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Looking back: The Witcher

by Joseph Holman

In keeping with the tradition of taking a franchise people like and throwing money at it until it becomes a TV show that people love, Nexflix set its sights on ‎Andrzej Sapkowski’s “The Witcher”; originally a book series that was later turned into a video game trilogy whose third release, The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, became one of the best selling games ever. As for the netflix series, the first season ran for eight episodes with a second season already in production and slated for a 2021 release. The show was a massive success and as a result more people than ever are being introduced to the world of Geralt of Rivia and his ever changing dance with destiny. 

After I watched the series for myself and now that i’ve finally got “that song” out of my head, I decided to replay the maiden entry into the Witcher games simply titled “The Witcher” to remind myself of the game that many of you may be experiencing for the very first time. So strap on your two swords, chug a potion and join me as I take a look back at 2006’s The Witcher.

Our story begins with everyone’s favorite white haired monster slayer, Geralt of Rivia, desperately running away from an unseen enemy before collapsing smack dab in the front yard of Witcher HQ, AKA, Kaer Morhen, an ancient castle where generations of Witchers were created and trained in the art of monster slaying from a young age. Our unconscious hero is soon discovered by his Witcher brethren and carted back to the castle for some R&R. However, when Geralt awakes, he finds that he is suffering from amnesia; recalling only the basics such as his name, his trade, and little else besides. 

Alongside his Witcher mentor Vesemir and the sorceress Triss Merigold, Geralt spends two days attempting to regain his lost memories. However, their quest is soon cut short as Kaher Moren finds itself under attack by a shady group known as Salamandra who, after a fierce battle, manage to steal away with the secret recipes, ingredients, and potions used to grant Witchers their supernatural speed and abilities. Geralt is quick to give chase and so we take our first steps into the flawed but fascinating world of “The Witcher.”

Geralt and crew

 

Originally released in 2007, The Witcher definitely shows its age. Shipping without any form of controller support meant that the first 20-30 minutes of your first playthrough will inevitably be spent trying to remember the somewhat complicated controls hastily thrown at you in the middle of combat during the prologue chapter.

A separate keystroke for both Geralt’s steel and silver sword respectively can be hit multiple times to change between three combat types: a heavy style for one on one combat with bigger slower enemies, a quick style for the smaller faster types, and a group style which, as you might have guessed, excels in dealing with groups of enemies usually three or more. Furthermore each of these three styles have different combo attacks that you perform by timing your left click to an animation on the mouse cursor. 

Using the correct style against the appropriate enemy almost always leads to a hit and the continuation of the combo, whereas using the incorrect style leads to Geralt performing a sort of recoil animation and lesser damage. All of this seems like a lot to take in on the surface but after a few encounters I found myself able to switch on the fly pretty easily and eventually found the flow that made combat relatively easy. That being said, this combat system leaves a lot to be desired. Half the time the group combat style didn’t land despite clearly meeting the conditions and in the later chapters of the game this meant I would be surrounded by wraiths and promptly stunlocked and beaten to death.

Alternatively if silver and steel aren’t quite enough to get the job done, Geralt is also equipped with Witcher potions and signs. Potions provide various benefits such as being able to see in the dark or to have a certain resistance towards certain types of enemy attacks. Meanwhile, signs act more like traditional magic spells, ranging from casting a wave of fire, force pushing enemies backwards ala Star Wars or forming a barrier around Geralt and giving him time to heal or use an item. All of these signs can be upgraded as you level up, however for my part I rarely used them as I never encountered a situation that couldn’t be solved via swordplay. All in all the combat in the Witcher offers the player a myriad of ways to get the job done but ultimately never feels satisfying in the way that you want being a badass monster slayer to feel, which is a shame as the combat is roughly 60 percent of what you’ll be doing.

Along the way on his quest to recover the stolen Witcher secrets and bring justice to Salamandra, Geralt can take on Witcher contracts at every inn. These contracts are pretty straightforward in nature, typically asking you to kill a certain monster or collect a certain amount of items to be turned in. The catch however, is that in order for Geralt to be able to harvest the parts/items from monsters or plants he must first have knowledge of them. This involves buying books from various vendors or received as quest rewards that will add an entry into the bestiary and allow for the parts to drop from monsters and be collected. This system creates a vicious cycle as the knowledge required often costs more gold to purchase than the rewards you would reap from the contracts themselves, forcing the player to find alternative means of income when in truth a Witchers’ contract should be the main source of income in games, as it is in the books. For my part I solved this problem gambling on dice poker, the mini game of choice in The Witcher, as Gwent had yet to be invented. I love dice poker and had no problem rolling my way to riches.

