The Witcher (Windows)

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Written by  :  St. Martyne (3655)
Written on  :  Jan 13, 2008
Rating  :  5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars

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A grain of truth

The Good

It took me some time to write a proper review for The Witcher. At first I tried to focus on the significance this game has, on the fascination I experienced about the fact that unknown Polish developer has managed to challenge the established leaders of the genre and even surpass them in some areas. I wanted you to see the game’s utmost importance, to fill you with resonance, I am certain, The Witcher should have in the gaming community. Yet, in the end, I overlooked one of the most important things I have to say about this game.

Just, what exactly it means to me, personally? If you will, I’ll start precisely with that.

The Witcher helped me to realize what my gaming preferences are. I have been playing for over sixteen years, I’ve completed hundreds of different games, but I’ve never really managed to say properly what fascinates me the most about games, what my exact tastes and preferences are.

Now I can tell you. Here they are, on one DVD worth of data.

What separates The Witcher from many other games of many different genres is that it’s a game that has something to say to us and that it uses every aspect of it to communicate that message. Everything, including graphics, sound, gameplay, non-linearity, dialogs and even combat is there for a reason, besides simply “for the fun of it”. The game is a major step in the most interesting of the directions the games are facing. It makes you a better person and it shows you the reason for the things and people around you to exist. The Witcher makes bold moves and takes huge risks, yet succeeds in all of them.

When playing The Witcher, I have often been confronted with a certain peculiar feeling. It’s rather hard to describe. I have to say, that I was sure I was witnessing the ultimate truth about nearly everything. “Here it is! That’s the truth.” I wanted to exclaim on numerous occasions. Partly that can be attributed to the excellent source material, series of short stories and novels written by a brilliant Polish writer -- Andrzej Sapkowski. He managed to portray an extremely faulted and corrupted world, maybe even more faulted than the one you and I live in, and then, through the eyes of Geralt, a monster hunter, he uncovered every vice, every despicable thing and person in such world, and pointed at them with his finger, asking you, if you are any better.

The game is shaped in exactly the same vein. Be prepared to be subjected to the issues, you weren’t even considering. The Witcher has commented on many different things, including terrorism, love, friendship, greed, power, loyalty, destiny, prostitution, alcoholism, drugs, life, death, fear, prejudices, racism, faith and even more. Its quire remarkable, that with such a large scope of topics covered, the game has managed to remain coherent in its story and general theme.

But what’s even more important, is that, being a game, The Witcher allows you to engage into a discussion with it. It opens up a dialog with a player trying to anticipate any response he might have. You have your say in every controversial topic the game presents. Express your will through your actions and see the world around you respond to your decisions. Trust me, the result will not only surprise, but will have you reconsider your decision in the first place. The game doesn’t try to impose its message upon you in an intruding fashion. It poses a problem, asks for your opinion and presents you with a consequence, which is bound to make a better person out of you, more considerate in your actions, more thoughtful in your decisions, and most importantly -- less indifferent and apathetic. This is a goal a true piece of art is destined for.

Another thing that fascinates me about The Witcher, is that it applies all that choice & consequences stuff one of the most beautiful shapes of a game I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. More so, it takes advantage of its visuals and sounds to support the claims the game make in the ideology department. It’s not very convincing to see a packed, asphyxiating life of a big city, full of different races and class segregation without all the marvelous art CD Projekt RED has powered their game with. The same goes for the serene atmosphere of the Murky Waters village, the rural image of which, painted in pastel tones, provides an excellent background to the peaceful and seclusive life of the village, making it even more shocking for you to unwillingly bring despair and the politics of the “big world” into it. Every character, every location is blooming with detail and shows a great talent put in it.

And as I said, the fact that this beauty works for a cause, elevates it infinitely higher than anything you might see in a Final Fantasy game, where unfortunately, the beauty exists only for a beauty’s sake.

