Review by Sinroth

Reviewed: 04/27/09

A powerful story-driven game that could use a bit of touching up

Based on the novels of the Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, the Witcher aims to be an engaging, story-driven game which gives you a true sense of choice. In many ways, it seems to be a more mature reality of what Fable was supposed to be. In other ways, it can be frustrating to get into, and off-putting thanks to the slightly cumbersome controls and overwhelming interface. But all that in a minute.

To begin with, one must understand what the Witcher is all about. You play as Geralt of Rivia; the stoic bad-arse of the times, and monster-killing Witcher as he attempts to regain his memories. A trite opening, but the plot soon thickens; after the Witcher’s fortress is assaulted, and all their secrets stolen, the Witcher’s split up to save the day, and recapture all of their secrets. What are these secrets? Alchemy. Science and alchemy play a slightly larger role in the Witcher than it does in most games, and especially for an RPG, there is a beautiful Alchemy system in place. It encourages you to experiment with mixing items, and on most difficulties, this is required to survive encounters. You must drink potions to buff up your abilities, and battle toxicity levels to ensure you don’t die. Being a mutated human, you have a much better threshold than your average Joe, and for once, being a mutated human feels different from just being a slightly stronger human. Unfortunately, the Alchemy system is vast, and difficult to grasp at first. You need potion bases, you need items which have Alchemical properties (and 99% of items you need to read about before you can harvest them), and you need to meditate at a campfire. Despite rocky openings with this system, it is sweet, and will soon take off in a big way.

Combat too has been given an overhaul from the typical first-person RPG hack and slash. You click to attack, and click when your cursor lights up to string together combos. As you level up, and gain “talents” to distribute amongst skills and upgrades, you get bigger combos. If you stun somebody, you can decapitate them instantly. A nice feature is that this applies to bosses as well; it is more than possible to stun the first boss and instantly kill him. While it’s not easy, and is more a stroke of luck, it is nice to think that the game forces you to play a certain way, because it doesn’t. Some will be off put by the fact that you can only really use swords in this game, and that there are only five spells, but you will soon learn that you can’t invest in everything. Do you invest in your Silver Sword, so you can kill monsters easier? Or do you invest in your Steel Sword, so you can chop up the humanoids? The five spells are very original, but slightly broken (Aard and Igni are 10x stronger than the other three, which you may not ever use), and have a variety of effects. Whereas Igni starts as a simple fireball, you can power it up to become a 360-degree charge-up ability that incinerates everything, and continues to make them burn for seconds afterward. It’s all handled very cunningly.

And to keep it all in place, is a confusing User Interface. The tutorial, while giving you a very rudimentary grasp of the game, isn’t going to be of much help here, so a read-through of the manual, or an afternoon examining the finer features of each key will help to kick off your love affair with The Witcher. You have hot-keyed potions (think of it like the belt from Diablo 2), and about eight different menus to sort through everything. Inventory, Quests, comprehensive lists of potions, characters, monsters and ingredients that you have met/fought/discovered; the whole she-bang. But this is strung together like rust, since the inventories can be unresponsive, or take light-years to load. But this isn’t the only place such slow-downs occur.

During battle, if too much happens at once, you may well likely notice that everything will freeze for a few seconds, much to your despair before it all comes right in a few seconds. The animations are slightly choppy as well. If there isn’t enough space to attack an enemy you’ve been attacking, Geralt will just stand there. You’d think to try and click again, but this will make him stop completely since you’ll have just broken a combo. No, instead, you’re supposed to wait for about five seconds, whereby Geralt will quickly move across the screen and attack. It’s hard to describe, but even harder to bear. It’s overly annoying; and it wouldn’t be so bad if this didn’t happen in a lot of places. The cramped swamps, cluttered interiors of houses (which all ironically seem to be gutted of absolutely everything inside; there’s maybe a chair and a bed here, and a table or chest or two, but that’s it. These are big houses as well), and even in dialogue!

Now, the dialogue is a mixed blessing and a curse. Sometimes, you will enjoy the barb that Geralt’s voice-actor has, but other times facepalm at how stoically bad it is. In some scenes, there is absolutely no emphasis at all (or very farcical emotion), and it seems like the voice was thrown on at the last minute, while at other times, the voices really help get you into the story and universe. The named characters have a nice repertoire of voices as well; though the nameless characters are all pretty much identically. There are about four models for male and female, and about four voices for male and female, and that breaks the mood more than once in The Witcher. It’s not cringe-worthy dialogue, but sometimes it’s just silly in the context of the story; which, by the way, evolves into being very involving. There don’t seem to be many games anymore that give you proper options to change how the game evolves. In the Witcher, there are a few key areas, and these will determine how the rest of your game unfolds. You could kill the Werewolf, and fulfil your duties as a Witcher; or you could leave him, and he’ll help you later on. Do you side with the Terrorist Elves, or the Genocidal Knights? Or do care about neither, and just high-tail it out of there, and let them slaughter themselves and the villagers? It’s this sort of thought-provoking content which makes the game so great, and overcomes most of its glaring flaws. There are three major paths you can down, but a LOT of sub-paths. You can tell a character something, and this will have an affect on the game much further down the line. And better yet, for all the morality and choices in this game, there is no “perfect side”. The twists near the end get even better, especially when you realise what sort of visionary abilities the final villain has, and realise exactly who you’re killing.

The Graphics and Sound are above average; nothing exceptional, but they are certainly nice in some points. From the rolling meadow, to the mellow sound of musicians plucking away on lyres in the taverns. It all helps to create a nice sense of ambience when playing the game; and in many ways, it reminds me of Fable as stated above. The whole game world is much more mature, however, but some of the quests have a Fable-like essence to them, and the music is dreamy and picturesque. Again, not worthy of particular mention, but they aren’t terrible.

And all of this combines to make an enjoyable experience. I had my doubts while playing the Witcher, and it was difficult to get into long playing experiences, but if it hooks you in, you will get the urge to complete all of the chapters without stopping, and without any sense of the time. The choices system makes you feel apart of a unique world that morphs to shape your deeds and misdeeds, and the grey-scale of alignment gives a refreshing take on the whole “your choices determine the world” gimmick. The game Fable should have been.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

Product Release: The Witcher (Collector's Edition) (AU, 11/09/07)

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