Is a role playing game released for PC only in 2007 which, looking it at it before the event, really ought to have been a total mess but which turned out to be a diamond in the rough.

Here's why. Firstly, it was developed by a company from Poland called CD Projekt whose expertise was not in development but in publishing and localising of software. One of their first big jobs was doing the Polish translation of Planescape: Torment. Secondly, it used Bioware's "Aurora" engine (albeit very heavily tweaked), which is better known for powering Neverwinter Nights which means the engine was at least five years old. And thirdly, it was based on a series of novels by one Andrzej Sapkowski which nobody outside of Eastern Europe had heard of when the game first appeared and certainly had not been translated into English.

The budget was also rather small, especially when in 2007-8 when it came out people had been seeing large and swish advertising campaigns for games on prime-time television.

Well guess what. It didn't suck. It was, in fact, extremely good. And had it not been hamstrung by the need to cut corners so as not to bankrupt the developers, it would undoubtedly be mentioned in the same breath as the aforesaid Planescape: Torment, which it does play remarkably like.

So what exactly is a witcher anyhow?

Well, it's firstly a direct translation from the Polish word, "wiedźmin," which means, well, "the witcher." A witcher, in the novels and the game, is a professional monster hunter for hire, who, armed with large swords, improbable skills with same, and magical genetic modification to give super speed and super endurance and agility, trundles around the lands slaying monsters for cash full time.

Unfortunately the secrets to train an ordinary human into a witcher are all but lost. Furthermore, the world has moved on rather. The world of The Witcher seems to be based on Central and Eastern Europe in the late middle ages, and as such individual heroes of saga and skald are a relic from the dark past, and advances in politics, economics, and philosophy mean that ordinary people don't have to rely on heroics any more to protect them from the forces of darkness in return for coin, as their taxes pay for guardsmen and knightly orders to do this for free. Furthermore, as people move away from individual villages and the land becomes more urbanised, they are discovering that very often, the biggest monster is their fellow man, and that vampires and werewolves and striga and the drowned dead are a bit second rate in comparison. Unfortunately nobody told the monsters they had been outclassed, so they're still there and there is still work for the few witchers, despised though they are as the relics of a bygone and backward age, and also because of their refusal to become involved in local affairs and general itinerancy they are viewed as being little more than mercenaries.

This is not to say the world of The Witcher is an optimistic one. A few years before the game starts (and during the novels to which the game follows on), the Northlands, who are roughly akin to the various kingdoms and principalities of Eastern Europe c. 1400 AD, fought a huge war against the powerful and expansionistic Empire of Nilfgaard, which is a bit like the Holy Roman Empire in that it is more a confederacy of duchies and principalities and baronies, except it is more closely knit, the Emperor has actual political power, and it is more aggressive. This war left its mark on the world and many of the northern kingdoms are weak and times are hard. Furthermore, there is a large amount of what TV Tropes refers to as "fantastic racism" in that everyone hates everyone else. Humans, being relative newcomers to the world, have over the centuries rapidly displaced the pre-existing dwarves, elves, and gnomes, and see all of the latter negatively, and elves and dwarves who settle in human lands are treated very much as second-class citizens and ghettoised. Elves hate and look down on humans, seeing them as little more than barbarians and even beasts, partly because the elves don't have canine teeth and humans do. Elves don't care for dwarves too much but in times of strife one cannot be too choosy about one's bedfellows. Gnomes don't really appear in the game (or the novels too much, I understand) and seem to be based on the svartalfar of Norse legend in that they are great metalworkers and craftsmen but they keep themselves to themselves in a hollowed-out mountain city named Mount Carbon and are mistrustful of outsiders. It also didn't help that during the war with Nilfgaard, the latter paid off bands of elves and dwarves to act as guerillas and saboteurs.

