The game we have all been waiting for is almost here. Anticipation for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is massive. Not only does it look to be the excellent next installation in a great series, it contains the final chapter of Geralt’s story. Wild Hunt’s delayed release has only served to heighten hype and expectations. During the long wait for the final instalment, I took the time to reflect on CD Projekt Red’s previous instalments. Today I will be recounting my experiences with The Witcher, discussing its highs and lows, and getting excited to see what happens to Geralt in the final instalment of this epic trilogy.
It took me a long time to complete The Witcher. It was a tumultuous journey and at many points I was tempted to do what so many others have told me they’ve done. Read, or watch, a plot summary, and progress to the more popular sequel. Enduring the strange combat system, onslaught of side quests and eight-year-old animation, I have finally made it. These points make the game sound awful, but it has easily won a place amongst my favourite games. It is brilliant, and I love it – almost as much as I love Geralt – but it has some definite issues, on which I blame my extremely prolonged completion of it.
The design of the combat system in The Witcher is considered its biggest flaw. The combat system in this game is so infamous, that often upon telling people I was playing the game, they immediately started talking about how awful it is, because of the combat, and how they never bothered to complete it. Instead of the typical left-mouse-button to attack with primary weapon, and right-mouse-button for secondary, in The Witcher you simply aim in the direction of your target and click. After that first click it becomes all about timing. Your mouse icon will glow orange as you are attacking, and you must click it again at precisely that instant to continue your flurry of slashes. You have three different attack styles – strong, fast and group – which you select based on the build of your enemy, and two different swords – steel for humans, and silver for monsters. You also obtain five different spells – or ‘Signs’ – throughout the game – Aard (knockback), Quen (shield), Yrden (trap), Igni (fire) and Axii (control).
It is a strange system, but it does not have to be hated. I think the reason a lot of people feel strongly about it is because of the game’s opening. You begin watching an intriguing animation of Geralt running disoriented through the woods. He collapses and is found by friends and taken back to Kaer Morhen, the home and training ground of the Wolf School of Witchers, his memory gone. A few days later, while Geralt is still recovering, the castle is attacked and you are plunged immediately into the action. Although some guidance is given, you are expected to pick up this odd system in less than a minute. I am probably not the only one who did not understand this system and quickly died frustrated by my inability to land any hits.
Despite its oddities, this system grew on me over time – or maybe I just adapted to like it because I had no choice. Whatever the reason, and despite its infamy, it certainly does not make the game unplayable. It is a matter of taste, and most players prefer familiar flavours when it comes to something as foundational to a game as combat mechanics.
Strategy in boss fights is really important in The Witcher. It makes the difference between slashing away at an enemy for a painfully long time, and playing the battle in the intended fashion. The type of sword you choose, the way you use your signs and the potions you take really make a difference. Almost all the potions in The Witcher have long term enhancement effects, rather than instant buffs, which makes it necessary to plan ahead. You can never rely on swigging a bunch of health pots to win you a fight.
Until the best strategy is devised, battles are rarely easy. However, some encounters just seemed to make no sense, despite the variety of strategies employed. The most memorable was the battle with the Zeugl – a Cthulhu-esque sewer dwelling beast with a butt-ugly face and an endless number of tentacles. I must have attempted this fight dozens of times. So many tentacles attack you at once that if you get caught in their attacks, there is no opportunity to break free. Once you manage to sever a few tentacles, the beast’s head emerges – you hit that a few times, it disappears, and the process begins all over again. Pretty standard boss fight set up. However, it seemed that no matter how many times I attacked the head of the beast, it just would not die. I attacked endlessly, for at least ten real time minutes, thinking I must be doing something wrong. Eventually, I decided to search for some advice online, to see if the battle really was meant to go on for this long. The responses were varied – some people seemed to have shared my struggle, but others labelled the fight as easy. One contributor suggested standing near the waterfall against the wall, which limited the number of tentacles that could attack you. Returning to the game, I tested this technique – but I still kept dying. During one attempt, I became frustrated with the ineffectiveness of this technique and went nuts – running into the combat, slashing at everything. A few seconds later my journal updated to tell me that I had slayed the Zeugl….. yay?
I kid you not; it was like the difficulty of the battle had changed somehow. It sounds crazy, but I could tell the length of the battle because of my potions. Each potion in The Witcher lasts for only a few in-game hours. In the top left-hand corner of the HUD there are icons which, when hovered over, tell you how many hours and minutes your potion’s effect will continue for. During the Zeugl fight, I had to pay close attention to this, as my health restorative – ‘Swallow’ – expired after about the third time the Zeugl’s head emerged, and I had to take another. When I finally defeated the Zeugl, my potion had not even expired yet. The whole thing was over in about fifty real time seconds. This was utterly befuddling, and I experienced similar situations at several different fights throughout the game.
