The Witcher is a role-playing game from Eastern European developer CD Projekt Red. It is based on the works of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, and it uses a modified version of BioWare’s Aurora engine (which was designed for the original Neverwinter Nights). In the game you play a “witcher” named Geralt. Witchers are mutated humans who have been trained to battle monsters and defend humans, but since they always demand money for their services, and since they always show up when something bad is afoot, they’re not exactly beloved, and some people like them less than the monsters they defeat.
As the campaign opens up, bandits storm the castle at Kaer Morhen, where the witchers have their base, and they steal some recipes and “mutagens,” the alchemical essences that can be used to convert humans into witchers -- or other creatures. The witchers then spread out to look for clues, and you end up at the town of Vizima, where the king holds his court. Evidence is not easy to come by, though, and it soon becomes clear that someone is using the bandits, but for what foul purpose? It will take most of the game’s 50+ hour campaign to learn the whos and the whys of the situation, and during that time you’ll woo princesses, battle monsters, befriend kings, and more.
Usually when I give a game a score around 75%, it’s because nothing about it was that good or that bad, and all of the components of the score fall in between 70% and 80%. The Witcher, on the other hand, is sort of an odd game because there were parts of it that I loved, but also parts of it that I loathed. Let me start with the bad stuff.
Somehow, despite being based on an existing engine (and a fine but not great one at that), the Witcher has a terrible interface and some serious technical problems. Consider this oddity. Quick saves and autosaves always save to a new save slot. They don’t overwrite previous quick saves and autosaves. And since you’re not allowed to name your saves (you just get a tiny screenshot, the name of your location, and a time stamp), by the end of the campaign you’re going to end up with hundreds of saves but not know what any of them refer to. Well, yay.
Or consider your inventory. A lot of the game involves collecting ingredients (including things like flowers, zombie brains, and wolf pelts) and then using the base components of those ingredients to create potions and weapon oils. Well, that’s fine, except that there are dozens and dozens of ingredients, but you’re not given enough inventory space to keep even half of them (not to mention the other junk you have to hang on to), and the game doesn’t give you any help at all in keeping track of what you have or what you need. Some sort of display listing how many of each component you’re holding would have been an immense help, but even something as simple as an inventory sorting button would have made things easier, too, and you don’t get anything like that. As a result, inventory management is a huge pain during the entire campaign, as you’re always running out of room and you never know what it’s safe to sell.
But here’s the big problem. The loading, saving, and transition times are abysmally long. When I said that the Witcher has a 50+ hour campaign, I think that translates to about a 40 hour campaign with 10 hours of staring at loading screens. Worse, the game uses a dopey autosaving strategy, where instead of autosaving every X minutes, or right before something important is about the happen, it autosaves every other time you change your map location. That means when you’re wandering around a town, the game autosaves all the time (because entering a house or a shop triggers the autosaves), but when you’re in the wilderness killing creatures, there aren’t any autosaves at all. That makes the town sequences a real chore, which is unfortunate because there are a lot of town sequences (the Witcher has a fairly even balance between talking and fighting), but it has its effect on the fighting sequences, too, since if you die you have to load your game, and so you have to save frequently. The loading times really sap the fun out of the game, but supposedly the next patch (due out any day now) is going to address this.
Hopefully the first part of the review hasn’t scared you off, because the Witcher has some good stuff to it, too. First and foremost is the campaign. Instead of following the BioWare mold where you’re always given “good” and “evil” ways to solve quests, the Witcher swims in murkier waters. One of the themes of the Witcher books is having to choose “the lesser evil,” where you’re presented with a pair of options and neither one is right or wrong; they just have different shades of gray.
As an example, early in the campaign you visit a town that is being plagued by ghost dogs. The townspeople think that the local witch is responsible, but you also find evidence that maybe some of the evil acts performed by the townspeople have drawn the dogs to them. Eventually, the townspeople form a mob to kill the witch, but whose side do you take? You never learn why the dogs appeared, so it’s just a matter of who you feel better supporting. Decisions like this one also affect later parts of the campaign, which is kind of fun because you never know where your decisions are going to lead you. In the example I gave, I defended the witch, and she ended up helping me out in a couple of quests later. I suspect that if I had supported the town, then maybe I would have met one of the townspeople again later, but I don’t know for sure, and it’s unknowns like this that give the game a lot of replay value.
The Witcher campaign is also interesting because it is a lot “denser” than other campaigns. In most role-playing games, when you go to a town you talk to the NPCs twice -- once to pick up a quest and then again to turn it in -- and then you move on to the next town. But the Witcher doesn’t have that many towns. Each of the campaign’s five chapters takes about 10 hours to play, but they only consist of a few major map areas each, and so you end up dealing with people over and over again through multiple quests. This helps to develop those characters so that you’re more likely to care how their quests turn out, but it also goes back to your decisions having consequences. Since you never know how many times you’re going to need to talk to somebody, you have to be careful what you say to them so you don’t burn any possible bridges.
Finally, the Witcher also has an intriguing combat system. Role-playing games usually fall into one of two categories regarding combat: those where you click on an enemy and your character does all the work, and those where you have to move around and swing and block on your own. Well, the Witcher attempts to bridge those two categories a little. It uses a point-and-click system, where left clicking on an enemy causes you to attack it, but the timing is also important. Instead of just clicking as frenetically as possible to maximize the damage you do, the Witcher includes combination attacks, where if you click at the right time you move on to the next stage of the attack, and you do more damage. This means that combat is still pretty easy to control, but it gets you more involved in what’s going on, and so it works nicely.
Right now the Witcher is probably just as famous for being censored in its North American release as it is for anything else. The game has some adult themes -- for example, despite playing a scarred albino mutant killer, women just can’t wait to jump into bed with you -- plus it has a lot of violence and profanity, and so it’s definitely not a family-friendly game. If you do an Internet search on, say, “Witcher censor,” then you’ll find some examples of what happened. From what I can tell, a tiny bit of nudity and a whole lot of text was removed, and the text adjustments were made more to cut costs than to adjust the content. If you buy the UK release of the Witcher, then you’ll get the original version of the game, but the North American release didn’t seem so bad to me. There were a couple of places where things didn’t make sense, but otherwise the game flowed pretty well, and sometimes less talking isn’t necessarily a bad thing. So I don’t think people interested in the game need to flock to the UK version, but it’d no doubt be interesting to play both versions and see if one is unequivocally better than the other.
Overall, despite its ups and downs, I enjoyed the Witcher. I think most of its problems can be fixed in a patch or two, and I’ve even seen news reports suggesting that there are ways to un-censor the content. So if you’re looking for a dark and moody role-playing game that is different than everything else out there, and if you have a reasonably powerful computer that can handle the engine, and if you don’t mind adult themes that are more than a little male-centric, then the Witcher is certainly a game to consider.