You, the player, are a witcher. You are Geralt of Rivia, known as the White Wolf, a famous and respected witcher with white hair, cat's eyes (these latter are common to all witchers as a side effect of the mutations), and preternatural skill with a sword. At the start of the game one sees a very slick pre-rendered cut-scene showing Geralt breaking the curse on the King's daughter which turned her into a striga (a large shapeshifting beastie) by remaining in the vicinity of her coffin until nightfall. This is actually an rather faithful adaptation of the short story, "The Witcher," from the first novel, "The Last Wish," of the series on which the game is based. However, at the start of the game proper, you, Geralt, are mortally wounded and found and taken back to Kaer Morhen, stronghold of the witchers, by your fellow witchers Eskel, Lambert, and Vesemir. Upon recovery, you find that you can't really remember all that much about your previous adventures (which is a deliberate hand-wave so as not to confuse people who haven't read the novels) just in time as a morass of bandits from a mysterious organisation named "Salamandra" storm the keep - along with two mages, and a huge, grey-green monster called a frightener. They are, of course, wiped out, but not before their leader, a mysterious heavily-tattooed Arabian-looking sorcerer, and his sidekick, an assassin with glasses known only as "the Professor," make off with the witchers' secret formulae and equipment, leaving by teleport.

The rest of the game then revolves around Geralt's adventures in and around the city of Vizima, capital of Temeria, one of the Northlands, trying to recover the secrets, and in the meantime slaying a few monsters and getting involved in some of the many, many side quests that abound within the game. It turns out that there is a rather militant order of knights that has arisen recently, the Order of the Flaming Rose (who are a society rather like the Knights Templar but with the territorial aspirations of the Teutonic Knights) who are rapidly becoming a power, and also that recently many of the elven and dwarven partisans have been banding together even though the war's over for some years and seeking to overthrow the human kingdoms by force and random ultra-violence. There's also the matter of a child named Alvin who seems to be a living magical source, whose future seems rather connected to current events, and the fact that this time, you may not be able to avoid taking sides.

Theme-wise, the game is very much based on the concept of "the lesser evil." Other than Salamandra, who are a bunch of murderous cut-throats and renegade mages up to no good, nobody's all that pure and good, but then again, even evil has standards (SPOILERS). King Foltest of Temeria strives to be a good and just ruler but, in his youth, slept with his sister and laid a curse upon his incestuously conceived daughter Princess Adda. At one point there's rumours of a werewolf stalking the city at night. Investigation reveals it's the captain of the guard who uses his giant wolf form to hunt down criminals. The Order of the Flaming Rose position themselves as defenders of the poor and oppressed and ascetic holy warriors, but are systematically persecuting non-humans on an industrial scale. While the Scoia'tael (Elvish for "squirrels"), the guerilla elves and dwarves referred to above, claim to be fighting for their rights but are more than happy to cut down anyone who gets in their way and indiscriminately murder women and children if that's what it takes. Even if you decide to try not to get involved in any of this, you may find that not making a decision is in and of itself a choice, and you will have to live with the consequences. Indeed, the game discourages you from save scumming by having it so that often, a choice you make in one chapter can have echoes far later on in the game. By way of example, at the end of Chapter I you emerge from a cave with the village witch, Abigail, and have to decide whether to hand her over to the lynch mob baying for her to be burnt or escort her out the village. If you save her, she returns in Chapter IV as the local "wise woman" in another village and the manner in which you solve one of the main quests of that chapter is somewhat different from how you would do it if you let her get burned. Interesting characters is one thing that The Witcher is not short of.

The game also does not include any sort of explicit karma meter. No alignment here or reputation. I suspect this was a conscious decision. Although characters will react differently to you based on your previous doings, there will always be some who approve and some who disapprove. Indeed (MORE SPOILERS), right at the very end of the game the King of the Wild Hunt appears and challenges you to justify yourself and whether you have done the right thing. It is clear to me at least that he is speaking directly to the player when he explains how every choice you made during the game, regardless of which way it was, led to worse suffering and greater evil and then explains how this was so.

