Review by Zotmaster

Reviewed: 04/04/08

One that shouldn't be missed.

The Witcher is a classic example of a game that never gets the kind of recognition that it should. In fact, I would wager that most people still have no idea that the game even exists. Saying that the game is based on the literary works of Andrzej Sapkowski is likely to elicit no more than a blank stare from the vast majority of the gaming population. I am ashamed to admit that I hadn’t heard of the game either until Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw lampooned it in his now-famous “Zero Punctuation” column. After doing a little bit of research on the game, I took a dive and gave it a try. An absolute joy from beginning to end, The Witcher is a game that any fan of roleplaying titles or story-driven games in general needs to experience.

The game itself resolves around the story of Geralt. Geralt is one of the few witchers – mutated humans with incredible monster-slaying prowess – remaining in the world. Unfortunately for him, he suffers from amnesia. Worse still, it seems like just about every person in the world knows who Geralt is, including more than his fair share of adversaries. Over the course of the game, Geralt gradually remembers his past as he redefines his relationships and explores an ever-changing world.

I don’t think one review, much less a paragraph, can really do the story of this game justice. To say that the plot is deep or dark is a tragic understatement. From the very first chapter, Geralt is thrust into a seedy world full of shady dealings. On one corner, humans exhibit full-blown racism toward their fellow nonhumans. On another corner, hookers and other unsightly folk tempt passersby with offers of pain and pleasure. It has the feel of a very real, breathing world that stinks so badly you can nearly smell it. Geralt himself fits right in, hardly fitting the noble hero stereotype. You can dispassionately turn down offers for help, or simply help for the monetary rewards it gets you. Despite apparently being in love with a certain character, Geralt eagerly jumps at the opportunity to fornicate with just about every female in sight in every chapter. Kingdom Hearts, this isn’t. While the rampant sex in the game doesn’t technically help the story, it does offer a refreshing change of pace from the nonstop darkness of the rest of the game. And hey, if nothing else, it probably gives nerds around the world hope.

For most of the game, though, you’ll find yourself trying to make your way through the web of intrigue that is pervasive in every village and city you visit. Like many other BioWare titles, The Witcher tries to offer the player a multitude of choices at every turn. In this, The Witcher succeeds beyond all expectations, making the moral choices of previous titles like Knights of the Old Republic or Neverwinter Nights seem elementary. The line between good and evil in The Witcher is irrevocably blurred in shades of gray. Almost every choice has a catch to it, and as you progress through the game, the choices you make stick with you. The very first chapter has an absolute doozy of a choice: do you side with the witch who has assisted in suicides and enticed a villager to kill his brother? Or do you side with the villagers, including one of whom deals with the cult you’re hunting, one of whom is a rapist, and one of whom is a woman-hating nutjob? The witch may seem like the lesser of two evils, but in order to protect her, you have to basically kill everyone else in town. Few games dare to offer choices this staggering in scale, and it is part of what makes The Witcher stand out so much. The only thing that mars the story is the occasional bad translation. This game was translated from Polish, and sometimes the dialogue seems unnecessarily truncated. The story still gets the point across and characters still get developed, but sometimes it feels like one or two sentences simply got lost in translation.

You’ll have to do a lot of fighting, and thankfully, the combat system, though simple, is more than up to the task. Geralt only gets a few weapons throughout the game: steel swords that work on humanoids and silver swords that work on monsters are the main fare here. Although Geralt can pick up a few other weapons along the way, almost none of them are worth using since they don’t support the fighting styles Geralt employs. Geralt has three styles for each of the two sword types: the Strong style, which works best against armored or strong opponents; Fast style, which works best against agile opponents; and Group style, which works best when fighting multiple enemies at once. All of this is basically handled through a point-and-click combat system. You left-click on an enemy to begin the attack sequence, and when the first attack ends – which changes your cursor into a flaming sword if you aren’t playing on the hardest difficulty setting – a well-timed left click will continue the attack sequence, resulting in progressively more powerful attacks. Though simple, it keeps combat fresh and fun, and the animations are always fun to watch. Geralt can also employ a few different Signs which basically function as magic spells. Though none of them are terribly innovative – one is basically telekinesis, one lights people and things on fire, and so on – they do add a new level of depth to the combat, especially when a player uses Signs to knock opponents down so Geralt can finish them off with a coup de grace.

Geralt also levels up relatively quickly, and this brings the very well done Talent system into play. As Geralt levels up, he acquires Bronze, Silver, and Gold Talents which can then be spent to power up certain abilities. The Talents are divided up into categories like attributes, fighting styles, and Signs, each with multiple areas that can be upgraded. The Talent system does a good job of allowing the player to customize Geralt to better suit their particular fighting style. Since not every Talent can be purchased, it allows the player to play the game differently from someone else. Since combat happens quite often, this creates a wonderful cycle: killing things gives you Talents that you can use to better kill things, which then gives you more Talents, and so on.

