Of monsters and men.
Developer: CD Project Red
Publisher: CD Project Red
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (reviewed), OS X
Available on: Steam
Alright, so I finished another one of those long RPGs and you can guess what this means: Wall of text critique! But again, to make it easy on the lazy people, here’s a TL;DR: It’s clunky as hell, gameplay is rarely satisfying and the country this game takes place in is probably called Fetchquestopia for the amount of running between the same 10 locations you do in every given questing area. But for all its faults, it’s still a genuinely absorbing game set in a wonderous world filled with actual characters. If you can look past the game design of the title and rather focus on the storytelling and world design, it’s definitely a worthwhile endeavor.
So now that we have that out of the way, let me get into the nitty gritty of the game. This has been my third attempt at playing this game all the way through. The first time was on an old computer that had tremendous problems with this game. Literally every 30 minutes or so, the game would crash, so I got nowhere with it. But even then I persisted and actually got about halfway through chapter 1 before the game crapped out completely and corrupted my save file.
So I let the game sit for a few months and when my new computer (meaning my now previous one) came along, I gave it another try and got around 2/3 of the way through the second chapter. The reason why I stopped playing that time will be explained later.
In the meantime, I again bought a new computer and forgot to transfer the save file from my old PC to the current one. I guess I grew too accustomed to the Steam cloud save feature so I was stuck starting all over again. I finally started playing the game again around 4 weeks ago and if I subtract the 25 hours I had already put into the game, it took me 39 hours to finally beat the game. So let’s discuss all the aspects of this game one after another.
Usually the thing most important to me in a game is the actual interaction I get to have. As such I was quite surprised by the actual gameplay mechanics that are on offer.
Combat is probably the most apparent example of what doesn’t work in this game. It sort of harkens back to the old CRPG combat where manual dexterity and reactions aren’t your primary mode of engagement. You simply click on enemies and watch a combat animation play out. What does differ from these older games is that you can’t simply click on a group of enemies and have the battle resolve itself. It has a combo system which requires that you click the mouse button just at the right time to chain attacks successfully together. If this sounds incredibly simple, it’s because it is. What adds a bit of complexity to the mix is that positioning matters, since groups of enemies have a propensity to position themselves around you and if they backstab you, all your parrying and evading is useless.
The other thing that artificially increases complexity for the fights is the fact that you have 2 different swords (one for humans and one for monsters) which each can be employed with 3 different fighting styles (strong, fast or group attacks). This however isn’t that much of a challenge to get your head around, even though I do have to ask why the silver monster sword can’t just be used to kill humans as well. You’d assume that something that’s good at killing monsters would also do the job on humans.
In the end, the combat system is probably the weakest part of the game, since it’s too simplistic. There’s no finesse to it, you just have manage to get through the combo, evade when health gets low and sometimes use the magic signs. Speaking of which, those signs are also incredibly ineffectual, so I personally rarely used them.
The enemies themselves aren’t challenging because of their attack patterns, they’re mostly just damage sponges, especially if you use the wrong sword or combat style, so fights tend to drag on a little without any actual challenge for the player. Especially during the final chapter and epilogue, since it desperately wants to present a climactic action-filled showdown and it simply drags on and on with its endless number of skirmishes. And to make matters even worse, those last parts lack a lot of places where you can gather ingredients for potions you desperately need.
But I can already hear you ask: “How the hell am I supposed to know which combat style I am to use against enemies?” And this very nicely leads me to the next topic.
The biggest draw that the game probably has outside of its world and story is the fact that you actually have to prepare for your upcoming adventures. And not in the usual way of merely stocking up on healing items.
You actually have to brew your own potions, sword oils and bombs, since you can’t just buy them. And there are tons of these, all with very specific uses. The game has a surprisingly robust alchemy system that makes the most of all the constant gathering you’re bound to be doing in an RPG, so all those flowers you pick and all the drops you get from monsters are actually useful to the player beyond merely checking them in at your local vendor in exchange for gold.
