Note: the only version of the game available on Steam is the Enhanced Edition. As such, this review does not compare the game with its original release.
Developer: CD Projekt RED
Publisher: CD Projekt RED
Genre: Action RPG
Here we are, nearly two months since the release of the critically acclaimed The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. This very website gave it a 9.7, even daring to go so far as name it the Greatest Game of All Time, or GOAT, if you will. Yet the story behind this game that causes nerds to froth at the mouth began many moons ago, in the forgotten age of 2007, with the release of The Witcher. Little did we know that a relatively obscure PC game would lead to the highly anticipated GOAT. Since we are enjoying the third game so much, let’s take a look back at our introduction to Geralt of Rivia and what made it so special.
The Witcher game series acts as a sort of sequel to the Polish novels written by by Andrzej Sapkowski, and was developed by then unknown Polish studio CD Projeckt Red as its first project. The game was touted to feature a deep and innovative combat system, a complex story with high degrees of player choice, and awful graphics. That last part isn’t really a feature, but it is notable.
The game opens with a cinematic that introduces us to our main character and shows what it is that a witcher does. Witchers are professional monster hunters, trained from birth to fight and mutated through the use of different potions. Geralt battles a monster called a striga (basically a Polish vampire) in a recounting of the story of the first Witcher novel. Once you hit New Game, the story actually begins with a wounded and amnesiac Geralt being found and brought to the witcher fortress Kaer Morhen. Soon enough, the fortress finds itself under attack by unknown assailants. This serves as your tutorial. Despite the best efforts of the witchers and the sorceress Triss Merigold, the bandits make off with the many witcher secrets and mutagens. Thus, Geralt heads off to hunt down this mysterious group and retrieve what was stolen. Along the way he finds himself embroiled in political intrigue, racial tension between humans and nonhumans, and a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top.
Like many things with The Witcher, the story here is a slow burn. At the beginning, while the game is throwing all kinds of information at you, it’s tough to find the motivation that some other RPGs have at the get-go. But as the story progresses and more of the threads unfold, it becomes incredibly engaging. Like any good RPG, The Witcher lets you pick your dialogue choices and gives you plenty of opportunities to make decisions about how the game will progress. The story told here is complex and original, and will force you to question your own morality and frequently attempt to choose the lesser of two evils. There are many instances where choices made in side quests have an effect on the main story, and if you never discovered a certain side quest, or chose not to pursue it, your story will play out in a very different way than the story of someone who did. Certain choices towards the end can completely change the goals of your main quests, and make them harder or easier. One gripe for some people may be the ending. If you’re paying attention, picking up on certain clues and reading some of the books to be found in the game, then the ending is quite the shock. If you haven’t picked up on those, then it may not make very much sense.
Language: The game has occasional use of your garden variety curse words, including the f-bomb, the b-word, and the like. The verb “plow” is also sometimes used as a replacement for the f-word, which is kind of funny. Much more frequent is the use of words like whore, both as a general noun and as an insult. Vulgarities such as these occur just often enough to remind you that you are playing a game for adults.
Violence: I believe that The Witcher is as violent as the graphics allow. That is to say, there are certainly things that would be gruesome were they in HD. There is plenty of blood to accompany the abundance of dismemberments and decapitations. It is brutal, but not so far as to call the violence shocking.
Lewdness: Here is where the game gets what I refer to as a “Hard-M.” Evidently, modesty does not suit the women of Temeria. Women are often scantily clad, and sex is referred to very frequently. One of the game’s main “features” is that if you can talk to a woman for an extended period, you can probably sleep with them. For one quest, getting to know a lady of the night in the biblical sense is actually unavoidable if you wish to complete it . For every woman (or women, in one scenario) that you sleep with, the game actually awards you a lascivious trading card as a sort of trophy. Many gamers found it a point of pride to collect all of these cards. I say all this to specify that this game is really not for people under 18. Many times I convinced my parents to get me games like Call of Duty because it was only more blood or the like that took them from T to M. This game was made with the intent to be for mature gamers.
Alcohol/Drug Use: There’s plenty. Alcohol is actually a central component of the game, with drinking contests used as a method to extract information and get people to do things for you. Also giving a person the right wine or liquor can make them more willing to do you a favor. Strong alcohols can also be used as bases for potions. There is one quest line that revolves around fisstech, a fictional drug used as a substitute for cocaine.
Spiritual Content This is a fantasy RPG, so there is lots of reference to magic, spirits, demons, and the like. You can actually sleep with a dryad (forest spirit) and a lake spirit if you so desire. I would not say that there is not any more fictional spiritual content than any other game in its vein, like Dragon Age, but if that sort of thing is off-putting to you it might be best to avoid this one.
