Clunkiness. That's 'Mr Clunkiness' to you. Everything about The Witcher oozes clunkiness. The quick-save generates a new save file each time, necessitating laborious deleting sessions. The menus couldn't give two tosses whether or not you understand them. The alchemy system is crippled by the inability to sort ingredients beyond mousing over each one to see the pop-up description. Combat is an orgy of spinning about when you don't mean to, shuffling forwards, accidentally putting away your sword and then getting murdered by something that's popped up out of the ground behind you and eaten the back of your skull.
Drawing your sword gives you the option of three fighting styles; Fast, strong and group. But why do you need that option? Why can't it just select the best one automatically and use that set of moves? It's not like you ever mean to intentionally use the wrong style on an opponent so as to better **** yourself over, so you're only ever going to use the wrong style accidentally: Why does the player need that choice? No aspect of this game seems remotely concerned with operating smoothly, doing anything for your convenience. I half-expected it to randomise the controls each time I started it up, just to see what I'd do (Answer: mumble about it in a British way but not cause a scene). And an RPG that starts with amnesia? Honestly? That's too cliché to even complain about, if you'll excuse my paralipsis. 'But if there's no pre-existing story then you get to choose your own path, forge your own destiny!' cries the 'shoddy-story-telling' apologists brigade. Oh can I, can I really? I have to pay £35 so that someone else can get me to do all the story telling? Anything else you want me to do while I'm here? Touch up the textures a bit? Rewrite the script? Maybe a speedy hand job for the lead programmer?
So then: lesson learned, life too short, yadda yadda. Let's not fritter away our time discussing The Witcher. Who likes riddles?
'You move house to a remote town which has two dentists. Dentist A has an immaculate set of white-as-the-driven-snow teeth. Dentist B has grotesquely mouldy Victorian gnashers jutting out of his head at improbable angles. But which do you choose to be your dentist?'
Answer: Dentist B. Reason: Given the dearth of dental professionals in the town we can infer that A treats B and B treats A: Therefore B is proficient at his job, and A is just a toothy wanker.
Now keep that logic swirling about in your mind-helmet for just ten second and consider this brain tickler:
'You meet two people at a party: Person A claims 'I single-handedly wrote all the English dialogue for the PC RPG The Witcher'. Person B, meanwhile, claims 'Eye, with few fingers, rote all the Inglisch dyer clogs for the Politically Correct Real Thyme Strategist game The Whicher'. As you open your mouth to respond person B then bellows 'perchance to sufficiently resound the wardrobe template considers multifarious variables and brave hermeneutic parodies!' turns away and walks into a wall. Witch... sorry... which of the men do you believe?
The correct answer was Person B, and as a result The Witcher is a poorly written game. Not just a 'poorly written compared to a fine Keatsian ode' level of bad writing, but fairly often so poorly written that you haven't a ****ing clue what's going on, who you're supposed to be talking to, why your shoes are on fire, and just who you have to fellate to get a decent cup of tea around here.
Bad dialogue, though... meeeh, at least it makes me giggle. Challenging a man to a fistfight in a pub leads to him defiantly proclaiming 'I'll kick your arse and make money doing it!' except the dreadful voice acting (think a Polish person impersonating a Scotsman impersonating Dick Van Dyke from Mary Poppins) leads to it sounding more 'Ah'll keck yer aaahhhrze end meck moonay doing ert!' Which is just fabulous. The bizarre 'fight' which ensues, consisting of you ducking as a fat and unremittingly stupid man punches the air above you, is pretty amusing too. The first few times. Good dialogue, I can quite sympathise, is very hard to write, even in your native tongue. I can forgive the writing because it's trying its best, in much the way I'm inclined to give The Witcher a chance because it tries to be more grown-up than most games. Sadly it almost completely fails, but life's a bit like that. Mine is, anyway.
It's riddle time again! Maybe that last one was too easy, no philosophical mileage, a bit too 'what has two wings but doesn't fly?'** We need a real existential, brain molesting kicker of a conundrum:
'What's an infallible way to tell a good choice from an evil one?'
Hear that? Sounds a bit like 'more-rall-ee-tea' to me. Let's have a one sentence, foolproof answer then. Fortunately video games have it sorted, even if us dull-witted carbon-based apes are still mulling it over. So, Monsieur Silicon; enlighten us?
'Well... good choices are in blue text, evil choices are in red. Stupid meatbag...'
Morality in games has, rather more often than not, been a polar choice. Choose your end of the spectrum and go sit on it, and be so kind as not to make a scene sir. As any gamer will tell you, evil people tend towards pale, veiny skin, strikingly white hair and menacing looking eyes, and will always demand paying for their services. And occasionally they'll throw orphans into volcanoes, as is their prerogative. It's a description that matches Geralt almost exactly, apart from the volcanoes business. Self-righteous 'good' characters will strut around like Neitzschen turned Nazi Übermenschen, flicking their blonde hair over their broad shoulders, rolling their blue eyes, twirling their blue lightsabers, spouting even bluer text and obstinately refusing to get paid for their good deeds:
CRONE: Thanks for killing those stray cats with your legendary two-handed battle sword and lightning spells: could I tempt you with a small amount of monetary compensation or a salve to heal your scratches lest they become infected?
HERO: Heaven forfend, hideous crone, for 'tis honour enough to aid defenceless quest-givers such as yourself. Virtue alone shall be my reward! Although I don't suppose you might be able to spare just an ounce of bread, I'm starving after stamping on all those malnourished kittens-
CRONE: No. Now get out of my mansion.
