The Witcher comes off as a game that firmly has its hauberk and claymore equipped on one screen, and a naughty wink and nudge on another. Its medieval fantasy setting brings you a world in its own Dark Ages with modern problems, but the way that it works those problems into a detailed, twisting story makes The Witcher stand out as one of the better RPGs to have arrived on the PC in recent years.
It earns its maturity rating because of the subjects it tackles rather than to the occasional F-bomb that the NPCs drop. Non-humans such as elves and dwarves are victims of open racism and must live in a medieval ghetto that humans tend to avoid. Cutthroat intrigue lies hidden behind every story, often revealing unexpected twists that force you to think twice about navigating through the many shades of gray that taint every decision. There's no alignment here, only the choices that you make. Consequences often reveal themselves much later in the game, thus shaping the epic story in subtle ways. It also weaves in a bit of sci-fi, such as genetic engineering, which can be a little awkward to hear from a medieval alchemist, but it's apparently a part of The Witcher's world.
The Witcher manages to make the amnesiac angle work without feeling stale since the character whose role you step into, Geralt, actually has a personality of his own. You may not be able to choose a face, gender or hairstyle to build from, but every action, decision or person you help or treat to the end of his sword will shape his story through new adventures. You aren't required to know anything more than what the manual has to say, creating a clean break from the Polish novels upon which the game is based.
Witchers are mutants, changed through alchemy and granted exceptional abilities that hone their work as medieval monster hunters. Not every candidate who attempts to become a witcher survives the experience, but those who do become something more than human. By the time the game begins, witchers are few and far between, and Geralt is one of the handful remaining who continue their work despite the superstitious disdain that both peasants and polite society have for their ilk. Fortunately, he is also one of the best, and while his memory may be lost, what he remembers is enough to skewer his foes with steel and spell. This is a good thing because Geralt travels alone, although he sometimes fights alongside temporary allies.
Geralt wants to know what happened to him, but more importantly, who tried to kill him and the other witchers. There are at least 40 to 60 hours of adventure here, with each chapter packed with plenty of things to do and kill. The simple interface helps keep track of your quests with a glossary of people, monsters and terms, and it's also where you can view Geralt's vitals, what he's equipped with — all of the usual information. It's not a bad system, but it would have been nice to be able to automatically organize his inventory as opposed to manually moving everything around yourself.
As a witcher, Geralt uses a two-handed steel sword for his human foes and a silver blade for the monsters he hunts; both weapons can be swapped out during real-time combat, as can his combat stances, such as a strong style that's best suited against well-armored foes or a group style that gives everyone a taste of death. As Geralt levels up, he'll also earn "tokens" that can be used to improve his personal statistics or skills, especially those for combat, such as his swordsmanship abilities.
Although the fighting sounds complex, the action-oriented feel of combat works with some practice. Motion-captured moves performed by a professional swordsman behind Geralt's blade treat you to a visual show that is part Schwarzenegger's Conan and part Errol Flynn. It isn't a clickfest as you might find with Diablo or Oblivion, but your reflexes will be tested when you start chaining together attacks. Clicking on an enemy starts the action, and when your cursor is aflame, clicking again starts the next part of Geralt's dance. Signs are also part of the witcher's bag of tricks; they act as quick and dirty magical abilities that aren't exactly considered magic, but they're useful enough to witchers. Signs range from a gust of wind that can stun foes, allowing Geralt to kill them quickly without the swordplay, to setting foes on fire, making signs a potent complement to his weapons prowess.
Fighting is all in real time, including dodges and spinning jumps, but just as in Knights of the Old Republic or Baldur's Gate, you can pause the action with the spacebar to give you a breather and decide what to do next. Potions are just as important to a witcher as their blades, allowing them to heal faster in battle or see in the dark, although utilizing too many potions will eventually poison their blood. Resting by a fire or at an inn will clear out the poison before it becomes a problem, which you'll need to keep in mind when red spots start filling the screen.
Much of the loot takes the form of ingredients for your potions, money or food. Players hoping to amass an arsenal of god-slaying weaponry and armor will find themselves surprised by the title's Spartan selection of goodies and the limited space in Geralt's backpack, although he does have a storage locker shared between local inns. You can enhance his swords with special meteoric steel or runes, but as far as dropping in at a local shop for the latest in plate armor fashion, you won't get any of that here. This also goes for many of the monsters you'll fight. You'll run into new beasts, but for the most part, the consistency of The Witcher's ecology ensures that you won't face off against anything radically different at the outset of each new chapter.
