Little bit of housecleaning before I begin the review. Sorry for the absence of posts over the last few weeks, I’ve been busy trying to save up some money. The new college semester is on the horizon and I had no real source of income until a few weeks ago. I’ve been helping my mother babysit four to seven-year old kids for $20 a day. It’s not much, but it’s getting me the funds I need. The days where we have seven or nine hooligans running around make me wonder if I made a smart decision, but I think the experience has been good for me. Anyways, I finished this game a little over a week ago and I’m just now writing this up. However I did write-up an outline to structure my thoughts on this game as soon as I delivered the final blow and watched the credits roll. Hopefully this will be a proper review instead of a stream of conscious “Thoughts On” post. I like doing immediate thoughts, but this game deserves a proper post. Also, I’m almost done with my next game so I needed to get this done.
The Witcher is a Computer Role-Playing Game set in a dark fantasy world. This basic structure is not anything new to the gaming industry, but the world that was conceived by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski is filled to the brim with its own personality and life. The world was first developed in Sapkowski’s novels but it wasn’t until 2007 that Polish game developer CD Projekt RED turned it into an interactive experience.
The game begins with an amazing cut scene that serves two purposes. Not only is the abilities of a witcher revealed to the player, but the incident portrayed ends up playing a pivotal moment in the plot. The game truly begins in Kaer Morhen, the ancient home of the witchers. Geralt of Rivia, the witcher protagonist, has lost his memory and must relearn all of his basic combat skills. Just like the opening cut scene, this serves dual purposes. Many games make the main character relearn all of their basic abilities (looking at you Metroid) but The Witcher has this amnesia as another major story element for the entire trilogy. One facet of this game that was very enjoying was how all of the storytelling aspects served a real purpose. There were hardly any throwaway quests or characters since they all had a story to tell, giving it easier to feel like this is a real world.
Geralt does not go on this adventure alone. Along the way he meets old friends and makes new bonds. A bard, dwarf, and sorceress all make up the core characters of Geralt’s gang, but it was the different factions and their motivations that created intrigue. The characters that were allied to Geralt gave depth to the middle of the road between the warring factions. On one side is The Order of the Flaming Rose, a group that preaches peace through human strength. On the other side is the Scoia’teael, a band of freedom fighting nonhumans who have had to resort to guerrilla tactics to ensure their freedom and existence.
To be freely honest, I’ll admit that I knew the basic plot of this game from the beginning. Before playing Assassins of Kings I watched a few videos that set up what had happened before hand. Because of this I knew what was the “good” side to pick and which was the “bad” side to pick. However, the writing in this game was so top-notch that I had dedicated myself to a cause without making a conscious decision. The charisma of a few particular characters led me to want to fight with them. In the end I realized what I was doing in the game and chose neutrality but I still felt bad about it. Many games with “choices” tend to go with the good or bad routes, or some variant of it. The Witcher decides to show the player that each side has a fair argument, but neither are purely just in their actions. Even neutrality can leave a sour taste.
Excellent writing aside, a game is a game. Great writing and storytelling can boost something into the heights of worship, but is this deserved if the gameplay is sub-par? Many critics of games like The Last of Us say that while the story is excellent, the gameplay is a hindrance. There is an argument to me made there, in my opinion, but luckily The Witcher does not fall prey to this conundrum. I played the game on the normal difficulty and found there to be some situations that were hard to get through but not anywhere near impossible. I did however focus on improving particular skills that probably made the game easier, but I’ll get to the magic in a bit.
Sword combat is divided into six different possibilities. Geralt has two swords; steel and silver. The steel sword is made for killing humans and the silver for “monsters.” Really, the silver is for magical creatures since there were many times that the men Geralt was fighting could be classified as monsters. Each of these swords have three different stances. Strong attacks are more effective against armored opponents, weak attacks for the swift and nimble, and group for when the odds are not in Geralt’s favor. This led to more strategic combat instead of the typical hack and slash, especially since the actual sword swings are done in a combo system. Once mouse click initiates the attack. The pointer in the middle of the screen lights up when the player should click gain, increasing the length of the combo. A click too early ends the combo prematurely while a late click requires the combo to start over. The possible length of the combo increases with the level of the particular stance with the damage increasing for each stage of the combo. The game does not really teach this well at the beginning, leading to enemies not being damaged. Maybe it was just me who didn’t get it through my thick skull right away but I felt like the game could have done a better job describing this system. I really enjoyed it once I got it down though, and the departure from the usual berserk combat styles of many RPGs was refreshing.
