You know, the funny thing about Witchers is that they were originally supposed to be called Hexers – at least according to the the author who invented them. Personally, I always mentally translated the name as Warlocks but that’s just me. In Polish all nouns have implied sex which is usually indicated by a sex appropriate suffix. Many implied feminine nouns end in -a, for example wiedźma (a witch). You can make the word masculine by messing around with the suffix a bit – this is how Sapkowski coined the term wiedźmin – he took the root of the word for a witch, and made it seem masculine. It’s probably important to mention that the word has not existed before that – it is not part of Polish folklore or historical record. It is a made up fantasy word. To me, warlock (a male witch) always seemed a good translation. Especially since Polish language does not have a specific word for warlocks. They are usually covered under the catch-all term czarnoksiężnik that encompasses warlocks, wizards and other spell casters (for example, the word wizard in Wizard of Oz is translated as czarnoksiężnik). Sapkowski thought hexer would be a better translation. The folks at CD Project on the other hand figured the more literal term witcher would be more appropriate. After all wiedźmin was a neologism so it made sense to use another neologism in the English translation. Everyone seemed to like the idea and it was subsequently used in the book translations and other official media.
As have probably noticed, I happen to be fluent in Polish. I also have read some of the book on which the game was based. Therefore after I installed it, I figured it would probably be best to switch the game to Polish language version. Especially since Sapkowski’s world is populated by monsters that draw heavily from slavic folklore. He borrowed elves and dwarves from the same place everyone else did – from Tolkien – but many of the monsters are home grown beasts that plagued my ancestors. Initially I didn’t see the language option in the settings so I just started playing it with the default language settings, only to notice that the writing was a bit shaky in places. Then again maybe this is just a side effect of playing 3 excellent BioWare titles in a row – their craftsmanship at storytelling might have spoiled me.
So I restarted my game, this time switching it over into Polish. I was expecting vast improvement in the voice acting. I figured that since the game was made by Poles, the original text would be better than a translation (isn’t that always the case?). I was wrong. The lengthy opening cut scene was an absolute cringe fest of bad voice acting and nonsensical incoherent sentences with the lip sync and character motions being way off. Perhaps I am just not accustomed to hearing my native tongue in video games, but this was absolutely horrid performance. After about 3 minutes I really wanted to punch Triss and Vasmir in the face and yell at them to talk like real people.
I have this sneaky suspicion that the game might have been written in English first and then re-translated into Polish. Or it might be that dialogs in both versions just suck equally. While I wouldn’t call the English voice acting vastly superior, it was definitely much less annoying.
The game starts with a nice pre-rendered intro which essentially re-tells one of the early short stories that features the Witcher. In fact, it might have been the very first Withcer story that was written – I don’t remember exactly. Still, it was well done and after watching it I was excited about this game. My excitement waned the minuted I learned that the protagonist has suffered from sudden, plot driven amnesia. Ugh!
Here is the thing: there are two types of RPG games out there. Some games let you create your own generic character – a complete in game noob who starts with a blank slate and deficit of knowledge. No one is surprised when this character walks around asking people stupid questions like “what is a dwarf?” or “how do I shot web?”. The other type of games let you take control of a pre-defined character who is experienced and well informed already. So when NPC’s use an unfamiliar term, your character can go “Oh, I know that term, and I’m going to define it in my next sentence for no other reason other than to clue in the player”. CD Project decided to pick the worst of both worlds and give you a pre-existing, inflexible character with an amnesia.
Geralt of Rivia is pretty much the Polish equivalent of Conan the Barbarian – he is a bad ass womanizing anti-hero type. You want to play off of that – if you must give the players an inflexible avatar, at least make him seem to know more than a player. You want him to have pre-existing relationships, and a history. No one wants to play Conan the Amnesiac idiot who doesn’t know which way you hold a sword. They want to play an ass kicking barbarian. Giving Geralt amnesia just to allow him to ask stupid questions and to justify his level 1 status is, for the lack of a better word, retarded.
Here is a hint for RPG makers out there: I don’t fucking care that my character who is supposedly a legendary bad ass starts as a level 1 pushover. Levels, skills and experience are a game mechanic – it should be a background thing that has nothing to do with the story you are telling. When you start using plot to justify your game mechanics you are doing it wrong. Mass Effect 2 did the same thing to justify the retool of the skill/experience system and it sucked as well. Don’t do this!
To make matters worse, the game starts with some bandits breaking into the Witcher stronghold stealing their greatest secret – the mutagens and potions used the create more Witchers. Sigh… Bad guys stole our magical artifact and your mission is to recover it. Where did I see that opening? Wasn’t this the plot of just about every fantasy themed video game ever made?