My own hand crafted dice poker board.

When Geralt isn’t getting his fill of slinging silver or steel at anything that moves is where I feel The Witcher really shines. Even though Geralt has lost his memories, that doesn’t mean that they never happened. At various points in the game we encounter characters from Gearalt’s past that give us a tiny peek at previous adventures. For example, when Geralt agrees to have a little party with some friends he’s reconnected with recently in the hopes that it will jog his memory, he is reunited with the bard, Dandelion, who upon seeing his friend alive and well after all their time apart is shocked but otherwise thrilled to bits. The drinks start flowing and soon Dandelion is regaling Gearalt with tales of his forgotten past, reminding him of the time when he befriended a vampire or defended the egg of a golden dragon. 

Having amnesia, but knowing himself well enough, Geralt insists that this is ridiculous; that he would slay the vampire and that golden dragons don’t exist. The best part of all of this (and something that I didn’t catch onto the very first time I played this game years ago) is that Geralt did indeed do all of these things and they are catalogued in “The Last Wish”, the first book in The Witcher novel series. It’s these little nods to the lore of the Witcher and the attention to the smallest details that created this “Aha” moment for me that took me from just playing The Witcher to becoming a lifelong fan.

All my gushing aside, The Witcher is not without its fair share of issues. Generally speaking even for a game released in 2006 this game feels very dated. The movement feels very stiff and everything from drawing your sword to casting a spell feels like it has this slight delay that is painfully noticeable in every action. This is especially apparent when walking through various environments. The speed at which Geralt moves from A to B is incredibly inconsistent and seemed to be determined by the area you are in and how long that took to load on your system. In truth, the only consistency I found with the when it came to traversal was that it always took way too long to get anywhere in this game. I am not exaggerating at all when I tell you that in my 40+ hour playthrough of this game, a solid chunk of that time was spent painfully plodding along from one end of the map to the other constantly lamenting the lack of any sort of fast travel with the exception being a single portal in chapter two that would ferry you between three different locations but did little to ease the pain overall. 

Assuming you are able to adjust to Geralt’s glacial galloping throughout the game organizationally, The Witcher is a bit of a mess. The quest log is a disjointed cluster of about a thousand different main story quest, side quests and Witcher contracts that feel like they update either at random or as a result of the simplest conversation that you can stumble upon without realizing it. Multiple times during my playthrough quests would update or completely resolve, leaving me wondering what the end result was or worse wondering where to go next with nothing but a very vague “track quest on map” button that just gave you a single red dot with no further indication of who or what you’re looking for. All in all, these issues in and of themselves are not what bothered me, but rather the feeling that these issues made everything take much longer than they should have; causing the game to feel padded out at best and a frustrating drag at worst.

The super helpful quest log.

As I said near the beginning of this review, The Witcher is a flawed but fascinating game. For every frustration I had with the controls and the pacing there was always something that kept me interested. The end of each chapter of Geralt’s story left me intrigued and kept me going despite all the technical issues and rough pacing that plagued the gameplay. Early on The Witcher feels disjointed and poorly put together but the further in I went the more the game opened up. Certain plot points were revealed right around the game’s halfway point that really put a twist on the narrative and made the final chapters fly by in stark contrast to the ungodly slow prologue and first chapter. As the credits rolled on my nostalgic trip through the monster filled swamps of Temeria, I felt the same joy I always feel from finishing a game. However I was also left with this Bittersweet feeling that even though I had a good time playing it, The Witcher is a game so hampered with technical issues and just lacking in a fleshed out backstory without reading the novels that came before it that I found myself unable to recommend it to anyone who isn’t already familiar with the works of ‎Andrzej Sapkowski, as the game alone just doesn’t have enough oomph behind it to really showcase just how engrossing the world of the Witcher is with its eccentric characters and the the stories they have yet to tell us. Thankfully, I can tell you that as time moved on the team at CD Projekt Red never lost sight of their goal and I can tell you with certainty that the best is yet to come.

 

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