The Witcher

Alright, so for the last 10 hours or so I’ve been playing The Witcher. This game has come more highly recommended from the gaming community as a whole than Jesus from a Jehovah’s witness.

Honestly? I’m disappointed. Very few games can ever really live up to the hype that surrounds them, but by and large I’ve managed to find gaming communities that are mostly aligned with my own views on the hobby, and as such when they get excited about something it’s usually something I’d enjoy. In these cases, over hyped games usually come out as ‘good, but not excellent’.

The Witcher doesn’t even really make it into the realms of ‘good’. Now don’t get me wrong, it isn’t a bad game by any stretch of the imagination- the graphics are pretty good, the world is well realised, the music is top notch and the gameplay has a few really good ideas under the bonnet. Where it fails is the fact that the really good ideas at the core of the game are packed around with mounds of sloppy voice acting, utterly atrocious quest design and (thus far at least) piss poor characterization and a no brainer plot.

First off though, let’s be positive and take a look at the things that The Witcher does right.

The combat is pretty fun. The fact that The Witcher is played with only one character instead of a party like most RPGs opens up new options and styles I haven’t previously seen in a videogame. You can chain attacks together with careful timing, and spells can also be used to turn the tide of a battle in a meaningful way. Your spell casting is limited just enough that you don’t fire off spells willy nilly, but free enough that you’re never too worried about ‘waiting until you really need it’.

You can also adopt a variety of stances in combat, but to be honest I don’t really regard this as anything other than busy work made to make the game feel more tactical than it really is. Reason being that each enemy is essentially ‘weak’ to one stance. Using the wrong one will either result in you doing piss all damage, or the enemy dodging entirely. It’s no more tactical than ‘use fire on the ice monster’.

The alchemy and potions mechanics are very well balanced and allow for a variety of options. Unlike most RPGs, potions in The Witcher are not simple ‘fire and forget’ consumables that you occasionally use to heal when your mage has hit the dirt- they are a core element of your combat strategy. Potions have wide ranging, noticeable effects, and they last for hours. If you pop a healing potion then for quite a while you are going to be very hard to kill as your health regenerates so quickly that most enemies can’t even hurt you. Likewise, pop a Tawny Owl potion and your endurance will regen so quickly that you can fire off spells left right and centre.

There is a price though- every time you consume a potion, it adds to your toxicity level and as that climbs various effects kick in. They start with little graphical effects, but then quickly climb to health penalties, and eventually if you max the gauge out- death. There are of course many ways to lower toxicity, but if you’re in a dungeon then you’ll want to be careful which potions you are taking. The more powerful potions such as Blizzard can add quite a bit to your toxicity level and don’t last anywhere near as long as other potions. Keep popping them and you’ll be seeing stars.

The setting is very atmospheric and dark, with a grim overtone to everything. It manages to achieve dark fantasy in a very real way, yet also manages to maintain an air of authentic medievalism at the same time.

So then you might ask what the problem is. First off this game has masses- and I mean absolutely masses- of dead time. Out of the 10 hours I’ve spent with the game, I’d say about 50-60% of that (at least) was spent simply running from one place to another. Eventually I got so utterly bored I started travelling at night just so I could at least get some fights. Sadly this just meant that I was spending even longer completing quests, and I was essentially just driving my wheels deeper into the mud. The game begs for a fast travel system. It’s not even like there’s any reward for exploration, the game is just wasting your time, padding itself out.

The quest design is terrible. Irredeemably terrible. Most quests are just ‘go here, kill X, come back’ or even the oft abused ‘Collect X many monster bits and come back’. Seriously? This crap is played out and dead in World of Warcraft and these clowns think they can get away with it? I know when you get down to it there are only so many quests in RPGs, but the difference is in how you dress them up and make them interesting again. Literally no effort has gone into doing this with The Witcher.