The whole previous paragraph may be repeated in regard to the music as well. The Witcher features the most diverse and thought-out soundtrack. Be it an aggressive combat tune, or a small interlude presenting a new location, the music of Pawel Blaszczak and Adam Skorupa is jam-packed with life and spark so often absent in the generic fantasy tracks of even the most talented of game composers. And once again, its not the quality of the music itself that strikes me the most, but the undeniable bond that ties the music to the environment and the story it backdrops. A game composer, as a movie composer, isn’t as free in his creativity as your average musician is. He has to reflect and extend upon the things being witnessed in the game, by his music, highlighting the elements and things worthy of additional attention. That’s how it is in The Witcher, and that’s how it must be done, period.

But many games prior to The Witcher’s release had excellent music, thought-provoking story and artistically ambitious graphics. What separates this particular game from the likes of Fallout, Baldur’s Gate 2 or Planescape: Torment? A distinct difference between those games and The Witcher lies in the fact, that unlike those games, The Witcher has finally come in terms with its gameplay mechanics. I wasn’t among the crowd who was impressed with Baldur’s Gate appliance of AD&D rules; I didn’t see how dice-driven combat, even if tactically flexible, emphasized the overall theme of the game. I don’t think a good game is made of a turn-based, Fallout-type of combat either. Both of those variants were fun, but they didn’t carry a message with them. There was no point to those battles, except for refreshing a rather thrill-less formula of dialog-driven gameplay. Planescape: Torment has tried to approach that problem, but resulted in a very uneven mix, in which the starting portions of the game were dedicated to talking and exploring, while the later were totally given way to the spectacular but unnecessary fighting.

The Witcher closes its eyes on its competitors. It does away with all the save rolls, +3 artifacts, or unnecessary augment effects. It eliminates the plague of modern RPGs, known as “phat loot” syndrome, which although might be engaging on its own, hardly brings any additional facet to the idea the game is conveying. Secondly, the game makes a huge emphasis on knowledge gathering, rather on application of that knowledge. Alchemy, combat, item management – every aspect of gameplay requires to be researched first. The bigger part of the gameplay is devoted to analyzing and making choice rather than implementing it. And during that process, the player unwillingly learns about the gameworld he plays in, he begins to understand it better through the series of his own experiences. That creates an additional level of depth, only a video game is capable of.

Take a look at the game’s bestiary, for example. Unlike any other fantasy novel/game/movie you have seen, the monsters roaming the land are not an evil threat from far-away lands guided by a mysterious, yet inevitably evil force. The monsters in The Witcher are the products of a man himself. In the fashion of Shakespearean Hamlet, Sapkowski takes use of the supernatural elements in his stories, only if they will serve a necessary dramatic function. Just like in Hamlet, a man-devouring plant grows in backyard, because “a murder most foul and unnatural” has taken place there, and not without a help of this backyard’s owner.

A character in the game suggests that every monster you encounter is a personification of each of the man’s vices. An image of war, for example, wouldn’t be so astonishing in The Witcher, if not for a dozen of Graveirs attracted to the battlefield by a smell of rotting corpse. So all the supernatural elements used in game are designed to emphasize the most horrific of the humanity’s acts, which I find impossible to call “natural”.

I must stop there, because the length of this review has already exceeded any levels of decency and respect for the reader. But there’s so much I haven’t tell you about this game yet. The brilliant writing, borrowing its style directly from the books, tragic characters, a deep and dark (but not morbid) sense of humor, luxurious and most importantly unintrusive cutscenes, lots of fascinating “character moments” and even dozens of eastern eggs, a careful eye will take a pleasure of finding.

Well, I guess, these are things you will have to discover on your own.

The Bad

I would hardly grant myself a liberty of nit-picking a game that took so much effort and colossal dedication to make. So, it isn't exactly your average Mobygames bad section, but a certain set of wishes for CDProjekt RED plans for the future.