Thinking ahead and gathering all the necessary items to brew enough health and stamina regenerating potions is a surprising amount of fun, even though the whole system can get a bit convoluted with the sheer number of different ingredients there are. More than once I wondered why I wasn’t able to brew a specific potion since I thought my bag was full of items, only to realize that the ones containing the critical ingredients had run out, but that’s not readily apparent, since the ingredients themselves aren’t easily shown in your bag, just the items containing them. Sure there’s a filtering system, but there has to be an easier way to facilitate this. This also isn’t helped with the fact that you actually need strong alcohol as a base for your potions so more often than not you’ll end up buying up all the liquor in any given tavern just to have enough for all your potions. Coupled with your aggressively limited inventory that gets filled up constantly with different potions as well as certain critical items for side-quests – mostly the monster hunting contracts – as well as other items such as grinding stones and other sword upgrades, chunks of meteorites to forge new swords, etc., this means that you’re never in a comfortable space to simply say that you’re well equipped for everything.
But preparation doesn’t stop there, though I personally wish it would. See in order to get many ingredients from fallen enemies, Geralt actually needs to research these monsters in question to determine which parts contain which ingredients. But simply killing monsters and harvesting their brains/tongues/fangs/blood/marrow isn’t enough, since Geralt’s amnesia probably also wiped any and all knowledge of biology. There are the aforementioned monster hunting contracts in every zone that border just a bit too much on MMO fetchquests for my taste which require you to bring X amount of Y to person Z. And they’re presented to the player in the most boring way ever: Pieces of paper on a notice board. Whenever you enter a town and go to the inn, you can be sure that there are a half dozen of these fetchquest contracts on that notice board so you can steer clear of that and never have to bother with them. Because even if you already know which part they require, you still need to have an entry in your monster glossary for it to count, because simply ripping out feathers from a cockatrice is only possible once Geralt reads up on it in a book. And I simply couldn’t be arsed to spend all my money on overpriced books where sometimes the flavor text doesn’t even specify what types of monsters are documented in there.
Fortunately, the game isn’t too hard to force you to be constantly buying up all the books containing this knowledge to be able to maximize your profits from wandering around the woods picking flowers and harvesting organs. At least on normal difficulty. So I can give the system a pass with the comment that it’s admirable for a game to actually request the player to not simply roleplay a character of their choosing, but roleplaying a specific pre-written character. Which means that the player has to abide by the same routines the character would usually take without his interference. This is actually why I personally always liked JRPGs more than western RPGs (with the bonus that typical western RPGs tend to be the same fantasy world over and over again), because they make me roleplay with a pre-defined character instead of having me come up with one of my own, since I usually just tend to go for the saint who helps everybody in the land since the rewards usually outweigh those all the other paths.
There’s a surprising amount of detail put into this world. Usually these RPGs feature a largely static world that doesn’t feel alive. Most games simply feel like the world is there to facilitate a player, but Temeria actually feels like a real place. The outskirts of Vizima aren’t simply 3 thrown together huts, there’s an entire village there spread out over the whole area with tons of NPCs that tend after their duties. The same way how Vizima itself feels like a real city. There aren’t just a few houses stomped together behind a wall and called a city, there are quarters dividing up the place along with winding roads and actual city blocks to explore. You really feel the change in atmosphere when you first get out of the slums of the temple quarter and venture into the nonhuman district. Later on when you get to go into the trade quarter it’s completely different again, but still a holistic part that feels like these pieces are all part of the same big city.
It’s not an RPG tasking you to save the world, where you head between continents or even just a whole country. You’re mostly isolated to one city, it’s outskirts, swamps and a bit of the surrounding countryside that’s probably the most interesting part of the story. I like that narrow focus, since it doesn’t have to introduce tons of characters for it to work and it makes events feel more immediate than having a mission halfway across the continent. It always feels weird to be playing an RPG with a huge world whose affairs are only managed by a handful of people. It’s much more believable when the scope is smaller.
But it isn’t just that the world is detailed, it’s also that it feels exotic. On the surface, this may seem like a regular old tolkienesque fantasy world with elves and dwarves, but if you dig deeper, you’ll find that they’re nothing alike outside of the fact that as usual, nonhumans are fighting for freedom and equality and humans being assholes all over the place. But after that gets established, you’ll find yourself in a world that mixes realistic politics with lovecraftian horrors and Arthurian legends and it all does it seamlessly. You can tell that developer isn’t American, since all of these places don’t feel like they would belong into a typical western RPG. It has the veneer of a western RPG, but the flavor is distinctly Slavic. And it’s refreshing to see this among the endless amounts of knights, elves and dwarves.
