Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Witchiest Witcher Around

The WitcherThe video game The Witcher, released in 2007, is based on a short story and subsequent series by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. This is fortunate for two reasons. First, the lore is well-developed and doesn’t have consistency problems, and second, the game had a following before it was released, giving it a leg up on the vast majority of other videogame RPG’s. Unfortunately, these benefits are not unmitigated. I suspect that the story is faithful to the story(I can’t say for sure without reading the books) but I got the impression that they tried to fit the entire series into the game, since it felt fairly tedious after the second chapter (there are 5 chapters plus an “epilogue” in the game).

You play Geralt, the (complete and utter badass) Witcher from Rivia (even after playing the game, I’m still not totally clear on what a Witcher is; my best approximation is that Witchers are genetically modified eastern European equivalent cross between a general mercenary and monster hunter—Van Helsing perhaps?). Geralt is the armed and extremely dangerous Sherlock Holmes of the dark ages, but apparently lacks any intelligence whatsoever. In one chapter, Geralt seeks to gain evidence of wrongdoing from several main characters, one of which obviously manipulates him and convinces him to execute an innocent though unsympathetic person. Given Geralt’s willingness to dole out justice (or kill people arbitrarily) upon the faintest whiff of evidence (or no evidence at all), it’s difficult to characterize him as a hero. Even though during my experience I tried to make decisions that would lead me down a “good” path I still felt that Geralt was at best morally ambiguous and more aptly characterized as a mercenary interested only in personal gain.

Through Geralt’s winding tale, he encounters (and is defeated by) several villains who inexplicably let him live. I couldn’t help being reminded of super-hero movies where the villain sets up ridiculously complicated ways to finally kill the hero, thus affording the hero the opportunity to escape. In this game, Geralt is beaten and totally vulnerable several times, but the villain decides to let him live every time, until finally after dozens of hours of gameplay, Geralt finally defeats the “bad guy” (by the end, I had completely forgotten what this person had done to wrong me in the first place).

Stop following me!The vast majority of The Witcher is spent running back and forth across the map doing the bidding of everyone in town that can think of a menial task for the local mass-murdering Witcher. While this gives the player a chance to see the excellent art style of the game, by the fourth chapter it gets pretty old and I found myself wishing for some sort of quick-travel system or a horse or some way to speed things up. I did have a cow trailing me for half a chapter, but unfortunately the cow was not a means of transportation.

Geralt receives mostly vanilla quests from different civilians and soldiers (gather this, deliver that, etc), but where The Witcher shines is its characterization of the different groups of people. The peasant class has obviously different attitudes and interests than the rural farmers or the self-important merchant class. The rural farmers are mostly pleased with their cow (yes, the same one that ended up following me), while the merchants are talking about the latest fashions. There is also quite a bit of racism toward non-humans. My fraternization with non-humans eventually caused me to become a social pariah by groups that were once friendly towards me.

Unfortunately the game isn’t altogether successful at creating compelling individual characters. There is one character whose fiancĂ©e died mere days before the wedding, but her death hardly seems to bother him at all. Further, the only people with whom Geralt has meaningful relationships are those people that he had met and been friends with before the setting of the game. (At the very beginning of the game Geralt loses his memory, and only is reminded of it when he encounters people that he already knows well.) The result of this is that Geralt seems to be a rather static character both in terms of his personality and his relationships. The relationships don’t grow and change, they are merely recalled.

In terms of the combat of the game, it is quite well done. Geralt can hold four weapons, two of which can be used with three different styles—Strong, Fast and Group. Each enemy or situation is particularly vulnerable to a certain weapon and style. Attacks can be chained together by clicking the mouse button when the cursor lights up. While simplistic, the combat is fairly satisfying—at first. By the end, it too gets old. Additionally, Geralt has five magic spells at his disposal that can turn the tide of most engagements.

Perhaps the most innovative feature of the game is the looting and research system. Reading a book on a monster gives you the ability to get additional lootable items, and reading a book on a plant allows you to loot plants and receive herbalism ingredients. In terms of gameplay, this means that you can’t walk in to a new zone and immediately start harvesting plants and getting the full loot out of mobs; you need to learn about it first. Another nice feature of the loot mechanic is that killing a random mythological creature has no chance of giving you a humanoid type weapon, and killing a soldier wielding a sword almost guarantees you the option of taking their sword. This is a nice dose of realism to looting (if a mob had the Krol Blade, why wouldn’t he or she be using it to attack me?).

The graphics and soundtrack in the game have stood up better than I’d expect out of a 4-year-old game. Initially, however, the game was not released in such a polished state. There have been five patches in addition to official patches that step up the combat and *ahem* “social” realism. The “social” aspect seems very much targeted to the younger male crowd--there are many opportunities to engage in sexual activity with characters in the game (of course, very few of the characters seem to be interested in any sort of lasting relationship). After a brief cut scene, the player receives a lurid card depicting the conquest to add to the collection. The parallel between this and collecting baseball cards (or Chocolate Frog Famous Wizard/Witches cards for Harry Potter fans) was disquieting. For me, the collectible cards made the objectification of women even more overt and unsettling than the scantily clad and disproportionate women found in many video games.

This game is not without its flaws, but overall provides an interesting and at times challenging experience. It can be found for $10 (or occasionally less) at and I would recommend it to someone interested in a dark, mature RPG or anyone interested in Andrzej Sapkowski’s literature.

Developer: CD Projekt RED STUDIO, Publisher: Atari, CD Projekt