Wish number one. However excellent the story presented in the game is, I can’t brush off the feeling that the game relies on its source material a bit too heavily. Don’t misunderstand me, you most certainly is under no obligation to read any of the Sapkowski’s books to enjoy the game. It’s just that the game doesn’t introduce any elements or themes, which haven’t been seen in the novels before. The Witcher is certainly no Knights Of the Old Republic, when it comes to extending upon the existing franchises and universes. I wish, that in the next installment of The Witcher, (which is inevitable, at least judging by the outro) the developers would try to take some liberties and expand themes and images we have already a very good knowledge of.

Wish number two. I don’t think there’s much difference if the game requires you to click every time you make a hit, once in a while or only once. It’s making battles meaningful what’s important. So, I don’t think that completely revamping the game’s combat system was called for. I could’ve easily been satisfied with a Diablo clickfest, as long as there’s an idea or a message being conveyed through those clicks. So, please, CDProjekt, instead of spending sleepless night trying to come up with combat that will satisfy any obsessed Oblivion hater out there, try to extend on the idea of meaningfulness and reason for those combat scenes to exist in the first place.

Wish number three. I hope CDPR will make enough money of The Witcher, to solidify its position as a king of the modern age RPG. So far, it was an extremely good shot, but it’s too early to say, if it was by chance or by the providence.

Wish number four. I hope next time CDProjekt will be allowed to have a personal control over all the localized versions of the game. That kind of high quality stuff should not be brought down by a short-sighted and greedy publisher. Atari, don’t take a promising developer to a grave with you.

The Bottom Line

Talent: 5/5

I have numerously said, while giving away a high score for talent that a developer has been touched by God. Well, I fear, this is not the case. The talent of CDProjekt is so strong, that I believe a much shadier deal has taken place. I hope you’ll manage to buy your souls back, CDProjekt!

Ambition: 5/5

A first project by an unknown studio, tasked to rival the best of the best of all the time. Trust me; it doesn’t get more ambitious than that.

Pteity (Pushing The Envelope - ity): 5/5

The game takes significant and bold steps in reinventing not only the Action or RPG genre, but the gaming itself.

Effort: 5/5

Be it music, graphics, style or writing the team behind the game goes great lengths to be impressive. They resent a notion that a game with a good story shouldn’t have excellent graphics, or thought-out sound. It’s the philosophy of professionalism on every level. And such kind of professionalism requires a life-consuming dedication from a person. With no experience behind their backs, it’s only through the hard work, The Witcher came to be what it is.

Adequacy: 6/5

Well, five, really. I just want to stress upon the fact that I felt, as if I was presented with an supreme wisdom and truth just about everything. The feeling has passed now, but the memory remains.

Don’t miss a cool Metallica reference. ;-)

Total: 5/5 (and not a point less)

The Witcher is a game that comes only once. The next game delivered by CDProjekt may be (and should be) better than The Witcher in every respect, but it won’t repeat the impact Witcher had on PC gaming community and me personally. Could you have imagined a year ago, that a game marking a debut of an unknown Eastern European studio would be bursting with creative ideas, be near to the perfect state in technology, please your eyes and ears with glorious score and visuals and at the same time, making you a better man and opening your eyes to the faults of the world around you? I couldn’t have.

The Witcher is slap in the face to all the bitter and grumpy folks, sitting on their asses and complaining on how commercialized the industry of video games has become. The Witcher is a slap in the face to all of the whining “creative geniuses” waiting for a goody publisher to give them money for their ideas. The Witcher is a slap in the face to all who thinks video games can’t make you think and evolve as a human being.

Read the one-liner once again. A Grain Of Truth is a title of one of the stories, comprising the written saga of Geralt, the witcher. And this exact phrase I apply to The Witcher, a video game. It is a grain of truth amidst the sands of deceit around us. Don’t let this grain slip through your fingers unnoticed. Save it. Treasure it.