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The Witcher (PC) artwork

The Witcher (PC) review


"This is still Tolkienesque fantasy to the bone. You can throw around made-up words like "vodyanoi" and "Scoia'tael" all you like, but it doesn't change the fact that the elves are slender woodland-dwellers and the dwarves are Scottish beer-drinkers and wow does this all feel familiar."



The Witcher asset


Look, I was guilted into this. Even people who don't play WRPGs regularly have been banging on for the last two years about The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. I have it in my Steam library (because as with every PC gamer, I have everything in my Steam library by this point), yet every time I booted it up, the game would say, "What's this? Why am I not detecting a Witcher 1 save? Did you not play that? Don't you realize that you can make choices in the original game that will then carry over to the sequel? Wouldn't you, a noted BioWare fanboy, feel that you're not getting the full experience by skipping straight to this one?"

Thing is, I'd already made an attempt, about a year ago, to punch through the original Witcher, and I was still having nightmares about the absolutely invidious village in which the game's opening chapter takes place. Oh, the village itself is bright and lovely and idyllic, but no volume of colorful flowers and flittering woodwind instruments could make it less maddening to spend the amount of time in this godforsaken place that developer CD Projekt expects you to invest there.

See, most of The Witcher is spent in or around the castle of Vizima, and the game moves at such a writhing pace that the simple act of getting through the gates is a task that requires hours of marching about, slaying monsters and running mundane errands. The city's under quarantine, the guards say, but you might get permission to enter if you talk to the Reverend. Oh, but the Reverend doesn't trust you yet! But he will trust you if you put on this ring, show it to three specific people, and run chores for them. Whoops, false alarm – the Reverend still won't permit you access to the city. But he might if you ward off the ghost dog that's been ravaging the town, which you can do by waiting until nighttime and lighting fires at the five locations marked on your map! What? That still didn't work? Oh. Well, you'd better talk to the local witch, then. She knows how to defeat the beast! And her solution involves mixing a potion that can only be created using the petals of five white myrtle flowers! And you can only collect the petals after you've studied up on the appropriate herbology from a book!

It's not a false omen – the whole game really plays out like that. Even once you make it past the castle walls, The Witcher just drops you into yet another enclosed quest zone with only a vague objective (solving a murder mystery, this time) and a few leads that force you into hours of traipsing back and forth. One of CD Projekt's favorite tricks is to allow you to complete a quest and then make the NPC you're supposed to report back to difficult to find, with even the objective markers on your map often being misleading. When you get to the fourth chapter, the game at long last whisks you away to a brand new location far from Vizima, only to cruelly pull you right back for the finale.

The Witcher is one of those infuriating games that comes along every now and then that suffers from a number of near-fatal design flaws but actually has quite a bit going for it. For one, the combat's actually pretty great, forcing you to juggle between two swords and three fighting styles whilst contending with a timing-based combo system that's both simple and tricky. The skill tree's pretty expansive, and I truly admire how intuitive the menus are for a WRPG that's this complex. Even mixing potions – a process that involves dozens of possible ingredients and results in plenty of concoctions that you probably won't even wind up using – is relatively easy once you trust the game to do most of the heavy thinking for you. Mechanically, The Witcher is fantastic.

But good heavens is it slow. The basic setup is that the titular monster hunter, a white-haired fellow named Geralt, has been sent to Vizima to investigate a recent attack on his guild, the theft of the witchers' mutagens and the possible plot to use said mutagens for nefarious purposes. There are a couple of scary-looking guys on your hit list, and there's an evil organization called Salamandra involved, and Geralt is apparently buddies with the king after saving his daughter from a curse a while back, but you'll be at least halfway through the game (one that could easily run you at least 50 hours to complete) before all of these little details finally add up to anything and you finally get what can loosely be called an objective.

I honestly think CD Projekt put a few too many chips down on just how invested we'd be in the world of The Witcher to put up with the campaign being so sluggish. Yes, it's rich, and being based on a preexisting work of literature – a series of short stories by Andrzej Sapkowski – certainly helps. But this is still Tolkienesque fantasy to the bone. You can throw around made-up words like "vodyanoi" and "Scoia'tael" all you like, but it doesn't change the fact that the elves are slender woodland-dwellers and the dwarves are Scottish beer-drinkers and wow does this all feel familiar. The reason games like Mass Effect and Alpha Protocol are branded so fondly in my memory is that it's refreshing to see the depth and scope of an RPG applied to a setting not frequently explored in this genre. On the flipside, all of the effort put into The Witcher's colorful characters and extensive history feel a bit wasted when the end product is this generic.

