all of it, then read on. For you may have just found what you've been looking for. The Witcher embodies all of these things, and probably more.

Generally thought of as monster slayers for hire, witchers are the product of genetic mutation. Only this isn't your ordinary high science kind of mutation. These are mutations brought about by alchemical processes in a medieval style world where swords and sorcery rule the day. There is a very well done mix of science and magic woven throughout the game. Witchers are strong, fast, intelligent, and for the most part also emotionless. And completely sterile due to the genetic mutation process they undergo while training.

As the story opens, you are treated to a very well done and lengthy cutscene which sets the stage for what's to come. Geralt is fighting a creature known as a striga. Strigas are cursed beings similar to werewolves. As the battle progresses it is revealed that Geralt was sent to break the curse of the princess Adda by her father, King Foltest. According to legend, to break the curse of a striga one must spend the night in or near its crypt. Geralt succeeds in doing so and the curse is lifted, but as he goes to check on the now cured princess, she mauls him - delivering what many thought to be a fatal wound. Geralt awakens at the castle of the witchers in Kaer Morhen. The player takes over control of the story line at this point. With one very important twist. Geralt has lost his memory as a result of apparently having been resurrected. It is up to you to make your way through the rest of the game and uncover details about Geralt's past while honing his skills as a witcher. Along the way, Geralt will run into plenty of interesting people. Some who knew him, some who did not. Nearly all of the major players in the game have agendas of their own which may or may not fit in with how you now choose to direct the outcome of the story.

The first thing that you'll want to get some practice with if you expect to survive is the combat system. The opening prologue of the game provides as good an opportunity as you're going to get to figure things out. Make the best of it, because while the game shines brightly in every other respect, its combat mechanics border on the truly hideous. Clicking on a target does not always result in making an attack. In fact, if you're not careful, you can end up canceling attack orders. Don't do this, because your enemies in the game don't seem to have any trouble at all capitalizing on a weak moment. It took me considerably longer than the opening tutorial to get the hang of things. I consider the entire combat experience to be a major blight on an otherwise excellent game.

Character development is handled through the distribution of various talents, divided up into bronze, silver, and gold. With gold being the highest level talents. As you gain in talents, your abilities become more useful to you. You are able to develop your magical abilities, your combat abilities, stamina, etc in any combination you see fit. Doing so in the right combinations can even overcome some of the difficulties of mastering the combat system since landing more damaging blows can make up for how often you'll probably be flubbing your chain attacks. My only real peeve with the talent enhancement system is that you have to find someplace to meditate in order to apply them when you gain levels. Campfires in some areas, rooms at inns, and homes of friendly NPCs are the only places you can meditate. Which can be irritating when the NPCs you're friends with are not home. You have to talk to them before the option is available. Fortunately you don't need to meditate in order to heal - give yourself enough time not being damaged by stuff and you'll regenerate on your own. Apply the right talents, and you can regenerate faster.

Melee combat is divided between your steel sword, which is used mainly for attacking other humans and humanoids, and your silver sword which is used mainly for attacking monsters. You also do not start off with the knowledge of what works best on the things you'll encounter. You will need to either be told about them by other NPCs in the game, or learn about them by reading books. Once you've learned about a particular creature, your journal will contain a brief entry about the creature and what tactics work best against it as well as which type of weapon is most useful. There are also creatures in which no particular tactic works best - as well as some you really shouldn't even attempt to fight. You'll know when you find such a beast. Damaging it will be near impossible and it'll likely be able to rip you to pieces in one or two hits. Run from these when you find them. They're almost always quest related. One very cool part of all this is that even the untouchable stuff has ways to kill them that don't involve beating on it with a sword or trying to burn it alive with magic. Sometimes you have to be clever and drop the roof on them or something. A tactic I've not seen used in other games which does add to the cool factor.

