As always, you can click on images to view larger versions.
So, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is set to release in February 2015, and I’m pleased to see it’s among the most hotly anticipated upcoming releases. I wrote briefly about the Witcher series more than two years ago, largely to encourage readers to check out The Witcher 2, and noted then that I needed to play through it again. Well, I never did get around to it, and the imminent sequel means I need to get on the ball (no, not that Ball). But before doing that, I decided to revisit the first game. Not to play through the main story again — I remember it well even after several years — but to try out the bonus adventures that now come with every copy of the game. Created by both fans and original developers CD Projekt RED using the game’s D’jinni Adventure Editor, they offer small, standalone stories of Geralt of Rivia, recalling Andrzej Sapkowski’s original short stories.
While playing the first adventure of the bunch, entitled Damn Those Swamps! (renamed from Blight of the Bogs), I was reminded of just how interesting the first Witcher game is. So I decided to start this post with something of an introduction to the game as a whole, before writing about this specific Adventure. Read on!
The Witcher is based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s books, including the original short stories and subsequent novels, and the Enhanced Edition of the game comes with the first of these short stories to set the tone. I read it before I played the game, and then was pleased to see that the opening cinematic for the game is a lovingly crafted and faithful re-telling of that story. It was clear that the designers had taken the central elements of the story to heart.
In my earlier post I touched on these elements, but I should reiterate them here. The world of Sapkowski’s stories is heavily inspired by eastern European folklore and fairy tales, and contains all sorts of monsters and other fantastical creatures. But the stories are more morally ambiguous than their inspirations, depicting people who can be just as bad as the monsters that plague them. In this world, Witchers are humans who undergo dangerous genetic mutations to become powerful monster hunters. They travel the world, plying their trade, and are generally feared and scorned, even if their services are often needed. Once there were many Witchers, but at the time of Sapkowski’s stories there aren’t many left. Protagonist Geralt of Rivia is one.
The first short story focuses on Geralt’s profession. I don’t wish to spoil it for those who haven’t read it, but I will say that, while it includes hints of the murky morals and backhanded dealings that Geralt will face in later stories (and in the game), much of it concerns an actual confrontation with a monster. It is this part that serves as the introduction to the game, and it aptly demonstrates what separates a Witcher from a typical fantasy hero. Geralt, like all Witchers, is a highly skilled swordsman, favoring light leather armor so his feints and pirouettes will be unimpeded. But expert swordsmanship is not enough when facing dangerous monsters. Geralt makes careful preparations before the encounter, polishing his Witcher’s silver sword (used because silver is deadly to monsters created through magic), and mixing several potions to enhance his senses and speed his reflexes. These potions are lethally poisonous to normal humans, but Witchers train from childhood to withstand them, so they can better face the terrifying creatures they hunt.
But these are not a Witcher’s only tools. They also possess modest magical ability, able to cast a few Signs to assist in combat. Geralt uses these during his battle too, and only by combining them with his potions and swordplay is he able to succeed. The game’s introductory cinematic pleased me so because it faithfully captured all of this, and served as a statement of intent: the developers would emphasize these three facets of the Witcher — agile warrior, alchemist and magician — in their game. More than that, they wanted encounters with monsters to be important and dangerous. Geralt wouldn’t be plowing through hordes of easy enemies in The Witcher, he’d be making careful preparations to face deadly foes. And dealing with treachery, racism, and other unpleasantness in the meantime, of course.
The game that resulted certainly isn’t perfect, but it does capture the feeling the developers were after. While there are easier difficulty settings for those who don’t want to mess around with potions and just want to get on with fighting, on the highest difficulty setting alchemy is crucial to success. Geralt must pick herbs and harvest monster parts to get ingredients for his potions, and he can create oils to coat his blade for extra damage against certain types of monsters. It’s also important to research his foes before an encounter, to learn the correct tactics to use against them and to allow Geralt to harvest higher-quality parts from their corpses. During combat, he can cast five different magical Signs as per the books, although some are clearly more useful than others. Then there’s the swordplay, which threw off a lot of players. Rather than the clunky swings and parries of games like Skyrim, the developers wanted to capture Geralt’s speed and finesse. So they created a combat system based on timing. Clicking on an enemy initiates an attack, which includes several blows. When this attack is finished, clicking again at the correct time will initiate the next attack in the sequence (and these sequences grow more complex and impressive as Geralt gains experience and learns new moves). Click at the wrong time, however, and the attack will cancel, leaving Geralt standing idle while his foes swarm him.