It wouldn't be much of a game without a compelling setting, and CD Projekt's passion for the material succeeds in building a living world, although as Geralt, you can't simply skewer the occasional shopkeeper ... unless it's a monster. As you go from chapter to chapter, you'll also find that you can't revisit certain areas, although there is still plenty to do in the current town. NPCs bearing medieval flutes and drums complement a fantasy-oriented soundtrack that Peter Jackson might have used, aside from the occasional electric guitar. Well acted, in-game cinematics add to the modern-flavored fantasy, thanks to the remarkable voice acting and animation work. Aside from the books and notes you read, everything in the game is spoken, and each character's lip-synched lines are voiced with plenty of personality.
The Witcher's uniquely customized areas toss out tiled buildings and façades, thanks to a heavily modified version of Bioware's Aurora engine — the same one that had been used for Neverwinter Nights. A medieval town bustles with activity as people run under cover from an incoming rainstorm, curious children follow you around, buildings burn orange as the sun sets and windows within them brighten with dust-filled shafts of light when dawn arrives. Although it's not unusual to see cloned townspeople and merchants, the world of The Witcher has enough detail elsewhere to distract you from its shortcomings.
You can view all of this from either a floating camera or an over-the-shoulder view and move Geralt around using WASD. The floating camera is good if you want to take in a larger view of the surroundings, but I personally found the OTS view to work out best for my play style, even though you have to watch out for enemies who may try to sneak up on you. The camera can also get a little awkward to use in closed spaces where Geralt is against a wall or crowded into a corner, but overall, it works.
Geralt can drink NPCs under the table for information; there's even a combat skill to improve his chances in combat while sloshed. As long as you can see through the blur and guide Geralt's staggering self to an inn, or imbibe a potion that clears his head in a sip, drinking friends and foes under the table can become second nature. You can also play poker dice, rolling for cash and become a professional. Thanks to the physics system, it really becomes more of a game of chance than the unseen, artificial edge that can often create your typical "ace" opponent in other titles. The AI will take some crazy risks, sometimes throwing the game, but it's a nice distraction from the monster mash and a good way to earn coin.
Geralt's exploits also extend into the bedroom, brothel or the unexpected encounter; the screen fades to a blur when he and a lover kiss behind a risqué, if tastefully censored, portrait card of his latest rendezvous. Conversely, you can also ignore this part of the game and play Geralt as a pure paladin. As often as this happens, though, it can also become unintentionally funny, especially when it can seem that Geralt has his way with more women than Sean Connery's Bond had in his own career.
As fun as The Witcher can be, it does have issues. With as many interior and outdoor areas as there are, it's not unusual to wade through several dozen loading screens in only a few minutes, with each load often averaging about a minute or so. I had a book next to me to leaf through just for these instances. A patch is already out for the game, although it can still occasionally crash to desktop, especially during transitions to other areas. It can be painful if the crash follows a hard-fought battle. Saves also don't overwrite older ones, and given how many automatic saves there are including your own, the 20MB files can easily begin to add up and bog down the Load Game function. At one point, I deleted over 200 save games directly from the folder.
Combat can also feel a little clunky, and not everyone may like reflex-based click chains, especially when Geralt provides little feedback as to whether or not your clicked attack worked. The difficulty level of one or two of the boss battles can also surprise the player; it may have been a cakewalk to reach them, but it's shocking when Geralt's opponent suddenly starts wiping the floor with him. The worst of these is at the beginning of the game, with one particularly harrowing battle that can often slaughter new players on an assembly line of death. Given how long the load times are and that you have to wade through a conversation every time you retry this, it can be pretty aggravating.
Despite its faults, The Witcher is a diamond in the rough as a mature, gritty and atmospheric RPG that heads into territory not often explored. The modern, tongue-in-cheek additions to the fantasy tale of Geralt's journey and the choices that shape it build a unique experience that might keep you awake into the wee hours simply to find out what happens next. Games have grown up along with their players, and The Witcher is the kind of title that the genre deserves to have.
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