The Witcher: Utterly brilliant, but rough and over-ambitious
The first game in The Witcher
series has often been called a "rough diamond", so my title doens't tell anything new. This review was wrtten just a couple of days before the release of The Witcher 3
, and without having played The Witcher 2
yet. This way I hope to be able to look at the original game in the series with fresh eyes, not with the hindsight of the other games somewhere in the back of my head. It's also important to notice that this review addresses the final release of the game, from september 2008, i.e. The "Enhanced Edition: The Director's Cut". This version represents the developers' final thoughts and ideas on the game, and it differs considerably from any other version.
In this game, the player takes the role of Geralt of Rivia, a witcher or a professional monster-slayer. There is no character-build menu, no fancy options about hair-colour or the width of your eyebrows. You are Geralt of Rivia, you are a Witcher. And to put it simple: the game is so utterly brilliant since it manages to let you believe that, almost from the start. Seldom have I felt so deeply connected to the character I was playing: after a couple of in-game hours, I started to think as Geralt, react to my surroundings as Geralt, even feel like Geralt: I was completely involved, the game got deep under my skin, I was bewitched. It's not that I played the game for hours and hours on end, or that I played through the night, no: it's more like I felt Geralt had become part of my life, not only while in-game, but also while not playing. I started to look for articles and websites to read about The Witcher
and its world, and I even dreamt a couple of times about the game and its characters...
The game's greatest strengths: the world, the story, the choices
As is commonly known by now, the Polish developer CD Project Red started working on The Witcher
– actually their first game – out of love for the books, novels and stories by the Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski. Sapkowksi is the author of The Witcher-universe: a collection of books and stories about a fictional, fantasy-world with a profound background and a history all of its own. Sapkowski has often been called "The Polish Tolkien", and while that might be too big a compliment, I often felt like I was part of a world that could hold its own against Tolkiens incredible rich universe. And I suppose that explains why I felt so connected to the game and so deeply involved: the world of The Witcher did already exist before the game, and is completely coherent and believable by itself.
It is one thing to have an interesting world to build a game in, it's another to write and develop a story within this world that works well for a role-playing game. The story of The Witcher
however succeeds brilliantly in keeping the player's interest. It is ambitious, full of twists and unexpected turns, but it stays believable right up to the end. The different characters, both Geralt and his main protagonists, are complex and multi-layered: hardly anyone in this world is just "good" or "evil": most of the time, its a mix of both, often with one or several other characteristics added. The game does a fantastic job in introducing the player (Geralt) to this world, using an old trick: after having lost his memory, Geralt has to rediscover not only the places, the stories and the people, but he has to rediscover himself: he has to give himself a place in the dark, conflict-ridden world he lives in.
The main way to do this, is by making choices: the game's strongest point by far is the feeling you get that the decisions you make actually matter, and do influence the flow and even the outcome of the story. This is especially impressive since almost every choice, from minor to very important, is difficult and hardly clear-cut. The games offers tons of dialogues, more than 5000 lines of text to be read and/or said, but very seldom did I feel like doing the "good thing". In most cases, the situation was so dire or the possible answers so gruff, that I had a hard job to make decisions that felt "right" at all. It was more like "trying to do my best, and hoping for the best", since often decisions or roads taken early in the game, proved to have unexpected consequences (much) later on. The way in which this game manages to make me think about good and evil, about morality and consequences, is utterly and completely brilliant.
The game's problem: it tries too hard to be the best rpg in the world
From whatever angle you look at it, it is obvious that The Witcher
is a very, very ambitious game. The developers made no secret of it that, even back in 2007 when they were almost unknown, they wanted to make "the best rpg ever". Ambition definitely is a good thing for any developer, it can also be a trap. While CD Project Red succeeded brilliantly with everything story- and character-related, they paid dearly in some other departments. The actual gameplay, the movement and combat, form the game's biggest downfalls. As a matter of fact, lots of people have tried the game, only to leave it after running into frustration with the combat system. Combat is an exercise in rythmical feeling: by clicking at the right moment, Geralt can chain attacks together so that they become much stronger. Fast clicking is of no use whatsoever, as is blocking or parrying since the game takes care of that.
Moreover, Geralt has two different swords (steel for humans and animals, silver for monsters) and three differend combat styles (strong, fast and group style) at his disposal, so choosing the right weapon and the right sword for any fight is an important issue. Combat is much more tactical than in most rpg's, and since dozens of alchemical potions, lots of special coatings for either of your swords, six magical signs and even some bombs are thrown into the equation as well, it is very easy to get overwhelmed by this avalanche of ideas. Still, when one is prepared to play the game slow, with lots of attention to the myriad of entries in the journal (on quests, people, monsters, alchemical ingredients, recipes or locations), the sense of fulfillment can be enormous. This is most of all true of the alchemy, which is a very important part of the game. It takes a time to get the hang of it, when once mastered, it proves very rewarding.
Playing and mastering The Witcher
felt like climbing a mountain: it takes time, patience and commitment, even preparation, but once everything gets going, the long way to the summit becomes a joy by itself. In the case of the first game in the series, the mountain definitely is not Mount Everest nor even Mont Blanc, and the path is littered with dangerous spots and possible downfalls, but the scenery is gorgeous nonetheless, and the journey towards the summit proved one I won't ever forget.
Gameplay: 25/30 (provided one takes the time to master the combat system)
Graphics: 16/20 (the game looks brilliant for its age)
Sound: 8/10 (the music is fantastic, the voice-acting is not)
Technical stability: 9/10 (I got no crashes whatsoever with this final edition)
Steam integration: 7/10 (like any older game, it comes without cards or achievements)
Game for the money: 9/10 (it's a very long game, but it's not an open-world sandbox)
Personal appreciation: 10/10
Overall Score: 84/100