The other pillar of combat are the signs, basic magic that witchers can master. There are five usable signs in the game, each with very different uses. Aard starts as a basic force push but can be upgraded to disarm foes. Igni is a typical fire attack but can be upgraded to attack all enemies around Geralt (this is what I did), and signs like Yrden create magical traps that can stun and damage enemies. Signs can make or break a battle, especially against harder opponents. The use of some signs may be completely ineffective at one moment while another may excel, leading to an even more strategic gameplay experience.
When a situation gets to be too dicey that signs aren’t even enough, the player can turn to the craft of alchemy. Throughout the game are herbs and materials that Geralt can collect, there’s even a separate inventory for them. I’ve seen some complain about how the crafting system was too complex and required a college course to understand (Zero Punctuation) but I found it quite simple to understand once one thing is grasped. Potions, or other craft items, do not require particular ingredients, but types of ingredients. Herbs and resources are divided into six different types of substances; vitriol, rebis, aether, quebrith, hyrdragenum, and vermilion. A particular potion may require one vitriol and two rebis, as well as a bottle of strong alcohol as a base, but not a certain type of plant. I’m no alchemist but I found this system to be much more realistic since several different types of plants may be able to serve the same purpose.
All of this crafting can not be done in the middle of combat though, not even in the wild during the moments of peace. Geralt passes the time of day, levels up, and crafts during mediation. This can only be done by selecting the meditation button when talking to particular characters, mostly innkeepers. Inns will charge Geralt for this, but it is a minimal fee. This requirement makes it so that the player must have a varied arsenal of potions so that Geralt can be ready for any situation. It’s dangerous to run off into a dangerous crypt without several doses of Swallow for a boost in vitality regeneration or a vial of cat for night vision. Both vitality and vigor regeneration become major issues during some of the late game battles, making potions even more vital.
Both vitality and vigor can become easily confused while in the menus, which this game has an abundance of. Even in the menus the dedication to useful information is brought into play. The bestiary not only describes useful information about different types of monsters, having a beast recorded will teach Geralt to acquire more valuable parts from the corpses. The game has a streamlined quality to it that rides the fence between not enough information and too much. The user interface even follows this principle, displaying all of the useful information but doesn’t get in the way of gameplay.
A player will be spending most of their time experiencing the world instead of being in the menus. The foundation of any RPG’s storytelling is the quest system, which is where some of the most reasonable complaints arise from. Many games these days hold the player’s hand while performing quests. If one objective cannot be achieved because the player doesn’t know who to talk to a quest marker might lead them to their goal. However in The Witcher there is no quest marker unless Geralt knows where to go. Even the monster hunting quests, which are the most simple and stereotypical of the game, lack quest markers. If the player lacks information about a creature and does not know where to find them the only options are to explore or to move to another quest in the hope that it’ll come up. Personally I loved this style of questing since it felt more organic. I was in the shoes of Geralt, experiencing the world around me and learning as we went. We may not have known much about drowners but there was either someone out there who would tell us or there was a book with the information between its pages. There were answers to every question, we just had to keep looking.
The Witcher’s Boss Music
The Witcher makes the process of exploring and looking for the solution to quests very enjoying. A game is more than the sum of its parts, it is an experience. This game not only has a deep and rewarding combat system, it has near perfect music to accompany it. The tone was set absolutely flawlessly for every situation. The boss battles, few and far between, brought a weight to them through the music. The exploration of a swamp felt even more creepy due to the sounds of beasts crying in the distance, bring a The Legend of Boggy Creek feel to the environment. I may have been playing on my laptop, using a folding table that’s made to eat on as a desk, but I felt like I was in this world. Both this game and its sequel have led me to become super excited for the third game in the trilogy, coming out on my birthday, and even led me to purchase the books. I fell for this world and I fell hard.
There is still one aspect to this game that deserves discussion. The Witcher series is known to be very mature in its content, but what does this mean? Yes, there is some nudity in the game and scenes where unfortunate people lose limbs, but the maturity of this game does not come from having these elements. The Witcher is mature because it treats the play as a mature individual. The subject matter is not of saving princesses from dragons, it’s about segregation, racism, royal politics, and the role of a seemingly extinct job profession. The Witcher is made for the gamer who enjoys being wrapped up in a world that doesn’t bend its knee for them, a gamer who doesn’t like being led around on a leash. Is this a game for everyone? No, not at all. But if one is able to have the little patience it takes to learn the combat mechanics, figure out the alchemy, and explore the world then they have a magnificent experience awaiting them with The Witcher.
Rating: 5 out of 5