Combine that with the amount of dead time and you can see why I’m getting frustrated with this game. That’s not even including the bloody research. I like the idea of research in principle, it adds a level of immersion. However when you need to do this research just to be able to harvest parts from the monsters it gets a mite frustrating. Why can’t we do extra damage or stuff like that? Even Alpha Protocol managed to get that right. Factor in that even figuring out how you’re supposed to do this research can take an age (typically one NPC in the area will have a book on the monster), and the amount of dead time in the game is further increased.

Let me put it this way, it took me over eight hours to get out of the first area after the tutorial section. A level not much larger than the New Vegas strip- and with far less content.

The voice acting is terrible. Doug Cockle as Geralt gives a totally bland, level, unemotional and utterly boring performance. He finds not one trace of emotion or soul in the character, delivering every line in the same coma inducing monotone. I’m not kidding, every line from flirtation to rage is like listening to... well... This. In fact one could argue this performance is at least varied.

Not that Cockle is alone in giving a terrible performance- pretty much everyone has a hard time finding so much as an inflection in their speech.

I hate to rag on the plot, but there’s no excuse for a game to develop at this utterly tortuous pace. Think of everything that happened in the first 10 hours of Final Fantasy Seven. Think of everything that happened in the first 10 hours of Dragon Age: Origins. What happens in the first 10 hours of the Witcher? You’re order of monster slayers has their stash nicked, and you kill a demon dog. I’ve got no problem with a slow burning plot, but this isn’t even smouldering.

Oh, and you’ve visited a grand total of TWO locations. And that’s including the tutorial area.

If anything is going to stop me playing (and believe me I’m considering it), it will be this. I know many people feel that it’s wrong to write off a game’s plot without actually seeing the whole thing, and for the most part you’d be right. But when the way the plot is developing (or rather not developing) is the main thing that’s driven you away- I’d say that’s damning criticism in and of itself. To put in a parallel, if a movie is so bad you walk out of the theatre people don’t say “well you can’t judge the movie, you didn’t see it all”, they ask “was it really that bad?”

Geralt as a lead character is painful. I complain about Cockle’s performance, but really the writing sucks too. It takes a skilled writer to use the amnesia plot device well, and whoever adapted this game just can’t cut the mustard. Geralt has no personality, no motivation (beyond fucking anything that moves) and is just... well... boring. Amnesia doesn’t mean your character doesn’t have any sense of self- it just means they can’t remember anything. It’s also worth noting that this ‘total amnesia’ is complete balls. The complete loss of every single life experience simply does not happen. I can forgive it if it’s used well or built up (E.G Namelss One, Planescape:Torment), but here it just comes across as an excuse to avoid giving the character any actual character.

So ultimately I need to come down hard on The Witcher. It has some really nice ideas, and if the sequel sorted out the problems I’ve outlined above, I think it would be one hell of a good RPG. As it stands though, The Witcher is a few shining nuggets of gold floating in an ocean of filth. I can’t be too hard on it though, as at least it’s trying to innovate within the genre, and that is always worth kudos. As a score, I’d call it a 6/10. There’s some great potential here, but it’s buried under mounds of problems that stop it ever really shining.


I’d like to make one final note. It’s not really related to the game, but more an observation. The people who are singing the praises of The Witcher, are the same people who have been lampooning Dragon Age 2. And I know people are going to crucify me for saying this, but honestly? They’re very, very similar games. Both are action RPGs with crappy plots and an emphasis on action and killing things over any alternative style of play. Both have underdeveloped, poorly defined leads, both have an oversimplified inventory management system and both force you to keep running back and forth over the same tiny areas.

To be honest, speaking totally objectively- I think Dragon Age 2 is the superior game. I honestly can’t believe I’m saying it myself, but the design remit was to create a no brainer action RPG, and they delivered. The only thing that The Witcher does better is the alchemy system, but DA2 counters that by using powers, stances and companions. Plus the combat is at least more entertaining to watch. I feel dirty admitting it, but Dragon Age 2 was more of a bitter disappointment than an actual really bad game, and I honestly think that if it had been released as a totally new franchise, people would rate it over The Witcher.

DA:O Still wipes the floor with both of them though.
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