RPGs Grow Up
The Witcher Ripe With Adult Themes And A Dark World
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Forget everything you know about RPGs when you play The Witcher. Whereas some games offer up a moral dilemma or two, The Witcher might as well be some type of grand social experiment where players have to deal with racism, poverty and even sexual relations.
Based on the works of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher is quite a unique fantasy world that is probably more like things really were in medieval times than the romantic notions we have all come to see in most games and movies. The worlds here are recreated in all their poverty-stricken details, showing you a truly broken society where the poor wither and die in the streets while the rich party and feast in private banquet rooms.
You play Geralt, a former human who underwent a terrible process of ingesting drugs which turned his body into something a little more, and a little less, than human. The story is that more than half of the witcher recruits, found from among the orphans of war, don't survive the transformation. Witchers that make it to the other side of the trials become professional monster hunters. Monsters in this game are very powerful so that most normal humans don't stand a chance against even the most mundane of them. But witchers have increased reflexes and special weapons that put them on equal footing, or even at an advantage, to the monster community. So people hire the witchers to eliminate particularly tough monsters, or monsters that infect important areas, like the town cemetery.
But the world of The Witcher is a broken society. The treasury of most countries has been drained by constant warfare and the humans unfairly prosecute and discriminate against elves and dwarves, leading to a resistance movement that is causing a lot of bloodshed on both sides. That racism is also directed against witchers, who most people don't consider as still being human. With your bright white hair, you tend to stand out as not being normal too, which does not help. You get the feeling that while you are needed, you are at the same time not wanted. Witchers in general have fallen on hard times, with most of the order being killed in a massacre at their headquarters years ago. Geralt is one of the few witchers remaining in the world, and since the process of making a witcher makes the man sterile, and since they are not actively taking in new recruits, you get the feeling that when the few remaining witchers die, that there won't be anymore.
At the onset of the game we learn that Geralt has lost his memory and in fact, most of his friends thought he died five years ago in a riot trying to defend some non-humans from being slaughtered by an angry mob. This means that you don't know all the combat techniques that witchers are supposed to have memorized, and need to find them in various books and scrolls you buy throughout the game. Beside being better able to fight monsters you know about, knowledge also tells you what organs to harvest after they are dead to put into the potions you brew.
The plot of the game is that the witcher lab has been assaulted and the formulas for making a witcher are stolen. These are being used for evil purposes, enhancing normal dogs to become killing machines for instance, by someone or some group intent on using the witcher power to rule the world. You and the few remaining witchers set off to find the source of this evil, and to recover your stolen property. Plus vengeance is also a strong motive as a witcher in training, one of the last ever, is killed in the assault.
You come to a small city called Vizima and find that it has a ton of problems. There is a plague, a non-human uprising, monsters everywhere and abject poverty. You start to take on missions as you peruse your own goals and quickly learn that The Witcher does not pull any punches. Missions involve unsavory characters guilty of rape, kidnapping children and murder most foul. And you will find that no good deed goes unpunished sometimes, as the seemingly correct choice causes someone else to suffer. Many times you will be choosing the lesser of two evils, but one that is evil nonetheless. If you are into rich storylines, then this is the game for you.
Graphically, the game is pretty intense, though it is more of an overall atmosphere than any real eye candy. The Witcher does a great job of showing a broken, gloomy and depressing world in fine detail. Those of you used to the complete free-roaming ability found in games like Oblivion might be disappointed here however, as Geralt can't jump or swim, so a small fence or even shallow water can serve to keep you out of areas that the developers didn't design. As such, you might feel a little penned in.
Combat in the game requires some skillful choices. You have three main combat styles: strong, fast and group. Using the correct one against the correct monster is the key. If you try to use a fast style against a big ghoul, you will barely scratch their skin. Whereas a strong style against a quick little barguest won't generally be able to hit the thing. You also have the choice of a steel sword or a silver one, depending on the creature's vulnerability. Trial and error will tell you what to do, or you can buy a book about the monster which will give you the info.
When you attack, Geralt will go into a series of lighting quick combat moves, but you have to click when the end of one of the move series ends to start the next one. Hitting too fast or too slow will reset the series, leaving you doing moves with lower damage. If you play on the easy level your onscreen icon will flash when it's time to hit the attack button again, which can be tricky even then. Without that help on higher levels, you have to listen for a sword sound or memorize the move sequence, which is really difficult. I recommend you play on the easy level to get the sword flash.
You also have five magic spells you can cast, which are done by simply right clicking the mouse if you have enough endurance. My favorite is the flame spell, which can set people on fire. I almost always begin a combat with a quick firewall, which kills lower level monsters outright and can severely hinder larger ones. Combat styles and spells can be upgraded as you play to create a unique character that fits your style.
A lot has been made of the sex in the game, but I don't think this is really a big deal, though I am glad it was included since I think this is missing from most RPGs. Although sterile, Geralt can have sex a lot. And since he is also immune to disease, sex is pretty much just a good time for him. When you have sex with a woman in the game, you get a little card in your journal that shows her in a sexy pose. This is not much more intense than most fantasy art calendars, and Atari has covered up all the breasts in the American version of the game or used PhotoShop to airbrush out nipples, making it even more tame. (You can import the British version of the game if you want them added back in, since they are included there.) Given that, gasp, adults do have sex from time to time, I think including this in a realistic game is an element missing from most titles. Kudos to the developers for adding it in, especially if that follows the works of Sapkowski. In a sense this is like the dice rolling (Yahtzee poker) or boxing mini-games included here in that it just makes the game a little more interesting. And if you are a prude, you never have to have sex with anyone. You can simply say, no to the hot and wanton women who offer themselves to you. (yea, right!)
The final element to The Witcher is alchemy. There is a very robust potion brewing engine where you collect ingredients and formulas and try to put together drinks to help out your combat. In higher difficulty levels, you will need to do this effectively if you are to survive, as this is a key advantage to the witcher combat strategy. You can use a formula you find or buy, or experiment to find new potions on your own.
In the end The Witcher is a wonderful RPG with only a few flaws. The game is always exciting and interesting, and will have you thinking "just one more quest stage before I go to bed," until the morning light surprises you. Play at your own risk, because you will be surprised at what a detailed, if depressing, world the developers have laid out for you.
John Breeden II is the Chief Editor of GiN. While a forward thinking man he admits to a fondness for older video games. You should have seen him at Videotopia. John can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org.