I’ve already spoken well of The Witcher, but without going into much in the way of detail. It’s time to remedy that.
The world of The Witcher, created by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, has been widely translated into numerous languages and adapted, into film, television, graphic novels, and a video game. It’s the video game that concerns us here.
The Witcher would be labeled as dark fantasy by folks who don’t really know much about fantasy genres. It’s gritty, personal, and very much warts-and-all.
The game centers on Geralt of Rivia, controlled by the player. Geralt is recovered by his fellow Witchers some years after being thought dead, without any of his memories. The Witchers are professional, mercenary monster-slayers. Once human, they are subjected to numerous mutagens and experiments which give them strength, speed, reflexes, regenerative abilities and senses far better than those of common men. Lesser details, like immunity to communicable diseases are just bonuses.
One price that is paid for all of this is infertility.
All is not well for the Witchers, however. A series of wars and skirmishes between humans and non-humans (dwarfs, elves, gnomes and so on) have left the two factions tense and at odds. Racism and arrogance are everywhere, and Witchers are neither fish nor fowl, not really fitting in to any society anywhere.
Witchers are viewed by many as a necessary evil – feared, even hated, but absolutely necessary when a village is beset by strange beasts, a monarch’s daughter is under a transformative curse, or an alchemist needs a certain special something.
Filthy streets, dirty taverns, and the sins of mankind are on display in a world which largely lacks any distinctive evil, because there really isn’t much in the way of forces for good against which anything can be measured. It’s a grey world, focusing mostly on choice and consequence.
While various moral choices in video games might be considered to be more like one-shot character-advancement decisions, the choices in The Witcher are long-lasting. Eventually the consequences of your actions will come back around and bite you or benefit you, sometimes long, long after the fact.
You will be forced to make choices and live with them.
Let’s go over game mechanics some…
The Witcher is a third-person game (default camera over-the-shoulder, though other angles are available). It’s based on the original graphics engine from Neverwinter Nights 1, though so heavily tricked-out that it looks more like the engine from Mass Effect. For older systems you may need to turn your settings down some, and the maximum quality settings can be harsh even on more recent hardware.
Combat is rhythm-based with some tactical gloss. Click to attack, and then click again as the cursor highlights to chain the next attack. Geralt sweeps and whirls and spins as he runs through his well-practiced combinations.
Geralt – also known as “The White Wolf” for his pale skin and hair – knows three fighting styles from his Witcher school – or six styles if you count that a fully-equipped Witcher has two blades, one steel and one silver, for dealing with different types of creatures. Selecting the right style for your opponents is important.
The game also comes with an extensive journal for cataloguing what you know about your foes, and Geralt can avail himself of information from others, or study from books and pamphlets to gain information about the strengths and weaknesses of his foes, and about what useful materials might be harvested from them.
The journal itself contains everything as Geralt discovers it, from notes about people, missions, ingredients, and formulae to notes about locations, jargon, legends, and even game-tutorials – a complete glossary of what Geralt has learned or should know.
Plants, fluids, and various substances harvested from creatures can be turned into assorted potions, oils and even explosives, by alchemy. The game sports three levels of difficulty, and at the lowest level of difficulty you’ll not need a lot of alchemy to get by. On higher difficulty levels, alchemical concoctions are far more important.
Geralt can be developed by allocating points gained when he levels up, and there are a wide variety of tweaks, bonuses and skills that they can be spent on. Additional advancement points can be obtained with some alchemy using rare ingredients.
Every one of the fifteen categories down the left has a map of skills and upgrades like the one pictured here, for Strength.
The automap feature is solid, character models are good, and the dialogue is extensive and will probably bring a smile to anyone who adored Planescape: Torment. It’s good writing, and the majority (although not all) of the English voice-acting does it justice. There are still a few spelling errors, but not nearly as many as in its original release.
No punches are pulled in language. Expect appropriate expletives, curses and coarse language everywhere you’d expect to find them. Expect gore and nudity, though the nudity is not crass, excessive or gratuitous and the gore is not severe. It’s nothing that you wouldn’t see on television of an evening.
Geralt’s role in the scheme of things goes far beyond just hunting down beasties and killing them for cash. There’s a matter of vengeance to take care of, all manner of social ills to become embroiled in, and it won’t be too long before you’re mixed up in politics at the highest levels as well.
There’s a lot of environmental detail. The sky, the weather, birds, small animals and so on. Important characters travel between work and home, grab meals, and go drinking. When it rains, almost everyone has the sense to get indoors, or take shelter under eaves unless they have a pressing reason to be out getting wet.
And there’s plenty of ‘evidence’ that horses use the roads frequently. Both fresh and old evidence.
Almost nothing’s new. Parts of the city of Vizima are under post-war repairs, and a couple of the towers look like they’re only being held together by ivy. The home of the Witchers itself has seen better days.
Geralt can fight, talk, cajole, threaten and bribe his way through the world and – in addition to monster-hunting for money – can gamble at dwarven poker-dice, indulge in fist-fighting for cash in taverns, or get into drinking contests.
Geralt, by the way, is quite amusing while staggering around drunk, though trying to focus on the blurry and multiply-imaged game-world when he is severely intoxicated can cause some eyestrain.
The story unfolds in five chapters, an epilogue, and a prologue that doubles as a tutorial and introduction for the rest of the story. Many things will play out differently through the game depending on your choices.
All in all, highly recommended if you like rich characterization and want to get away from the simple ‘click here to be good/neutral/evil’ style of choices which have become all-too-prevalent of late.