Investigate an attack on your home, slaying schemers and monsters along the way.
PC Release: September 16, 2008
By Ian Coppock
With the delay of Watch Dogs 2, the 2016 season of new holiday releases is pretty much over. As implied if not outright stated in previous articles, this year’s crop of big-budget titles was by and large a disappointment. Battlefield 1 was pretty good and so, apparently, was Titanfall 2, but every other major release from Deus Ex: Mankind Divided on down to Dishonored 2 was not all that great. This state of affairs will not do for a cheerful Christmas spirit, and so it’s time to keep going back to an age when video games worked on day one, and their narratives were unafraid to tackle complicated subject matter. The Witcher has all of this, as well as the opportunity to slay lots of monsters.
The Witcher is the first in a trilogy of third-person fantasy RPGs that have been released over about a decade, beginning with this game in 2007 and ending with last year’s The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. The games feature characters and worlds from the The Witcher novels written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Contrary to popular belief, the video games are not adaptations of the novels, but instead entirely new stories starring characters from Sapkowski’s books. Sapkowski does not consider the video games canon, but that certainly hasn’t stopped the series’ following from growing wildly in the past 10 years.
Like the books, The Witcher takes place in a medieval fantasy world simply called The Continent. Unlike most epics that western audiences are familiar with, the world of The Witcher is inspired primary by eastern European folklore and traditions, giving it a different flavor than, say, The Elder Scrolls. Players assume the role of Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher, who hunts and slays monsters all over The Continent… for a price. Witchers’ aptitude for monster-hunting runs far deeper than swords and spells. As part of their training, each Witcher undergoes dramatic genetic mutations that grant them superhuman speed and strength, sore necessities for fighting monsters. Those Witchers who survive this process are unparalleled in their combat abilities, and Geralt is one of the deadliest.
The Witcher begins with Geralt waking up in the middle of a field, suffering amnesia. He’s escorted by his fellow Witchers back to their stronghold of Kaer Morhen, but can’t remember anything of his life prior to waking up. Not long after Geralt’s revival, the fortress is attacked by a cult of assassins called the Salamandra, led by the powerful sorcerer Azar Javed. Despite putting up a valiant defense, the Witchers are overrun by the Salamandra’s superior numbers, and the cult steals the top-secret mutagens used to transform men into Witchers. Fearing what might be unleashed with the mutagens in the wrong hands, each of the four Witchers agrees to head in a different direction to find a trace of their new foe. Geralt decides to head south, toward the rest of the Northern Kingdoms, to see if he has any luck tracking the Salamandra.
Geralt has a considerable amount against him in his hunt. Despite being a dire necessity, Witchers are hated and feared by the human populace for their superhuman abilities. The Salamandra know how to hide in plain sight. Worst of all, the nobles of the Northern Kingdoms might be complicit in the conspiracy. Geralt has to become as much a politician as a warrior to find his prey, as he embarks upon the greatest adventure he’s ever faced.
Geralt’s adventure through the Northern Kingdoms is, in many ways, a classic third-person RPG. Players control Geralt using an over-the-shoulder camera, and can level up their character by completing quests and slaying monsters. Geralt is proficient with both swords and magic, and players can upgrade each tree of abilities in a spiraling array of menus. The enemies of The Witcher demand some amount of specialization; Geralt carries a steel sword to make quick work of human foes, and a silver sword for dealing with monsters.
The Witcher is fueled by a combination of wicked fast turn-based combat and deep choice-based gameplay. By night, Geralt engages entire groups of foes with his swords and his array of devastating spells. By day, he’s hobnobbing with the Northern Kingdoms’ royalty and trying to gain their trust via extensive conversations. As with Mass Effect, the blend of action and conversation-based gameplay is apt, but The Witcher takes it even further than that venerated RPG.
The combat in The Witcher is versatile, if dated. Geralt can draw his sword and attack enemy creatures at player command, or use his spells for more advanced combat. Combat in The Witcher is, unfortunately, somewhat turn-based, as each combatant deals their blows against a bewildering mess of weapon and proficiency modifiers. It’s nothing that players new to the series won’t get used to, but boy is it clunky. It feels like a slightly freer variation of the combat in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Because the combat in this game is turn-based, it makes no sense for players to try to dodge or skip past enemies. The only way forward in The Witcher is for Geralt to be a tank.
Hand-in-hand with the clunkiness of the combat is the game’s slew of menus, an un-intuitive and overenthusiastic mess of numbers, letters and colors that takes far longer to understand than it should. It’s a given that a deep RPG will have lots of menus, but The Witcher compounds its overabundance of menus with threadbare gameplay tutorials. The alchemy system, which is vital to finishing the game, is poorly explained, as is the fact that certain powers will be necessary (not just handy, but necessary) to finish the game at all. Make no mistake, the world of The Witcher is fascinating, but its underpinnings are all over the place.
Leaps and bounds better than The Witcher‘s combat is its deeply meaningful dialogue, whose nuances and conversation choices remain the most impactful of any video game ever made. Even more than in Mass Effect, conversation choices in The Witcher have far-reaching and often unforeseen effects. Whereas the conversation choices in Mass Effect usually bear immediate consequences, it can take the entirety of The Witcher for a conversation’s outcome to become clear. Geralt can talk to someone in the game’s first act and experience a consequence all the way at the very end, and that’s a fantastic design element. To further obfuscate the game’s world, most conversations do not enclose neat right-or-wrong decisions. Instead, players have to essentially gamble on two or more ambiguous choices and hope that things pan out okay. It goes without saying that this system has a profound impact on the game’s overall narrative.
