Post Mortem: The Witcher

Post Mortem is a series of posts about games that I have finished recently. It’s both a review and a chance to share my experience in game, both good and bad. May contain spoilers!

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The Witcher and I have a tumultuous relationship. I’m not much of an RPG man, but when a good friend suggested I should try it out in 2007, I was interested. Then when he lent me his copy, I was hooked – for a while. Real life got in the way, and I gave my copy back. It wasn’t until last year I bought myself a copy, and until the last few weeks I actually decided to play it again. I found my save games from early 2008, ignored them, and started from scratch in the world of The Witcher!

The World of the White Wolf

The Witcher game is based on a series of books written by Andrzej Sapkowski, describing a medieval fantasy world inhabited by humans, dwarves, elves, monsters, and witchers. Witchers are mutated humans; sterile, light skinned, neutral monster slayers, they are able to mutate their abilities through potions and skill upgrades. The story starts with you, playing Geralt, the White Wolf, being taken back to Kaer Morhen, the home of the witchers, all but dead. Geralt has no memory of his past, despite being the most famous Witcher; the opening movie in the game describes how he cured the King’s daughter of a curse. Naturally, his amnesia suits the game perfectly, giving the player the chance to level up and learn all the Witcher skills. It doesn’t take long – Kaer Morhen is soon attacked by bandits, and you are headlong into combat.

The attack soon becomes a personal mission of vengeance for Geralt, which leads to him heading to Vizima, the seat of the King whose daughter he cured. It’s not all vengeance and monster slaying, however: as Geralt pieces his memory back together, he finds himself deep in politics, and a civil war between humans and non-humans. The path of neutrality, one witchers try and take, becomes harder to take as the story unfolds.

Combat

During your time at Kaer Morhen, you are presented with the 2 swords you will use: a metal sword for fighting humans, and a silver sword for fighting monsters. The swords are ineffective against the opposite opponent (ie, a metal sword won’t work against monsters). In combat, its easy to pick the sword you need (if the game didn’t choose it for you), by using the ‘Q’ key for metal and ‘E’ key for silver. Both swords feature 3 combat styles – heavy, which is useful against large or armored opponents; fast, which is useful against light and smaller opponents that can easily dodge or parry your strikes; and the group combat style, which is useful when fighting multiple enemies at once, although heavy opponents do take a while to go down this way. Choosing the style is done by pressing the Z, X or C keys for heavy, fast and group, respectively.

Once you’ve selected your sword and combat style, fighting is as simple as using the mouse to click on an enemy. As you level up and begin upgrading your attacks, you will be able to combine attacks on players – up to 5 combo attacks, if you level up that far. When fighting, you can chain these attacks by waiting for the cursor to turn into a flaming sword. Too quick or too slow, and you will lose the combo. Higher combos cause greater damage, and is pretty satisfying when you start attacking stronger foes.

Geralt also learns various signs as a secondary form of attack, all of which can be upgraded as Geralt levels up. They are: Aard, an air sign that causes stun and knockdown, and can also unblock passages; Igni, a fire sign that ignites opponents and can cause incineration; Yrden, a magic sign, which creates a trap on the ground that wounds and poisons opponents; Quen, an earth sign that provides a temporary shield for Geralt; and Axii, a water sign that causes a hex on opponents and makes them fight for Geralt. These are found in the game one at a time, by finding various magic stones that Geralt can learn from. These are cast using the right mouse button, and the numbers 1-5 on the keyboard select the sign. When used in conjunction with combat swords, it can make Geralt very powerful.

I found the combat system pretty intuitive; being an FPS gamer the way to launch combat is very similar, the only difference being the need to change combat styles. It is far less complicated than it sounds. The only issue is with the game engine: when fighting against multiple foes, but fighting one at a time, the game will often make Geralt run around the other foes to get to the one you choose, or choose the wrong foe. It’s quite frustrating to lock on to a foe, only to have others get in the way and not be able to lock onto another foe. Even more so when you end up dead because 5 enemies decide to hack at you while the game is deciding where Geralt should run to.

