The Witcher, by CD Projekt Red, is probably the slightly nerdy and unsociable kid in the school of Western RPGs. While games like Skyrim might be the friendly jock, who everyone likes and is easily accessible, The Witcher is a series that is less well known, less popular, but is every bit as good (better in some ways, worse in others) if one takes the time to get to know it. Sticking with the school metaphor for now as well, it is also a game that feels a little bit more aimed at a specialist crowd rather than at a wide market (and I never really thought I would say Skyrim is supposed to be aimed at a broad market, but in comparison it is). Or maybe that’s just what we like to tell ourselves after we’ve finished it, in the same way that people who have completed Dark Souls like to go up to those who haven’t and act painfully smug about how easy they found it.
It does feel somewhat difficult to get to grips with though, it has to be said, even after completing the completely optional tutorial for the game (I know… What a scrub!) I still felt somewhat at a loss of how to play. Especially as this was my first experience with the series, I was introduced to so much so quickly that it did end up taking me a lot longer to actually get to grips with what everything did and every small mechanic the game contains.
In the Witcher 2, you play as Geralt of Rivia who is (surprise, surprise) a Witcher which is basically a monster hunter of some description who has also undergone a series of mutations to allow him to handle the bodily stress of drinking magical potions and also make him really strong and awesome. It also gives him strange cat-like eyes, which is presumably why everyone in the game hates Witchers, because I could not find a single reason otherwise why everyone is so hostile to someone who is clearly helping them out by killing monsters for them. Geralt has memory loss but has somehow managed to ingratiate himself with the King of Temaria (possibly in the first Witcher, but that was never explained) by saving him from an assassin, but then unfortunately fails at saving him from ANOTHER assassin, and is subsequently blamed for the King’s death. Out on a quest for vengeance, to clear his name and to capture the Kingslayer, Geralt travels across the land and gets embroiled in a dastardly plot which affects all of the nations of the North, magicians, his friends and loves, and politics of all manner of backstabbery. Well, at least, those are SOME of his possible motivations.
Unfortunately, for a game which has such a strong story, even if it is a convoluted one, it does feel like it suffers a little from a lack of explanation. The events of the first game never really seem to come up, which leaves them a complete mystery to me (which isn’t too bad really as it allows me to go back and play that at another time), but as well as this, there are other things which just seem to happen with very little backstory. For example, it never really became clear to me why Geralt is on this particular quest. He might well be out to clear his name and find the Kingslayer, but he really doesn’t seem too bothered by all the bad press, and he said many times during the start of the game that he did not really care much for Foltest of Temaria and was going to leave as soon as he could. His motivations also seem to switch a lot, from rescuing Triss the Sorceress (who he is, or is not depending on player choices, in love with) which he seems to promptly forget about for a whole chapter, to restoring his memory (which, ironically, he also seems to forget about at times). While you’d think having many motivations to do the same thing would make his actions seem more logical, the way he approaches them with a sort of uncaring and bored disposition makes it seem odd for him to go to the trouble he does.
As well as this, sticking with things which are not explained, Geralt will sometimes seem to know things without any real prior explanation how. A prime example is in chapter 3, I discovered that Foltest’s son Boussy is dead (or missing) when Geralt asked someone else “why is Boussy dead?” or something along those lines, and I did something of a double take. Not only was this the first I had heard of it, but this ought to have been the first Geralt had heard of it too, and this was not the only such occasion. It felt almost like Geralt was meta-gaming his OWN game. So while the game’s lack of hand-holding is definitely a plus as far as games go, we’ll come back to that, it did leave something to be desired when it came to actually filling in the blanks of what was going on.
On the other hand, every other character is absolutely fantastic, to a Game of Thrones level (which I do not say lightly). I don’t mean that they all go around dying a lot, although that has been known to happen, but that they all seem to have their own motivations, their own goals and character flaws and reasoning, making them all extremely believable (if not always likeable). From Vernon Roche (Bro-che) the head of Foltest’s secret service who is very definitely out to avenge his King, to King Henselt whose motivations are “be a massive twatnugget at all times”. And let me also make it clear that convolution aside, the story of the game is awesome, it has depth and detail and all the things one looks for in a massive fantasy world as well as all the political intrigue and plotting to make whatever conspiracy Geralt has become involved in slowly crystallise over the course of the game, it was pretty epic.
The mechanics of the game are along a similar vein, in that they are pretty awesome and pretty well thought out but equally seem to be pretty damned complicated, another example of the lack of hand-holding. The two staples of Witcher games are that you have two swords, one for monsters and one for humans, and that you take potions before fights in order to receive the benefits of the potions for a specific duration of time. There is more than this though, you also can craft traps and bombs to be used during the fight (or positioned before it starts) and you also have five different magic spells.