It is high-quality stuff, though, at least once the story finally picks up in the second half. I don't want to spoil the specifics, but let's just say that in the third chapter, Geralt attends a party held for fancy folk and encounters a character who most certainly doesn't belong there. This is a guy in ragged attire who, in your previous dealings with him, had been scraping food off the ground like the rest of the peasants, and yet here he is, mingling with noblemen. As it turns out, this character is absolutely not who you'd been led to believe he was, but rather a royal spy with powerful influence who makes no secret of his plans to employ Geralt for his political maneuvering. This is the moment when the curtain rises, when you finally realize that there's so much more to The Witcher than kiling undead fish people for money and playing Yahtzee with hookers.

At its best, I'd honestly liken the story to Game of Thrones (or, of course, A Song of Ice and Fire, the series upon which it's based), for its political chess, its deep shades of moral grey, and – this is where the comparison gets especially weird – the eventual impending ice age that threatens to consume the world. Even more interesting, though, is the moral conflict that drives Geralt. He can choose to side with either the humans or a resistance force comprised of minorities (elves, dwarves, etc.). That probably sounds like an easy decision – stand against oppression and fight for equality, right? As it happens, though, the rebels are generally depicted as terrorists who murder innocents, while many of the game's most honorable characters are humans. So siding with the saner, less violent group also means battling for racial dominance. Not so easy now, is it?

That CD Projekt can turn what should have been a stark good-and-evil dilemma into a conflict that requires genuine consideration and leaves neither decision feeling truly fulfilling isn't simply the sign of great writing – it's the sign of great writing that couldn't be done in any other medium. That's something I'll always be able to get behind.

You know what The Witcher doesn't handle nearly as gracefully, though? Women. I'm not generally one to throw the word "misogynistic" around in a big hurry, but when nearly every female character in this game with more than one speaking line seems to exist purely to jump into bed with Geralt, my alarms begin to sound. What's worse is that every time you bed a woman, you're awarded an uncomfortably explicit trading card depicting said woman in the nude, posing like a Playboy model. Yes, according to CD Projekt, the act of having sex is comparable to playing Yu-Gi-Oh.

Look, I get that there's form and function behind the "medieval" part of medieval fantasy. I also get that Geralt himself is supposed to come across as a bit of a ladies' man, with NPCs on the streets jokingly shouting, "A witcher! Hide your women!" The trouble, however, is that voice actor Doug Cockle delivers every single line in the same gravelly, monotonous growl. That's fine when he's called upon to sound tough, which is admittedly a great deal of the time. Whenever Geralt has a tender moment, however, Cockle's range is simply laughable. It makes Geralt a somewhat tiring character to listen to after dozens of hours of play and it makes the game's sex scenes just feel cheap and exploitative as a result.

That's not the sort of thing to make or break an experience for me, but The Witcher already has too much going against it. It's certainly got no shortage of things to do, though, and as someone who's a bit obsessive-compulsive when it comes to WRPGs, completing quests in The Witcher is akin to taking a harmful yet addictive drug – the plot intrigue, intuitive interface and exciting combat keep you coming back, yet there's the underlying feel that you're doing more damage to yourself than good. I've heard from many sources that The Witcher 2 retains most of what made its predecessor interesting yet moves at a faster clip. I can't wait to play it. The Witcher gets a few things exceedingly right, and I can't wait to see those strengths applied to something with a bit more bounce in its step.

Rating: 6/10

Suskie's avatar
Featured community review by Suskie (July 22, 2013)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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JedPress posted October 26, 2013:

One thing I like about this review is that it handles the subject of misogyny very well. Many writers are too quick to make the "This game is misogynistic!" argument. Others can be too dismissive of the possibility of misogyny in a video game. However, you handle the subject with care and logic here.

Would really like to hear your thoughts about The Witcher 2.

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