The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has been out for quite some time and due to my break from blogging I ironically missed writing about the release after covering all sorts of news snippets before. However, after giving The Witcher Adventure Game the review treat, I’m happy to do the same with CD Projekt RED’s first game in its Enhanced Edition, based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s book series.
The Witcher: Enhanced Edition
(Poland 2007, developer/publisher: CD Project RED, platform: PC)
Witcher Geralt of Rivia has to find out why a secret organization stole a substance that can create more of his kind.
The journey of a cursed and amnesiac man
Fantasy stories usually involve a group of adventurers going on an epic quest to battle the ultimate evil. Here it’s only one man who’s blessed with superhuman powers but cursed with infertility. He also lost his memory and slowly has to recover it when meeting old friends. This is a storytelling path trodden by many JRPGs to more or less success, and The Witcher shows the same highs and lows of that technique.
For one, it makes learning about all the characters known from the books easier, while piecing together parts of Geralt’s past is both intriguing and suspenseful. Unfortunately, this also makes the background stories convoluted at times. The main storyline is quite good with enough twists and turns to make each new chapter compelling. But the individual quest stories are just as, if not more, interesting due to changes of perspectives, so that even a simple kill-this-creature/man/woman can lead to a tragic decision or heartwarming conclusion.
The main theme permeating gameplay and storytelling is that moral decisions count. They influence how plot elements come together, how NPCs treat Geralt, and how the difficulty of specific key points in the game is adjusted. What’s great about this concept is that there’s rarely any good or bad behavior of the main character, as each decision has its pros and cons, and each NPC has their own agenda he/she/it follows.
Turning points of the plot are presented in painting-like stills as cutscenes and transitions of chapters, giving the story not only an epic feeling, but also making the player think about his past decisions and how they affect the world around him. There’s a real sense of place, not only because of graphical changes, but because of the people who inhabit them. For example, the city of Vizima has dwarves, elves and humans live side by side, but each community is just as mistrustful of the other as a swamp outside where brickmakers, lumberjacks, and dryads share the place but not the same belief systems or life styles.
Of beasts, men and women with some controversy
Despite its monsters and supernatural elements, The Witcher shows “normal” people at their worst, with mistrust leading to hatred and racism. It’s a reflection of our own society and maybe that’s what makes it more realistic and also more emotional than the high fantasy of other RPGs or the exaggerated teenage angst in JRPGs. Dealing with social and political topics becomes increasingly important in the latter part of the game when Geralt’s neutral stance is shaken, because he has to choose sides and is torn between his personal goals, attachments and people who depend on him. NPCs are also memorable with witty and often profound dialogues which are only marred by an over-reliance on swear words.
This attitude also becomes problematic in the romantic/sex scenes, as Geralt can bed any woman (human or not) if he plays his cards right (and he even gets collectible, quite revealing nude picture cards), i.e. helping in a quest, saying the right thing at the right time, or simply having the right object or amount of money. Sometimes this is handled with care when he wins the affection and finally love of old female friends. Unfortunately being able to go to bed with any woman in the process is only rarely spoken of and stands in stark contrast to some of Geralt’s comments about leading a normal life with commitment to one special person (although one can also say the opposite).
Many small journeys to take with uncertain endings
Storytelling troubles aside, the game does a very good job at interconnecting quests. Completing side quests is never a time-waster, as some decisions or rewards might affect the main story later on or at least help with useful items/weapons. It’s only too bad that the quest journal is often incomplete, not recording where certain people are at specific times. Having a day/night cycle is quite nice, as it does not only introduce other (stronger) enemies, but also makes certain NPCs show up in different places. However, it becomes difficult to keep track, so returning to the same place at different times can get rather tiresome. Time can be fast-forwarded by sleeping, but this can only be done in a safe place, and it’s often unclear what time of day or night one should visit quest-related people.
One can also miss specific quests due to the game’s linearity. So after some turn of events, people and places might have changed. It adds to the realism, but it forces the player to be more careful. This also becomes a problem when long walks through the wilderness or streets are necessary in order to get from one quest point to another. The map is also confusing at times. A fast travel option is introduced later in the game, but it doesn’t make these travels any less time-consuming and frustrating.
