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SummaryFrom Poland with love
The GoodIf someone told you that an unknown, inexperienced Polish developer would release an RPG that will instantly turn into a beloved cult item, claiming its place in the ranks of role-playing crème de la crème, you would probably heartily laugh at the good joke while greedily browsing the web for more news about that latest BioWare game.
That is, unless you happen to play The Witcher.
It turns out that you don’t have to be an experienced coding house from a country with rich traditions of video game-making in order to make a memorable product. I won’t say that you also don’t need a good budget; no, evidence of solid money spent on the technical aspect of The Witcher can be clearly seen (and heard). But – and I’m not afraid to sound corny here – what you really need is a soul. The collective soul of passionate game developers, who poured it all, unconditionally, into a game that shouldn't be ashamed of a comparison to the finest contemporary offerings of the genre.
Make no mistake here – the instant sympathy The Witcher has evoked in many players does not owe its existence to an advanced graphical engine, nifty gameplay gimmicks, or even controversial content in form of sex and drugs. It’s the wonderful personality of the game that ignited that spark. Players’ love to this game is not an irrational, hysterical passion that is sometimes caused by high amount of super-textured polygons or fifty thousand ways of customizing a sword. The Witcher is straightforward and honest in the way it treats role-playing mechanics: it's simple when it comes to basic gameplay, but deep when it comes to choices and decisions.
The Witcher is a game that poses difficult questions without nudging the player towards the obvious "good" choice. You don’t side with the Order or with the elves because you identify yourself with their ideologies. You also don’t choose between those two because one is good and the other is evil. You make the choice because your life – such as depicted in the game’s story - forces you to choose. It has nothing to do with following a certain set of virtues or with adhering to a certain philosophical system. This is not even a political or social choice; siding with the Order does not strengthen security, same way as siding with the elves does not bring freedom. Being neutral also doesn't solve the problem in a magical way, doesn't lead to a “best ending” or anything like that. As most choices in The Witcher, this decision is a deeply personal issue, in many ways similar to the decision to have relationship with certain women who appear in the game’s story. The game speaks directly to your heart, offering no false consolations or fake gameplay-related prizes. You choose, and you face the consequences.
On a more basic level, The Witcher can be a satisfying RPG as well - though it is clear that certain features were underdeveloped or omitted. The combat system is simple, yet elegant. Executing the combos is so fun that after a while I began to wonder why nobody else has thought of it before. Character development is interesting and proves to be effective for the most part. With two kinds of swords and three styles for each, there isn’t much complexity, but enough variety to keep the combat fresh and challenging (“damn it, I can barely scratch that guy… gotta use a different style”), and the upgrading is very entertaining, making you sit in front of the fire for hours, thinking about where to invest the gained “talents”, wanting to gather experience just to test those new abilities in a battle (“aaah, wait till I get that +30 Pain effect… that will show those bastards!”). Experience is richly rewarded for taking side-quests, so there is practically no grindwork involved.
One of the game's main selling points is its world. We've seen our share of medieval fantasy settings in games, from the historic realism of Darklands to the boundless imagination of Planescape: Torment; but none is as truthfully unpleasant, as grimly brutal as the world of The Witcher. Mature themes are treated with remarkable seriousness here. They didn't even need all the sexual and drug-using references (although they certainly add a very fitting edge to the story). Racism, fanaticism, political intrigues, greed, betrayal, cowardice – negative emotions surround the hero, who he has to find his path in a truly dark world. They didn't require an ultra-stylish post-apocalyptic setting to depict corruption, loneliness, and despair. On the bank of a peacefully-looking river, in broad daylight, you realize that the world and human beings are deeply flawed – without any hypocritical sighs and flat moralizing. The Witcher is a critique of human society such as rarely seen within the medium. The story betrays the Slavic origin of the game, being somewhat melancholic and having a brooding, but warm attitude.
The story is decorated by a strong character cast. Again, you feel the dark Slavic influence, which in this case translates into depth: most of the characters have several “layers”, and with a few exceptions, none is particularly “good”; most of the characters in the game are a very realistic mixture of good and evil – even though evil definitely prevails. The brooding, rough protagonist with his own personal problems is a welcome change from customized semi-silent heroes or youthful prodigies that have won the auditions for the main player character in so many other games.
I have heard many complains about the English translation. I think some of the dialogues are brilliantly written, even though a certain awkwardness is felt in many lines. It is a known fact that this particular translation has suffered at the hands of censors who removed many swear words and offensive lines in general. For that reason, I highly recommend the enhanced edition with its improved content and new translation that actually makes the infamous dwarven blacksmith curse properly instead of offering watered-down remarks concerning discrimination against his race.
The package comes with lovely and at times stunning graphics; while not everything looks equally great, some of the views have a serene and somewhat melancholic (again, typically Slavic) beauty. Character models, except for the sad duplicating I’ll refer to below, are generally very lively and expressive. The music is perfectly integrated with the rest of the game, rarely drawing too much attention to itself, but rather providing a fitting background and contributing to the atmosphere of the game.
The BadYou’ll rarely hear me complaining about bugs; but there is a nasty, evil one in The Witcher. if you side with the Order, a certain barricade which must be destroyed in order to advance the story will remain magically indestructible. To be fair, this is not a complete show-stopping bug, since there is a (very tedious, unorthodox, and hard-to-find) work-around of sorts to this atrocity; but it is still terrible. It made me utter swear words that would have been censored by US authorities if they were included in the game itself.
For the record, patch 1.2 does correct this – the barricade broke obediently after I reloaded a nearby save game.
NPCs who look like twin brothers are not something uncommon in games – specially not large role-playing games like The Witcher. What occurs less frequently, however, is the absolute resemblance of unimportant NPCs to major characters of the game – and that is unfortunately what happens only too often in this title. Even before you realize that the merchant Leeuvarden does play a significant role in the story, you’ll find thousands of leeuvardens happily walking around. One will sell you armor, another one is an evil spy, yet another one is just a standard traveler, etc. The only thing that distinguishes them from each other and from their important “brother” is the color of their clothes. This is palette-swapping at its worst, because the faces in The Witcher (including this particular one) are very well-done and instantly recognizable; it’s therefore even more unforgivable to use them for key figures and generic NPCs alike.
The main problem of The Witcher, however, is its relatively modest quantity of traditional role-playing features coupled with low interactivity. Perhaps the talented Polish developers could have studied the work of their German colleagues. There is no real continuous, fully explorable world in The Witcher. The fact almost the entire game takes place in and around one city is exacerbated by the absence of real physical connection to the surroundings. The lack of interactivity bothered me as much as the disappointing size of the world. Geralt cannot jump, climb, grab or push things (except with the very limited and scripted use of the Aard spell), or otherwise physically interact with the game world. The areas tend to be small and fairly linear, with a lot of places which are impassable only because the designers said so. Maybe they thought that physical immersion will distract players from following the tight story. It is indeed a matter of priorities, and mine lie with the gameplay in all cases.