Looking for a bleak, mature action-RPG on the PC? Look no further than The Witcher.
Note: This review is primarily going to focus on the experience of playing through The Witcher. If you want to read up on the story, check out Wikipedia.
When The Witcher was first released, it was given a somewhat mixed reception. Critics and gamers alike applauded the dark and mature tone of the story, the “grey area” style of dialogue and action choices, the gritty visuals, and the great soundtrack. Unfortunately, the game was plagued with numerous bugs, horrible performance issues, insane load times, a questionable translation, a flawed inventory system, and more. It was clear a fantastic game was lurking beneath the surface, but that surface was a murky one. Enter the Enhanced Edition, which brought with it a copious amount of tweaks and improvements to nearly all aspects, which, in some ways, made the Enhanced Edition almost an entirely different game. The Director’s Cut (issued as a patch, if I’m not mistaken) removed the nudity censorship present in the North American version.
As previously mentioned, one of the best things about The Witcher is its unapologetically mature story and world. You won’t find sun-lit golden fields of wheat, beautiful vistas, roaring waterfalls, or any other namby-pamby stuff you would normally see in a fantasy world. No, the world of The Witcher is filled with sex, violence, crime, and overcast skies. Even the brightest of days during the day/night cycle would be considered cloudy, reflecting the grim reality thrust upon the inhabitants of the game world. The somber soundtrack adds to the gloom, punctuating the downtrodden NPCs you encounter throughout the game. While the world isn’t the most fleshed-out in terms of history, it certainly manages to be immersive, especially when it comes time to delve into one of the numerous crypts, caves, or dungeons.
Something that is immersion breaking, however, is the overall layout of the world. The first town you come to after the prologue is a perfect example of this. You have to run end to end in this open farming town multiple times. Not a problem, right? Well, naturally, there are fences everywhere, forcing you to run along inexplicably twisting paths rather than across the open farmland that you can see. It’s not like they couldn’t allow the player to cross there because it would be too much of a hassle to render the landscape, or because it would somehow cause the game to divide by zero. You can stand at the edge of a fence and clearly see all the way across an open plain to your destination, but you’re still forced to traverse the twisting dirt path. This becomes less of a problem as the game goes on, but it still shows up now and again. (There’s a section in a swamp, for instance, that you can look at but have to go around instead of crossing since it’s blocked off by an invisible wall/wall of brambles hybrid.)
That one aspect really bothered me, but there are a TON of good things about The Witcher. The combat system, for instance, is quite unique. It takes some time to get used to, but the mouse-and-timing driven system works pretty well. Learning to quickly determine which weapon you need to use and which fighting style you need to use can be frustrating at first, but once you get it down you’ll find yourself fluidly switching it all around depending on what kind of threat is in front of you. Considering the action-oriented nature of the experience, this adds a level of strategy to the vicious sword hacking. Magic is quite useful as well, with a wide range of spells that allow for various gameplay styles. There’s no “perfect build” here, either…no matter how you allocate your points, you’re going to be an asskicker in a fight, so no worries about wasted opportunities. There are, of course, “optimal” builds just like in any other RPG, but I’ve yet to experience skill-point regret.
The alchemy system is pretty cool as well. Story-wise, the Witchers are supposed to be expert alchemists; making and quaffing potions for various purposes is an integral part of being a Witcher. Everything from blade coatings to night vision to alchemical grenades to increased reflexes…the variety is big, and there’s no way you’re going to find all the recipes without the help of a walkthrough. In a great design choice, there’s no alchemy “classes”…you simply acquire various recipes either through purchase or scavenging. If you’ve found an alchemy recipe, and have the necessary ingredients, you’re just a campfire away from mixing up a potion/oil/grenade.
There’s a LOT of content waiting to be discovered in The Witcher, so I’m not really going to get into any more specifics…I’ve seen playtime estimates as low as 35 hours, and some as high as over 100 (although the average seems to be in the 50-70 hour range.) I very highly recommend you hop on Steam, spend $20 for the Enhanced Edition, and start playing it today. You’ll be glad you did…just make sure the kids are asleep first.