Finally, this cog of game design informs the delightfully complicated political world of The Witcher. It’s not enough for Geralt to barge in and kill everyone; he has to sniff out the Salamandra’s leaders and sympathizers from among the Northern Kingdoms’ aristocracy. That means being extremely careful with conversation choices and manually inferring loyalty or treachery from each group of people Geralt encounters. Unlike so many games where the politics are pure backstory, the politics in The Witcher run to a depth comparable to A Game of Thrones. And like the characters in George R.R. Martin’s Westeros, Geralt finds himself in a very complicated game indeed.
Despite bearing themes endemic to many fantasy RPGs, The Witcher stands apart in its crowded field for a few important reasons. For starters, as previously mentioned, the game takes inspiration from Eastern European rather than Western European culture. Places and NPCs have Slavic names and the game’s folklore is drawn from Polish, Russian and Ukrainian traditions instead of the more traditional British or German sources. This change in inspiration is subtle, but very important, as it presents concepts that are novel to western audiences and ideas that are rarely encountered in fantasy works from North America and Western Europe.
Additionally, like A Saga of Ice and Fire, The Witcher dirties its high fantasy setting with problems and flaws endemic to the real world. The Continent’s elvish and dwarven populations are heavily discriminated against, as one might expect of real-life human beings, and the kingdoms are rife with pollution of every stripe. Additionally, almost every character that Geralt encounters is quite multi-faceted, with their own fears, prejudices and secrets to hide. Geralt can rely on a small cadre of old friends for help, but beyond this, he is alone. Players have to decide for themselves what an NPC is hiding, and it can be surprisingly difficult to do so (even when playing a white-haired superhuman armed with two swords). All of this gives The Witcher a pretty bleak atmosphere, as even at the best of times, players can’t be sure they aren’t in terrible danger.
The narrative that all of this is built upon takes Geralt on a winding journey, mostly in and around the capital city of Vizima. The game is split up into chapters that each take place in one new area. While each of these areas is quite open, Geralt can’t always go back once he’s finished up his investigation. Most regions get progressively bigger as Geralt unlocks them, and give him lots of questing opportunities. The main story quests, from lighting lamps for an old priest to putting down the ghost of a murdered bride, rarely disappoint. The side quests, however, are pretty mediocre. Almost all of them comprise killing five monsters, or gathering five flowers, really just five instances of any menial task. Money is not hard to come by thanks to the dice gambling minigame, but the extra XP can be helpful.
The Witcher‘s central story is as rich and complicated as its dialogue system. Geralt’s quest to retrieve the Witchers’ mutagens becomes bigger and bigger as he pierces into Vizima’s dark heart. As he progresses further, Geralt also gets spectral visits from the King of the Wild Hunt, a wraith who promises to bring a savage end to the world. This and other subplots are woven deep into The Witcher‘s story, presenting one of the most satisfying, far-reaching narrative experiences of any game. Characters evolve and change along with the plot, constantly keeping the player guessing as to who’s on their side. With its unclear choice-and-consequence system, decent writing, and elongated plot, The Witcher bears a narrative that was years ahead of its time. It’s certainly head-and-shoulders over the stories that came out this year.
There’s a lot of good to be said about The Witcher; it brings out the best of the video game medium. Contrary-wise, though, it also represents some of game design’s less admirable tendencies. The Witcher‘s aforementioned combat design represents the game’s struggle between letting players run free and hemming them in with knowledge. Ultimately, it chooses the former, at an annoying price. There are powers and abilities that are absolutely necessary for finishing The Witcher, but the game does a poor job of hinting that to players. As a result, players might end up stuck with a Geralt who is too weak or unequipped to see the game through. Hardcore RPG fans might find this an unsurprising fact of RPG life, but no one should have to start a game over just because the game withheld helpful information. Players interested in tackling The Witcher would do well to consult a game guide first, as there’s really none to be found in The Witcher itself.
Additionally, for all its accomplishments in writing, atmosphere, and character development, The Witcher is one of the most sexist video games to be released this century. As a Witcher, Geralt has an unnaturally high sex drive, which the game uses as a convenient plot device for contriving some pretty messed up sexual encounters. Not just being able to solicit whores, but giving Geralt sexual entitlement that would make no sense in the real world. Some characters, especially the female elf rebel commander, just offer themselves to Geralt for no apparent reason. Creepily enough, The Witcher gives the player a special card with a painting of Geralt’s latest romantic “conquest” every time he successfully gets into someone’s pantaloons. Treating female NPCs like baseball cards is not only condescending; it devalues the oftentimes meaningful dialogue they bring to the game.
A fair few gamers and medieval fantasy enthusiasts might be turned off by The Witcher‘s bare-bones approach to adventuring and its disturbingly deep sexism. Fair enough. But, this still leaves the game’s engrossing fantasy world and some of gaming’s most impacting dialogue choices. The Enhanced Edition also includes a few tweaks to the base game, and it runs very well on PC. In the end, though, the legacy of The Witcher is much the same as that of Geralt of Rivia. Just as he represents some of the very best and very worst of humanity, so too does The Witcher represent the very best and very worst of modern game design. It’s up to the players to decide which one outweighs the other, which warrants at least giving The Witcher a shot.
You can buy The Witcher here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.