Melee is further broken down into three styles - strong, fast, and group. With the strong style, you go for the power attack. Dealing large amounts of damage in a few very powerful strokes. Fast style works best at landing a blistering series of less damaging blows but in much more rapid succession, not giving the enemy a chance to respond or dodge out of the way. Then there's group style. Most effective when dealing with three or more attackers in melee. In some cases though, it's not advised. If you're dealing with a mix of monsters and men, it's best to stick to one opponent and down them with whatever style is best suited. Only switch to group mode when all of your targets can be damaged effectively using one type of weapon. Of course, if that's not going to work, hit them with magic too. Weapons can also be enhanced with potions. Special coatings applied to them to deal damage to monsters. Temporarily sharpening the blade of your sword to do more damage. Or perhaps to inflict greater pain, make things bleed more, or to try and stun them.

Magic is performed using one of 5 different "signs" which produce affects on your enemies. The intensity and duration of sign magic is based on how much intelligence training you've done using talent advancements and how much you've invested in the particular sign. I personally invested a lot in the Aard sign, which is used to knock down and stun opponents. Often a critical deciding factor in battles. In my opinion, the only other truly useful sign was the Igni sign - your basic burn things alive spell. More powerful levels of it give you the chance to incinerate a foe, which basically leaves them burning and doing damage. Sometimes a lot of damage. Very helpful in thinning out large groups. There is a defensive shield sign, a hex/fear sign, and one that causes pain. I found each of them to be so totally useless I only spent talent points on them when the game forced me to.

Alchemy plays an important role in the game, and despite what the difficulty settings when you start may say, alchemy is in fact necessary. You may not be killed without it, but you'll have little choice but to use it if you want the best possible experience. The alchemy system is interesting though, and they've devoted a whole chunk of inventory storage just for alchemical ingredients. It's not just a walk in the park though. In order to do anything decent with alchemy you need formulas. Most formulas are in books and scrolls you need to read before you can mix them. You'll need ingredients too. In order to get those, you also need - you guessed it - more books on the subjects. Monsters and plants both act as suppliers for your every need. Potions provide you everything from increased regeneration to night vision to poison bombs. As mentioned before, you can also mix coatings to rub on your weapons to make them more effective. Although coating weapons is only temporary. Also, not strictly alchemy, but there are also runes which you can collect that blacksmiths can forge into your weapon to give them better damage abilities. Make use of this as soon as you can - you certainly won't regret it.

Any decently good game needs to have lots of stuff to get involved in. The Withcer does not disappoint in this area. You'll quickly find plenty of things to do after leaving Kaer Morhen. Upon arrival in a new area, the first thing you should do is find the notice board. On it you'll find things the locals want done. Your usual find and kill missions. You'll need to bring proof of course, but it's the easiest way to make money and gain needed experience. There's also no shortage of other quests to do, so explore everything thoroughly. Talk to everyone. Even those peasants who don't seem all that important. Not all of them will give you stuff to do. Some will simply give you information, but it's all interesting in some way.

The political climate of the game is very rich and you'll be dragged into it before too long. Without going into too much detail, the kingdom is in turmoil. The elves and dwarves are arming themselves for war. The royal court are all in up to their necks in the tangled web of politics. Racial tensions are high and it's only a matter of time before something blows up in someones face. I don't think I'm really giving much away here as it will become painfully obvious upon reaching the capital city of Vizima anyway. Once it does, the game's story gets really interesting as you now have to be careful what you decide to do, and who you decide to do it for. You aren't playing in a vacuum like a lot of other games. Every decision you make will have consequences, and the game will tell you about the outcomes of certain pivotal moments when the time is right. Usually long after you could reload to "fix" it. That's one of the cool things though, there is no right or wrong way to do something. You may even make a decision you think is good and just, only to have it backfire in your face as a really REALLY bad idea down the line. You will make friends, gain allies, and form lasting relationships. You'll also make enemies and piss a lot of people off. Many of whom will actively seek your death. You will not be able to remain neutral for the entire length of the game.

