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Throwback Review: The Witcher

The Witcher is an Action RPG developed by CD Projekt Red, released on PC in 2007. The beloved series has been played by many, but I wanted to explore CDPR’s first outing. I tend to find that the first game doesn’t get nearly as much attention as the other two, most likely because of its PC exclusivity.

Let it be known that I am playing The Witcher: Enhanced Edition, a version of the first game that came free to buyers of the original. The enhanced edition added a few improvements, most notably a plethora of new character animations and a larger variety of color to NPC clothing.

The Witcher is based on a series of fantasy novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Sapkowski’s books are a household name in Poland, with some referring to him as Polish Tolkien. I am a big fan of The Witcher series as a whole, so I was excited to see how the first game holds up today. I was also looking forward to seeing how CDPR would adapt the rich world of The Witcher into a video game.

 

Adapting Sapkowski’s World

Unlike most book adaptations, The Witcher doesn’t directly re-tell the stories from the books, with the game’s narrative being set after their events. The game has you playing as Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher who has recently lost his memory. A Witcher, to put it briefly, is a mutant who kills monsters for money. At a young age, they are experimented on and are trained to kill. While amnesia in fiction is quite a tired trope, I feel that CDPR made a good decision having Geralt lose his memory; it allows the player to learn about the world along with him. There are a plethora of characters from Geralt’s past that book readers will recognize, a lot of the dialogue involves them re-introducing themselves to our forgetful Witcher.

The Witcher Geralt of Rivia talks while facing camera

The big bad of The Witcher is a gang called Salamandra. After Salamandra attack the Witcher fortress of Kaer Morhen, Geralt travels in and around the capital city of Vizima to hunt down their leader. Headed by powerful Fire Mage, Azar Javed, the Salamandra lead our hero into somewhat of a wild goose chase. Along the way, Geralt gets himself into a wide range of sticky situations, never failing to insert himself into some sort of trouble in typical RPG protagonist fashion. In saying that, one of the most unique things about this game is its theme of neutrality. As the conflict between humans and nonhumans rages on, the player can choose not to take a side and stick to what Geralt knows best; killing monsters.

 

The Price of Neutrality

There are a few points in the game that allow players to choose a side, however, there isn’t always a clear choice, unlike in other similar titles. There’s no “good” or “bad” option here, the game leaves it up to the player to choose what they think is the lesser evil. Grey morality is a familiar concept nowadays but was definitely less common when The Witcher came out in 2007.

More unique though, is the true struggle I felt when having to make a decision. I tend to find that when fiction tries to present grey morality, there is still clearly a favorable option. The best example is during a bank robbery partway through the story: a group of Scoia’tael (nonhumans who want to end discrimination against them) take over a bank, and Geralt is tasked by humans to stop them. It turns out that the leader of the bank robbers is an elf named Yaevinn, a character who the player has probably already encountered a few times. Heck, one of the side quests even has you helping his crew clear out the ruins below the bank, which turns out to be their point of entry later. I wasn’t sure what to do at this point. Do I help them escape by fighting the human forces, do I guide them through the sewers and kill monsters for them along the way, or do I take them down there and then? I elected to drive them away, as they are the aggressors preying on innocent people in this situation, but I quite liked Yaevinn. It’s easy to understand the Scoia’taels’ motives to be equal to humans, but when you boil it down, they’re really nothing more than terrorists.

Yaevinn from The Witcher faces forward and speaks

Unfortunately, the main villain’s do fall a little flat. The Salamandra do let Geralt put his steel sword to good use, but aside from that, there aren’t many interactions between our Witcher and the big bad. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they feel out of place, just less compelling than other parts of The Witcher’s world. The antics of Salamandra do heat up in the later game, with plenty of betrayal and political intrigue for Geralt and friends to make their way through along the way.

 

Lookin’ Good, Geralt!

Despite not being the most graphically impressive game on release, The Witcher brings with it buckets of fantasy charm. Built in a heavily modified version of Bioware’s Aurora engine, RPG players will feel right at home in the world of The Witcher. From the cobbled streets of Vizima’s temple district to the wooden halls of local inns, The Witcher blends our world into its own masterfully. One minute you’re taking a tour through a town harkening back to the Middle Ages, the next your exploring an ancient Elven ruin full of vicious monstrosities. In this world, monsters are becoming less common and normality settles within city walls. It’s this contrast that makes The Witcher so fascinating.

The Witcher Geralt looks stands on a bridge and looks down towards the city

NPC’s widely look the same here, leaving a lot to be desired. Even some of the more important characters share the same model as typical merchants, just with a swap in color palette. Character animations are quite limited, especially in cutscenes: oftentimes movements look quite awkward as the camera fights to keep them in frame. This also extends to enemy attack animations, with most monsters and men limply flailing whatever parts of themselves they can. Thankfully, our main hero doesn’t suffer from this same problem, he pirouettes and feints gracefully. Each of Geralt’s attacks look great, CDPR clearly put a lot of care into adapting the fighting style Witcher’s are known for.

 

Man or Monster

The thing that surprised me the most about this game is its simplistic combat. Geralt has three different combat styles to switch between – strong, fast and group style. Strong style is used against bigger enemies that have higher defense but are slower overall, fast style is for more nimble enemies and group style (as the name suggests) is for groups of enemies. To fight, you left-click on an enemy and click again when the sword icon sets aflame to initiate a combo. Clicking at the right time and switching styles is the main crux of encounters, making player input rather limited during fights. Despite this, I never found myself bored as I clicked away at foes, Geralt’s flashy animations and chunky sounds as his sword finds its target kept me intoxicated throughout the experience. Using group style to send heads flying and blood spattering often resulted in a violent painting of corpses – furthering my understanding of those who see Geralt as nothing more than a monster himself.