The magic, or Signs as they are called, is actually a little confusing at first, for the extraordinarily simple reason that one forgets what they all do. “Igni” seems fairly self explanatory, in that as a fire spell it Igni-tes people. But even now I struggle to remember that Aard is both a shock and knock-back spell and Quen is the shield spell and so on. I also feel I should say that I felt, rather bizarrely, that sometimes the controls did not appear to work properly. The spells were bound to the number keys, but sometimes I would be feverishly slamming one of the keys and Geralt would laze around, just waiting to take a sword/fang/claw to the face. It’s something which got me killed more than once, and it’s something I never figured out why it was happening (my current theory being that you have to be facing an enemy in order to cast the sign).
Another problem with the mechanics is that it seems to suffer from a lot of it being superfluous. You have a great many possible traps and potions to use, but with potions there were always a few generic ones (such as an oil to increase sword damage, a potion to give you some health and so forth) which seemed more useful than making the creature specific ones, especially as the latter would require you to either have some kind of psychic skills of prediction or for you to die and go back and THEN make the potion. The bombs and traps also mostly seemed not particularly useful either as you, again, would have to be aware of the necessity of having them before some particular fight begins.
One of the biggest problems with the bombs and the magic was that Geralt’s swords always seemed to deal the most straight damage, regardless of what skills you picked, and so in turn one tended to RELY on the swords for dealing damage. This made some of the other things a bit superfluous. Such as the aforementioned Igni sign. In reality it was just a straight damage magic spell, but as it never did as much damage as a sword hit, it always made much more sense to use the magic on a trap or stun spell, which were better for buying you time in order to hit them with the sword.
Another irritant is that in a one-on-one situation Geralt is basically an unstoppable beast, because he’s a duelling master and can also stun and trap his foes (with a few exceptions). However, the far too many of the fights of the game pit Geralt against swarms of monsters, and as he can only hit a few at a time one tends to get swarmed and overran really very easily. It was for this reason that I had to, unfortunately, cheese a few fights (for example by running out of the range of the monsters so they would run away, but then jump back in so that I can take a few swings at the nearest one).
My frustrations do not stop there either. There is also an adrenaline mechanic, a bar which slowly filled up during fights and when full you could use it when in a particularly difficult situation to slow down time slightly and give Geralt access to the Heliotrope sign. But actually you can only get access to this bar by getting to the last skill of one of the skill trees… And I only succeeded in that towards the end of the second chapter, when most of the biggest fights had already passed… Meaning I actually only used the adrenaline bar deliberately at one point during the game… It was a fight I’d been stuck on for ages, for sure, but it still made the whole thing seem a bit pointless.
On the subject of skill trees, while I feel like the trees were all quite balanced, in that it seems that one could very easily choose any one of the three as a primary tree to level without really being at any particular disadvantage. Of course it IS a Western RPG so some of the skills were obviously more valid choices than others (or so it seemed) but that’s not exactly unexpected.
What was a bit more irritating though were an additional part of the skill trees called mutagens which are essentially a type of item which one could “attach” to some of your skills once they were unlocked, mutating that skill and providing you with additional bonuses. The first aspect I didn’t like was that the mutations provided such minor benefits so as to be almost pointless (although I understand one can min-max them through the use of one particular talent I did not have). This would have been okay if you could mutate any skill, so you would get the cumulative effect of dozens of tiny bonuses, but actually by the end of the game (at level 30-something) I had approximately 6 skills I could mutate. Meaning that I was getting entirely negligible bonuses from them.
Also, it isn’t determined which skills can be mutated until after you have already chosen to get said skill, so one could almost theoretically level through some of the trees without actually ever getting to mutate anything. Now, it might seem like an odd thing to complain about, because it’s so minor, but that just was my point. I just did not understand why something so tiny and pointless was included in the game. If they really wanted people to care about mutagens then surely they should have made them have more of an actual effect on the game.
I also tended to get a bit irritated with the inventory system in general in the game, but this might have been partly due to my own attitude towards these games of hoarding absolutely everything I can get my hands on in case it became useful “LATER”. I think though it might have been nice to have greater access to storage of some description, or perhaps for crafting items in particular to be shared across storages.
I complain a lot, but honestly the Witcher was actually extremely absorbing and really rather good fun to play. It actually still looks great as well, and has held up much better than games of comparable age, including things like Skyrim which came out in the same year. The story is, as I’ve already said, gripping and full of strong and impressive characters.
I also have not really said it yet, but I actually quite liked the swordplay and magical fighting style of the game. I stand by what I said about cheesing some fights and finding others remarkably straightforward, but I also really did enjoy it. It felt like a perfect mixture between the difficult “rolly-rolly-rolly-hit” of Dark Souls and the “hit-hit-hit-hit-wait-what’s-blocking-again?” of Skyrim.
I also feel I should mention that the dialogue is absolutely fucking tip-top and never seems to have the unbelievable quality that some RPGs accidentally fall into. It also does its maps surprising well, in the sense that despite being closed off and definitely rather small, by making them seem rather labyrinthine CDPR actually successfully made them seem a lot bigger than they really were.
As a whole I think I actually do still prefer Skyrim, while the Witcher 2 definitely does some things better than its counterpart of 2011, better characters, story and impact on the world. I also feel that too much of the Witcher was just a bit too fiddly and unnecessary for its own good.