The Witcher Adventures: Side Effects

I’m playing through the bonus Adventures included with The Witcher. Read about the earlier Adventures, along with an introduction to the game, here. Also remember that you can click on images to view larger versions.

After The Price of Neutrality, the next Adventure on the list is Side Effects, also by original developers CD Projekt RED. It was released in 2008 along with the Enhanced Edition of the base game. Like The Price of Neutrality, Side Effects is fully voiced (and again, please use the original Polish voices) and is on par with the main game in terms of production quality. Unlike The Price of Neutrality, Side Effects is not focused on narrative, instead reveling in the pure mechanics of the game.

The Adventure is once again framed as a story sung by Geralt’s friend, the bard Dandelion, as something of an encore to his first tale. I’m not sure why he picked this story to tell, however, since it starts with Dandelion himself locked in the city jail in Vizima. It seems he was caught romancing a local politician’s wife, and is facing a harsh sentence. To escape his punishment, he’s paid off the guards, by taking a loan from the local crime lord — a loan which he has no ability to repay. This is when Geralt arrives, and realizes he must raise the money himself. Geralt considers the situation a “side effect” of having friends.

Quite why Geralt is friends with Dandelion is not something I really understand, but then again, Geralt doesn’t have many friends, so maybe he’s just trying not to be picky. Dandelion is a character from Andrzej Sapkowski’s original short stories and novels, although he only appeared in one two of the short stories I’ve read. I gather that he plays a bigger role in the novels, so perhaps his friendship with Geralt is given more focus there. Regardless, once this opening scene plays out, Geralt’s goal in this adventure is clear: raise enough money to repay Dandelion’s debt.

To do so, Geralt is free to roam Vizima’s Temple Quarter, a place where he spends a significant portion of the main game. This story is set before the main game, however, which means there are some interesting differences and foreshadowings for experienced players to find. For the most part, however, the location is the same familiar place, but populated with a different cast of citizens who may or may not have work for Geralt.

As a Witcher, the work Geralt can provide is fairly straightforward. He can hunt monsters, of course, and he can pick and sell herbs, since he is intimately familiar with them as ingredients for his potions. But there are also more mundane ways to make money: gambling, or fistfighting at the local tavern. Geralt can even participate in drinking contests, usually in exchange for information or other services that might help him get the money he needs. Cleverly, Geralt’s skills at the start of the Adventure are mostly pre-set, with only a few choices available, forcing players to decide on which money-making path to focus. Should Geralt unlock special moves during fistfights, or gain the ability to recover from inebriation faster? Or maybe he should start the Adventure with better knowledge of herbs, so he can gather and sell them more easily? Geralt cannot gain levels in this Adventure, so choices here are final.

I’ve discussed the alchemy in the game before, but I haven’t touched on some of these other lucrative activities. The fistfights in the game are a variant on the standard combat, in which clicking on the enemy initiates some quick fisticuffs instead of fancy swordplay. Right-clicking is supposed to block incoming punches, but I never really got it to work. In fact, even with the extra moves unlocked, I never really got the hang of the fistfights in the main game, and I was further discouraged from participating by the fact that any health I lost during the fight stayed gone, making recovery a chore. Playing dice poker is easier. It’s a simple game, where each player rolls five standard six-sided dice and forms a poker hand (two pairs, full house, four of a kind, etc.). But since both players can see each other’s dice, there’s little strategy other than picking which dice to keep and which to reroll. As such, it’s mostly a game of luck, and it’s just as easy to lose a lot of money as it is to win. So I decided to have Geralt focus on hunting monsters, harvesting alchemical ingredients from their bodies, and selling them (along with any herbs he could gather) as a more reliable source of income.

I was worried that this would be all there was to the Adventure; just Geralt doing his Witcherly work until he made enough money. But as soon as the Adventure started in earnest, he ran into some new characters with a business proposition. I soon found that many of Vizima’s citizenry had jobs for him, or information that led to treasure hunts or other profitable endeavors. Sometimes, however, Geralt had to drink someone under the table in order to get it. This is another system from the main game that appeared in a few set places. While in conversation, Geralt can invite his partner to have a drink, at which point he selects some alcohol from his inventory, and his partner matches with one of the same. If Geralt can last enough rounds, he will typically learn something useful. The system can be tricky because Geralt needs to already have a bunch of booze in his possession, and it is actually possible for him to lose the contest in the main game, passing out and waking up in the street somewhere. I never figured out what determines his success or failure, but didn’t have any trouble winning in this Adventure. I’d also forgotten how humorous Geralt’s slow, drunken stumbling is after a bout of heavy drinking. Fortunately it’s easy for him to just sleep it off.

I happily made my way through the Adventure by following various booze-induced leads and hunting monsters on the side. But that’s not the only way I could have done it. After earning the money and finishing the Adventure, I did a little research and learned that the other moneymaking routes are more interesting than I thought. Players who enjoy dice poker can discover a secret gambling den and participate in some high-stakes games. Those who like brawling can graduate from simple bar fights into a fully-fledged underground fighting ring to compete for serious money. And I’m sure there are other quests and activities I could have uncovered as well, had I looked in the right places or spoken to the right people. This makes for an Adventure that feels more personalized than The Price of Neutrality, with each player creating their own story as they go.

Side Effects also highlights another strength of The Witcher, which is that money is hard to come by. It’s a common problem in role-playing games for players to end up drowning in money, with little to spend it on, but in The Witcher, every oren (the local currency) is hard-earned. And there’s usually plenty to buy. Books that provide critical information for hunting monsters or gathering herbs are very expensive, as are the rare upgrades to Geralt’s equipment, or the strong alcohol and animal fat used as bases to mix potions and blade coatings. In the main game, I was usually able to scrape together enough money for what I needed, but only just. This kept things interesting throughout, and is something I’ve advocated before. In this Adventure, Geralt didn’t need to buy much, but he did need to hang on to every oren in order to pay off the debt, which serves the same purpose.

I should also take a moment to talk about Vizima itself. I spent so much time there during the main game that I no longer noticed the scenery, but revisiting it now reminded me just what a great location it is. While it’s certainly different from the beautiful mountain valley in The Price of Neutrality, Vizima’s Temple Quarter manages to capture the essence of a dirty, smelly medieval city in a small space. From the muddy slums full of thugs and prostitutes to the cobblestone streets of the marketplace or the larger mansions on the hill, it feels more like a real city than most fantasy role-playing games manage. In its own filthy, ugly way, it’s just as beautiful as the Kaedwenian mountains. I was glad for the chance to visit it again.

Side Effects also served as a reminder that, while it’s fun to have Geralt pursue monsters through the wilderness, his urban shenanigans are just as enjoyable. The Witcher actually provides Geralt with the means to socialize, and characters for him to socialize with, which is surprisingly uncommon in role-playing games. That’s a shame, because when you need to make a lot of money fast… well, it’s all about knowing the right people, isn’t it?

The next Adventure on the list, Deceits, returns us to the realm of fan-made Adventures. How do players’ creations compare to those from the original developers? Stay tuned to find out!

If you’re interested in The Witcher, it’s probably easiest to get it from GOG, but it’s also available on Steam or from other retailers. It’s pretty cheap these days too, so why not give it a go?

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