There are advantages to this system. Geralt looks really cool as he spins and slices through monsters, his animations based on motion capture of actual stunt fighters. And the timing system makes combat feel tactical rather than frantic. But it can also give the sense that players are simply watching Geralt perform cool moves, instead of doing it themselves. Also, Geralt’s movement when he’s not actively attacking feels very clunky. One thing I was reminded of when I fired up the game again is that it can be played from different viewpoints. The developers recommend the over the shoulder view, and I never used anything else, but the game can also be played from two different isometric perspectives, using mouse control only (similar to games like Diablo). But catering to both perspectives limits the game a little. It ensures that the explorable areas are more or less flat, with a loading zone needed to enter buildings or even use stairs, and makes movement awkward, especially during combat. I came to appreciate the battles, however, because in the end my success was due to my planning rather than my execution. Did I have Geralt mix and imbibe the correct potions? How about an oil coating for his sword? Did I learn my opponent’s weaknesses and have Geralt cast the appropriate Signs between attacks? With proper preparation Geralt would emerge victorious, and without it he would die.
Of course, recreating Geralt’s specific Witcherly skills means that The Witcher doesn’t have the same type of character design as other role-playing games. Geralt is a set character; players cannot create a mage or a thief or a bard, but must always play as a Witcher. There are skills to upgrade as Geralt gains experience, but they are tiered, so players will learn all of the basics before picking a few specialties at high levels. Overall there’s not that much room to choose different skills as one plays through the game, although this was improved upon in the sequel. Geralt also doesn’t acquire new equipment that often, since he already possesses a Witcher’s tools. In practice this means fewer but more significant upgrades, which is fitting.
The story is also atypical for a role-playing game. It’s a very personal story, about Geralt and his friends, although some politics and larger world events manage to creep in. But it does a good job of mimicking the types of stories Sapkowski wrote, where Geralt would arrive in a town and try to solve a curse or hunt a monster while deciding who to trust. The majority of the game takes place in and around a single city, which does wonders for setting the tone of the world. There are plenty of references to things happening in the world at large, but the important events are happening right here, right now, with Geralt caught in the middle. I found this refreshing, although I was interested to hear that The Witcher 3 will instead have a fully open world, similar to games like Skyrim. Initially I worried this would spoil the atmosphere, but what I’ve seen of it so far looks great, so I’m hoping CD Projekt RED actually pull it off. We’ll find out in February.
But now, firing up the first game again, I’m struck once more by the sense of place. The peasant cottages sitting amidst weeds and flocks of geese, the damp swamps and muddy riverbanks, the bustling, stinking medieval city, and the desolate mountains where the Witchers spend their winters are some of the most evocative places I’ve visited in a game. And the music! I hadn’t forgotten the game’s excellent score, since the soundtrack is included with the game and I still listen to it, but I had forgotten just how well it fits these locations. Far from the orchestral bombast of most fantasy role-playing games, the music in The Witcher is melancholy, forlorn even, with sparse strings and flutes that sound like period instruments mixed with the occasional haunting vocal. A Witcher’s life is a lonely one, and the music is made to match.
As I started up the first bundled adventure, Damn Those Swamps!, I was reminded of all of these things. The excellent music, the locations, and the interesting and unusual combat mechanics feature in the adventure itself, but the rest was simply my memory of the main game; there isn’t much to this initial adventure. Clearly made by a fan, there’s no voice acting (which reminds me: if you play The Witcher, you absolutely want to use the original Polish voices with English subtitles; the English voices are terrible), and the tale reuses the main game’s swamp location, but leaves it strangely empty. There are a scant few villagers, a handful of monsters, and little else in the relatively large area. The story is also the absolute bare bones of a Witcher story: a sprinkling of monster hunting, a very brief mystery, and a moral choice (although in this case, the “good” choice is more obvious than it is for the choices in the main game). I was also surprised at how tough the fights were. The adventure starts Geralt at a very low level and leaves him without any means to make potions or oils, so battles are difficult on the highest difficulty setting. Especially since I was getting reacquainted with the combat. I probably should have just turned the difficulty down, but I’m stubborn and managed to get through it anyway.
In a lot of ways this adventure feels awkward, with clunky writing (maybe there is a translation issue?) and an overly simple story, but there are some things it does well. The initial reveal that things are not what they seem is the highlight, and I got the sense that the author was experimenting with the editor and trying out some ideas. And the distillation of the Witcher experience to its most basic elements is interesting too, acting almost as a critique of the game. Take away the incidental details, and all I really did in the main game was hunt some monsters, solve a few mysteries, and make moral choices. Here there’s one of each, and — provided one doesn’t get stuck repeating combat over and over because one is too stubborn to turn the difficulty down — it can all be done in less than an hour.
It also served as a convenient way to get back into the swing of playing the game. I didn’t have to mess with any of Geralt’s higher-level skills, I just had to relearn the basic controls: moving Geralt around and talking to people, dealing with the inventory, and basic swordfighting and Sign casting. Which meant I was prepared when I fired up the next adventure in the list, The Price of Neutrality, which was made by the original developers.
But let’s leave that for the next post. Stay tuned!