The Witcher Geralt swings his sword as he fights a Royal Wyvern

Geralt also has Witcher signs at his disposal, small spells that serve a variety of functions. Aard – a telekinetic blast that can stun or knock enemies away, Igni – a spew of fire that can set enemies ablaze, Yrden – a trap that emits spikes from the ground, Quen – a shield that protects Geralt from harm, and Axii – the ability to confuse opponents and cause them to fight for you. I only found myself using Aard and Igni most of the time. Aard is great for stunning human enemies and performing one-hit kills, and Igni can do a lot of base damage to a group. Quen was slightly useful against projectiles but can’t be used in conjunction with attacking, rendering it a lot less useful.

Potions also play a big part in The Witcher’s moment to moment gameplay. Once you have obtained their formulae, you can meditate and brew them using ingredients you collect. Swallow is crucial to most battles in the game, a potion that allows you to regenerate vitality during combat. There are all sorts of brews to craft here, one lets you see in the dark, another raises your attack power at the cost of being able to block or parry. I felt potions were a lot more necessary here than in later games, which made for a nice change from the more action-orientated gameplay of The Witcher 2 and 3. All of this adds a much deeper layer to The Witcher’s action that you wouldn’t anticipate from the outside looking in. Preparing for the next fight puts you right in the shoes of a monster slayer and makes surviving a difficult encounter all the more rewarding.

 

Running Back and Forth

The Witcher is broken up into five acts, each of which has new areas to explore. These areas aren’t massive but are pretty densely packed with people to talk to and quests to undertake. As I mentioned earlier, the game is set in and around the city of Vizima, as well as navigating the city there are also swamps, crypts, and sewers where Geralt will do most of his monster slaying. Earlier on, traversing between locations feels great as you get a sense for the people and atmosphere of the city, unfortunately, it becomes a little tedious later. Limited fast travel options and inventory space means you will be running back and forth between storage locations and meditation spots a lot. Some quest objectives in The Witcher can only be completed at a certain time of day, this means traveling to a spot where Geralt can meditate and pass the time. More egregious though is the relatively small amount of space in our Witcher’s pockets, I found running to the inn every time I ran out of space to be quite a chore.

The Witcher Inventory open

The game’s inventory system does leave a lot to be desired. Aside from alchemy ingredients being in their own separate section, all other items are in one box. The icons for items are also relatively small, causing me to sometimes have trouble finding the consumable I wanted. There is an organize button, but all it really does is make sure there are no gaps in your inventory, rather than put it into a sensical order. It probably sounds rather trivial, but there were a good few times I felt genuinely hindered by the lack of organizational options. This is somewhat quelled by the small amount of space, but as I said that’s a problem in and of itself.

The leveling system is pretty straightforward, you spend points to unlock abilities in each different tree. The main difference here is that there are different kinds of points you can obtain: bronze, silver, and gold. As you level you earn more bronze, silver, and gold points which can only be used to unlock their corresponding abilities. These attributes mostly involve stat boosts or extended combos for each combat style, with the exception of some unique talents that can be attained via the use of certain potions.

 

Play the Lute

Charming dialogue isn’t hard to come by in this game, characters aren’t afraid to express their distaste for Geralt in a few colorful ways. Various insults and idioms exclusive to the world of The Witcher help cement the fact that this is a living, breathing place. The voice acting ranges from bad to pretty good here. Conversations can be quite wooden and some poor delivery can slow them down quite a bit. Luckily being able to choose what Geralt has to say next keeps them engaging enough, with the occasional bit of dry wit from our white-haired hero. There are plenty of ladies that Geralt can “woo-hoo” with as well, awkward sound effects included.

The Witcher Geralt's face is morphed glitch

Uh, you okay there Geralt?

The soundtrack fits into the game nicely enough. I found the main combat theme to be a little out of place, halfway between grungy and classic fantasy. The rest of the tracks mostly include a set of string instruments like the lute, with a touch of some harder percussion. I would say it’s one of the weaker parts of the game, I didn’t find myself noticing many of the tracks. I gave the OST a listen on its own and I hate to say it’s rather forgettable. Not to say it’s poorly composed, it’s kind of just “there”.

 

The Start of Something Beautiful

This game was much better than I expected it to be. Despite its decent reviews on release, I have heard people bash on this game in the past. I expected it to be a pretty generic RPG with janky combat, which isn’t entirely wrong, but what The Witcher gets wrong it makes up for in droves, and I found it hard not to fall in love with this game. This game sets out to make you feel like you’re in Sapkowski’s world, and it does so beautifully. For that reason, I couldn’t recommend this game to someone who has no pre-existing knowledge of The Witcher universe. On its own, it’s a fun RPG with a good story and cast of characters, but looking at it from a fan’s perspective it’s much more. The Witcher is a love letter to Sapkowski’s legendary book series and the philosophical struggles contained within. What’s more is that it’s the first installment in a game series that has given me hours of entertainment and allowed me to discover this wonderful series.

The Witcher buildings burn as Geralt watches

The Witcher took me around 45 hours to complete. I did find that a low part of the game was Act IV, where the story slows down a little bit. However, I felt satisfied with the conclusion of the story and the narrative has a good level of escalation, especially in Act V which I won’t spoil. It’s mostly the games underwhelming main villain, needless running back and forth, and lack of inventory options that weigh this game down. While simple and satisfying. the combat could have more to it, and customization options are a little slim. For those reasons, I can’t wholeheartedly say this game is for everyone, but if you’re a fan of The Witcher series you should definitely check it out.

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