Here’s where we hit a bit of a stumbling block for the game. For all the lofty motivation the preparations for the combat has – which in itself unfortunately ends on a whimper exactly because of the lackluster combat – I can’t quite say that the same amount of ambition went into the quest design. The game has a terrible pacing problem throughout its entirety, with you picking up dozens of quests in each area, all with multiple stages between them. And all of them require you to run back and forth endlessly between the same locations, always with loading screens between maps as well as every time when you enter a building.
To give an example: The majority of the city of Vizima is initially locked off to you, where only the temple quarter is available. But you can still head out to the harbor and into the nearby swamps, so in total you have 3 maps available (4, if you count the cave in the swamps). So to get to the swamps you’ll need to traverse the entirety of the temple quarter down to the harbor and then traverse the entirety of the swamps. And you do this multiple times for multiple different quests. There’s no easy way of consolidating all that back and forth for multiple quests, since the stages of these quests rarely allow you to do that. So you’ll end up heading to the Swamp once for an alchemist, in which along the way you obviously pick up a handful of additional quests within the swamp as well as within Vizima, only to be sent there again later by a few additional quests, not the least of which is the main quest, that you couldn’t have gotten earlier. And this ties into the reason why I probably stopped playing the game around this point. I had tons of quests open that required me to endlessly run between the same 5 or 6 places and it’s just not fun doing that over and over again, being nagged by the same monster encounters every single time.
So you’ll simply have to suffer through it and tank hours into these fetch quests. But it’s worth it.
What The Witcher probably does better than almost every other RPG I’ve played is characters. Now this isn’t to say that their writing is stellar, because it isn’t. You can tell that English wasn’t the first language of the writer and that the voice actors probably also didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing with the material they were given.
But the people in this game still seem like people, in spite of all the problems that the game has to overcome – the aforementioned voice acting as well as the quite honestly abysmal character models that looked outdated even when the game came out – and you’ll get to know them and their problems fairly intimately. Geralt even has real honest to god friends that actually talk to him outside of the plot. There’s even a scene where they have a party and later where they go drinking together. You’d never see something like that in an RPG released around the same time. At least not a western RPG, which is again why I personally like it, since group dynamics are also a big part of JRPGs and I typically enjoy the character interactions they present me with. The only point where the game overdoes it with the characters is with the romances. There are tons of women Geralt can have sex with and typically there isn’t much interaction required for them to be willing to. Sex happens fairly frequently and it feels like this is the only part where the focus of the game was a bit misguided. There’s literally a scene after the civil war part breaks out where Geralt talks to a female elf and she literally berates him for thinking about sex at that time to then just immediately follow it up with something along the lines of “Oh all right, take your clothes off”. But the worst thing is that after each sexual encounter – which you don’t get to see in action – you get a paradoxically explicit collectible card depicting the woman in question almost naked. It’s weird for the game to indulge in this when it otherwise treats nudity in a more mature manner. I mean there are actual female characters and enemies as well that run around naked and the game never makes a big deal out of it, never takes the camera and focusses on the tits and ass, it’s just how these monsters look. The naughty trading cards kind of undermine that.
While I won’t be spoiling anything here, I do believe that the story is worth mentioning as well, since you get presented with choices fairly often and not a few of them lead to different outcomes later on in the game. The aforementioned conflict between humans and nonhumans is fairly prominent in the plot and I personally like to play a neutral character that stays out of the conflict for as much as possible, but the game stubbornly refuses to allow the player that, so it actually forces you do think about the ramifications of your choices. Do you help the monotheistic army that’s ostensibly operating under direct orders from the king or do you help the violent nonhumans who terrorize the peaceful population under the mantle of fighting for freedom?
The story often twists and turns and characters react to your arguments by pointing out hypocrisies between what Geralt says and what he does.
This game is a mess. The combat is unfulfilling, the actual writing and voice-acting are very lacking, the graphics are a mixed bag – while the scenery can be beautiful, the character models are a visual nightmare – and the quests deliver a story that suffers from tremendous pacing problems. But it also features some of the best characterization I’ve ever experience, it presents a world that truly feels alive and not just one that’s there to be presented to the player. It features a story with a tremendous amount of meaningful choices in addition to an alchemy system that’s only a little too convoluted, but still overall a nice addition. But I’d still recommend the game nonetheless. I’d recommend playing it on easy mode to have the enemies absorb and deal less damage since that part of the game isn’t really that enjoyable, because there isn’t any challenge to the combat and it makes life easier for you, especially during the latter parts of the game.