The base of combat is a simple yet unique style and combo system. Geralt has three witcher fighting styles; strong, fast, and group. Fairly self-explanatory: strong does lots of damage but only works on slower enemies; fast does less damage but is a lot more likely to hit; and group does lots of damage when fighting crowds of three or more. In addition to this, Geralt carries two swords, and not just because it looks really cool. The steel sword is used for fighting humans and animals, while the silver sword is used for fighting all things supernatural. Combat itself consists of clicking at the right time to continue Geralt’s combo, which escalates in damage. As you level up, you can upgrade your styles to do more damage, cause status effects like stun and knockdown, and extend combo length. The endgame combos consist of acrobatic feats that can only be achieved by witchers.
To go with your swordsmanship skills, Geralt can make use of signs—magic spells that witchers master that can be quickly casted. The signs available are Aard, Yrden, Igni, Quen, and Axii. No, those words shouldn’t mean anything to you. Aard is essentially a force push, and by far the most useful. When upgraded, it has the potential to stun and knockdown, and is a lifesaver when surrounded. Yrden is a trap, laid down to stop enemies in their tracks. Igni is a blast of fire, but really isn’t damaging enough to be useful. Quen is a protection spell, and protects from most damage, but goes away if you perform any offensive actions. Axii is a charm, and can turn enemies to your side, evening the odds. To be honest, I think there was only one occasion outside of the tutorial where I used any sign besides Aard. In the sequels the signs are more useful, but here you’re better off sticking with your blades.
Your last tool is potions. In the famous words of our White Wolf, “a witcher without potions is half a witcher”. Potions can be used to do everything from letting you see in the dark to increasing stamina and vitally regeneration. You can also create oils that allow you to do more damage against certain types of enemies or deliver poisons. The alchemy system consists of finding or buying plants and potion bases, which are usually alcoholic—mostly ethanol or drinking alcohol, C2H6O, though Geralt’s witcher metabolism allows him to consume potions and alcohols that would kill a normal human. To be honest, by the time I figured out how to best utilize the potion system, I no longer needed them to kick monster butt (besides healing items of course). Still, they can be very useful for particularly tough fights.
Like the story, combat takes a while to get into. I’m no slouch when it comes to doing well in hard games, but until you get some levels under your belt and get a handle on the combat, the game can seem unrelenting. When I did finally get the hang of things, the game was still challenging, but nowhere near as hard as the first chapter.
If you have played, or even seen footage of the second and third games, then you’ve probably taken note of the amazing graphical quality. Witcher 2, despite being released in 2011, still looks amazing when compared to games released today. It may surprise you, then, to find out that The Witcher looks like it was released in 2002, rather than 2008, even with the graphical enhancements of the Enhanced Edition. It actually takes some getting used to. Most of the character models not named Geralt lack a lot of the detail we’ve come to know in recent years. It’s not nearly as bad as what I’ve seen of the original release of the game, but it’s not great either. Also—and this is a huge sticking point for me—character models are reused. A lot. Main characters are unique, but many characters, even those you have to interact with frequently for the main quest, look exactly like other people you find in the world, sometimes right down to their clothes. It’s unsettling.
That being said, the music in this game really shines. The score is beautiful, and I occasionally found myself just standing and listening to it. Exploration music is peaceful and serene, while combat music varies without getting too crazy. Along with that music comes some very strong voice acting. Aside from Geralt’s iconic voice, the rest of the cast does very well giving strong voices to weak models. It somewhat makes up for the characters not looking unique.
The writing in the game is also very strong, though when looking back from Wild Hunt, it is clear that this was CDPR’s first time out. Geralt often shows off his sharp wit, and the various speeches and diabolical monologues to be found in the game are always engaging. The bestiary and the various books to be found in Temeria are fascinating reads, offering a look at the deep lore surrounding the world of the game.
The game is from 2008, so playing it on the machine you own today should offer you no trouble. I played with an i7 processor, 8 gigs of RAM, and an nVidia GeForce 750. It was overkill. You can easily run the game on very high with no framerate dips or graphical stutters. No crashes, just smooth sailing.
This game has been described as a rough diamond, and I would agree with that. No one expected it to be as popular as it was. When I first started the game in preparation for Wild Hunt, I found myself asking why exactly it was so popular. I gave up playing it more than once. But once the game really got its claw into me, I couldn’t stop playing, and I blazed through it. It is certainly a slow burn, but the burn is so worth it. The story doesn’t really carry over into the next games the way you would expect from Mass Effect or Dragon Age, but it serves as a great introduction to the world and to the kind of morally grey decisions that you will have to make throughout the series. Sure, it’s easy enough just to start with The Witcher 2, but I highly recommend that you do yourself a favor and play the first game. You should know the roots, and it really is a treasure.