The Witcher (2007)

A brief lull in the climactic battle of The Witcher proved the most memorable moment in the entire game. As I stood amid the corpses of my fresh kills I spotted a dead female elf lying in the dirt. I’ve killed her, I thought. She was not one of my assailants, I didn’t actually cut her down, but after making it to this point I finally began to understand the repercussions of my actions throughout the game, the choices I had made that led to this moment. And for that brief moment I felt something wholly unique in my video game career: deep regret.

Unlike most modern RPGs, the choices you make in The Witcher aren’t clear cut. There’s no good or evil choice, no right or wrong. And every choice has a repercussion. Sometimes, doing what you think is right ends with the worst possible results. I had just witnessed that, just seen what became of my attempts to do the right thing.

Looking back, perhaps the right thing to do would have been to not get involved at all. After all, the protagonist in The Witcher is not a hero, but a monster hunter called Geralt. Mutations have granted him supernatural power, but also called him to an order that remains neutral in political affairs. It’s hard to maintain that neutrality amid the escalating conflict between the humans and non-humans that populate the fantasy world of The Witcher.

Eventually, it will come down to the blade. While The Witcher is an RPG with a full on tree of upgradable skills that determine key statistics,  while in combat, the game is a timing game, the right sequence leading to a chain of combos that are progressively more powerful. Giving a more tactical feel, there are also two different swords (silver for monsters, steel for men) with three different styles of combat (light, strong and group) meaning the player has to think of both their passive and active position. Throw in a small handful of spells, and The Witcher provides a robust combat system, making up for engagement what it might lack in nuanced tactical depth.

Yet there’s plenty of depth to be had in the complexities of the world. Visually, Polish developers CD Projekt Red Studio have crafted an atmospheric, lush world that provides a gritty edge but without ever sacrificing color or beauty. In an industry filled with games obsessed with desaturated visuals, there’s a breathtaking beauty and vibrancy to the world of The Witcher that make it a game that holds up technically and aesthetically to most games coming out today.

But even with the most powerful graphics crafting the most breathtaking world, it wouldn’t be anything without personality behind it. Thanks to the fine writing, the world is populated memorable characters each with their own agenda and view of Geralt. There’s a great humor and wit to a lot of these characters and while the game can be serious and dramatic, it also knows how to pull off what could come off as clunky writing.

Case in point is a scene where Geralt talks to a couple of buddies about his romantic life. Given the rugged and stoic nature of Geralt, romance can be awkward in this game. However, the game alleviates some of the awkwardness of this scene by making it take place while the three comrades are getting wasted. As they dribble on about women, they become progressively more and more drunk, making what could have been sappy and out of character fit perfectly with the moment.

However, outside of this, the romance in this game is tasteless. Gaming has struggled to portray sex in a mature manner, most of it devolving into unrealistic thirteen year old fantasies and appalling cut scenes of people feeling each other up in their underwear. The game is a bit more tasteful than that, but makes romance more of a game than a personal connection to characters, allowing the player to collect cards for their conquests. It’s a choice the developers later came to regret, and rightfully so given its degrading view of women.

To some, it might sound like The Witcher is more about everything but the actual gameplay, providing all these ancillary bits along the way. It has its fair share of action, but a majority of the time is spent engrossed in conversations, cut scenes and storytelling. It’s a story heavy RPG and while the gameplay isn’t nearly as good as the vastly superior turn-based top down RPG the world and narrative are so compelling it makes The Witcher one of the most memorable and finest modern RPGs.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing