Polish author Andrzej Sapkawski’s novels, detailing the exploits and struggles of the monster-slaying “witcher,” were first adapted as comic books. A film, television series, and pen and paper RPG followed. Thanks to CD Projekt, the story is now playable in video game form on the PC. Although The Witcher falls prey to poor story-telling and weak control, the game remains full of atmosphere and character.
The Witcher follows the story of a witcher, or monster hunter, named Geralt. As the game begins, his fellow witchers discover him injured and delirious; he has lost his memory. After being transported to the witchers’ castle, Geralt awakens and comes to terms with his amnesia. Surrounded by companions from the past, he attempts to gain some insight on his lost memories. Before he can establish his identity, however, a group of rogues waylay the castle. Led by a powerful sorcerer, this criminal organization, called Salamandra, infiltrates the witchers’ stronghold and steals important secrets concerning the mutation process each witcher undergoes to gain supernatural powers. When the sorcerer escapes, the witchers assess the damage and send Geralt on a mission to locate the group and reclaim the stolen secrets.
The Witcher’s basic plotline, an amnesiac’s revenge story, doesn’t thrill initially; the game’s characters and dynamic choices, however, help bring excitement to the story. Much of the plot consists of hunting agents of Salamandra in search of leads that bring Geralt one step closer to reclaiming the precious secrets. While this formula repeats a few too many times, enough action occurs to keep the player stimulated and the game touches on important themes: racism, societal rejection, destiny, and the debate of good and evil. One of the most impressive aspects of the game are the numerous choices Geralt must make. Throughout the course of the adventure, the player will be forced to save a life or take one, rescue one character over another, and choose sides in a war. The outcome of each choice is often unexpected and effects the story up until the very end, though Geralt will be sure to inform the player of the consequences of each action through a short monologue.
The Witcher’s characters add flair to the generic storyline. Geralt himself is quite complex: sarcastic, vengeful, loyal, disloyal, passionate, hateful, and loving. Much of his reaction depends upon the player’s choice of dialogue, but his emotions run the gamut over the course of the game. The broad range of attitudes rarely causes disbelief, and instead assists in the creation of a realistic, ambivalent being. After certain scenes, Geralt’s “tough guy” image begins to melt in the presence of softer emotions, and a real character is born. While never as developed as the Geralt, minor characters imbue the player with feelings of hatred, annoyance, compassion, or indifference, as they should. Whether Geralt interacts with bawdy dwarves, prickly elves, rugged peasants, or voluptuous prostitutes, the encounter is lively and entertaining. At times, Geralt encounters a character he knew in the past, and these characters often become recurring ones, whether enemy or ally. They tend to possess insightful information concerning Geralt’s lost memories, thus fortifying the story with realistic problems and quirks. Other times, the characters will offer little more than a chance for Geralt to show off his virility.
Geralt can have sex with nearly every woman he meets. Upon agreeing to the act, a blurry cutscene ensues, and a tarot card of sorts appears on screen to show the player an illustration of the woman Geralt is currently pleasuring. Though not nude in the North American version, the women appear in airy robes and pose erotically, if the player considers one sprawled out in a sea of gold coins erotic. The sex scenes are unnecessary and taking them seriously is a mistake. The developers obviously meant the sequences to be comical, if crass and ironically immature, considering they helped fetch the game’s M rating. Some of the most hilarious situations I’ve seen in a video game occur alongside Geralt’s sexual exploits. Some of the dialogue, as well, was created for the purpose of conjuring laughs. Geralt’s curses are often over the top and modern, but the inconsistencies these cause with the medieval setting are surprisingly mild. Much of the rest of the dialogue, however, serves only to confuse the player.
Translated from Polish, The Witcher’s dialogue is choppy and awkward throughout. Characters jump from one topic to another without warning, and entire lines of dialogue seem absent. These missing lines adversely effect the plot because it unfolds mostly through dialogue. The player feels left out and must rely on the in-game journal to fill in the gaps regarding minor plot twists, and even important revelations. Sometimes, the player wonders if Geralt can read minds; from a single greeting, he discerns both the leader of a drug ring, and where he can be found. At the end of the conversation, Geralt decides to take on the leader, and the journal instructs you to head to his location, but the player must try to determine what just occurred. A similar phenomenon occurs when the plot is advanced through poorly translated letters or documents that fall into Geralt’s hands. Once again, the writers leave out important information, and the player must read the journal to keep up.
Behind the story of revenge and the whimsical characters, The Witcher’s setting stands out as one full of darkness. At night or in rain, the world borders that of a gothic horror story. The effect lessens during the day, but the shadows return once Geralt steps into a crypt or cavern. There are inconsistencies in the gothic atmosphere, such as a pretty field of flowery weeds, but the overall effect is unique and powerful. The setting’s more tangible aspects are fully realized, as well; the world of The Witcher feels real. There are political boundaries, large cities, small villages, and outlands, such as swamps. The history of the setting is recorded in numerous in-game books, and the game’s journal includes background information as well.
Geralt possesses three methods to defend himself: melee weapons, magic “signs,” and alchemical substances. The witcher is equipped with both a steel and silver sword and these two swords can be used in one of three different styles: strong, fast, and group. The player chooses an appropriate style for any given enemy. Geralt attacks when the player clicks on a target, and successive attacks are performed by additional clicks on the target at specified points. Choosing the most effective is engaging, but physical combat isn’t perfect. Aside from control issues (covered below), the battle system borders on average after many hours. In the beginning, the battle system seems highly interactive and entertaining. Toward the middle, however, the novelty begins to wear off, and combat becomes slightly monotonous. Fortunately, watching the combat is fun, and sometimes hilarious. Different styles produce different moves, and Geralt is truly superhuman in that regard. He takes on twelve foes at once with the group style, and heads fly. It’s unrealistic, but it’s fun.
Magic is handled through “signs,” simple magic spells, and can be used to spray opponents with fire, control minds, and force enemies away. Activating a spell is easy and convenient. Arguably unnecessary, the signs accomplish things that the witcher fighting styles do not, but typically don’t deal as much damage as melee attacks. The final method for defense is alchemy. By obtaining numerous components from dead monsters and picking herbs, Geralt can combine them with alcohol to form potions, oils, and bombs. The substances have various effects depending on their type, such as poison resistance potions, and blinding bombs. Depending on the difficulty chosen in the beginning, these items may be of no use, they may be helpful, or they may be necessary. With a variety of gameplay mechanics to consider in battle, The Witcher provides more than one method of dispatching enemies. Since physical combat becomes dull, these additions are helpful to toss things up.
Equipment is obtained through battle and looting, or through typical transactions in stores. The limited inventory remains an issue only up until the player realizes Geralt doesn’t need half the garbage he has been picking up. Orens, or gold pieces, are scarce at first, and necessary to purchase herb and monster books to fill out the journal. Later in the adventure, they become useful only for upgrading equipment. By combining several pieces of ore and runes, each of the witcher swords can be upgraded. Once again, the non-witcher weapons are excluded from the privilege. There are plenty of items to be found, though there are very few armors, and they cost too many orens to be useful.
Leveling up occurs frequently, and each time, Geralt acquires one or more “talents” of the colors bronze, silver, and gold. These talents are spent in advancing Geralt’s abilities regarding his major attributes, sword techniques, and signs. Most of the talents are used to upgrade statistics such as chance of hitting, endurance (magic points), hit points, damage, or sign effectiveness. The level up rate is perfect, and the abilities gained each time are effective, if not overly visible. The number of talents obtained throughout the course of the game is too few to specialize in both physical combat and magic; the player must choose one or the other.
