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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of the The Witcher Review

This is the addendum to my Witcher Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing The Witcher yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot.

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The Backseat Game Designer: The Witcher

These Backseat Game Designer pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game better. Hey, who knows, maybe the game designers will be moved to add an option into the expansion to try playing the existing game as one of the other witchers. Ah, well, maybe it'll amuse my friends, anyway. Here's all the news about The Witcher that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

This game really blew me away. I love RPG's with lots of interactiveness and multiple ways to solve problems anyway, so I was bound to enjoy playing The Witcher, but between the stunning set design and the dark, menacing mood, it impressed me artistically as well. Sure, it wasn't perfect-- transitions were often abrupt and confusing, the clumsy translations and erratic voice acting made me laugh at a few inappropriate moments, load times were so crazy long they actually broke the mood several times, and being limited to a single character was particularly disappointing since I would have liked to play this epic all over again with a different character. But overall this game is an example of computer role-playing at its very finest, and no handful of minor glitches could have kept me from loving it.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave The Witcher a 9.5 out of 10 (rating: outstanding). So, what would have improved this already excellent game even more?

Well, the most incredibly awesome thing the designers could possibly have done for this game, in my opinion, would have been to allow a player who has finished the game to go back and replay it as Eskel, Lambert, or Triss. At the end of the prologue, the four of them split up to go off and explore in different directions; if they split up differently, so that Geralt went east and Lambert south, then Lambert could have the main adventure in this game instead (while Geralt was presumably doing something different off to the east.) The reason this would have been so very awesome is that it would have allowed gamers to replay the game making completely different choices. After more than 60 hours developing a complex persona for Geralt out of the game's many choices, it really was not possible for me to go back and play him over again as a guy who would have taken sides with the Order or picked up all the strange quests that apparently result if you chase tail all over Vizima; but I could have played a Lambert who would have done that, or an Eskel who would have tried out all the more thoughtful or unusual quest solutions. Triss would have been a lot harder to work in, due to her using no weapon and a bigger variety of spells, but adding a female witcher to the mix would theoretically have been possible (and certainly would still be possible for a sequel.) The more characters you have to choose from, the more you can get out of a game this full of decision trees, long-term consequences and interactive subplots.

Less potentially awesome but probably more practical as an improvement would be hiring a professional translator, for crying out loud. I really don't get this-- Atari will shell out for artists to re-do all the pictures of female NPC's so that they're all showing a little less skin for the American edition, and they'll pay English-speaking voice talent to deliver the lines in English, but they somehow thought they could skimp on having a fluent bilingual person read through the entire script to make sure that all the lines made sense. Not a good choice IMHO and will drive some people away from the game. If it was just a matter of some awkward phrasings or misspellings in the subtitles here or there it wouldn't be such a problem, but there are several instances where NPC's respond to a neutral line of dialogue like "I'm looking for someone" as if you have insulted them, revealed plot information to them, or something else that simply isn't in the English translation, and that messes with playability. Besides, translation errors that make you consciously think about what something is supposed to mean damage the game's immersiveness. In the prologue, for example, two witchers have the exchange "Success?" "Smash it!" I couldn't figure out whether they were trying to say it was a smashing success, or they wanted me to smash the obelisk they just finished using. Other exchanges seem to have been greatly truncated in the translation, leaving the player at a loss about what was supposed to be going on-- in the middle of Chapter One, for example, if Geralt kills some of the assassins he's been tracking, he will have some apparent revelation about them that he completely fails to share with the player-- "Now I understand, this would have happened differently if I had stayed with Vesemir." Another NPC asks him "Knowing what you know now, would you have done anything different?" The player is supposed to choose "Yes" or "No," but since it's impossible to have any clue what the two of them are even talking about from this elliptical conversation, the choice is meaningless and frustrating rather than thought-provoking, and you just end up feeling jerked around.

Gameplay-wise, The Witcher was screaming out for some kind of movement shortcut (a clickable map would have been ideal), and some way to jump over obstacles was a painful omission. In combat, Geralt can leap clear over an opponent's head, but while traveling, he can't climb over what appears to be a 3-foot-high fence and sometimes finds a patch of rocky or uneven terrain an impassable barrier. It's illogical and annoying having to go around all these obstacles the players themselves could get across in real life. And of course, anything that could have been done to shorten up the amount of time you have to wait for a new level to load would have helped. I'm not tech-savvy enough to know what that would be exactly, but other comparably graphics-intense games don't have this problem, so presumably The Witcher could have avoided it as well.

Finally, the ending was a little disappointing to me because after all this time making choices on Geralt's behalf, suddenly the game seemed to grab the reins back and prevent the player from pursuing a number of things. Most glaring were the final interactions with the Grandmaster. After discovering clues that seem to link the Grandmaster with Alvin, and hearing things from the Grandmaster himself that seem to suggest such a connection, why is there no option available to pursue this topic any further? It's not possible to confront the Grandmaster about it, not possible to learn more about it, not possible to discuss it with Triss or Shani in a denouement sequence... in fact, it's not even possible to HAVE a denouement sequence with Triss or Shani, not even if you've had Geralt decide one of them is "the love of his life." The ending movie was great and I don't mind the cliffhanger ending with the unmasking of the witcher-ninja (especially not if it means a sequel is in the works!), but after the interactivity of the game itself, I felt I had also earned a wrap-up of the matters I had clearly demonstrated that I considered important myself, which would include the fate of a boy I'd practically adopted and spent a lot of time interacting with and a woman I'd had Geralt declare his love for.

Hopefully some of these will be improvements we'll see in the sequel. Till then, happy gaming!

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