Wandering Round, Meeting Interesting People, and Killing Them

You are probably wondering right now what The Witcher is like to play. I will tell you. Firstly, graphics-wise, it's really quite tasty for something that used an engine five years old. The Aurora engine has been heavily revamped into a slick over-the-shoulder action perspective, or a mouse-driven from-above perspective. There aren't too many scenery porn moments, and in terms of location design one can clearly see where the budget limitations began to bite. This is not a big-arsed open world game; it is more like Torment in that there's a comparatively small number of densely packed locations. Also, as one plays through one notices that there is in fact only one cave, only one crypt, and so forth; the designers used carefully planted cave-ins and rockfalls and props to give the illusion of lots of different areas. It works quite well but you do notice it.

There is also an annoying habit of minor characters to be palette-swaps of each other. While one may have been able to get away with this in older games, now we're in full screaming 3D, this is less effective. Those character models there are, though, are pretty good and it seems to me that more effort went on putting them together than it did on the scenery. Which isn't to say that there isn't the occasional bit of scenery porn (especially the lake shore in Chapter IV and also Kaer Morhen valley in the prologue, to an extent) and the swamp in particular does manage to feel very threatening and ominous. Also the cornfields, with everything being overly brightly lit, comes over as there being something just wrong about the place. Which, of course, there is.

Combat is very much action oriented and revolves around timed clicking, swapping between different styles (there are three - strong, fast, and group). As Geralt gains experience points he can boost his skills in various areas by obtaining "talents" and spending them during resting to gain special abilities and special moves such as tripping, arterial strikes, and the ability to wind up to just twat the opponent so super hard. He also has a small array of "signs" or minor spells which are based on the four classical elements and that one. Unfortunately combat isn't very balanced. Especially later on in the game, the Aard (air) and Igni (fire) signs are just ridiculous, because Geralt can, in the last parts of the game, just spam everyone with these and they work on everything. There's only one monster that's immune to the Igni sign and it's quite rare, but it's not strong enough to pose a significant threat on its own. Also, the Group Style, with big, slashing swings, means that being surrounded and beaten down isn't really too much of a threat except very early on in the game.

There are also some very spectacular (and very bloody) finishing moves that Geralt can pull off. My personal favourite is where he leaps onto the enemy's shoulders, impales them from collarbone to pelvis, and backflips off, sending up a fountain of gore that one could conceivably throw several coins into.

Of course, part of being a witcher is also being crazy prepared and a large part of it is gathering the ingredients and stuff and reagents to make potions, oils, and bombs. Thankfully, you won't find yourself traipsing all over the map just to find that one ingredient as a lot of them are interchangeable and contain up to one primary ingredient of six (vitriol, rebis, aether, quebrith - did you know this is an archaic term for sulphur? - hydragenum, and vermillion) and one secondary ingredient of three (albedo, nigredo, rubedo). A potion made with all its primary ingredients containing the same secondary ingredient has extra abilities. Reagents are found in monster parts, minerals, and plants and you can only get the ingredients if Geralt, in game, has read something about what is found where. Big set-piece and boss monsters often have unique ingredients that are used in unique potions. As a base, you use alcohol for potions, fat for oils, and gunpowder for bombs. A word of warning though - in real life, boiling up two handfuls of hellebore and a bunch of wolf's teeth in some cheap vodka will not give you magical stamina regeneration and may, in fact, slightly poison you.

Speaking of which, drinking potions leaves toxins behind in Geralt's system and too much of this causes things like red blotches to appear all over the screen, heart-throbbing sound effects, random loss of hit points, and falling over dead. This is entirely to prevent the player from buffing ridiculously.

