In the world of The Witcher, fantasy staples such as monsters, magic, and political intrigue are explored with a sense of maturity that’s lacking in most RPG’s. A race war is brewing between humans and non-humans, dangerous monsters are appearing in droves, and a powerful sorcerer has stolen magical supplies for his own twisted purposes.
You play as the Witcher Geralt of Rivia, a legendary monster slayer who finds himself front and center of each of these conflicts. At the start of the game, Geralt finds himself in the middle of the woods with no memory of who he is, where he is, or how he even got there. When discovered by some fellow Witchers, Geralt learns some shocking news: he’s supposedly been dead for some time now. Somehow miraculously back from the grave, Geralt is thrust into a world where you get to sculpt his new identity and choose where his allegiances lie.
The core experience of The Witcher is freedom and choice. As you embark upon the quest to learn more about Geralt’s origins, you find yourself caught in the middle of virtually every major political decision, event, and task that the land of Temeria has to offer.
Arguably the biggest conflict taking place is the war between the group of militant religious humans known as the Order of the Flaming Rose, and the non-human guerillas of the Scoia’tael. The friction between human and non-human races has lasted for generations, with both sides wanting to see the end of the other. The Order views non-humans as a scourge on the kingdom, whereas the Scoia’tael view humans as vile racists that don’t deserve to live. Both sides are resulting to large scale murder, with the innocent inhabitants of the kingdom caught in the crossfire.
At the same time, an evil sorcerer has stolen potions and recipes from the Witchers, which happen to be one of the most crucial parts of their arsenal. With these tools gone and no clue as to where the thief is, the world is danger. In the wrong hands, these potions could be used to cause unthinkable harm on unsuspecting individuals.
Instead of simply checking things off like a traditional RPG quest log, the choices made in the majority of these situations have long reaching effects on the world.
How you’re viewed by the government, how different races treat you, and even which side of the war considers you an ally is entirely based on the decisions you make. One of the things I really appreciated about this approach is that it’s never clear which options are the “right” ones, meaning that something that could seem like a moral victory could potentially turn into something darker at a later point. It forces you to consider every decision thoroughly before following through, which makes you feel just as cunning and strategic as other forces in the game.
As you travel Temeria and reshape Geralt’s identity, you meet a wide assortment of characters. From crazy elven scientists, fish worshipping villagers, and feisty dwarves, to kind hearted prostitutes, a child with an affinity for magic, and a flamboyant bard, the diversity of characters never ceased to amaze me. While there’s still a generous handful of unique characters with quests to dole out, the majority of civilians exist almost solely to add a sense of realism to each location. However, most of them serve to give you a better understanding of the world and its inhabitants, since most of the conversations you can eavesdrop on depict events happening in the world or give a larger sense of understanding to the area you’re in.
There’s also some romance options in the Witcher, but it’s one of the weirder aspects of the game. When it really comes down to it, there’s only two characters that you can actually pursue any type of meaningful relationship with. Both were present in Geralt’s past in one way or another, so decisions made in this equation have an extra bit of weight behind them.
However, if you’re looking for something with less strings attached, there’s plenty of women willing to sleep with Geralt for either money or as a reward for completing a task. I don’t think sex is something that shouldn’t be explored in a video game, but I think it’s explored poorly in The Witcher. When you sleep with a woman in this game, you unlock a card depicting the woman in a nude situation. When everything else in the game is approached with maturity and thought, having sex equal nothing more than a way to collect trophies of the women you slept with feels childish and like a huge step backwards in comparison to other aspects of the game.
Thankfully, The Witcher takes a step back in the right direction when it comes to its combat. Geralt is armed with two swords, both of which serve a different purpose in battle. For human, elven, and dwarf enemies, you’ll need to use your steel sword for cutting through their defenses and putting them down. As for fights against monsters, you’ll need to rely on your silver sword to damage them.
Along with the two types of swords, there’s also three stances to switch between, depending on the situation. Heavy stance is good for heavily armored enemies, Fast stance is preferred for swifter foes, and Group stance is a lifesaver when surrounded by mobs. Fans of magic based playstyles will be glad to know that Geralt has control of Signs, which allow him to perform varied magical abilities in the heat of battle, such as a stun or blast of fire.
