I was very much intrigued by The Witcher the very first time I heard about it, back around 2005 or so. “Dark Fantasy” had not really been a huge thing back then and the concept sounded like a fresh new approach to the genre that to me was mostly defined by The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons. The game was released in 2007 and I played it the first time not very long after that. However, I never actually finished it. And greatly enjoying the books now and wanting to play the second game again, it seemed the appropriate thing to give this game another go.
The Witcher is based on a series of fantasy books written by Andrzej Sapkowski during the 90s. Basically it started out as taking themes and archetypes from Grimm’s Fairy Tales with some elements of Polish folklore and turning them into serious modern tales of violence and prejudice. It’s a bit similar to what Neon Genesis Evangelion did in Japan with it’s own take of children controling giant robots to fight city annihilating monsters to save the earth. Though usually there’s also a good amount of small meta-jokes here and there that really go a long way in keeping the books from drifting into grimdark territory. The main hero is Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher. When the world was still full of monsters that threatened the survival of human civilization everywhere, the Witchers were created to be superhuman monster slayers, highly trained in swordfighting and the basics of magic and turned into alchemical mutants through various potions that give them immunity to disease, resistance to poison, accelerated healing, hightened senses, and so on. But as the world has become more and more pacified many people doubt that these dangerous freaks are still necessary and there are only very few of them left and even fewer new ones being trained. But as monsters are starting to go extinct, it becomes very clear that this won’t make the world any more safer or peaceful as people are really one of the biggest source of violence and missery. While the last book in the series was published in 1999 and has been translated into over a dozen languages, the English translation has always been very late and the final three books are only being released in English right now, with the last one coming in 2017. The game takes place 5 years after the last book, which of course kind of spoils the ending of the series, but given the popularity of the games it’s pretty much like “I am your father!” and “Aeris dies” now. However, given the themes and moods of the series, I am really not feeling like this makes reading the books any less fun or exciting. The game does a very good job of remaining very brief on what exactly happened during the books and don’t really tell you anything about what was going on at the final showdown. Still, feel yourself warned when I go deeper into the story later in this review, where I will mention how the transition from the books to the game takes place.
The Witcher is in many ways a “classic western RPG” with lots of similarities to various Dungeons & Dragons games, The Elder Scrolls, or Dragon Age. However, because you’re playing a fixed character and there is a pretty clear main story, it’s in many ways much closer to the Mass Effect games. I think the closest comparison would probably be the Gothic series that was developed and released in the early 2000s, but to my knowledge didn’t get very popular outside of Germany. (It was a huge hit here, though.)
Geralt is very well known for the signature weapons of a witcher. A steel sword and a silver sword. Steel is the weapon of choice to kill people and animals but does relatively little damage to supernatural creatures. The silver sword is much better suited to that, but is more blunt in comparion and not ass effective against regular enemies as the steel sword. Though, how Geralt himself puts it “both are for monsters”. Since Geralt is a swordsman through and through, fighting with a sword and no shield is the primary, and effectively only form of combat. You can pick up daggers, axes, and clubs from enemies, but your skill with these doesn’t ever improve while you can become a total beast with your swords. There are three modes of fighting. A strong mode for big and heavily armored enemies, a fast mode that deals the most damage to small and fast enemies, and a group mode in which you lash out against every enemy around you. The group mode deals the least damage per strike, but since you’re hitting lots of enemies at the same time its perfect any time you are dealing with three or more enemies at once. While this is a neat idea in theory, there is very little strategy involved. Usually you can see immediately if the enemy takes more damage from strong or fast mode attacks and all you do is press the button to select the right mode for the current enemy. There is never really a question which mode might work best, it’s always obvious so there isn’t really any choice or tactics involved. The main tactical element of combat is deciding where to stand, which enemy to aim at, and when to move to a new position to avoid getting swarmed by to many opponents at once. But that’s also what you do in Baldur’s Gate or the first Dragon Age and while the animations of Geralt’s awesome fencing style look amazing at first, the novelty of it quickly runs out. Combat is serviceable, but not a particular highlight of the game. The second game went the right way with getting ride of modes and giving you a strong attack button and a fast attack button instead.
