I haven’t covered a game with exorbitant amounts of content lately. I’ve stuck to smaller adventure games with few side quests and branching paths. This is my first large RPG since Dying Light, so I’m going to take a more structured approach instead of an anecdotal one.
CDProjekt Red based the Witcher series on Polish novels from the nineties about a mutated monster hunter, or witcher, named Geralt. Though he dies at the end of the books, the first game picks up at his resurrection with–AMNESIA:
Not long after Geralt’s miraculous recovery, members from the rebel group Salamandra attack Kaer Morhan, the headquarters and training grounds for other witchers. These rogues steal the mutagens and potions used to give the witchers their, for lack of a better word, superpowers. Until now these were protected secrets, and Geralt must hunt down Salamandra and figure out their plans. On your journey, you meet the residents of Vizima and the surrounding areas. You find priests, warriors, witches, merchants, and average townspeople. Soon you’ll also find that these sleepy towns are a façade that covers up a racial and political power struggle. Nonhuman races–elves and dwarves–are the lower class, and those fighting for the church are quickest to believe this. On the flip side, elves and dwarves formed the Scoia’tael, a vigilante group whose actions feed into the public’s belief that nonhumans are savage. This complicated societal structure plays well into the choice mechanics.
Like many modern Western RPGs, the Witcher series employs choices, some meaningless and some monumental. During the Prologue, you’re forced to choose which of two battles to fight–go with Triss to defend the lab or stay and fight a large monster called a frightener. Your decision affects the events that follow, and at the end, Vesemir asks Geralt if he thinks he made the right choice. If the player hasn’t caught on yet. This lets you know subtly to make your decisions carefully from here on out, even if they seem innocuous at the moment.
Unlike my experiences with Dragon Age: Origins, the Witcher series’ morality system weaves a complicated web instead of remaining on two separate poles. Geralt can to constantly switch sides of the current fight with a single choice and even stay out of political matters entirely. Witchers traditionally go where the money does, not where the passions do.
Not spoiling anything, the people you choose to support or let live out of indifference are there to help you in the end in a way that isn’t contrived like many others who attempt this format.
And that long ramble brings me to–
Now if the goal of a witcher like Geralt is to hunt beats, how is the combat? In a word: easy. Using your sword is a matter of aiming the camera at the enemy and clicking the mouse in counts of three. That is the only combo. Any upgrades to the attacks doled out are applied automatically without any additional button presses needed. The only decisions lie in which fighting style you choose and which sword. Geralt has two different swords, one for humans and one for monsters. Each sword then has three fighting styles–fast, strong, and group. Which you use depends on the number of enemies and their speed and accuracy. At no point is there an increase in the difficulty of execution, only an increase in the opponent’s strength. This imbalance keeps there from ever being a true challenge. The only times I ever lost were when I was either unprepared or impatient.
The strategy instead lies in the use of items and magic. Geralt uses potions to increase his attack, defense, health and vitality regeneration, and other statistics. The trick is you can’t use them all at once because of toxicity and other ill effects. Using too many potions lowers your ability to fight well, so you must prioritize. Other potions give you advantages at a cost, e.g. increased accuracy for decreased defense. Then after deciding on what concoctions to swallow, you then must think about blade oils. While JRPGs depend on elemental relationships (ice and fire, water and electricity), Witcher uses the enemy’s species to dictate weaknesses. You have oils you can apply to each sword specific to necrophages, insects, specters, etc. These are essential when encountering hoards of the same enemy type. Otherwise you may get overwhelmed quickly.
Now how do you get all these potions and oils? This game has an alchemy system you can access while meditating, also known as how to pass time quickly. You use herbs you pick and monster parts you carve off of enemies to create everything you need. Each potion requires a certain quality alcohol base, and each oil needs a type of animal fat. Before you make anything or collect any ingredients, you have to find or buy the recipes and encyclopedic entries. This style creates a certain collection mechanic to make sure Geralt is the most well-informed hunter in the land. You also only have limited inventory space for these supplies, so must either constantly make potions, or prioritize which ingredients you want to collect.
Now the most integral part of any large-scale RPG is the quest system, and that is where Witcher shines. A few of the story quests continue throughout entire game with updates to your journal with each piece of new information. Then each chapter has its own main quest, whether it is exploring the bumps in the night on the outskirts of town or figuring out if there is a mole in the monarchy. AND THEN the chapter has its own contained side quests such as contracts to fight certain monsters or killing large game for trophies. AAAAND THEN you have side quests that continue throughout the entire game such as perfecting your dice poker skills or climbing the ranks as a fist fighter in local pubs. There is so much content and such a variety, but the structure keeps you from getting overwhelmed by possibility. You only obtain a certain number of quests in each chapter and must complete them immediately, helping you figure out the order in which you need to finish tasks and letting you know when you are ready to progress through the story.
And lastly that takes us to–
For a game released in 2008 for the PC, it still ran poorly on my 2014-era desktop. It constantly dropped frames and only ever hovered around 45 FPS. It crashed at least once every other time I booted it up. Whenever the game would start to lag, I would get that same heart-in-throat feeling I would from playing the Sims on my MacBook after not saving for a while (Seriously, if there was ever an example of compatibility not equaling functionality, but that’s for an other time). I also encountered certain bugs that have been around since launch. I would go looking on CDProjekt Red message boards to find a solution to what felt like a very unlikely problem only to find it had been around since the game’s inception. Once I was supposed to escape from the sewers with a ladder, but for some reason, the cutscene where the soldiers bring in the ladder just never happened. I wasted two hours running around underground thinking I hadn’t done something to trigger it only to figure out all I needed to do was load a previous save and cross my fingers.
Despite some of Witcher‘s lack of reliability, the graphics still looked great. Though the scenery and animations are dated, they are not distracting. While not the best, they still look realistic and don’t hinder a new player’s experience. It’s on par with Bioware’s Dragon Age: Origin which was released around roughly the same time.
And with that we have–
Even with its quirks and low level of difficulty, I can’t recommend it enough. To finish all the side quests, I put in over sixty hours and never got sick of it. The only thing I would do differently looking back is play on a higher difficulty. It is incredibly cheap now, and if you are looking to play through the series, start here. I got this game on sale for $1.50. No joke. Keep an eye out, and play it ASAP.