While Signs are as simple as a single click of the right mouse button, sword combat takes a little more skill. The melee combat of The Witcher is based around precise timing, which takes some getting used to. Hitting an enemy once will start an attack combo that ends with a sword icon quickly flashing on an enemy. Clicking the attack button again, right as it flashes, will instantly launch you into your next attack, but hitting it too early or too late will result in you stumbling and leaving yourself open to attack. It’s a bit tricky at first, but after a couple hours I had the timing memorized and almost never missed the window of opportunity.
As a monster slayer, a lot of the contracts you’ll be taking on require you to hunt down specific monsters and bring back proof of their demise. To do that, you’ll need to have knowledge on the monster you’re hunting. Sure, you can kill them at any time, but you won’t be able to harvest their organs (which are the required proof of the kill) without researching them. In order to gain this information, you’ll have to either track down books describing the physiology of the beasts, or find someone in the world who is familiar with them.
Along with turning them in for quests, monster organs can be used as alchemical ingredients. A huge part of The Witcher is the potion crafting, which allows you to buff Geralt’s attack and defense or even grant him new abilities. Using different plants, monster organs, and alcohol bases, you can completely alter the likelihood of surviving even the most difficult of encounters. The interesting thing about alchemy is that your dependence on it relies entirely on which difficulty you’re playing it on. Easy can be cleared almost entirely by using melee, Normal will have you utilizing alchemy sporadically, and Hard will practically demand it if you want to survive.
As you fight enemies, complete quests, and explore the environment, you’ll gain experience and level up. Upon leveling, you receive talents which can be used to unlock new abilities that further aid you in every aspect of the game. You can increase Geralt’s stats, add news combos to your melee attacks, further the effectiveness of alchemy, and more. Unfortunately, the large amount of quests and opportunities to grind out experience against mobs of enemies means that it’s easy to over-level yourself and remove the majority of difficulty from the game. I highly recommend spreading out quests instead of doing them all as soon as you receive them, otherwise you’ll risk removing any challenge from the game.
I think one of the reasons I enjoyed continuously fighting and leveling up Geralt was because the world felt incredible to be in. While no longer a technically stunning game (it’s a decade old), the layout and feel of each new environment made me want to soak everything in. From crumbling castles and large bustling towns, to foggy swamplands and shadowy crypts, the world of The Witcher has some wonderful locations to discover.
The lore of this universe also makes everything feel like it’s there for a purpose. Every location has a history, every village has a secret, and most faces have a story to tell. Exploration becomes an important part of the game since going off the beaten path almost always leads to hidden quests, treasure, and other surprises. In fact the, game can take between 25-50 hours to complete depending on how much of the world you decide to explore and how many of the quests you decide to partake in.
If the sense of exploration or combat scenarios start to wear you down, there’s even a few side activities you can relax with. The most noteworthy is dice poker, which you can find opponents to play against in almost every area of the game. It’s more of a game of luck than strategy, but it’s a good way of making money if you’re in a bind. There’s also boxing tournaments in pubs that, while still combat, are considerably less demanding than an actual fight.
Unfortunately, as much as I enjoyed my time with the game, there were a few instances where I encountered some technical issues. I had a few occasions where the textures wouldn’t load in during a cutscene, or the audio would fall out of sync, but these were more annoying than game breaking. I did have the game crash on me twice, but thankfully my save data remained intact.
I also had some issues with the economy in the game being ridiculous. It would cost a few hundred coins for a new sword, but cost over a thousand for a simple book or alchemy recipe. This made me go close to broke a few times when I needed the information from a book to complete a quest, which made it hard to save up enough money to purchase new armor, which was also overly expensive. Thankfully, despite some of these nuisances, the vast majority of the game is a delight to play through.
The Witcher does a tremendous job of introducing players to this world and making them feel like they have an actual say in how events shape it. Although there are a few missteps in regards to the way sex is approached, or how exploitable the leveling up process is, everything else feels remarkably fresh in a market where most RPG’s are simply variants of each other. If you’re a fan of well thought out worlds, or love the power of choice in games, then you owe it to yourself to play The Witcher.
– Zack Burrows