The Witcher (2007) – Review

The_Witcher_EU_box.jpgWitchers are mutants – monsters created to defend normal people from worse monsters. They take dangerous jobs for little pay and less thanks. Geralt of Rivia is the most famous of witchers, but he doesn’t know that – he’s forgotten all of his pasts and all of his monster-hunting knowledge.

You take on the role of Geralt as he struggles to recover his memories, do witcher work, and navigate the complex politics of a kingdom riven by sectarian and inter-species conflict.

The Witcher is an adaptation of the work of  Andrzej Sapkowski. It’s an action-RPG set in a mostly low-fantasy world with occasional leaps into extremely high fantasy. People who are really angry about the casting of the upcoming Netflix show will tell you it’s set in fantasy-equivalent Medieval Poland; anyone who is even vaguely familiar with history or folklore will more accurately tell you that the setting is a mishmash of European states and stories.

The game is divided into chapters in an over-arching narrative. In each chapter, Geralt has to explore an area, deal with monsters, complete quests, and so on. There is a wide range of different monsters and a large cast of NPCs. It’s one of the more internally-consistent game worlds I’ve played in, though the overall story does tend to play fast and loose with space, time, and aesthetics. Other than rather a lot of swamp sections, I enjoyed exploring the world.

Combat does not follow standard genre conventions. Geralt, like all witchers, carries two swords – one for people, one for monsters – and has three fighting styles with each one. Combat is about selecting the most appropriate sword & style, and then timing clicks to build longer and more damaging attack sequences. He also has limited magical abilities and a range of alchemical aids to give him an edge. The controls take a little getting used to, and they’re not particularly intuitive or smooth, but complex swordplay in games is difficult, and most games just automate it all – The Witcher deserves credit for the effort.

There’s an emphasis in the game on knowledge – Geralt needs to learn about creatures to fight them effectively and to harvest valuable alchemical components from their bodies. I really like this as a mechanic, and I’d like more games to implement similar systems. It would have been nice if the implementation was a little deeper, but mostly I’m happy it was included.

There are a lot of quests, and they mostly involve running slowly down grey streets looking for someone to give something to. Some quests only exist at certain times, and can become unsolvable if you accidentally advance an unrelated quest too far. It’s often quite frustrating to realise you’ve missed something or can’t get something because the game never told you it was possible; you had to be at this exact place at noon in chapter III before you did the quest for the widow or you can never solve this chapter IV quest.

The game is also rather full of bugs. Dialogue lines don’t get said but get reacted to, plot lines fizzle out. Geralt gets stuck on invisible walls and loses the ability to target enemies. It gives an overall shoddy feel to the whole thing, It definitely could have done with more polishing, which is not great considering that I played the “enhanced edition”.

Significant effort has been put into the environment – NPCs sleep and have schedules, minor animals and plants abound. It would have been better if that effort had been focused on the core game rather than extras that add little.

The Witcher would like to be seen as gritty, even grimdark. It wants to be known for realism and not softening the edges of everything. In practice, it ends up trying too hard to be edgy, and just seeming adolescent. There’s a “romance” element, but it consists mostly of giving female NPCs items in return for a fade-to-black and a cheescake picture. Like so many fantasy worlds, prostitution is absolutely rife, and possibly the area’s major industry. NPCs have environmental audio that consists of minor gossip and crude remarks. The designers were unsure how much swearing they could get away with, and so sometimes it’s anachronistic (“abso-fucking-lutely”, said the fantasy hero) and sometimes bowlderised; there’s a character who using “plowing” in almost every sentence. The Witcher is adult in much the same way that a child on another child’s shoulders – wearing an overcoat and attempting to buy beer – is.

One of the major selling points of this game is the complex, branching storyline filled with meaningful choices. Regrettably, this is very poorly handled. Choices do have later effects on the narrative, and do lead to branches with more-than-cosmetic differences – it cant’ be faulted there – but the choices themselves are often unclear or misleading. For a choice to be meaningful, it has to be made with some understanding of what it entails, and The Witcher consistently fails to communicate properly. Morally grey choices, even choices with unexpected consequences, are things that I have no problem with, but that’s not the issue here.

One of the later quests involves a stand-off between a non-human rights group (who have taken hostages) and a force of essentially-templar humans. I attempted to negotiate a peace, and was rebuffed. The only options left were to join a side, or walk away. Out of concern for the hostages – some children – I chose to fight against the hostage takers. Everything about the scenario suggested that I was choosing the lesser of two evils and preventing a massacre of innocents. After I made the choice, the game decided that all my dialogue should show my racism towards non-humans, and my new friends set about butchering children and excitedly telling me about rapes and lynchings. That’s a problem – choosing not to kill children should not be interpreted by the game as being pro-child-killing & assorted other evils.

The game presents complex and small-scale choices, and then regardless of previous actions or expressed motivations, generalises those extreme choices to normal behaviours. Despite asserting the depth of choice, the game pushes you towards a strict neutral path, even when that totally conflicts with your own actions and even the actions of the established character. Choices become crude and unpredictable “gotcha”s that spoil immersion. Smaller choices are better done, but the primary ones in the game turn out to simply be a choice between two varieties of racist terrorism without signposting or explanation.

Branching narratives are really hard to do well. Most of the time, they simply result in bland cosmetic options that change nothing and don’t add to player agency. Choices in The Witcher manage to be worse than that, in that they do make a difference but they actively harm player agency. At no point did I make a choice – even a subtle one – to support pogroms and rape, but the game decided that my attempts to save civilians clearly amounted to that. Meaningful choice in games is good, but it is has to be at least a little informed, or it feels as though the game has cheated you.

I approve of a lot of what The Witcher is trying to do and be, but it ends up not doing any of it particularly well. The attempt to be a complex and multi-layered RPG is praiseworthy, but the overall execution is rather lacklustre. I’m hoping the sequels are an improvement.

Buy it here.

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