Review: The Witcher
Game: The Witcher: Enhanced Edition Director’s Cut
Recommended price: $10 (current full price)
Metacritic Score: 86
Completion Time: ~52 hours
Buy If You Like: Immersive, mature, point-and-click action RPGs
The Witcher is a lot of things. Deserving of an 86 Metacritic score is not one of them.
To be charitable, The Witcher can be seperated into two overarching qualities. One of those is the setting: the implied world, the zeitgeist, the plot, the dialog, the visuals and sounds and mood. All of those things are based on a series of novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, so in one respect The Witcher “cheated” compared to other games that had not the benefit of an established world. Then again, The Witcher absolutely possesses a personality that comes across perfectly fine to someone with zero knowledge of the books, to say nothing of the games impressive visuals and music which have no written analog.
Unfortunately, the other overarching quality is a little-known thing called “the actual game.” And this is where things begin to break down.
See, The Witcher is able to create a compelling setting through the implied world, of which you see very little at all in actuality. This is not unlike the Japanese art concept of Ma, which means “negative space,” in that it paints enough of a picture that you as the viewer fill in the rest. This works for art… but it does not work for gameplay at all. Combat in The Witcher appears to have a depth to it, but as the thin veneer rubs off from frequent use you begin to realize how much negative space the designers were actually papering over.
On the surface, Geralt of Rivia has two swords, one steel and one silver, and there are three fighting techniques for each: Strong, Fast, and Group. Additionally, there are charge-up attacks for each of the six combinations, and each combination has up to four chained attacks. Then there are the five magic spells which also have charge-up secondary functions. Finally you have potions (more on that in a bit) which can alter your fighting prowess and oils/poisons you apply to either of your blades. Oh, and there are bombs too.
Beneath the surface though? You left-click on a mob, Geralt performs a fancy sword move, you wait until the cursor “lights up” to left-click again in order to move onto the 2nd hit combo, and so on. If you click too fast or too slow, the attack is interupted and you just do it again. Repeat. In the “Making Of…” videos the designers mentioned how they wanted The Witcher to be more action-oriented than the sort of Neverwinter games they were inspired by, but I have to wonder whether Diablo was ever released in Poland. I ask because The Witcher straddles (and then falls off) that line between Diablo-esque quality mouse-clicking action and a mind-numbing Quick Time Event that is solved entirely by fixating on an inch square of the screen and left-clicking every 3-4 seconds. The motion captured moves are very impressive the first hundred times you see them, but eventually my eyes would unfocus in the interm period while waiting for the cursor to light up. Once you recognize the enemy and whether to use steel or silver, whether to use Strong or Fast styles, combat is essentially a forgone conclusion. You press Q-X (or similar), then Left-Click every few seconds until dead.
Nowhere is the thin veneer more aparent than the Talent trees or the Alchemy aspect, both of which are usually touted as Big Deals in reviews of this game. Simply put, the Talent system in general is a diluted mess of vague game mechanics. You have Bronze, Silver, and Gold talents, and you start out by getting just Bronze ones, then Silver, and so on. In practice, you will have damn near 100% of the Bronze talents and more than enough Silver ones, so all the vaunted “choices” boil down to which ones of the remotely useful talents you want first. Similarlly, Alchemy allows you to collect a huge sum of plant and monster parts to create ~20 different potions, only 3-4 of which are at all especially useful. There is also a Toxicity aspect of potions, presumably designed to prevent players from stacking huge amounts of potion buffs. However, since most potions last for 8 hours and Toxicity can be reduced to zero after resting for 1 hour… well, you see where that is going. Perhaps this sort of “exploiting” is necessary for the harder difficulties, but honestly, why bother otherwise?
There is one more negative aspect I wanted to mention because it is likely the cause of 90% of the players who quit the game before finishing: all the goddamn running around… which gets completely absurd when combined with a Day/Night cycle. At one point in game, I had to perform an autopsy to move the story forward. When I approached the nurse friend about this, she told me to wait until after-hours to talk about it. So I waited until dusk, then talked with her. Then she told me to get the body from the Gravedigger on the other side of town. I go to the other side of town, but the gravedigger isn’t around at night. So I waited until morning, talked with the Gravedigger, and he said he’d deliver it at midnight. So I had to wait until midnight, then run back across town, perform autopsy. Afterwards, nurse friend wants to schedule a get-together, asks me to get booze and invite someone. I run across town to buy booze, but the tavern doesn’t have all the required types. I wait until morning, buy from the vendor near the nurse’s house, wait until dusk. I go to where the friend I want to invite is usually located at, and he isn’t there. I run across town trying to find him, but fail. Then I wait until morning, finally find him where he usually is during the day, invite him, then wait until night to have the party.
You will be doing quests like this all the goddamn time, at least in the first half of the game. And have I mentioned that despite a Day/Night cycle, you can only pass time at campfires or very specific NPCs who might wander off or inexplicably refuse to give you the option to Meditate? Well, consider it mentioned.
The Witcher is one of those games that leave me in the uncomfortable position of deciding whether I want to meet it halfway or not. In the sort of verisimilitude of its narrative, The Witcher had me at damn near hello. Even the “contravserial” sex cards or naked vampires/dryads added to the gritty zeitgeist of a world where witchers mutate themselves into monsters to fight monsters, all for a populous unwilling to acknowledge a difference until they are in mortal peril. I want so much to give the rest of the game a pass… but I simply cannot. Combat is almost non-interactive; managing the massive amounts of ultimately useless inventory is a pain; there is so much goddamn running around; Day/Night cycles without a convenient Wait Anywhere feature is sadistic; frequent loading screens for indoor areas discourages exploration; hitting Quicksave creates a new 15-20 MB file every single time (my save game folder was 3.97 GB by the end of Chapter 1), and so on and so forth.
Ultimately, I do not at all regret my time spent in The Witcher’s world – I took more screenshots here than in Fallout: New Vegas – but it is not a game that I can recommend without caveats. And honestly, I am probably being so harsh because of how well Projekt RED nailed the non-game bits of The Witcher. But, well, the game bits of games are important too.