The Witcher: First Impression

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'm not sure if I like the way Geralt looks. Nevertheless this is pretty much cannonical now.

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.

The Witcher is punctuated by many cut scenes. A lot of them lead you durectly into combat. So it's not like you can scout ahead.

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.

The game is full of plot driven doors. First you must do quests to get into the city. Then you must quest to access other parts of the city. Geralts worst enemies are not monsters or xenophobic humans - but doors and gates.

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.

The level-up interface is about as convoluted as it gets.

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.

Is there a reason why all the item icons must be so tiny? Couldn't we just move the portraint to the left and make them bigger?

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.

Well, at least they have a consistent theme going on. Even if it is confusing and busy one.

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.

I recommend playing in the isometric mode. The over the shoulder mode is pretty much unplayable.

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.

Both Yathzee and Shamus Young hated this game. What did you think about it? Does it have any redeeming qualities? Should I keep playing it? Does it get any better later on?

Oh, and please, no spoilers!

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8 Responses to The Witcher: First Impression

  1. JKjoker ARGENTINA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    the story picks up once you are inside the city, irc its something like ACT2>ACT3>ACT4>ACT0>ACT1>ACT5 (its been a while tho and your millage might vary i didnt like the ending act, others did), the choices change little things but they add up, and the game is LOOOOOONG

    you get more than fetch quests/kill X after act1 (but youll still get a lot of them), and there is more room for exploration

    there are a few parts near the middle of the game you dont have a clear objective and you are forced to wander around talking to everyone jrpg style (probably the worst part i remember from the game, it hurt more at the time when the loading times were unbearable)

    Combat does kind of suck and in the swamp area youll visit often in act2 and 3 enemies respawn even tho you can kill them just by looking at them after leveling up a bit, using the hardest difficulty helps a bit but it gets old way too fast for a game as long as this one (there are mods that make combat more interesting but i didnt have them back on the day), try fighting many enemies at a time and using the double click on ground dodge move to spice things up

    well im a bit mean to the game but i did enjoy it even tho some parts dragged a bit, i’d say its a great game for a dry gaming season (like right now or around xmas last year), i was not able to replay it farther than act2 tho, i got burnt out by the fetch quests but different choices did change things, different important npcs, some enemies were different, etc, much better than Bioware’s “illusion of choice” in DA and ME1&2 where changes very contained imho

    about the Voice overs, i played it in the original English release (without any patch, the loading times were MURDER, ugh) both the translation and the voice overs sucked, in some parts the same character even changes voice actors making me think he was possessed or something, they say in the new “enhanced” version all the voice overs and the translation were redone but i havent played it

    also watch out, the savegames add up pretty fast and might end up filling up your hd causing the game to crash (one of the patches might have fixed it)

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ JKjoker:

    I think I have the enhanced version or whatever. Voice acting is still horrible. IMHO Geralt is the worst offender – possibly because you hear his voice all the time, while the NPC’s come and go.

    This is especially evident since I just played Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2 side by side – two games in with voice acting was superb by comparison.

    Any links to the mentioned mods? It would be interesting to check them out.

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  3. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    As stated, make sure you are playing the enhanced edition, you can download a huge patch for free if you don’t have it. It fixes many issues, the biggest one being the long loading screens between areas. It is also supposed to fix the voice acting but I hardly felt any difference, it seems they only improved minor characters and left the major characters unchanged. It’s not the worst I’ve heard, but it’s obviously not comparable to Bioware’s famous actor cast.

    I didn’t really like Geralt being amnesiac, if only there to justify the lvl1 status, but the usual cliché feels different because throughout the course of the game, you’ll meet many people who do in fact know or have heard of you. The game starts out slow but picks up later, and you’ll get to see the consequences of your early choices.

    Combat is boring unless you play on the higher difficulties. In normal mode, you can just attack enemies and defeat them with ease, even with the wrong blade or wrong stance, and the only potion you’ll ever need is ‘Swallow’. On the hardest, you have to choose the right oil, sharpen your blades, use the right weapon, choose the correct stance, change targets mid-fight, and generally pay more attention to the alchemy component of the game and its many potions with various effects.

    I don’t see how this game’s alchemy discourages experimentation, you can try and mix elements as you like by dragging the ingredients in the substance slots, no need for recipes. Unlike Oblivion you don’t see the immediate result but have to drink it first, which is good. I would refrain from letting the game fill ingredient slots, it often chooses expensive components with rarer substances and doesn’t try to match the secondary properties (nigredo, albedo and rubedo) to make stronger potions.

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  4. JKjoker ARGENTINA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    the cdprojekt site (its been highjacked by the witcher 2 hype right now tho) had a few “favorite mods” posted a few months ago including some “official” ones

    google revealed a few mod databases like witchervault.ign.com

    sorry i cant recommend any of them, i finished the game a long time before they were available so i never used them

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  5. JKjoker ARGENTINA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    im pretty sure this was one of the officially recommended mods, use at your own risk

    http://www.moddb.com/mods/flashs-the-witcher-mod

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  6. agamer ROMANIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    How did the combat system make you confused?
    The tutorial tells you that you need to wait for the cursor to change in order to click again, and the witcher doesn’t stand there if you click later or earlier, it resets the combo and starts it again.
    Learn how to write a review, you noob, it’s not the game’s fault that it’s your first time playing a video game.

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Zel:

    I really think we need to send developers a message that we don’t mind if our famous hero character starts at lv 1.

    @ JKjoker:

    Thanks!

    @ agamer:

    Combat seems counter-intuitive. How about that? Different from what I expected.

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  8. agamer ROMANIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Well, after reading the rest of this website I’m sorry for my rude comments.
    I still believe that people reviewing this game are very objective, saying that “there’s no health bar” where it is, “the jurnal is convoluted” when I find it simple to use (I mean how else would you deal with all the info?) and that “the game doesn’t make the combat controls obvious (when it does, in the tutorial).
    It’s not because I like the game, but because they show me the sun and say that “it is the moon”.Still don’t get it.
    Well, the author of this site is a good writer, better than most blogs that I have read and his posts are long enough to give me something to do.
    And some ideas of his, like those about Me are logical and well presented.

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