The fun doesn't stop there of course. If you're one of the types of players who likes to develop romances with NPCs in the game, you won't have any shortage of opportunities there either. And yes, you'll even get the chance to have sex with them. Of course, if you're playing the US version of the game that's going to be somewhat censored because of the oppressive ESRB crap we all have to put up with here. However, it will be damn clear what just happened when it happens. Just don't expect every girl Geralt meets to fall all over him with adoration. You stand more of a chance of getting kicked in the balls. Sterile or not, that likely still hurts. It's not just about getting laid either, though there's plenty of that going on. There is an opportunity for Geralt to actually fall in love with a few of them - but he can only end up picking one to go that far with.

The various cutscenes and narratives you'll get throughout the game all contribute valuable information to the story and fill in gaps in sequences that need to be filled. The only fault I'll find with them over all is that in some cases they feel like they're being forced. There were several instances while playing the game that I had that whole feeling of "Gee, this evil bad guy is monologuing. Cut his head off already!" and ending up with a situation that just didn't feel right. There's also a bit of an irritation factor with how far this sort of thing goes for the main quest. Plot devices that felt wedged in just to keep things going. But that's all pretty minor stuff in the end.

Graphics are probably some of the best I've seen in awhile. Easily surpassing that of Oblivion. I do need to qualify though that I have no idea what the original retail version of the game looked like. I bought the enhanced version which is supposed to have improved graphics as part of the package. Either way, they're damn nice to look at. The game runs on the Bioware Aurora engine. I'm not terribly familiar with it other than the experience I got from Neverwinter Nights. It may explain the combat system being the pain it is. You have three ways you can view the game - isometric 3D, overhead, and "over the shoulder". I chose to play using the over the shoulder mode which puts the camera behind and to the right of Geralt. This was as close to 1st person as was possible, and felt the most natural to me. All of the NPCs in the game have very good faces and for the most part are quite unique. There is quite a bit of repetition among the common types such as townspeople and generic enemies, but you don't spend much time interacting with them either as most won't even enter conversation mode with you. Buildings and outdoor locations are quite nice and worthy of just standing around to admire. Weather has the same unfortunate problem as Oblivion though, in that raindrops are not blocked by overhead items. Fortunately that isn't a huge problem since there's not a lot of places with overhangs like roofs or cliffs. NPCs will even seek shelter from the rain, and you'll hear their idle chatter mentioning it as they run by. Also, when you get the chance, go stand near the shore somewhere and look at the water. Very well done. The only game with better looking water I've played or seen is Gothic 3.

Audio and music are top notch. Every sound effect was crisp, clean, and loud. Just how they should be. Voice acting was also top notch. Whoever did the translations from the original German performed flawlessly. The variety of accents and dialects in those you talk to is incredible. The background music fits the mood of the game perfectly and is intelligently subdued when in conversation with NPCs so that the music doesn't drown out what they're trying to say to you.

Autosaving is also handled intelligently. If you achieve a quest goal, even if it's not completing one, the next area transition you make the game will autosave. Otherwise you just have to deal with the loading screen. You can of course save at just about any time you'd like. Except in the thick of battle. But that's probably a good thing. As usual, save often and in different slots. Though don't worry about being paranoid. The game is very stable. In the time I spent with it over the last couple of weeks it crashed 3 times. Compare that to just about every other game and this is pretty amazing.

A few noteworthy quirks - there's no lockpicking. No jumping. No climbing. No swimming. No flight. Lockpicking would have been nice as there's some doors in the game which are locked and never open, but logically should have. Jumping would have been nice because there's occasions where it was just silly not to be able to jump off a ledge, or over a barricade. But the reason for this becomes obvious when you factor in that the Aard magic sign is also useful for removing obstructions. It's just not so obvious when you're standing on a short ledge and where you want to be is 2 feet below you but you have to walk around half the area map to get there. Further irritated by the fact that some cutscenes in the game show Geralt jumping over stuff and even climbing things. A bit of a flaw in the engine perhaps? I have to say I was actually happy not to be able to swim. For swimming always means water puzzles. I hate water puzzles. I also hate having to deal with how to solve not being able to breathe underwater. Flight isn't such a big thing, but there are winged creatures you fight during the game and they never seem to get up and fly away. But birds placed for atmosphere will. Doesn't make a lot of sense. It does however make for a simpler game to play over all, which is probably a good thing.