I suppose this issue just comes down to bad balancing, although it is hard to say. The whole experience was so confusing that I am still not sure how I feel about it. I suppose I felt frustrated, because in the end it did not feel like a real victory. It felt like some kind of glitch had enabled me to win the fight.
The Witcher has really well developed role playing elements. The dice gambling mini-game, the amount of information you can draw from in your journal – character logs, recounts of all your previous quests, alchemical recipes, a bestiary – and of course the highly immersive plot, supported by awesome dialogue, all contribute to the great level of immersion the game achieves. The plot is compelling, multi-faceted, and full of political intrigue, romance, feuds, friendships and all kinds of evil. It does not sugar-coat anything – tough questions about parenting, relationships, racial acceptance and the morality of killing ‘for the greater good’ are asked of the player.
You have two main goals driving the game – helping Geralt rebuild an identity, and recovering the Witcher secrets stolen from Kaer Morhen at the beginning of the game. The story is heavily player driven, with Geralt able to make decisions during every dialogue. At first, these choices may seem like meaningless personalisation, which has no real bearing on the game, but once you reach the climax of Chapter One, there can be no doubt – your actions as Geralt certainly influence what happens in the world. The dialogue matches the quality of the story – there are insightful, wise and artistic passages, much of which seems more likely to be found in a novel than a game. Then again, The Witcher is based on a series of novels, by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, so perhaps we can thank his writing for the eloquence of the dialogue.
One place that the writing occasionally falls down is in the quests. I do not claim to be perfect, but I do not normally have to use walkthroughs during games. I try to avoid them, especially when playing RPGs. Some of the quests in The Witcher, especially minor ones, were vague in their instruction and direction, and I often felt as if I needed the guidance of the walkthrough. At first, I thought this was a consequence of the large gaps in time I was leaving between playing the game, but even towards the end, when I was playing it very consistently, the direction was not always clear. This feeling was strongest during Chapter Four, all of which felt a little irrelevant compared to the other chapters. To be removed from the middle of such interesting conspiracy and court intrigue, so I might run around the countryside helping feuding villagers was a little frustrating.
For a game released 2007, the animation is of a high quality. It does not stand up compared to modern releases, of course, but it is very good for its time. However, it suffers from a few visual problems that must have been the result of monetary limitations. The worst is the repeated use of the same character models for different characters. All of the major characters had their own distinct model, but the townsfolk were displayed using repeated character models. When it comes to populating a town with nameless characters, this does not really matter. But a bunch of characters that you must interact with during quests also suffered from this repetition, which made quests confusing, and broke the immersion of the story. The diverse voice acting helped remedy this, but it was still a problem.
Another sore point was camera angles during dialogue, which were occasionally very awkward. The game seems to employ a system which calls on a random camera angle to be used when displaying the characters during dialogue. Usually, this works well, and is engaging, as you are exposed to lots of scenery during the conversation. However, sometimes the camera would get stuck in elements of the environment – such as grass or furniture, which looked awful and made it difficult to concentrate on important plot decisions.
Geralt is a babin’ badass and it makes sense that most of the women he encounters in the war-torn and depressing state of Temeria want to escape their gloomy lives and sleep with him. I also do not mind how much cleavage many of the female characters display in this game. It is a little over the top at times, but boobs are nice to look at – I understand that. However, I do draw a line when sexiness in clothing leads to blatant impracticality. Princess Adda’s costume at Leuvaarden’s party makes sense. She is at a party, and besides, she is a princess. She can wear whatever the hell she wants. The attire of the Street Whores makes sense too – they’ve got to attract customers somehow. Even Shani’s outfit isn’t that impractical – aside from the fact that, as a doctor, she would probably know to wear something a little warmer in the winter.
But then there is Triss Merigold. Her ‘battle’ outfit is absolutely ridiculous. Her outfit in the prologue is bizarrely impractical. There is no way you could fight off Salamandra assassins dressed like that without constant nip-slips. She looks like a really elaborately dressed hooker. Even her courtier outfit, which literally displays her butt crack is okay with me – she is at court, no need for a practical outfit when wits are your weapon of choice. But all I can think the whole time I am watching Triss in her ‘everyday’ sorceress outfit is how her boobs should be falling out of her top. The only logical conclusion is that her outfits are held up by magic. Which, as a sorceress is, I suppose, plausible.
The Witcher raised my bar of expectations for role playing games. Despite its handful of flaws it is an important contribution to the world of games, setting high standards for writing, design and visuals. The Witcher is a game truly deserving of the category Triple A.
What did you think? Did you play the first Witcher game? Or did you jump on board when Assassins of Kings came out? What did you think of the combat system? Is it as awful as most people think? I am interested to know how many people share my generally positive opinion of this classic. And be sure to come back next week, when I will be posting my thoughts on The Witcher’s far more popular sequel, Assassins of Kings.