Hero and Potions

Potions are an important part of gameplay in the Witcher. When starting a game, you can choose 3 difficulty types, the traditional easy, normal and hard. The difficulty selected changes the importance of potions; the harder you choose, the more reliant upon them you become. Ingredients for potions can be collected from monsters you slay and herbs you collect. The challenge, is that you need to learn about them before you can collect the ingredients. Characters will either tell you them, you can find scrolls or books, or buy books from antiquaries. Alcohol is used as a base for potions, so keeping some in the inventory is always a good idea. The consumption of potions increases Geralt’s toxicity, and you need to be careful not to consume too many at once or Geralt will die.

Hero is where Geralt can improve his skills and abilities. As you level up, you are granted different talents, which can be used on specific skills. You can improve combat styles (such as learning combo attacks), improve your magic skills, or increase Geralt’s knowledge, strength or dexterity. Talents are also acquired with the consumption of a mutagen (a potion with certain ingredients). It is possible to reach Level 50 by doing all the quests, acquiring all the XP and taking all the mutagens.

Quests and THOSE Sex Cards

Like any good RPG, The Witcher is full of quests. The main ones advance the story, but there are far more quests with NPCs that don’t advance the story but give Geralt the chance to learn and gain XP. If you are a bit OCD about your gaming and feel the need to complete all the quests, then you will have your hands full! Each chapter has its fair share of quests and the rewards they bring. Talking to NPCs in the game will often provide quests, which are either tracked or untracked, and talking to them again after completing quests can yield information about the story, or even more quests!

The best part about The Witcher, is that the choices you make during the various quests have an impact on the story later on. Choose a particular side in a battle, and that side will be on your side later on. While not true to the original novels, the paths you can take give far more depth and interactivity. It also enhances replayability – again, if you are a bit OCD about your games, there are at least 3 paths you can take for this game! I love a game that changes depending on the choices you make, and the Witcher proves that even small choices can have big impacts in the future.

The Witcher novels and game are for adults. Much ado was made about the sex cards that you can acquire in the game. Geralt is a man who fancies women; there are plenty of women in the game, why can’t the rest play itself out? Well, it does. There are even brothels and prostitutes in the game that you can sleep with. Plenty of times, however, you will get to sleep with women by taking on quests, by talking to them or giving them gifts. In America the sex cards were censored, but for some unknown reason they slipped into Australia uncensored. Not that there is a lot of difference – uncensored generally means exposed breasts, and that’s about it. Titillating, for sure, but not much worse than whats on TV at later hours these days. It’s certainly not a necessity to collect the cards, but it may be worth your while to get them if that’s what you like.

Technology

The Witcher uses a heavily modified version of the Aurora Engine by BioWare. The worlds are detailed and immersive. Remembering that this game is from late 2007, and uses DirectX 9, it looks downright spectacular in places. It wasn’t always this good though – the release version was plagued with issues such as only having 1 or 2 NPC models per NPC, which resulted in what looked like the same NPC frequenting the area continually. Other issues such as memory leaks and horrendous load times caused a lot of grief early. Several patches were released, but it wasn’t until the release of the Enhanced Edition that issues like NPC models and player dialogue was fixed. It also brought changes to the engine and environment to give it the look it does now.

The game features a continual day/night cycle, so it is possible to play continuously through the day and night. The lighting adjusts itself well, from dark moonlit skies, to orange on the water in the mornings, and beautiful blue skies during the day, assuming it isn’t raining. The game is still very heavy on resources – when I originally played it on my 2006 spec machine, it was choppy at times. On my newer rig, even with some older hardware, it runs much better, but it took the addition of an SSD to actually make load times short! With details turned right up and post processing cranked, there are plenty of times where the frame rate will drop heavily. Given the quality of the image produced, its not particularly surprising.

Sucking you In

The Witcher isn’t an ordinary RPG – its far more than that. I found it hard to put down the first time I played it, and found it even harder this time around. The story sucks you in, and the choices you make go on to affect you later in the story arc – what isn’t there to like about that? Further, the attachment you build with the other characters is hard to put away. It does all the things a good game should. And best of all, it impressed me, and I’m more of an FPS player than anything else.

The ending of the story isn’t a complete ending. While it ends this particular arc, the end movie opens more questions that can only be answered with a sequel. Which is where The Witcher 2 comes in! Sounds like I will need to play that one too…

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