There are a few alternative steel swords throughout the game, but you probably end up using only two or three different ones throughout the entire game, and there’s only a single silver sword that you can get slightly upgraded towards the end. There is also a total of only three suits of armor and no magic rings or amulets. What you get instead is alchemy. Which really is a very innovative and fun way to handle combat customization. Throughout the game world you find huge amounts of magical plants and monster parts which you can make into potions once you have found the right recipes for them. And there’s a lot of them. You can either make potions that increase your own health, endurance, resistances, and so on, or make oils for coating your blades that deal additional damage and status effects to various kinds of enemies. And since ingredients are extremely plentiful, you are pretty much always able to make any potion or oil that you want. All you need is to rest at a campfire, which are usually found less than a hundred meters away wherever you are. In practice I mostly used the Swallow potion which gives you health regeneration for about 10 to 15 minutes, and the Cat potion that lets you see in total darkness and eliminates the need for a torch. Swallow is one of the shortest duration potions in the game, most others will easily last you through several dungeons in a row. Even though I played on Hard there was rarely any need for other potions or oils, but when it comes to the tougher fights it really is a very fun system. The only limitation is that you always can have only a single oil on each of your swords and that all potions are slightly toxic. Most people would drop dead immediately when drinking them, but witchers are able to handle four or five of them in a row. One time I was so heavily drugged up and in immediate need of a fast acting healing potion that I actually keeled over dead from an overdose of potions rather than from my injuries. The very last thing I did in the game after the big final battle and before the final cutscene ran – which I didn’t know at the point – was to drink my last remaining cleansing potion that ended all my active potion and removed all the poison from my body. A wonderfully poetic way to end a game of drug fueled mayhem.
And finally Geralt has some limited magic abilities in the form of five simple spells. The ones I most almost exclusively are Aard and Igni, which create a blast of air that can knock enemies over or unconscious or create a big burst of fire for direct damage. There is also Quen, which creates a short lived shield to absorb a bit of damage, but even with considerable upgrading I found the added protection not worth the while. Keeping moving and having a Swallow potion ready is usually sufficient and trying to raise a quick Quen spell doesn’t seem to make any difference for more than a few seconds. There is also Yrden, which creates a stun trap on the ground, and Axii, that lets you turn one enemy against his allies. But stunning all the enemies around you and finishing them with your sword or throwing fire at them always seemed much more practical.
While there is a good amount of fighting throughout the game, I think it really is primarily about talking with people, solving mysteries, and progressing the plot. The game begins with Geralt finding himself in the wilderness near the old witcher stronghold Kaer Moren with no memory of how he got there or even who he is. His old master Vesemir and the sorceress Triss are not too particularly surprised by his loss of memory because to everyone’s knowledge he had been killed five years earlier and several of his friends had been there when he died. But now he’s back, appearing in the middle of a supernatural thunderstorm somehow linked to the mysterious Wild Hunt. Unfortunately, there is not much time for Geralt to try to figure out what happened to him as the ruined castle is attacked by a sorcerer and a gang of bandits that find their way into the lab and steal the alchemical books and ingredients that are used to turn witchers into superhuman warriors. The few remaining witchers decide to split up and try to find any trails that might lead them to the sorcerer and his base, with Geralt going to the kingdom of Tymeria. Most of the game takes place in the Tymerian capital Vizima, where the city guard and the knights of the Order of the Flaming Rose are fighting against a criminal gang called Salamandra, and the elven and dwarven rebells of the Scoia’tael who are hiding in the swamps. The Scoia’tael are one of the most interesting elements of the setting, being a militant group that desires to remove all humans from the Northern Kingdoms and reclaiming the lands for themselves. The human monarchs and their subjects are everything but sympathetic to their cause and react by systematically subjugating any nonhumans on suspiscion of aiding the terrorists. On the other side, the Scoia’tael consider anyone who doesn’t support their cause to be a traitor and collaborateur and also deserving death. At the same time, the great Nilfgaardian Empire in the south is well known to give some reasonable degree of autonomy to its nonhuman subjects and has long had great ambitions of invading and taking over the independent Northern Kingdoms. Even though the Nilfgaardian aristocracy conists of humans, that makes them allies of convenience to the Scoia’tael. Everything considered, it’s a situation that just isn’t going to get a happy ending for anyone involved.
While the plot itself turns out to be nothing to write home about, the game does an incredible good work at bringing the world of the Northern Kingdom to life. It may not be a great Witcher story, but it certainly is an amazing Witcher adaptation. Many characters from the books make an appearance in the game and both they and Geralt are captured perfectly. There are few things I hate as much as comic relief bards in a fantasy story, but I love Dandelion. I love him in the books and I love him in this game.
