The Hype Machine
Out of the massive amount of news and announcements from this year’s E3, one of the most anticipated upcoming games comes not from a major developer or publisher, but from a small company in Poland. CD Projekt RED’s The Witcher series has become a surprise hit, based off a series of books little known outside of Europe until now. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is gaining much attention for its pedigree, amazing graphics seen thus far, and a touted seamless open-world structure.
The series has come quite a long way. With an evolution of world, art, gameplay, and storytelling skill, along with a jump from PC exclusive to consoles, the series is quite a different beast now than it was with its first release. With all the hype around it, I’d like to take a look back at the series’ first entry with a pair of fresh eyes, as this is the first time I’ve ever experienced a Witcher game. Some may call it a stretch to call this a “Classic Review,” as the game is still relatively young. However, The Witcherwas released back in October 2007, and with the massive strides the series has taken across the past seven years, I believe it has aged enough to call it “classic”.
>>Note that this review is based off the Enhanced Edition Director’s Cut version of the game.<<
A Mystery and a Quest for Revenge
The Witcher revolves around Geralt of Rivia who is an eponymous witcher, a genetically-altered monster slayer. Following an opening cutscene showing Geralt fighting a creature known as a striga, the game begins an unclear amount of time later with Geralt falling unconscious in a field. He is found by former friends and taken to the base of the witchers, Kaer Morhen. The game busts out the traditional RPG cliche of amnesia, with Geralt being unable to remember anything about his past.
After a short time living at Kaer Morhen, the base is invaded by a bandit group known as Salamandra. Led by a mage named Azar Javed and a man known as the Professor, the bandits are able to fight past the witchers and steal their mutagens, the potions that turn people into witchers. Following this, all of the witchers of Kaer Morhen split up to search nearby towns for the bandits.
This sets off the main plot of The Witcher. Geralt travels to the city of Vizima in search of Salamandra and their leaders. Along the way he meets up with old friends, surprised to see him alive. According to many of them, they had seen Geralt die in events before the game. A quest begins to find the bandits and the mutagens, stop Javed and the Professor, and discover Geralt’s past.
The Search for Answers
The Witcher‘s gameplay is very much that of a traditional western RPG. Geralt travels from area to area, speaking to NPCs, gathering quests, and finding information relevant to the main plot. The main story quests are quite interesting, leading the player to meeting a vast variety of characters and revealing all kinds of twists and turns. The side quests, where the meat of the game lies, are unfortunately much weaker. Many of these quests fall under the “collect so many of this item” category and seem to only exist as a way to make a few orens (this games’s currency). Those that aren’t part of this category tend to be incredibly dry and feel pointless to the main story. Both quest styles, however, have a habit of forcing Geralt to run all over the map for no apparent reason. Maps in this game are quite big, so getting quests that require you to run from one side to the other and back (and sometimes back again) quickly become tedious and sometimes feel like padding the game.
The game implements a daylight cycle, with certain characters occasionally being available only during certain times. The cycle seems to run 24 hours of in-game time for every one hour of real time, although you can advance the clock manually by “meditating” at inns or campfire. Doing so, though, requires trekking to the nearest one (oftentimes a bit of a journey) and, in the case of most campfires, having to activate it by using an inventory item. It’s a bit of an annoyance, and it doesn’t seem to have a major effect on gameplay.
Meditating also allows you to level up Geralt and, what is by far the most interesting aspect of The Witcher, mix potions. Leveling up is done through a simple yet powerful system. Each level gains a certain amount of “talents” ranked bronze, silver, and gold, depending on what level you reach. These talents are then spent into either aspects of Geralt himself (strength, dexterity, etc) or his spells and weapons. Each talent spent either unlocks a new skill or makes Geralt noticeably stronger, and there’s enough ability to customize Geralt to one’s own play style without the system being too complex. Potion mixing, though, is a while different beast. While exploring the world, Geralt can collect various monster parts, herbs, and many other things to mix into potions, each lending one or two of five different color-coated traits. Geralt learns different potion recipes throughout the game, each requiring a certain base and a number of traits. Potions have a range of effects from self-healing to better eyesight and slowing down perception of time to aid in dodging enemies.
Speaking of enemies, combat is simple yet (eventually) elegant. The Witcher uses a simple click-and-attack system. Once an enemy is clicked on, Geralt will begin his attack. Eventually your cursor will light up, and if you click again at that time, Geralt will combo into a second attack, which can continue indefinitely if your timing is good. There are two main weapons in the game, a steel sword and a silver sword. One is more effective on humans and the other on monsters, respectively. Each of these weapons also allows three different “stances”: strong, fast, and group. Swapping between stances is as quick as a button press, and allows Geralt to adapt to different situations or attack certain enemies more effectively. Geralt also has access to a small selection of magic spells. These range from nearly useless (laying down traps mid-battle) to powerful to the point of game-breaking (knocking down enemies with a wind blast).
One of the more touted features is how your choices in certain conversations affect the storyline. Countless modern games have this feature, usually resulting in a change on a “good or evil” alignment bar or quickly-occurring consequences. In The Witcher, though, these choices are not immediately apparent. A choice made early in the game may not show its results until much later. This makes it much more difficult to save-scum for certain outcomes, and forces the player to be dedicated to their choices, which I feel to be a great way of affecting the storyline.
Attack of the Clones
For a game of its time period, The Witcher has some decent graphics. However, they tend to reflect the “real is brown” quality apparent in most modern games going for a gritty approach. Animations outside of battle, especially during conversations, can be very stiff and awkward. Mouth-flaps rarely line up well with voices, and facial expressions are nearly non-existent. Hair and clothing clipping through character models is also a major issue. On the other hand, Geralt’s battle animations are fairly decent. Magic spell animation is average, but sword strikes and attacks are smooth and graceful.
One major glaring flaw is the severe lack of character models for NPCs. While some characters have unique models, other are used with such frequency to the point of invoking fury. When a story-important NPC is surrounded by five other characters who have the exact same model, with countless others of the same in other parts of the map, you can tell that the developers were just being lazy.
A Quiet Ambiance
The laziness of character models is strangely offset with a wide variety of voice-overs. Nearly every line in this game is voiced, with the vast majority of characters having unique voices, main character or not. While the game is originally voiced in Polish, the English dubbing is passable at best. Some characters have great acting, while others sound dull and flat. Unforgivably, one of these dull voices belongs to our main character, who seems incapable of expressing any kind of emotion.
Music, for the most part, is mood-setting rather than a focal point of the game. The tracks are done in a classic orchestral style, with prominent strings and, in the case of battle tracks, percussion. Many tracks also feature a traditional-style choral section. I can’t really name any standout tracks, but the music fits the feel of the game quite well.
The Plague Consumes All
Overall, my view of The Witcher is quite mixed. Underneath many of the problems it has, there is a great story to be told. The segments of the game which highlight this story are easily the best and most memorable. Unfortunately, this is buried under an annoying quest system with a glut of pointless missions, game-breaking spells in combat, and repetitive environments and character models. While I can honestly say that I did not enjoy the game, I cannot say that this was a bad game. If anything, the word that comes to mind is “unrefined”. If one is willing to really dig into the experience and look past the faults, there is a great story to be had here.
Those that are looking for an action-focused game should stay far, far away from The Witcher. Those that enjoy western-style RPGs and are looking for a great story would be right at home with this game. While I was unimpressed, I do intend to continue on with the series to see what kind of improvements have been made and where the story continues to.
~ Final Score: 6/10 ~
Review copy purchased by reviewer for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.