New battle mechanics, a fantastic storyline, and a gritty setting make The Witcher one of the most engrossing, mature RPGs to arrive on the PC in years.
- Dark, foreboding world that looks, sounds, and feels lived in
- Fantastic story populated by realistic NPCs with realistic problems
- Innovative new combat mechanics add depth in place of mindless clicking
- Cinematic visuals and a superb soundtrack.
- Could have done a better job introducing the new combat mechanics
- Odd dialogue and somewhat cheesy voice acting.
Don't be afraid of change. Even though The Witcher may scare off some people with inventive combat that replaces comfortable old rapid-fire clicking with rhythmic sword swinging, there is no need to avoid one of the deepest, most adult role-playing games to hit the PC in years. Polish developer CD Projekt has crafted one of those landmark games that moves the goalposts for everybody, a truly grown-up take on swords and sorcery that breaks just about every fantasy tradition in the book. Once you experience a grimy medieval world so realistic that you can practically smell it, quests that reject simplistic good and evil for ambiguous "decisions and consequences," and, yes, newfangled battle mechanics that add welcome twists to left-click scrapping, you'll find it awfully hard to go back to the usual D&D rip-off.
Built on a 2007 edition of the Aurora Engine that powers Neverwinter Nights, The Witcher is something of a cross between action RPGs such as Diablo and more complex plate-mail potboilers such as Neverwinter Nights. Essentially, the developers work both sides of the street. On the one hand, you have exactly one character choice in the form of greasy-haired Geralt of Rivia, the monster-hunting mercenary "witcher" of the title, along with other ostensibly dumbed-down features such as big bunches of combat and Gatling-gun-quick leveling up. But on the other hand, you also get a postwar fantasy world called Temeria that feels lived in (if not postapocalyptic), as well as plot points that involve serious moral choices. Story and setting have been borrowed from The Last Wish, a Polish fantasy novel published way back in 1990 by Andrzej Sapkowski, and for once such an adaptation has been pulled off successfully.
Although there is a fair bit of saving-the-world RPG claptrap involving a powerful evil mage and a mysterious group called the Salamanders, you deal with a lot of lowlifes. Woman-hating religious fanatics; merchants who deal in abducted children; slatternly bar wenches who'll bed down with you for a bottle of wine; witches who sell poison and play with voodoo dolls; racists who openly hate nonhumans and threaten to kill elves and dwarves. Make no mistake: Although there are a lot of traditional, Gygaxian monsters on the prowl here--barghests, wargs, ghouls, drowned undead, vampires, wraiths, wyverns, and loads of different demons--the biggest enemy that Geralt faces is always his fellow humans. You're not much of a hero, either. Requests for assistance can be turned down. Money is always a factor, even when you decide to be a good guy and lend a helping hand. And you have no problem taking advantage of just about every woman you encounter, having pre-marital relations with a handful of babes in every act of the game despite apparently being in love with one of your fellow witchers.
It shouldn't be much of a surprise that the line between good and evil here isn't a very thick one. Everything is a murky gray. The first act is simply astonishing in how it plays out. You start off trying to track down the bad guys who raided your witcher fortress and killed one of your pals, but soon get involved in a feud that pits the religious leader and nobles of a hamlet against a witch. However, nobody's hands are clean. One merchant you deal with is in cahoots with the evil cult you're hunting. A guard you help with a ghoul problem turns out to be a rapist. The village priest you're helping cleanse the region of a demonic dog called "the Beast" is actually a misogynistic lunatic. And the witch isn't much better, given that she's sold poison used in a suicide and employed a voodoo doll to make one of the local bigwigs kill his brother. By the end of the act, in a showdown complete with burning torches and pitchforks, you're forced to choose between the woman-hating, rape-loving, cult-affiliated mob and the murdering witch. It makes the most sense to side with the witch because the villagers are an awfully sleazy lot, but doing so forces you to slaughter virtually all of them and leave their town burned to the ground.
So no, The Witcher sure isn't all sunshine and lollipops. But even though you might need a few Prozac pills to handle the game's bleak tone, the story becomes incredibly compelling when you have so much riding on your actions. Characters seem like real people, not the good-evil-neutral triad of stereotypes that populate most fantasy games. Only a few aspects of the story and setting remind you that you're just playing a game.
A lot of this is probably due to poor translation from the original Polish. Dialogue seems truncated in many spots, which leaves you in the dark as to character motivations. You know something important has just taken place, and the interface clearly points out what you're supposed to be doing, but the big picture doesn't completely come together.
Swearing and bizarre word choices are another issue. One moment you're cruising along listening to fairly standard RPG conversations, and then you're hit with out-of-the-blue modern slang and "F" bombs. It's pretty jarring to hear the leader of your witcher band calling a female team member "babe," let alone to hear Geralt disgustingly grunt "Abso-f***ing-lutely!" Voice acting often lacks authority as well, which highlights these strange lines. Fellow adventurers look like grizzled warriors but sound more like high schoolers. The actor who voices Geralt tries too hard, like a kid attempting a deep, gravelly voice so he can fool the counter jockey at the corner store into selling him a six-pack. Likewise, the youngest member of your group has all the gravitas of Potsie Weber (for a reason, it soon turns out).
Interactions between the sexes are also risqué in a corny way that would rev up only Beavis and Butthead. It's ridiculous enough that the side quests in every act let Geralt get horizontal with virtually every woman he meets, but it's just pathetic that each conquest is rewarded with a playing card that depicts the lovely lass in a come-hither pose. There isn't even any real payoff with these pics, either, given that the nudity that appeared in the European version of the game has been censored due to prudish Stateside sensibilities. (Thank you, Hot Coffee controversy.) At any rate, the sex is ludicrous and out of place, and is apparently there only to give game geeks hope that a fellow guy with lanky, unwashed hair and corpse-pale skin can score with hot babes.
Anyone who didn't get this at the time (like me), the enhanced addition is currently on sale at GOG.com for $4.99, but only for the next few days. It's optimised for Windows 7 and MAC too. Just waiting for it to finish downloading now :)
This is no franchise rip-off, pushed to be published together with it's movie/book. This was made by people who loved the books, for people who loved the books. The books also define the role - steel & silver swords, potions, signs - even if it may no make much sense if you only know the game.
Best RPG since 2002, up until The Witch 2 came out! Couldn't believe the game had an RRP of around $45 - at least $10 under the big publishers prices, and yet despite this low RRP, the standard game came with a map and OST, etc!