Lastly, Geralt can also make useful items through Alchemy, and this is one of the very few things The Witcher does in a less than stellar fashion. There is nothing inherently wrong with the system itself: items you find are composed of certain ingredients, and certain combinations of ingredients allow you to make useful items such as potions, weapon oils, and bombs. While the system is intuitive and allows you to make useful items, the actual act of creating the items is both wonky and slow. Items can have up to two ingredients, and the second ingredient actually makes the created item better if every combined item has the second ingredient in common. The problem with this is that when you click on the formula, the game just randomly throws any items that have the necessary ingredients together, which almost always results in the second ingredients not matching. There is no way to force the game to put the “correct” items together other than to simply not have any other ingredients in your inventory. Worse, there is no “make 35 of this potion at the same time” button. You’re forced to make your items one at a time, which gets rather boring if you’re attempting to make several potions, oils, or bombs in one sitting.

In the same vein, inventory management also is fairly lackluster. There is no way to automatically sort items. While common items do stack, there is no automated process for putting them together in your inventory or storage space in a logical manner. Especially when it comes to putting alchemy ingredients together, this means spending lots of time slowly mousing over each item in order to check whether or not it has the particular ingredients you need. Thankfully, this is about these gameplay issues are only minor flaws that really don’t detract from the experience.

On the more technical side of things, the graphics are a sight to behold. The game runs off the 2002 Aurora Engine, but you’d never know that by playing the game. Almost everywhere you go, the surroundings are dark and gloomy, and it really compliments the story. No matter where you go, from villages to caves or swamps, your surroundings always seem run-down and gloomy, but still manage to sport a lot of detail. The character models are especially good, and once again manage to support the dark theme nicely. Considering the basic engine is as old as it is, the visuals are simply amazing. The only flaws with the graphics are also very minor. First, some of the basic character models repeat themselves far too often, as is often the case in BioWare titles. Generic Dude #1 might be Somewhat Significant Dude #3 just a little bit further down the road, and that shouldn’t happen. Also, while the basic animation and especially the combat animations are excellent, the character animations during dialogue are often awkward and lifeless. The characters may gesture as though they’re trying to accentuate a particular point, but the gestures almost always come off as awkward, and when the characters aren’t gesturing, they pretty much stand rigidly still. It’s something you’ll definitely notice while you play, but it’s such a minor flaw especially when the game looks as good as it does.

Much like the graphics and, well, everything else, the music compliments the dark theme nicely. Organ notes and dark, creepy tunes surround the world and its inhabitants. Especially at night, the music does a great job of setting the mood without being overbearing. Some of the dialogue helps set the mood as well. As you travel, little kids run around and talk about death, women complain about this or that, and local toughs tell you just what they think about at that particular moment. Ironically enough, it is in this dialogue where the only real audio problems occur. First, while some of the voice acting is pretty good – and Geralt’s voice actor does an adequate job – some of the voice actors either don’t seem to fit their characters, or deliver their lines without a whole lot of emotion, resulting in some scenes being a little less lively than they should be. The other problem is the randomness of the profanity. There’s nothing wrong with swearing in a game if it’s done properly. However, some fairly standard RPG conversations are suddenly punctuated by a line like “abso-*******-lutely”. The game often seems to struggle with finding a balance between general dark, authentic dialogue and more modernized slang. Not all of the game’s lines are delivered in this fashion, but when they are, it’ll likely leave you scratching your head.

One final thing to take note of as far as this game goes is that some people have complained of technical problems, such as random crashes or graphical bugs. Supposedly, the more recent patches help address this. I have played through this game more than once, and I’ve had it crash exactly once: one random moment after I installed the most recent patch. I play on a fairly high-end PC and have had no problems otherwise, but it’s one thing to note.

Bottom Line: In one simple sentence, The Witcher is worth playing simply to experience the brilliantly told and incredibly dark story that drives it. Add in the fact that the story features very gray decisions that have very different results gives gamers plenty of incentive to play through the game more than once just to experience the other choices offered in the game. The game has some meat to it, too: the back cover of the box boasts 80 hours of gameplay, and gamers may come awfully close to that if they really take time to explore the world. Being able to play through a quest that long and experience something totally new means it may take hundreds of hours to truly experience everything the game has to offer. Add in the dark atmosphere, and The Witcher is a classic example of a title that keeps you going for “just one more quest” until you suddenly realize that it’s several hours past the time you were planning to stop. Anybody who places any stock in a story-driven game absolutely needs to give this a whirl.

Graphics: 9
Sound: 9
Innovation: 8
Gameplay: 10
Replay Value: 10
Overall: 93, rounded down to a 9/10

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Product Release: The Witcher (US, 10/30/07)

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