This sort of thing is excusable when you are writing a generic fantasy game. The Witcher is not generic though – it is based on a lengthy book cycle chock full of ideas, possible plot hooks and starting points. CD Project could easily recycle some of these concepts – use an old enemy to cause trouble, have an old ally request Geralt’s help, etc… But they went for generic fantasy plot #2. Go figure.
I figured it couldn’t get any worse than this, but then I finished the tutorial zone and ended up the first real game locale to find out my progress was blocked by a plot driven door. You see, I needed to get into a city but the gates have been closed due to
plot I mean, plague or something. The only way to get into the city was to do a series of quests for the local villagers. The quests of course involved killing x amount of certain monsters, and delivering their body parts to the quest giver.
Let’s summarize: amnesiac protagonist, missing artifact, plot driven city gate, kill 10 rats style quests… I only have been playing for about two hours and the game already hit pretty much every horrible fantasy RPG cliche I could think of. Ugh!
Then I got a quest that required me to have a special skill halfway through the Intelligence skill tree – which I have not been leveling up, foolishly concentrating on my combat prowess. Now I had to spend some quality time grinding just so that I could learn herbalism…
Which brings me to the slew of purely mechanical problems that plague this game. The interface is needlessly busy and complicated. For example, when you level up, you are granted talent points which come in 3 varieties: bronze, silver and gold. Some skills and abilities can be purchased only with a certain type of talent. Of course they are also subdivided into tiers with prerequisites and such, making the whole experience of leveling up a bit confusing.
Inventory dialog takes up the whole screen, but the actual box in which you keep your loot is a tiny box that is perhaps 10% of the whole available surface. The rest is taken up by a fancy character portrait and fancy borders. Items in inventory are represented by tiny icons that are sometimes hard to tell apart without hovering your mouse over them. The items of the same type stack most of the time, but sometimes they don’t. There is a button you have to press to sort and stack your items, and every time I press it, it frees up one or two inventory slots for me suggesting that there is indeed some stacking problem.
From the UI design standpoint the interface is just too busy – it’s designed to be decorative rather than functional and it gets some time taking used to. The alchemy screen you can use to brew potions is a prime example of needless complexity. It is conceptually similar to the system you might have encountered in Morrowind or Oblivion. You collect ingredients, all of which have certain properties. You can then combine them to make potions. Unfortunately unlike in Bethsheda games you are merely told abstract names of those properties (eg. that the component contains aether or something like that) and not the actual in-game buffs. This means that to brew a portion you must first learn it’s formula. Once you learn the formula, brewing a potion is essentially one click operation. You click on the formula name, the game selects appropriate ingredients from your inventory and creates it. The system from Oblivion encouraged experimentation and coming up with your own random concoctions. The Witcher interface discourages this sort of exploratory game play.
This is a long list of complaints, I know. But unfortunately I have more. Combat in the game is horrid, and that’s bad. A lot of people are willing to turn a blind eye towards obvious problems with a game as long as the combat sequences are fun. After all, in most games you spend most of your time fighting someone or something. If fighting is not enjoyable, then the whole game suffers as a result.
In The Witcher you fight by clicking on your opponents once, and watching your character attempt to perform a 3 hit combo. If your combo hits, you can then click on the enemy again to perform a followup attack – but you have to time it right. If you click to early or to late, Geralt will simply decide it is time to take a breather and stand there getting hit. If you click while he is performing the combo, he will immediately abort it and just stand there. So to actually be effective, you have to click, wait 2-3 seconds, click again, wait, click again and etc… It’s silly and counter intuitive. It took me around 20 minutes to actually get this right. I was trying to use the Torchlight style mouse mashing tactics only to get my ass kicked. It was extremely confusing.
All in all, I’m not impressed. I really wanted to like this game, but all of the above fills me with an overpowering sense of “meh…”. I’ll give the game a little bit more time – see if I can get through that plot driven door and check out the city. Perhaps the story will pick up at some later point in the game.
Normally, when I don’t “feel” the game right away, I shelve it after few hours. I’m trying to be lenient when playing and reviewing The Witcher because this is CD Project’s first video game effort. It is also one of the first internationally successful Polish game that were well received outside the country. So while flawed, The Witcher is still quite an accomplishment. Usually when I review video games, I talk about titles that have been published by huge development houses that have years of experience releasing blockbuster games. The Witcher on the other hand was published by a brand new development studio and written by developers whose prior experience was mostly in indie products or in localizing western games. It was made on a budget which is a fraction of what most western studios spend on new games. When viewed as such it is actually not a bad game. It’s flawed, but I guess it deserves a second look.
Oh, and please, no spoilers!