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Lora's CRPG Reviews: The Witcher

The Witcher (Game release date: 2007)
A visually breathtakingly CRPG whose complex quests brim with possible solutions and consequences.

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Highlights: Breathtaking look and feel, interactive plot, multiple quest solutions Lowlights: Only one PC you can play, clunky interface, loooooong load times

I had a bit of a shock at the checkout counter buying "The Witcher"; the cashier told me I had to be 21 to buy this game. 21? What the hell could be in this game to warrant that? You only have to be 18 to watch an X-rated movie, for crying out loud. Either this was a hardcore porn game or-- more likely judging by the cover art-- it was going to be a dark, disturbing horror game involving upsetting scenes of sexual torture.

If you're having the same kind of trepidation, let me put your mind at ease: it's neither. Sure, there are plenty of opportunities for casual sex, but they're all fadeouts. The opportunity for teenage boys to titillate themselves by pretending their character is screwing somebody at a brothel has been part of CRPG's since I really was 21. I have no idea why this game was given such an aggressive rating; there's no content in here that hasn't been broadly accepted in video games for years. Heck, "Arcanum" was MUCH nastier than this, and you only needed to be 17 to play that. You could fuck a sheep in Arcanum. I'm not kidding.

Anyway, once I stopped being nervous that my character was about to be graphically ass-raped by weird monsters or something-- thanks for freaking me out over nothing, you stupid ESRB-- "The Witcher" turned out to be a really excellent CRPG. The mood is indeed dark and morally ambiguous, but the game achieves this feel organically, by continually presenting the player with choices that have unforeseen consequences and quests with no easy answers. Most importantly of all for a game that wants to tackle such serious issues as racism, slavery and domestic violence, gameplay is very open-ended, so if you learn that a likeable-seeming NPC has been doing something you find totally unforgivable, you can always kill him. You don't have to put up with any particular crime in this game; you can draw your own battle lines.

The biggest disappointment of "The Witcher" turned out to be the extreme lack of customizability; this was a game I would have liked to play three or four times, with different characters who approached this gritty and complex gameworld with different attitudes. But there's only one character you can play: the hero of the Polish fantasy-adventure books the game is based on. That's probably OK for the people who have read the books, but it's a mean trick to play on the rest of us. There are some other flaws too-- an aggravating combat system and inventory interface, some glitches in the translation, a few problems with transitions and pacing, frustratingly long load times and occasional game crashes. None of them keep this from being a game that is very much worth playing. My only regret is that they didn't leave open the option for me to play it more than once-- with so many forking paths and different ways of completing quests, I was disappointed not to be able to go back and enjoy it all a second time.

Style: The Witcher is a 1st-person hack-and-slash-style CRPG. You control and develop one character. The plot is a role-playing adventure and there are fantasy themes. Combat is realtime.

Series: The Witcher is a stand-alone game. It's based on a Polish book, but you don't have to be familiar with the book to play the game.

Finding The Witcher: The Witcher is a recent game and you can find it in most software stores. Here it is for sale online at Amazon.

Getting The Witcher to Work: There are apparently some issues with getting the Witcher working on Vista. This is a new game that is being actively supported by Atari, so if you're having problems, try contacting them at their homepage. The only bugs I've encountered on XP are the occasional system crash (do save your game often), and the audio occasionally catching during a cutscene (exiting and rebooting the game solves this problem.)

Hints For The Witcher: I do not yet have a low-spoiler walkthrough page for The Witcher. Neither does UHS, where I usually like to send people for hints that don't give too much away. You can visit this thorough Witcher Guide, but be warned it is chock full of spoilers!

Pitfalls In The Witcher: Some people have complained that this is a misogynist game. As a long-time female gamer whose fun has been spoiled by misogyny and sexism more than once, I'd like to weigh in that I really didn't feel that way about The Witcher. Sure, there was the all-too-familiar disappointment at not being able to play a female character, and the all-too-familiar eye-rolling at some of the ridiculous outfits worn by female NPC's, but that was it. There are games out there that I've had a lot of trouble enjoying because they treat violence against women light-heartedly, tolerate sexual harassment as part of the gameplay, and/or portray female characters as weak, helpless, and petty. The Witcher does none of these things. It is possible for Geralt to have a lot of one-night stands in this game (alternately, you can make him be in love with one of his longtime friends, have him start a relationship with a new NPC, or just ignore these subplots completely); but regardless of what you choose, it is only possible to pursue women who express an interest themselves-- Geralt can murder a bystander if the player directs him to, but he can't sexually harass uninterested women, and there is no way to do anything with the women who say "no." Period.

The Witcher is rather misanthropic in general, though. None of the characters in this game are really very nice people; there are no heroes here (except to whatever extent you're able to be one yourself, and the game doesn't make that easy to do.) Female NPC's and male ones alike are usually either selfish, callous, racist, manipulative, faithless, hiding a dark secret, or more than one of the above. So it can get kind of depressing to play this game for long periods of time. If you really like to play a clear-cut hero who gets rewarded for doing good deeds and helping innocent people, this is probably not the game for you. You're usually having to decide whether or not to help people you really wouldn't like to associate with at all, and sometimes trying to do the right thing ends up having ugly consequences.

