Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Witcher

I bought The Witcher almost exactly one year ago, and played it off and on that whole time until I finally beat it a couple days ago. There's no particular reason why it took me so long, other than a general apathy towards gaming I generate every once in a while. But despite the protracted play through, I enjoyed the game for the most part. It's far from perfect, with a few things holding it back, mostly of a technical nature. While it was occasionally frustrating, it was still a very ambitious game that realized most of its big ideas and successfully told an interesting and dark fantasy story.

People always wonder about the title when they hear it. What is a Witcher? Well, Witchers are a creation of Andrzej Sapkowski, the Polish author whose books this game is based on. They're men who are turned into skilled monster hunters through years of intense training and having their bodies physically changed by various chemicals and mutagens. They're sterile, they're immune to disease, and most importantly, they're really good at killing things. They protect humans from the various dangers of the world they live in with brilliant swordplay, a strong knowledge of alchemy, and some basic magical abilities. Despite their important role, at the time of the game's story, the order has mostly died out, and Witchers are regarded as a nuisance at best and a menace at worst. You play a Witcher named Geralt of Rivia, and are mainly tasked with discovering and defeating an organization named Salamandra after they attack the Witcher stronghold shortly after he is discovered not far away, barely alive and suffering from amnesia.

Sure, the amnesia thing isn't exactly fresh ground at this point, but it's a way to portray both the immense ability and reputation of the character while still justifying the RPG progression of slowly increasing in power and learning all your skills again. The game never strays far from its formula of fighting off both monsters and humans, while investigating various mysteries in pursuit of your goal. The plot balloons in complexity from the initial problem with the Salamandra, though they remain a threat throughout the story and are a key to the whole thing. You can take on side contracts for various people if you want some more rewards, though you don't really need them to beat the game. The combat system is an interesting mix of number crunching and skill. You have two different swords and three stances with each, all appropriate for different types of enemies, and to stay alive you're going to have to master the timing system that lets you chain attacks together to maximize your effectiveness. Throw in some potions and other equipment along with five spells with various applications, and Geralt is a killing machine. You will occasionally have help, whether it's a small number of skilled allies or a large group of fodder to distract the small army your fighting, and I wish this was the case more often, because it makes for a more dynamic experience. Still, it's designed so Geralt can handle most things himself, and when you're switching between weapons and stances with ease you feel pretty powerful.

Probably the biggest thing that distinguishes The Witcher is its choice system. Ever since Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, having the player make decisions based on what their character should do has been a popular thing in a lot of games, especially other RPGs. Unfortunately, rather than tough choices that make you really consider the consequences, they usually are merely binary good or evil things that will either make people love you or hate you, with each conferring its own rewards. The Witcher doesn't moralize, and the decisions aren't easy. A choice is almost never clearly better than its opposite, so you're not just going on whether you want light side or dark side points, you're considering the options and trying to pick what you think is the right thing to do. It's never easy, and the consequences often don't show up right away either, so you can't just pick one, see what happens, and reload a save if you don't like it. This is probably the game's biggest asset, and the story can go radically differently depending on what you decide. These choices are supposed to play into next year's sequel, and I'm interested to see how that is handled.

Presentation-wise, the game is sort of mixed. Beyond some impressive CG creations in the intro and right before the credits, all of the story is told in the engine, and it often comes off a bit awkwardly. There's lots of little things that are just odd, like when you walk near someone and it triggers a conversation automatically. It will pointlessly cut to a little thing showing you walk up to the character you're talking with, and then cut again to the actual discussion. I don't know, I probably could have assumed he would walk closer before they start talking. My computer's hardware is pretty old at this point, so I could see some weird issues with the way it handles different system specs. Rather than the whole game looking better or worse based on how much your computer can pump out, it's very uneven about what it prioritizes. Most character faces looked great, but random outfits and ground textures will look like they're N64 era. When things look nice they still look nice, although there are way too few faces to cover all the NPCs there are in the game, resulting in a bunch of clones running around all over the place. The music is a very nice orchestral score, and the voice acting is surprisingly decent for something that came from Poland. There are of course a few stinkers, though.

Anyway, the game was a lot of fun for about 30 hours, although there were a few issues. More glitches than I would have liked, and sometimes it was a bit obscure about what I was supposed to do for a quest. And this is yet another game in the last couple years that I can't say I enjoyed the ending of. To me, the story felt like it was pretty much over after the fifth chapter, and the fact that the next section was called the epilogue suggested as much. But they must have a different idea of what constitutes an epilogue in Poland, because it just kept going for another couple hours, giving you a new final antagonist and making you push through a ton of combat before you can finally finish it. It eventually got fairly ridiculous, and started to seem like the definition of stretching things out. It got to the point where it was pretty much impossible to fail thanks to all of the stuff the game was giving me to keep going, making the game feel like it was more concerned with showing me how great its epic story could be instead of considering whether I was still having fun. By the time it was the end, I was kind of sick of the experience. And that's a shame, because you never want a game you liked to leave a bad taste in your mouth. Still I'm looking forward to the sequel, because I'm curious to see what they could really wring out of the system with over three more years to work out the kinks.

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