For many people, their experiences with CD Projeckt Red’s Witcher games based on the books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski (who himself translated the word to English as “Hexer”, so who the guy who thought he knew better than the author is I don’t know) begin with The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings. This is for a few reasons. Firstly, while the second game was released on PC and later Xbox 360, the first game was a PC exclusive. Also, The Witcher 2 was a rather traditional action RPG title whereas the The Witcher was more of a single player MMORPG strangely enough. The final reason is most likely that The Witcher is shockingly unintuitive.
Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy The Witcher. That is, I enjoyed it for the first 20 hours. The second 20 hours of my 40 hour playthrough were excruciatingly boring. For the first couple of chapters (of five in total) I explored extremely thoroughly and completed every side mission. For the other three I was so desperate to finish the game and get to see its sequels pretty graphics on my new graphics card that I started just continuing the storyline. I didn’t need the experience points after all as the combat consists of MMORPG style clicking on enemies. The game is needlessly drawn out, and as implied already, exploration is enjoyable due to the world’s charm and extremely atmospheric hold on you. The combat however is as basic as it gets. Even on the hardest difficulty, it remains dull and occasionally completely unfair just to make a stark contrast between boringly easy and cheatingly difficult.
Combat is unengaging
Starting from the beginning however, The Witcher is a dark fantasy RPG that centres around a Witcher (humans who have been mutated after birth to possess superhuman abilities and attributes as well as intensively trained and make a living hunting monsters and fulfilling other dangerous freelance contracts) named Geralt who loses his memory before the start of the game and is suffering from amnesia at its beginning. After an attack on the witchers’ base which serves as an ineffectual prologue and tutorial, you are sent on a quest to recover the stolen mutagens (which are used to mutate and create witchers). The story gets much more complicated and the ultimate goal in fact changes but only at the very end did it really regain my interest after many hours of trudging around and made me lose all interest. There are several interesting characters and sub plots which become more important later but are always there in the background (such as a mysterious boy named Alvin) and that makes for some pretty intriguing and exciting storytelling, but unfortunately such moments are too far between.
The story touches on some potentially interesting themes such as the racism that exists towards elves and dwarves from humans but such themes are left unexplored in any meaningful way. The real historical cause of racism is never brought to the fore and the game fails to make any kind of meaningful comment or even acknowledgment on the racism theme that it chose to introduce. Ultimately you choose to be a racial extremist or a huge bigot. One could argue that only offering the player a side to choose but forcing your hand into extremism is making a point regarding racism, but I fear that that is giving the writing too much credit.
Gameplay is split between third person exploration which is highly enjoyable for the most part, combat which is overly simple and uninteresting and dialogue which is entertaining but far too drawn out. The world is expansive and fairly deep. You can forage for items that are of alchemical use as well as find and complete side quests. There is a dynamic weather and day-night cycle and overall the world just manages to feel surprisingly real and draws you in with. The audio and visual design create a fantastic atmosphere.
Even graveyards look good
Combat has the least to talk about. You simply time your clicks based on the colour of your cursor (essentially quick time events) and have access to a handful of magic spells that you can’t cast as frequently as you would like and also aren’t as helpful as the game would like you to believe. The multiple combat stances and one sword for humans and one for monsters are a sloppy attempt to add a pretend layer of depth to the combat that simply serves to add more confusion to the mix.
There are a plethora of mini games to play, side quests to pursue, items to collect and all the usual RPG gameplay tropes. The one side activity that must be briefly mentioned in a very negative way is the rather sexist way in which woman are portrayed. I have no problem with dark fantasy with plenty of sex. I also would not make a big thing over female characters being extremely eager to get into bed, but I do find it distasteful that after Geralt has sex with a female character he you receive an explicit card of that character which can be viewed at any time, essentially making woman in this world the equivalent of Pokémon. Frankly, I am amazed that this has not been brought up more. If I was not a gamer at heart, who wants to see as many games succeed as possible, I would probably knock of several points just for that unbelievable crassness and stupidity.
