I’m playing through the bonus Adventures included with The Witcher. Read about the first, along with an introduction to the game, here. Also remember that you can click on images to view larger versions.
The Price of Neutrality, the second Aventure included with The Witcher, was made by original developers CD Projekt RED to accompany the 2008 release of the D’Jinni Adventure Editor for the game. As such, it acts as a demonstration for the capabilities of the editor, and is certainly a much larger production than the minimalist fan-made first Adventure, Damn Those Swamps!. In fact, the quality is more or less identical to that of the original game, with full voice acting (and here’s one more reminder to use the original Polish voices if you play), a new location to explore, monsters to hunt, and difficult decisions to make. After Damn Those Swamps! helped me get back into the swing of controlling Geralt, The Price of Neutrality provided a sizable helping of everything that I liked about the main game.
Framed as a tale told by Geralt’s friend and famous bard Dandelion, The Price of Neutrality is set before the events of the main game and is a retelling of Andrzej Sapkowski’s short story The Lesser Evil. While I haven’t read the novels that inspire much of The Witcher, I did read the first short story collection, and was pleasantly surprised when I recognized the tale being told here. I don’t wish the spoil the events of the story (or of this Adventure), but I must outline a few basics. The original story, set in the town of Blaviken, sees Geralt caught between a sorcerer and an exiled princess. The sorcerer claims that the princess, like many women born under the Black Sun (a full solar eclipse), is a dangerous and violent mutant who must be killed, while the princess claims she has been unjustly persecuted and hunted her whole life, forced to endure unspeakable things, and is now back for revenge. Geralt tries to stay neutral, as is the Witcher’s way, but it’s a situation that can only end badly.
The Price of Neutrality relocates this tale to Kaer Morhen, the ancient, run-down fortress where Geralt and his fellow Witchers spend the winters. The princess in question has taken refuge there, claiming her destiny is entwined with that of Geralt’s comrade and fellow Witcher Eskel, while her brother and a powerful sorcereress have come looking for her. The Witchers are forced to decide who to believe.
This change in setting works brilliantly. Geralt’s fellow Witchers feature in the prologue of the main game, but after that they go their separate ways, leaving Geralt on his own for the rest of the story. While this made sense in terms of the narrative, I missed the other Witchers and had hoped to see more of them. Here, they take center stage again. Also, having the conflict brought right to their doorstep means the Witchers must take part, in one way or another, and cannot simply stay out of things as they would prefer. It’s a great way to motivate the player’s decisions without requiring too much exposition.
The prologue of the main game lets players explore Kaer Morhen itself, but here the focus is more on the surrounding valley. This area is glimpsed in cutscenes in the main game, so I expected to visit it, but never had the chance in the main story. I wonder if it was originally intended to be a playable area but was later cut. If so, it’s been repurposed here, and it’s great. A peaceful, isolated mountain valley following a flowing river, the beauty and calm broken by the unwelcome mercenary camp that surprises Geralt on his journey home. Prince Merwin Ademeyn is here to find his sister Deidre, along with the sorceress Sabrina Glevissig, who is the expedition’s true leader in everything but name.
For the most part, the Adventure follows the short story closely, even directly lifting many lines of dialogue. But there are some differences, most notably the use of a sorceress rather than a sorcerer. This changes the dynamics of the feud, and unfortunately highlights some of the problems with depictions of women in the Witcher series. This really deserves its own post, because the roles of gender and sex in this series is more complicated than most, especially when considering the differences between the first and second games. But it can be especially problematic in the first game. The developers even included collectible “sex cards” for every woman Geralt could sleep with. I had thought there were no such cards in this Adventure, but apparently that isn’t the case (can you guess which two women have cards?). At least the cards are optional; the way the characters are written is not. The conflict between Deidre and Sabrina is somewhat trivialized here, especially when compared to The Lesser Evil. “Women”, Geralt pronounces disdainfully, when he hears that Deidre and Sabrina had fought over a man, as if that was the whole of it. Their story is more complex than that, but it’s not presented as well as it could be, and even the full story isn’t nearly as dark as the source material.
I also found the tough decisions weren’t that tough. The main game does a great job of forcing players to make difficult choices with no clear right answer, which can have significant repercussions later in the story. Here, I was confident that I’d made the right decision, and confirmed this after going back to try some different choices. But I did like the way the two sides of the story are revealed. Early on it seems obvious who Geralt should believe, but as I played I noticed more and more little details that suggested things might not be as clear as I’d thought. I appreciated that this wasn’t awkwardly forced to the center stage, as can often happen in games. The developers were confident enough to keep things subtle.
I also liked the references to other short stories that are sprinkled throughout. The Law of Surprise plays a part, for example. This Law, first mentioned in Sapkowski’s story A Question of Price, states that when someone saves another’s life and is offered a reward of their choosing, they may ask for “that which you already have but do not know” (or, alternately, “what you find at home yet don’t expect”). This can be anything, but sometimes it is a child, and that child is born in the shadow of destiny. Only such children can become Witchers. It seems the Witcher Eskel invoked this law twenty years ago, when he saved the life of Deidre’s father, then the prince of Caingorn. Deidre was Eskel’s surprise child, though he never returned to claim her; now she’s found her way to him. Sapkowski’s stories are full of elements like this taken from fairy tales, which set them apart from standard fantasy fare, and my favorite parts of the game include them as well.
And all the rest, the actual play, was a joy. The Price of Neutrality is a microcosm of everything the main game does well. The mercenary camp offers a place to gamble and to purchase booze to act as bases for Geralt’s potions. There are plenty of herbs and other ingredients filling the valley, and Geralt starts with recipes for the most useful potions, along with a good set of skills. There’s monster hunting, that pleasingly requires the careful preparation that I so enjoyed in the main game. This even includes an extended expedition into the wilderness that necessitates careful rationing of supplies. There’s some treasure and clues to find. There are plenty of people to converse with, and a mystery to unravel. And it’s all set in a beautiful locale, perfectly accompanied by the game’s haunting soundtrack.
There are even tie-ins to the sequel: both Sabrina Glevissig and King Henselt of Kaedwen — who authorized her expedition to track down Deidre — play significant roles in The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. Knowing that certainly influenced my decisions here, and I’m sure the reverse would have been true had I played this Adventure first.
All in all, The Price of Neutrality is an excellent addition to the game, and an apt demonstration of why this game is so interesting in the first place. As a standalone tale it could even act as a demo of sorts, except it assumes players already know how to tackle the various monsters that appear, having learned about them in the main game. I had a harder time than I needed to in a certain section because I’d forgotten the correct tactics to use. But it’s ideal for players who have finished the main game and are looking for more, and I heartily recommend it.
The next Adventure in the list is Side Effects, which, it turns out, is also by original developers CD Projekt RED. Stay tuned!