Geralt obtains countless quests during his adventure, and the journal displays them clearly. Traditional for Western RPGs, main quests are more involved than side quests that require a safe escort or monster hunting. The variety is impressive, but sometimes a quest is difficult to complete due to an elusive character. The journal offers a “mark quest” function, but when indicating a character, chooses the location most commonly attributed to that character. Sometimes, especially during the night and morning, they simply aren’t there. Rewards for side quests are largely underwhelming for over half of the game, though monetary rewards start to add up after many hours of questing. Though the middle of the game falls out quest-wise due to tedious city navigation, the quests are typically well-balanced. The Witcher is a game in which undertaking anything takes a substantial amount of time due to wandering, load times, and waiting around for monsters to pop up. For a game of this length, the areas are small and few. The game takes place in a disappointingly limited arena, despite the implied size of the game world. The final product, however, is broad enough to dispel most complaint.
On my ancient PC (it meets the minimum requirements exactly), The Witcher struggles to perform. In active areas, Geralt lagged to frustrating degrees, but in less populated zones, the lag was tolerable. Scrolling at the side the screen became annoying in larger areas, and Geralt was difficult to control, but on a higher end PC, these issues would not arise. One of the worst aspects of the game is long loading. When some quests require Geralt to travel between houses and city sectors more than once, the load times are quite tasking on the player’s sanity.
For all that lag and loading, the environments are detailed, realistic, and often haunting. Interiors are well constructed, if repetitive, and the characters, especially major ones, are detailed. On a low end computer, the graphics will only be passable, but on an advanced system, the game will border on beautiful. Monster designs are unique and fit the style of the setting, though most of them are small. A few more larger, boss-type monsters would have balanced the design. Interior areas are often directly copied from one place to another, however, and the player will notice similar corridors in every cave and crypt. The biggest fault in the graphics department comes with repeated character models. The well of realism begins to dry up when Geralt encounters a powerful reverend in one village, kills him, and then sees six of the same reverend walking the streets of the next town. Even named NPCs’ models are copied. Very few characters don’t have a doppelganger.
The Witcher employs typical fantasy music for the most part. There are slightly more bagpipes than the average Western RPG, but the vocal arias are present, as well as an out of place electric guitar track. Much of the music is quiet and almost nonexistent, but when Geralt enters an inn, a danceable jig plays, and when he steps into a suspicious sorceress’ house, ominous tones play. While fitting, the music is limited in number and emotional effect. Although present, sound effects aren’t memorable, and that’s a compliment.
Voice acting in The Witcher runs from awkward to comical to almost professional. Much of the voice work is delivered with passion, but many characters emphasize incorrect words in incorrect ways. Even major characters fail to speak realistically with every line of dialogue they have. Many of the minor characters have more unique and realistic voice actors than major ones, though Geralt is typically on target. Geralt, too, emphasizes phrases strangely, but his deadpan sarcasm is wonderful. The amount of voice work in the game is impressive, but much of it is marred by unprofessional voice actors. The quality, as well, varies at times. Occasionally, one of the characters’ voices changes tones as if the voice actor suddenly switched to a poor quality microphone.
The Witcher provides the player with two different camera styles. The first is more of an over-the-shoulder style, while the second has the camera pulled farther back. Geralt can move through the use of either the mouse (you click on a position, he walks there), or the keyboard. With all these options, the player still finds it incredibly difficult to move him from one place to another. Some of the trouble can result from a low end PC lagging, but not everything. Geralt often fails to change directions when moving with the keyboard; this control is some of the clunkiest I’ve encountered in an RPG. When using the mouse, however, the player sometimes can’t see far enough away to warrant a click, and repeated clicking in this manner is inconvenient. Each method of movement is imprecise. In combat, control is more important, but of poorer quality; Geralt gets stuck on every enemy at every angle possible. Moving from one place to another in combat induces migraines. Furthermore, players often click on the wrong enemy when attacking. In the worst case, this results in the murder of an innocent bystander.
An overall score of 83% may come as a surprise after all the complaints. When stripped down to its individual pieces, The Witcher seems below average, flawed, and unworthy of a play-through. Most Western RPGs, however, have little individuality, and The Witcher possesses more character than most. This intangible attribute of the game is difficult to put into words, but Geralt’s personality, the mature humor, the bizarre characters, and the sex and drugs combine in odd ways to create a game better than the sum of its parts.