The which than which there is no Witcher.
Developer CD Projekt’s bleak, stylish The Witcher is, among other things, a sort of rude, jagged-edged anti-Hyrulian adventure - a poisonous, alchemic (and probably suppositorial) cure for the common optimistic high-fantasy cold, if you will - based on the short stories and books of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, such as “The Last Wish” and “The Lesser Evil”. While the game has some vexing presentational and functional issues, it’s still one of the more compelling and mature action RPGs to come down the pike in years. There really isn’t anything quite like it out there.
Protagonist Geralt of Rivia is a “witcher”, basically an alchemically enhanced, socially and morally ambiguous, somewhat contemplative monster-killing badass in a high-fantasy world gone ick. Imagine a realistically rendered, medieval-era setting that’s already seen a Plague, an Inquisition, a Depression, and possibly one World War or two (with maybe a nice, juicy Holocaust on the horizon), and then filter any potential heroes left standing through a moral wringer created by Raymond Chandler. Finally, layer it with thinly veiled modern-day social commentary and spice it up to taste with a little downtrodden Slavic mythology. In this ‘fantasy’ world of creepy foes and just as potentially creepy allies, the unicorn population would be measured only in posthumous pelt-acreage, and the last moments of any kidnapped Zelda-esque princesses would be unspeakable.
The Witcher busts right out of the gate with the old ‘amnesiac hero’ bit. Geralt wants to learn who tried to off him and the world’s few remaining witchers. With this setup, it isn’t necessary to read any of the original source material. The game gradually immerses players in all they need to know, while offering plenty of monsters to stab and skewer, alchemic concoctions to mix and stir, and libidinous females to, um, ‘befriend’. And while The Witcher is definitely a fighting game, there are real, if not squishy, shades-of-grey moral choices to make that will affect the ultimate course of the game. Here, as in the real world, you’ll find yourself needing to decide: With which unappetizing brand of available nut-job should I ally myself in order to do the most good?
Thankfully, you’ll spend much of the 40 to 60 hours of gameplay killing foes, from either an overhead or follow-cam viewpoint, with a real-time combination of sword and spell. Sword combat eschews the spastic click-as-fast-as-you-can mechanic for a well-honed, timed-swing scheme that has you chain your attacks skillfully for maximum effect. If you spaz out, you are forced to restart your combo, thereby losing any combat bonuses.
Combined with Geralt’s various combat styles - fast, strong, or one specifically geared for taking on entire groups of enemies - the mix of deliberate sword strikes and dodges makes for a surprisingly elegant and rewarding fight system. The streamlined, elemental spell-casting scheme, meanwhile, is definitely more deliberate than the unwieldy high-fantasy norm. Casting spells drains Geralt’s endurance, so you’ll need to make the relatively low number of spells that you can actually crank out per battle really count.
Potions offer some crucial combat advantages, everything from seeing in the dark to upping base abilities, healing, and even slowing time. But combat, both physical and magical, takes the stamina right out of our hero, and without any convenient ‘heal-all’ spells - it’s just not that kind of world - only rest sessions at inns or recuperative campfires will restore him properly (and work those accumulating potion-toxins out of his system).
It’s the little touches and out-and-out flouting of RPG conventions that make The Witcher really interesting, if not particularly revolutionary in any way. The grim, dirty, strangely “urban” vibe of the world is complete with jarringly anachronistic slang, F-bombs and all. Geralt has a realistic, refreshingly limited carrying capacity. Friends and foes alike can have truly distasteful natures, among them racists, prostitutes, rapists, and misogynist wing-nuts. And perhaps most of all, the morally questionable nature of the protagonist himself as well as the choices the player must make at points throughout the game are not simple and cliché. Say what you want about The Witcher; you just can’t call it naïve.
In fact, The Witcher sometimes goes so far out of its way to shuffle off that standard RPG moral coil that it can get a little silly. In particular are the potential sexual escapades between our hero and the various female NPCs throughout the game, escapades that reward you with the female-in-question’s “sex card”, a sort of pictorial souvenir of each tryst. Some of the dialogue situations leading up these encounters are pricelessly bad, especially Geralt’s oh-so-unsmooth explanation to a horny forest-nymph of the mind-clearing benefits of intercourse. Truly, you’ve heard more seductive arguments for switching your car insurance to Geico.
More to the point, some of the dialogue as a whole is iffy. The voicework itself isn’t terrible, but due to the vagaries of either localization or hasty editing, some of the cinematic transitions are weirdly truncated. A character’s statement, or motivation thereof, sometimes makes little or no sense. These cuts never fatally ruins one’s understanding of events, but they do create notable dramatic hiccups.
None of these hang-ups are really anything, however, compared to the actual hang-ups that occasionally rear their unwelcome heads. I’m talking about semi-glacial load times and flat-ass, crash-to-desktop glitches. They’re not rampant, but they can occur. Seeketh thou the most recent patch with much haste.
Trading more traditional, menu-drilling RPG “depth” for sheer style, action, mechanical elegance and what might be called a refreshingly grim mood, The Witcher is one of the most compelling - if not the cheeriest - fantasy excursions to come along in many a moon. And by the by, the Aurora engine has never looked so good. Just don’t keep it on the same shelf as your more upbeat, candy-colored traditional console-based fantasy RPGs. It might do something horrible to them when you’re not looking.