There's also monsters, which for a lot of the time seem to be based on Eastern European and some Germanic folklore. There's drowners (which are basically zombies), various types of ghoul and other eaters of the dead, wraiths, spectres, dryads, naiads, giant insects, kikimorae (four-legged giant ant-cum-xenomorphs), cockatrices, and so forth. Naturally, there's vampires as well, this being Eastern Europe, which are not sparkly pretty boys but are either horrifically ugly blood-crazed brutes or naked hovering blood-stained women. There are also certain big set-piece unique monsters that are quite, quite interesting and often require a specific strategy to beat. The kikimore queen is a huge beast that can do 476 damage per hit (Geralt starts with but 200 HP, for the record) and you beat her by luring her into a certain disused mineshaft and caving it in on her. Similarly, although you can kill the striga in Chapter V by hacking it to death, this is treated as a second-rate victory and to beat her properly you have to lift the curse upon her.

I have to say that combat can be very annoying sometimes, especially in Chapter V, where the game throws just hordes of low-level enemies at you in the area you spend most of the chapter trawling through. There is a third party mod, the Full Combat Rebalance, which unbreaks the broken things in combat, powers up the cool but useless things, and generally tightens up the difficulty level so it's no longer possible to spam Aard and Igni at everything. The author of this mod, incidentally, got hired by CD Projekt to work on the sequel.

Enjoying Oneself

Of course, despite its action-oriented combat, The Witcher is more a game of talking than of fighting and in this respect it plays quite a lot like Torment or even, at times, Quest for Glory. There are plenty side quests and also just plain opportunities for Geralt to take part in various things on the side. There's lots of books about, some of which provide information on monsters, alchemy, and plot-necessary information but also a lot of which provide detail on the fluff of the setting. In the city, people wander around their daily business, chat with each other, go different places at different times, eat, sleep, and so forth and some of the conversations you can listen in on are quite amusing. Two women talking to each other in the market, one bellyaching about how her husband beats her, and the other advises that she should get the biggest frying pan she can and just smack him with it, after all, it worked for her. Two thugs in the slums, one brags to the other, "I fucked a she-elf once," in the earthiest Northern (as in "eyup y'unbelievin' kuffar basterds" northern, not New England) accent imaginable. In the slums, harlots call out for business. On the docks, merchants bellyache with boatmen about the price of goods. City guards yawn and grumble about their commanders. When it rains (and it rains a lot), everyone dashes under the eaves of nearby buildings. And of course, as a strapping six-foot platinum-haired cats-eyed sword-toting hero, you get heckles from various folks.

And you can engage with the local colour too. Gossip with the folks at the market. Stand and watch an acrobat in the city square (and talk to him to hear him spout offensive-in-the-setting jokes). In the back rooms of pubs, watch as large hairy men have bare-knuckle boxing matches, round on the little squirt who greets you with a resounding "Your mother sucks dwarf cock!" and box him for money. You can also play dice with people, and this and the boxing provide side quests of their own as you try to find increasingly difficult opponents. (One of the boxing opponents is called Andrew Gablodda and explains how he was disgraced and relies on fighting in the backs of pubs because in the official prize ring he punched an opponent constantly in the groin, much like real-life boxer Andrew Golota). You can also try to drink people under the table to get secrets out of them. And then there's the sex.

Oh gods the sex.

I have played many adventures and RPGs over the years and The Witcher has the most optional sexual encounters in it by far. And not just picking up women of the street (though you can do that as well), but seducing named and unnamed characters willy-nilly. I am in two minds about this. While it is in character for Geralt, as in the novels he has a very lively time with women, and also he explains to one NPC that although he finds this amusing and enjoyable, it is not for him emotionally fulfilling, as he laments that he doesn't really have all that much to offer a woman beyond that. After all, he wanders the lands fighting monsters full time. It's hardly glamorous, it's very dangerous, and there's constant travel and upheaval. Also, witchers are all sterile so children are right out the question. However, whenever Geralt scores, the game presents you with a naughty oil painting of that character he has just swived in a state of undress on a playing card type affair. These cards, at first, I found to be typical fanservice but then, as I accumulated more and more of them (by the end of my first run I had 21) I found myself making snarky comments like, "gotta shag them all!" It's as if the developers had logged on to various RPG fora, seen people on the Baldur's Gate boards saying, "How about a nude Jaheira portrait?" and then pre-empted all that. At least one mod that I've seen had a sense of humour and incorporated an encounter with a devourer (a hag-like necrophage with grey-blue skin, a pointy nose, hordes of hit points, and huge, saggy breasts and stomach) into it complete with one of these cards.

