Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Witcher

So, yesterday I completed The Witcher: Enhanced Edition. The original Witcher game was released 2007, published by Atari around the world and by CD Projekt in Poland. Developed by CD Projekt Red, based on the world of The Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski. Last time I played through it was about two-three years ago. Then, I loved the game deeply, and found it almost perfect. What about this time?

The visuals
The graphics look damn good for a game, that is 4 years old and runs on BioWare's Aurora engine, which, as far as I know, was never known for stunningly good graphics. My main complaint is that while having dialogue, most of the body animations are very awkward. As if people don't want to talk to you, they swing their arms a little and wiggle their fingers nervously. And there were some bugs on graphics (on epilogue, Triss sometimes disappeared while having dialogue).  Nothing too big, but still little annoying. Special effects look nice. The game takes a realistic approach to graphics, which is always a bit dangerous in a way, but manages to pull it off nicely.

The gameplay
The main complaint I've heard about The Witcher is that the combat is pure garbage. Really? Because I've found it very enjoyable. Sure, not really innovative or the best one, but it still good in my opinion. The combo-based melee combat is nice and requires some focus, and spells (or Signs, as they are called) are nice, although I found that only two are really worth developing (Aard, the "force push" Sign and Igni, burn everything-sign). Witchers carry two swords - steel one for people and more common beasts, and the silver one for monsters. In the game you can also carry a small weapon, like a dagger, handaxe or a torch, and a larger weapon, such as two-handed war-axe or another steel sword. And in your leather vest you can store potions in quickslots, or bombs. Weapons can be enhanced by magical runes that temporary increase the damage and effects of your weapon of choice, poisons and oils that do the same trick, or you can brand your silver sword with permanent runes that give your sword the enhancements you prefer. And you can forge new steel swords from meteorite pieces that you may stumble upon during your search for answers.

Which brings me to character developement. Every level you gain some talents, that are splitted into three categories: bronze, silver and gold. By bronze talents you can obtain lower-level talents, silver for mid-level talents and gold for the most powerful talents. It is quite nice one, and sometimes you just end up wondering, which one to take, because you can't have everything.

For movement, there are several choices and camera views. I felt that moving only using the keyboard was near impossible, so I used mouse to control movement. Not the best one to use for movement, especially with the wonky camera, but it was passable.

If I see one of those drowners in TW2...
Coming back to combat, there is one problem I must say that annoyed me - in the swamps, there are monsters bloody everywhere, and most of the time it is just better to run than fight the pitiful drowners and such, that are worth only 1XP in later game. This picture that I found pretty much visualizes what happens in Swamp cemetary at Chapter 5. Drowners everywhere. Luckily there is a talisman that repels drowners from getting unto you, but still.

This one is a bit about story, but it also is about gameplay. The story is branching, having multiple places where you must make choices - should I give these supplies, that I was commanded to guard, to the non-human rebels, or kill them, or just deny them of the supplies? Should I side with the religious fanatics of the Order, or the aforementioned non-human rebels, Scoia'tel? Or should I be like a true witcher, letting them solve their own problems? Let the witch be burned, or defend her of crime, that she seemingly didn't do? I just love these choices, as the consequences of the choices don't become evident immediately, but only hours later, to prevent save scumming for optimal outcome. But as it turns out, there is no optimal outcome - only different shades of gray.

The game has also a dynamic day/night-cycle, which brings the world alive and also affects what the people of the world do, as well what monsters are available. Some quests require you to be at certain place at certain time, but most can be completed at any given time. There are no time limits, so you can take your time doing anything you want, drinking with friends or gambling for quite some money.

The story
The game is based on Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski, the first one, Wiedźmin (The Witcher)first one released in 1990. Two of the books have been translated to English, the short-story collection The Last Wish and the first part of the Saga, The Blood of Elves. In the game, there are many, many nods to these books and probably to other books, but I really can't say because I haven't read them and until they are translated to English, I won't read them. Unless I learn Polish due to some accident or something.