Battle stratagems and RPG tropes with a twist
The battle system in The Witcher is a great example of how an RPG can be strategic and action-heavy at the same time. Different enemies require different techniques, i.e. fast, heavy or group attacks. One also has to take into account that humans are more vulnerable to a steel sword, while supernatural beasts are more receptive to silver. Both weapons can be upgraded or bought in more elaborate versions. Add some defensive or offensive magic, and you can tackle each encounter in the appropriate manner, switching styles on the fly. Pausing the game helps to plan ahead as well, although the fights require some swift mouse clicks, too. Evading and attack at the right time can result in more damage or parries with some brutal finishing moves.
The game certainly doesn’t shy away from showing decapitated heads and limbs cut off, but then again this makes the battle system so satisfying. What is even more motivating is the way how levelling up works. Grinding is almost non-existent, as levels are reached rather quickly and quests give enough experience points to make this one of the few RPGs where one can simply follow the storyline. However, the tech tree requires some planning with many different branches leading to varied play styles. Although it’s possible to try mixing things up, there is a sufficient number of expendable abilities. In addition, certain talents can only be acquired by mutagens, made by the mix of unique ingredients. However, these aren’t easy to find, as they’re often connected to a quest and, depending on its outcome, can be lost forever.
Difficulty of finding, using, but not dying
Making potions is a viable way to help Geralt during battle, e.g. making him stronger, more agile or immune to some attacks and status effects. This isn’t obligatory for completing the game, but it helps in tougher situations, e.g. boss fights. However, finding recipes and the ingredients can become a chore, as the inventory can’t hold many objects and one always has to find a safe place to mix or drink them, which again takes time to take effect, just like sleeping. It’s possible to store the items in an innkeeper’s chest, but running back and forth isn’t the most ideal way, especially in the first and final chapter when all items can’t be retrieved anymore from this location.
As with potion-making and the development tree which are both only partly of use, The Witcher also struggles with some difficulty spikes, e.g. timed sequences or boss fights which almost break the game. Especially the swamp sections make the game suddenly very challenging compared to what came before. Camera control is also not the best, often obstructing the view point, while auto-locking on enemies fails sometimes as well, in addition to some questionable collision detection.
Looks can be deceiving, but sounds stay true
The title hasn’t aged so well on a technological standpoint. Even if there are some great lighting, weather effects and beautiful backdrops, e.g. the swamp region with a magically vibrant forest of the druids or sundowns which never get old, textures are outdated and character animations repetitive. During fights these still look fluid, but during conversations, the old engine shows. Very long loading times are extremely annoying, too. Even when saving or loading games (the files of which are also very big) does it take ages to get in the game.
However, the orchestral soundtrack offers various memorable tunes and together with atmospheric, often creepy sound effects and good voice acting (despite the lead character’s off-key delivery of lines and bad lip sync) create a more than satisfying aural background.
Enhanced version once more with feeling and extras galore
The Enhanced Edition is a big step up from the original release. Although I haven’t played it, it should have new animations, additional NPC models, expanded and corrected dialogues in translated versions, improved stability, a redesigned inventory system and load times reduced by roughly 80% (although the latter I can’t really believe, as they’re still pretty long).
Bonus features or goodies are maybe more interesting, as there’s the soundtrack, music inspired by the game, making of and music videos, an art book, a calendar, a short story, wallpapers, maps, and a guide. The Enhanced Edition also includes additional stories from the Witcher universe: individual storylines which are disconnected from the main game. They might share some characters, but don’t really play a big part. Unfortunately, except for two, there is only text, no voice acting. It shows that they were fan-made or in the case of the voice-acted ones left out for a reason. This doesn’t mean that they’re not fun, as there are quite some interesting story twists, but the higher difficulty makes them only recommendable for those who’ve already finished the main game and can’t get enough of the gameplay.
A tale to remember and a game to replay
CD Projekt RED delivers one of the best RPG experiences I’ve had in quite a while. Although it isn’t perfect due to some technical hiccups and doesn’t look as great as modern RPGs, its battle system is great fun, while grinding is never an issue. However, the most impressive thing about it is the decision making. The world where one makes them is also so immersive one can get lost in it for days. Replaying the game (if one has time for 30 more hours) will also lead to a different experience, depending on the choices made the second time around.
The Enhanced Edition comes packed with goodies and is a definite improvement over the original. It also shows that CD Projekt RED is a company who cares about its customers, as those who bought the original, can download all the updates and extras in their digital form for free.
All in all, The Witcher is a must-have/play RPG, even for those who’ve become tired of overcomplicated rule sets and overlong dialogues. Not only does the gameplay offer fun quests, but the storytelling also tackles social and political issues in a mature and often subtle way.
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