Female characters are represented… fully
Dialogue is mostly enjoyable and integral to plot development and exposition and not being careful with your words can have lasting effects. The writing may be in need of an editor but overall, this portion of the game is a plus. Or rather it would be if not for one glaring issue – the voice acting. The voice acting ranges from decent to pathetic. I don’t understand why nobody has ever brought this up before, but Geralt sounds utterly ridiculous. The strange thing is they give him a flat, emotionless monotone that could actually work for a certain type of character but then proceed to attempt to characterise him as pained and sympathetic and having a great honour about him as well as giving him lines that sound ludicrous in his bizarre voice. The dialogue options in the game and the conversations you have in general while too frequent and far too long would actually be one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game if not for the complete joke that is Geralt’s voice actor.
The visuals overall must be complimented. While the game is showing its age a little bit now, the artistic design itself is excellent and the game still looks good today. The rain pouring down in the main city looks fantastic and I can almost smell the damp cobblestones. It is a fine example of great design and clever choices fooling the senses even better than sheer resolution. Similarly the audio (apart from the aforementioned voice acting) is excellent. Ambient sounds can send a chill down your spine and paint a fantastic atmosphere while the music is simply perfect throughout. The fact that the audio and visual design is so strong is one of the things that allowed me to struggle through the often tedious game and find those great moments deep down.
Even the simplest menus are unfriendly
The first thing that makes The Witcher such a struggle and so unwelcoming is that it seems to take sadistic pleasure in making every little thing as difficult and unintuitive as possible. I love freedom and lack of definite direction in open world games but I struggled with The Witcher’s level of obnoxiousness. Also, open world is actually a rather generous term to offer to the multiple semi open small worlds that you are often locked out of that this game offers. Everything from levelling up to alchemy is an enigma wrapped in a mystery. I remember the first time I played Morrowind as a young teenager and I didn’t know how to level up. It didn’t take me a huge amount of time to figure out that I needed to do so while sleeping and when I did, I felt foolish for not realising sooner. When I finally got to level up in The Witcher which involves mediating and then navigating illogical menus that you are hard to comprehend to get to the right screen and then even spot that you can this is the level screen and then realise you have experience to spend and then realise that one button will lock in the purchased skills and everything else on the screen will undo it by comparison made me feel angrier than ever when I finally achieved it, because it turned out it was indeed the game that was being stupid.
Having said all that, the exploration is fun due to the well-designed world, the dialogue is interesting and can be meaningful even if it is too long, the story has great moments in it, and the combat while very simple can hold your interest most of the time. All this would come together to make a very average game usually, but the audio and visual design are the saving graces here. They help to paint a world that is enjoyable to play in and therefore make the flawed gameplay that bit better. While I have made many negative points, the game is ultimately an enjoyable experience. I am very glad I played it and ultimately like it. Its flaws however are just particularly annoying due to its unintuitive and obnoxious nature. The vision and skill of the developers is clear, the execution however left quite a bit to be desired. The Witcher is far from a bad game. It is actually a good game. It is however clunky, unintuitive and far too drawn out. If you love to get invested in deep worlds then you could do a lot worse, however if you dislike spending 40 hours to complete 20 hours of proper gameplay, then steer clear.
Visuals: Showing their age a little, but fantastic at creating the world 8/10
Audio: Fantastic music and effects. Shocking voice acting in parts 6/10
Storytelling: Enjoyable story elements that are too broken up amongst tedious and drawn out sections 6/10
Gameplay: Despite the combat’s simplicity it is enjoyable. Exploration is great thanks to the world. Certain elements are far too unintuitive however 7/10
Performance: Runs well but can be demanding on an older PC. 8/10
Value: Plenty of gameplay and certainly requires multiple playthroughs to see everything, but not everything in the game warrants existence. 7/10