The world of the game is pretty much your standard western fantasy, where building architecture isn't over the top, but resembles heavily the medieval Europe. If you dwell deeper into the world, it turns out to be quite a beast - moral ambiguity, black humour and quite realistic people. And these are present in the game as well. The story begins five years after the original saga. Geralt of Rivia, the famed witcher also known as White Wolf, has lost his memory and is brought to Kaer Morhen, the keep of witchers. Witchers were once quite respected people, needed as humans conquered new lands full of monsters. But those times are in the past, witchers are a handful and often despised by the common people. They are mutants, subjected to many alchemical and magical rituals and tests, that, if they survive, grant the witchers superhuman abilities. Witchers also become able to resist most diseases (or every, I actually don't know), but as a cost, they become infertile. Witchers are famous of their neutrality, known that they take no sides in political issues.

So, how is the story? I'd say it is one of the best ones in role-playing games, only bested by PlaneScape: Torment. The many choices you make will have their consequences, sometimes something you didn't quite expect. Sometimes the situation forces you to take sides, even if you don't want to. Such is life. As the consequences hit you, they are represented in stylish oil paintings with Geralt's voice telling how he feels about things. The ending is quite a mess, having suggestions that Alvin, the magical boy, is actually able to travel through time and become the Grandmaster of the Order, the big bad behind everything in the game. It isn't confirmed, though, but is heavily implied.

There is actually two stories, one with a clear outcome and one which doesn't affect so much the main story. The main story focuses on Geralt's search for the Salamandra, a criminal organization which attacked Kaer Morhen and stole the witchers' secrets and mutagens. Geralt must find the leader of Salamandra and destroy them once and for all. But on the side of this, is a much personal questline - the Identity. As Geralt suffers from amnesia, he must rebuild his identity. Your decisions and dialogue choices affect who Geralt turns out to be - does he avoid taking sides like a true witcher, does he stay neutral but defend the innocent and slaying monsters, that quite don't look like monsters on the outside? It is quite sad that these choices aren't addressed in the ending, but it is nice that these choices still exist.

The english voice acting is good, although sometimes it could be a bit more, alive. I haven't yet tried the Polish VA, but I've heard that it is superb compared to English. The world is full of sounds, and bring the world truly alive - the people in the game make remarks about you or the weather or themselves as you pass them by. Night/day cycle affects the soundscape, as does the weather. And quite luckily, when it rains, it truly sounds like it's raining cats and dogs. Thunder booms as it should.

The music is very atmospheric, and I must say that even though there are no music that really works outside of the game's context, the soundtrack is magnificent. Music stems from folk music, incorporating sometimes something that reminds me of heavy metal, but isn't quite that. On the right is one of my favourite pieces from the game.

Opinion in short
Things are getting serious.
It's a good game that has some gameplay issues, mostly the controls, that are not really bad, but neither really good. Story is definitely worth seeing and the choices carry real consequences, which makes replaying very worthwhile. If you like a good role-playing game and want something semi-recent, I suggest you try this. It is dark, and it is gritty. It has edges, and it is rough.

Post scriptum
Sometimes I can't help but to compare this game to BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins. Games are quite different, as DA:O takes more tactical approach to combat than Witcher, and DA:O is party-based. The comparison often stems from the similarities of the Witchers and Grey Wardens. Both are alienated from the common society and are small in numbers, given the mission to protect the people from monsters (in DA:O, from the Darkspawn).

They are quite different games, but somewhat similar. DA:O, to me, was rather mediocre game. The first playthrough was a blast, as dialogue was very well written and helped me to tolerate the sub-par plot. The origin parts were very well executed, and something I'd liked to see more. Unfortunately, they carried next to no effects on the main game. DA:O's world is very detailed in the Codex, but for some reason, it fails to represent it visually. The claimed racism against elves is rarely seen, even if you play elven character, and the world as a whole seems quite generic. The choices, that were a big part of PR talk for DA:O, proved in consecutive playthroughs to be quite meaningless. And dialogue just couldn't carry the game the second time. Hopefully DA2 will be a better game. The talk about plot spanning over 10 years gives a chance for the writers to come up with some good stuff, and personally, I've always felt that plot that revolves around the charactrer is far more better than plot, that can involve any given character.

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