The Witcher (PC) review
"Witching and glitching"
Note: This is a review of the "enhanced edition" of The Witcher
The Witcher is like so many W-RPGs, except it's somehow both addictive and annoying. It places you in control of a witcher (basically a monster-hunting mutant for hire) named Geralt of Rivia, whose base of operations has just been raided by text book villains called the "Salamandra." His vendetta against these fiends plays out pretty much how you would expect: with you wandering around a kingdom, chatting up locals, performing (sometimes menial) tasks, earning experience, leveling up, wooing women and occasionally swearing because the game finds ways to spoil each of those qualities.
For instance, it provides you with plenty of side quests to undertake, provided you're willing to slowly hoof it for countless miles. You begin a few of them by speaking with important folks, but can embark on a fair number by taking scrolls off a notice board. Most of those jobs involve venturing to a nearby location and slaying particular beasts, then looting their bodies. After you've completed each chore, be prepared to walk a lot. This title doesn't offer much for fast traveling capabilities (you can only fast travel during the third chapter, and only to two or three different locations), so you'll need to pad back and forth from creature-infested locales to homes or inns to collect your gold and experience. Sometimes you'll need to fight your way through hordes of monsters that stand between you and your destination, especially if you're traveling through a swamp where boatloads of giant insects, killer plants, undead foes and humanoid leeches assail you. Worse than that, you encounter your share of open, empty stretches of land, and wish at those points you had critters to slow you down.
Journeying becomes even more obnoxious when the game crashes on you, as it did many times for me. Theoretically, this shouldn't be a problem because this title includes save scumming and selective autosaving. However, these crashes tend to come when you're in the middle of a huge battle or during a long hike back from completing a side quest. Bear in mind that other glitches also abound, like characters walking away while you're talking to them or the occasional uncharacteristic behavior from NPCs. During my playthrough, one of the characters refused to stop walking during a cutscene, and carried a whole conversation while walking in place. The serious tone that segment carried died a tragic death as a result.
And yet, the process remains at least somewhat entertaining, especially if you're the type of person who loves completing quests and solving problems. A fair number of the missions you do at least decently hide their objectives, rather than obviously spelling everything out for you. For instance, Geralt deals with a couple of ghosts in a field at one point, but must consult an expert on folklore before doing so. Your journal doesn't hit you over the head with suggestions, but your glossary and your intuition should be able to solve this one for you. There's an even bigger event than this in the second chapter that involves solving a murder, which you can finish in a number of ways. The most obvious pathways have you pressing the wrong folks for information, but the true course takes you to the last place you would think to look, where you make a grisly discovery...
As you can imagine, all manner of horrible things and people stand in your path during these excursions, and this is where the game mostly hits the right notes. You generally carry two swords with you, one made of silver for dealing with supernatural beings and one fashioned of steel for taking out humans, elves, dwarves, etc. On top of that, you have three fighting stances to utilize, depending on the situation at hand. You can assume a strong stance for battling beefy brawlers, while quick, lanky dudes fall to a fast combat style. Sometimes, though, you compete with a whole gang of humaoid and/or non-humanoid adversaries, and that's when your multi-target "group" style comes into play. Even better, this title eschews mindless button mashing in favor of a system that requires observation and timing. With your first click, Geralt slices up the opposition until your cursor flares up. That's your prompt to click again and continue the combo, hoping that someone doesn't stop you with a stun attack or spell.
Perish the thought of this experience becoming another Crystalis, where you hop into a menu and switch back and forth between all of these options to the point of agony. The game instead puts all of these functions at your fingertips, allowing you to switch between swords and fighting styles with mere keystrokes.
However, large encounters also generate needlessly frustrating moments, especially when the targeting system goes awry. Targeting remains mostly intuitive: you point the cursor at your next target and click on them to begin an assault. Unfortunately, some pricks like to hang out in front of the camera. They become semi-transparent, so they at least don't obstruct your view, but they also cause Geralt to shift his focus from the enemy he's killing to them. This especially becomes problematic during moments where you benefit from focusing on one foe at a time. For instance, one boss encounter pits you against a sea monster and his goons. The only way to topple the villain of this segment is to kill his cronies, which isn't easy since he can heal them. The only surefire way to deal with them is to remain focused on one and be sure your combo timing is on point. Guess who likes to loom in the foreground and wreck your focus, thus dragging the conflict out?
Speaking of dragging, the storyline does a fair bit of that, too. Thankfully, it provides some good turns and twists, not to mention a lot of tough judgment calls. For instance, you choose between two factions later in the proceedings, one that fights for racial equality while the other seeks to restore order. The former, however, tends to drag innocent civilians into its war, while the latter is puritanical and heavily prejudiced. Of course, you can also give both the finger and just do your own thing, because that's what witchers typically do. However, the game does a fair job of communicating some points: whether you want to ride the fence or pick a side, your actions still speak volumes of the kind of person you are, and sometimes even the best intentions can lead to horrible outcomes.
Unfortunately, a lot of this political intrigue lies beneath piles of boring sub-plots, like dealing with a phantasmal dog that's bumping off rural civilians, performing dull tasks for an aquatic demi-goddess or questioning people about a witcher who went MIA and might be dead.. A few of these scenarios end so anticlimactically that they come across as filler. Also, bear in mind what I said earlier about having to walk everywhere, because you'll do plenty of that while completing these lackluster missions.
Ultimately, I don't regret finally playing through The Witcher, even if it's rough around the edges. It's got some fantastic content and genuinely terrific moments, unfortunately mixed with the occasional glitch, flaw, snag or groan-inducing bit. Every great thing this title has to offer comes with something less enjoyable, be it tedium or bugs. I don't necessarily recommend avoiding it, but anyone interested should know what they're getting into before starting this lengthy, imperfect odyssey.
Staff review by Joseph Shaffer (December 02, 2020)
Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.
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