Game Length: About 80 hours, a decent size for a CRPG. If you don't mind playing the same character over again with a completely different personality, you could easily play the entire game again without becoming bored due to the branching plot and the many different ways to solve quests.

Age-Appropriateness: The Witcher is rated M (for 17 years old and up), but some stores are not selling it to anyone under the age of 21. I really think that's overkill, since the content in the game is milder than in most R movies these days; but in any event this is definitely an adult-oriented game not meant for children (with sexual situations, moderate violence, lots of cursing, and enough open-endedness that you could act like a sociopath if you felt like it.)

Lora's The Witcher Review: (Outstanding)

Plot and Quests: The plot has a few small problems with pacing, but is generally excellent-- deeper and more mature than most CRPG's offer, with a branching storyline and optional subplots that only come into play based on previous decisions you've made in the game. The quests are plentiful and varied, and many have more than one possible solution. The criminal-investigation plotlines are particularly inspired.
Puzzles and Mental Challenges: This is a complex game from a role-playing perspective, but not so much from the intellectual side. There are few true puzzles and none are very difficult. Some of the quests are on the challenging side-- I did have to consult a walkthrough to figure out how to complete one of them.
Characters: The characters populating this world are an unpleasant bunch, but they're memorably unpleasant-- it seems like each and every one of them, even the clerks at the stores, is unpleasant in his or her own special way. Many of them are extremely three-dimensional, with both good qualities and bad on display. Geralt himself is a compelling character who makes an excellent protagonist to navigate these very murky waters. It's unfortunate that some way couldn't have been found to let us play one of the other witchers or sorceresses on a subsequent playthrough; being constrained to a single character is limiting in a world as multi-layered as this one.
Gameworld: I found myself mesmerized by the dark, grimy window on the underside of human society The Witcher opens up. This is a view of humanity from the perspective of an outsider, and it's not pretty and not especially inspiring. There is racism, greed, and casual cruelty everywhere. There is slavery, corruption, drug use, and lots of dead and dying dreams. But there was also just enough human potential and hope flickering through the darkness to keep me going back to try to save it. That's an emotional response much deeper than most computer games, even my very favorites, have been able to evoke. But what really endeared me to this gameworld was the attention to detail. Pigeons take off in a flutter of wings if you walk into their midst. Children play tag and hopscotch on the path; adults engage in idle gossip you can hear snatches of as you pass. As rain starts pelting down, NPC's dart for cover under nearby awnings and make comments like "Oh, no, I left my laundry out!" Once, I forgot to return to non-combat mode after killing some barghests and walked into a home with my sword drawn. As I entered and swivelled, the sword dripped an arc of little bloodstains onto the floor. Then later, when I returned to the house, I found the the occupant industriously cleaning the spot! Things like these really made the gameworld feel alive.
Gameplay (Leveling, Spells, etc.): The gameplay is very good and offers a lot of variety including several optional minigames. Character creation and skill development are detailed and highly customizable, which is always a plus in my book; however, it's also rather confusing and it's never clear what exactly your leveling choices are affecting, which takes away from the fun of advancement a little.
Interface (Movement, Inventory Management, etc.): The general game interface was pretty smooth, but inventory was even more of a pain than it is in most CRPG's, and the alchemy/magic system was awkward enough that it deterred me from using it much. Combat controls are serviceable but clunky. And the lack of effective movement shortcuts makes long-distance travel a real irritant.
Ambience (Graphics, Sound, etc.): I think this may be the best-looking computer game I've ever played. Some of the cutscenes are absolutely breathtaking; the CG animation is major-motion-picture quality. The graphics during ordinary gameplay are not quite up to the same caliber, but are still excellent-- in particular, the graphic design is stunningly evocative. The music is also terrific, swelling and subsiding at just the right moments. The overall feel of the game is outstanding and the ambiguous morality of the plot is perfectly wedded to the gritty medieval realism of the dingy cities and forlorn countryside depicted here.

Lora's Recommendations: I recommend The Witcher to veteran CRPG players looking for a mature gaming experience. New gamers would probably find this a frustrating introduction to the genre, with its subtle quests and clunky realtime interface, and players who are heavily action-oriented may become bored with all the talking and tough decision-making. But any gaming enthusiast who enjoys character interactions and the ability to make decisions that will really affect your character's path will find plenty to enjoy in this dark and thought-provoking epic.

If You Loved The Witcher: Have you played Planescape Torment yet? It's very different in playstyle (turn-based combat, you control a party of several characters, etc.) but shares both a deep interactivity and a brooding philosophical feel with The Witcher. Baldur's Gate II is another old-form turn-based CRPG with some of the most amazing character development and interactive subplots of any game to date (including possible romantic entanglements.) Two excellent recent CRPG's with similar gameplay to The Witcher's are Oblivion and Gothic II, both open-ended single-character epics like The Witcher-- Oblivion is particularly recommendable for its highly customizable main character. You might also consider Arcanum, a glitchy but highly original steampunk adventure fusing magic and technology (but be warned that that one really is quite sexist.) Finally, it's a different genre altogether, but The Longest Journey is a European graphic adventure game that also reaches real depth in places and doesn't shy away from mature themes; and in an ironic twist, you can only play a pre-set female character in that one, so perhaps it could be considered karmic balance. :-)

For a more detailed critique of The Witcher involving spoilers, please see my Backseat Game Designer page. Happy gaming!

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