Some of his encounters are also, quite frankly, just nuts. In Chapter IV he can bone the Lady of the Lake. Yes, that Lady of the Lake. The same one from which he gets the very powerful silver sword Aerondight. Just proves she's a watery tart I suppose.

To be fair, though, before someone starts crowing about sexism as some reviewers have, it's not like The Witcher is lacking in strong female characters. Triss the sorceress, for one. Princess Adda although she's kind of a villain (and has a very amusing monologue in Chapter III about why sex is like politics. In short, they both end up with some poor sod getting fucked.) Shani, who despite being a young apprentice medic and with no real combat skills, is completely fearless and in Chapter V screams at both a detachment of Order knights and a Scoia'tael guerilla squadron for invading her field hospital. There is also Abigail the witch in Chapter I who springs to mind.

Still, this is only part of it so I'll draw a veil over that.

Different Editions

One gripe that many reviewers had when The Witcher first came out was the voice acting. In English, at least, it sucked. They seem to have cut it right down in the translation since they figured that as the novels hadn't really much of a fanbase outside Eastern Europe, they'd concentrate on the Polish, Russian, and Czech localisations. The original edition also had ginormous load times. However in 2008, the Enhanced Edition came out, which was a much better translation and voice acting for all the dialogue (and to which this writeup refers), and cut out a lot of the bugs. And, they incorporated two additional premium modules based on some of the original episodes from the novels. And best of all, the Enhanced Edition was free to upgrade to for those who had the original edition. If only more software houses were like that.

I wouldn't recommend buying the hard copy though, as I do believe that at the publisher's insistence (Atari, if you must know) it was laden with DRM. Thankfully, you can get a downloadable DRM-free version on GOG.com for just a few pounds right now.

You will need a moderately meaty system to run it though. Lots of RAM and a fast hard disk is useful to avert the otherwise long load times - I have opened task manager with it running and noticed that even in a fairly idle area it is taking up over 1 GB RAM. In complex areas with lots of characters in it, RAM usage rises past 1.5 GB. If you want to turn on all the eye candy a good processor and graphics card are strongly recommended. My lappy can run it on middling detail settings despite its iffy graphics card but then it does have a fairly good processor and lots of RAM.

Conclusion

The Witcher is not perfect. The palette-swapped minor characters and paucity of locations mitigate against that but the plot, the characters, and the huge quantity of side quests make up for it, as does the emphasis on having you, the player, make choices. If you like to generate a character from scratch and play around with different builds, this isn't for you, as it follows the Quest for Glory mould of serving you a character then having you advance his skills how you want as you play. Also, combat is, as I previously stated, rather unbalanced. I do believe that had CD Projekt had a larger budget and more experience in development The Witcher would be mentioned in the same breath as Fallout, Baldur's Gate II, and Torment. However as it is, it still gets (for the Enhanced Edition) an 86 on Metacritic, which is bloody good for something that, as I explained at the beginning, came out of nowhere.

There is a sequel, named The Witcher II - Assassins of Kings, which I am told addresses many of the flaws in the original game but I cannot say this for certain as my lappy really would not run it. I also refuse to spend more than £10.00 on a game and I want there to be a The Witcher III so I really can't bring myself to log on to BitTorrent.

Also, if you must know, the Polish death metal band Vader did a song called "Sword of the Witcher" which was used to promote the game. It's got a video which is basically the band flailing around with fire and Geralt's silver sword interspersed with clips from the intro. Get it here. It isn't bad.

In short: Get this game. It is not perfect but it is refreshing to find even modern games that actually rely on strong plot and interesting choices and making the player think things through rather than yet another FPS.


(IRON NODER 2011, 23/30)

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