God, in His wisdom, did not think to provide blue or red subtitles when we go about our daily lives. We're lucky to get any subtitles at all, colour coding be damned. As a result morality is often a very grey thing, and sooner or later games were going to figure this out. The Witcher is aiming to occupy that 'grey is the new black' niche. 'Tolkienesque Dystopia' pretty much sums up the setting in two gratifyingly pretentious words. So it is that conspicuously absent from The Witcher are hints on morality: no binary 'Light side/Dark side/renegade/paragon/Tony Blair/Mother Teresa' colour-coded sentences here- just choices leading to consequences. These consequences can often be surprising, meaning that trying to do something for the right reasons can come round ten hours later and bite you on the arse. I'm going to slip into a Platonic dialogue mode here for a second and suppose that, someone, somewhere out there is going to throw on a toga and say 'Ah, you all too readily disparage Knights of the Old Republic and other such games, which you claim offer clear 'good and evil choices', but what of the 'help the beggar' scenario in KotoR II? What of that, good sir?'
I'll indulge. In this scene a vagrant at a spaceport (aren't they the worst kind?) asks you for some spare change, providing you the choice of lavishing him with a few shiny coppers or refusing him, slapping him with the back of your hand and laughing callously as he crawls off. The obvious evil response is one of slapping and callous laughter: but the 'good' response, throwing the chap some pennies and giving him a patronising pat on the head, only leads to the beggar wandering off and being beaten up for his newfound wealth. I'll admit, when I first came across this incident my initial reaction was 'blimey Mary Poppins, what a profound lesson on the impossibly complex ramifications of our actions in an unpredictable universe, a vivid allegory of moral chaos theory', or some such bollocks.
But with hindsight it's not half as clever as it wants to be. Imagine if every decision in KotoR was like that, it would just be confusing and frustrating. The whole set-up seems to be more like a person standing on a path by a road: if they step into the road they'll be hit by a car, and if they stay on the path they'll be crushed by a falling piano. Weighing up the two, we see this is really just an extension of the 'good or evil' argument, but it replaces the binary 'right or wrong' with plain old 'wrong or wrong', which is even worse. 'Car or piano: choose your poison, friend.' Does The Witcher really do enough to escape this simplistic moral dichotomy?
'Long but Wrong' is:
i) What my ex used to call me (only jesting! She used to call me 'short and impotent...') and
ii) a Tri-syllabic review of The Witcher. Here's a quote for the box: 'Hey kid! You bored of A-B fetch quests? Not nearly as bored as you'll be of A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-B-H-B-H-I-B-J fetch quests!' Quantity- not always a good substitute for quality, as it turns out. The Witcher is a long old game, but a slender fraction of that time is enjoyable, consisting as it does of tramping between areas to go talk to some old lady who you don't care about because some homeless person or arbitrarily naked chick told you to. Or even more bewilderingly, being told to do things by your journal, with no apparent external motivation. I can understand recording the progress of quests in his journal, but at what point does Geralt stop writing the journal and the journal start writing him?
But that good fraction of the game shows some promise, it just needs expanding on. Using magic is quite fun - it has a reassuring physicality to it, rather than the 'super over the top of the top of the top Final Fantasy school of destroying a solar system to kill a Cactuar' spells we see so often, The Witcher has a limited, coherent set of spells that have useful applications. Likewise, Geralt's swordplay has a pleasingly balletic feeling to it, although it's florid style juxtaposes rather uncomfortably with the overall clunkiness of the combat system. The game also features one of my favourite pieces of animation ever: When Geralt takes out one of the swords strapped to his back he yanks it out of it's strap and then catches it in mid-air, and when he replaces it he hold it by the blade and feeds it back into place. It's little, but nice. If the game could only focus more on providing moral dilemmas which encourage the player to think, rather than boring 'go here and talk to this old git' quests which encourage the player to turn the computer off and fetch some biscuits, then it would be onto a winner.
This just leaves us with one last issue I want to address before I scurry back into the undergrowth: misogyny. In the style of the opening to a secondary school English essay:
'The Oxford University Dictionary defines misogyny as 'hatred of women'. Some of the characters in The Witcher are deeply misogynistic; others are religious fanatics; then there are the drug dealers, grave robbers, fences, rapists, racists, pimps, and professional killers. It's not a place you'd leave your child unattended. The world of The Witcher is a broken, divided and unhappy one, and logically an absence of misogyny within it would be a serious continuity error. The question of whether or not the game itself, not the game world, is a misogynistic one is a trickier one to assess. Sex scenes are blurred out and indistinct, but upon bedding a woman the player is presented with a Page 3 style trading card of a lady merrily bearing her breasts and looking sultry. Consistent logic!? Schmonsistent schmogic! There may not be any malice on the part of the developers of the game, really: it could just be that they've never gone so far as actually talking to a real woman, and therefore could not know that foreplay generally consists of more than loudly proclaiming 'My, what a fine looking strumpet you are! Let's go out back and I'll give you a damn good rogering!' (Speak for yourself - Mel)
Should you buy it? Honestly, probably not. Should you buy the sequel? If it's refined and improved, definitely. Will there ever be a sequel if you don't buy this one? Probably not. Never any simple answers, are there? Let it never be said life is not interminably riddled with paradoxes.
**a penguin entombed in concrete
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