So if you're still here after all this, you're probably asking. Where's the environmentalism? Druids. Probably guessed that anyway by now. Even though as far as the game's story goes it fits, it's also a poorly hidden political message for the real world too. Seriously folks, can we stop with this already? Shoving your propaganda messages down our throats all the time is getting old.

The enhanced version of the game also comes with two additional adventures made with a mod kit they apparently released for it. The first one required starting a new game, so I don't think the other one will be any different. If these are anywhere near as good as the rest then it's truly a nice bonus to have.

I'm sure I've forgotten something here. But in short if you're looking for a deep and involving RPG, you can't really go wrong with The Witcher. Though it has some problems, they're all relatively minor except for combat. On balance the game was quite enjoyable. There's also enough hint of sequel floating around to keep any such sequel on radar when it comes along.
"It is pointless to resist, my son." -- Darth Vader
"Resistance is futile." -- The Borg
"Mother's coming for me in the dragon ships. I don't like these itchy clothes, but I have to wear them or it frightens the fish." -- Thurindil

Well. I guess that's that then.

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Posted on Feb 2, 2009 12:49 am by Samson in: | 4 comment(s) [Closed]
Wow, huge review, but it's about time you checked out this game, I got it for my birthday back when I got Fallout 3 and have been enjoying it equally with Fallout 3 since. Interterestingly enough, though I didn't notice it mentioned in your review, those two games have nearly identical system requirements too.

It's been on my list of things to grab for quite awhile but I was waiting to get my hands on the enhanced version. It continually failed to show up on store shelves though until just recently and I wasn't even there to buy games. Just popped in randomly to see what was out for movies and wandered over to the games area. It was their only copy so I snagged it :)

Not surprising that Fallout 3 and The Witcher both have similar system requirements. There's not that much of a time gap between them and games like these always tend to push the limits of hardware available at the time. I easily smoked the thing with my current setup and I'm sure that had something to do with the stability as well. Though it's odd, Fallout 3 is pretty stable too and is arguably more demanding than Oblivion, yet Oblivion is the bug ridden mess that crashes all the time for everyone :)

I had mentioned to Dragona once or twice in passing that I'd really wanted a copy of both games once they came out and we could afford them and she bought them for me for my birthday, the enhanced version of The Witcher and the version of Fallout 3 that came in a tin lunch box with a bobble head, both from Amazon, it really was a wonderful birthday present considering I usually don't expect gifts for birthdays and such since I tend to just buy myself whatever I need (or really want) whenever I find it.

Very true, though given the varience in game type, I had at first expected Fallout 3 to require more than The Witcher by quite a bit, though after having played both off and on for a couple of months now, I can understand why their requirements are so similiar, they both have quite a bit of game content and very nice graphics to back up the content, not to mention both offer several ways to play out the game to its ending as well. I still haven't gotten around to getting myself a copy of Oblivion, though I keep meaning to do so, but it's not like I've had the time to play it if I had one on-hand currently anyway. As it is, both Fallout 3 & The Witcher play just fine on my laptop (which is with me on this trip) and they both play excellantly on my home gaming rig. :)

Threshold [Anon] said:
Comment #4 Mar 4, 2009 4:08 am
I played this game a month or two ago and loved it. I found the story interesting and unique, and the gameplay exciting and action packed.

I tried playing through it a second time but I didn't get far. I guess when you know the story one of the biggest flaws of the game becomes a real problem: way too much running from A to B.

But overall, it is a great game.

Muckbeast - Game Design and Online Worlds

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