I believe not many people have actually finished this game, because if they did the ending would be much more infamous. It’s not so much confusing, but certainly pretty weird and going into completely unexpected directions and coming out of nowhere. While sitting through the final dialogues and cutscenes, I couldn’t help but being more and more reminded about the ending of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Usually I am a big fan of esoteric endings, but here it feels somewhat out of place and something more conventional might probably have been more appropriate.
Back when the game was first released it was notorious for being quite troublesome to getting it work and run well. And while I believe the current Enhanced Edition is a lot better, it’s still partly the case. While many people say it’s running completely fine for them on Linux, I wasn’t able to get it work at all. In the end I had to boot up an old WinXP installation I still had on my computer and that mostly worked quite well. But in about 50 hours of playing I had about the same number of complete crashes. Which is a lot. The game does have four separate autosave slots, but when the game only saves at major area transitions that isn’t terribly helpful when you can stay on the same map for quite a considerable time. Including several major fights. By regularly saving the game manually I was able to play through the whole thing with only minor inconvenience, it’s still very annoying. However, on the positive side, that was the only kind of error I ever experienced throughout the entire game. Not a single time did I have to deal with broken dialoges, a messed up questlog, characters that failed to spawn, or anything like that. I never had to go back to an old save because a quest became unfinishable. For a notriously buggy RPG that is a major achivement.
Visually it looks quite impressing, especially considering that it uses the same engine as the unspeakably ugly Neverwinter Nights. Especially when you can put all the settings to maximum on an average modern computer, the faces and many of the outdoor environments look really very good. The same can not be said for character animations, though. It’s wobbly heads and twitchy arms not much better than what you’d get in the first Resident Evil or Deus Ex. But it doesn’t really hurt the game. The biggest problem I have with the visuals of the game are the colors and most of the lighting. I can get what they were aiming for, but pretty soon seeing nothing but washed out, faded, and dusty colors everywhere was starting to get on my nerves. Especially with the sky being overcast 90% of the time. There are a few spots where the lighting is pretty interesting, but mostly it’s just dreadfully dreary. The environments appear to be heavily inspired by Poland, with the architecture, fashion, and armor being based on 14th century Northern-Central Europe. And as someone who grew up in the German parts of this greater region, it’s really great to see a game that so faithfully draws on the environment and sights of our homeland. And yes, while the weather is pretty accurate too, it’s not working well for a fantasy game. There is such a thing as too much realism and permant overcast sky with slight drizzle is among that. Thankfully the second game went to great lengths to avoid this and uses stark lighting and high color contrast that makes everything look slightly overexposed and I think it works beautifully.
Another thing I feel worth mentining is that the camera work on the cutscenes is pretty amazing. Whoever was responsible for this really knew what he was doing. Lots of very interesting and unusual shots that have various interesting effects on the presentation of the scene. It’s very much unlike anything else I’ve seen in a videogame. It’s actually considerably better than the camera work in the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy. (If you watch the movies again, try to pay attention to it. They consist almost entirely of the most basic and boring shots you can do.)
Making a final judgement on this game is difficult. There is a lot to praise about this game, but also a very great amount of reasons to complain. The story is not great, the gameplay is mostly rather poor, and it doesn’t really look great either. The main selling point of the game is that it is a Witcher game, and as I mentioned, I think the adaptation is done really well. The way that people think, talk, and behave in this world is quite unique and probably the most interesting part about the whole game. If the game were set in any other generic fantasy world, I don’t think anyone would have taken any notice of it because it would be just plain boring. I played the game again because I am a big fan of the book and really enjoyed the second game a great lot and plan to play it a second time soon. So I wanted to finish The Witcher at least once, mostly for the sake of completeness and because I wanted to experience the strange ending for myself instead of watching a video of it. And I don’t regret that I played the game. But I feel very certain that I won’t be playing it again another time. Now that I’ve seen it, I don’t really see why I would want to play it again. The best thing about it is the world of the Witcher, and you can experience it even better in the second game, which is so much more fun and enjoyable in every way. And given that the story of this game neither ties in directly to the book nor the other games really doesn’t make it a big loss for anyone who doesn’t play it. It’s not a bad game and I won’t tell anyone to avoid it. But for anyone who is only now getting interested in the Witcher, I would actually rather recommend starting with The Witcher 2. I would say there is a good chance that this game won’t be fun to play for many people and you have to bring some already existing enthusiasm to it to properly enjoy it. If you’re not already fully on board with The Witcher, I really recommend starting somewhere else. Either with The Witcher 2 or the books.