The Witcher Review
Pentium M 2GHz CPU
2GB DDR2 RAM
GeForce 7800GTX Go
1GB RAM, 1.5GB for Vista
GF 6600/ATI 9800
Serious RPG fans are picky people. We can tell the difference between an American-made game, a Japanese one, and even a European one. Japanese games often have elaborate stories that can sometimes be tough for American audiences to get into, turn-based tactical combat, and often a slower pace. American varieties often follow hot properties (like Dungeons & Dragons or Star Wars) and often have action-oriented fighting with a little less story and role-playing. Finally, European RPGs are kind of unique. Many of them in days past never actually escaped Europe, but with so few RPGs on the market, there's no point for publishers not to release these titles worldwide. The usual hallmarks of these games are high difficulty and a focus on story with lots of bugs and technical issues often marring an otherwise brilliant game.
And it's amusing to me that the only thing missing from The Witcher in the context of the European RPG stereotype is the difficulty. In it, you play as a character named Geralt, an immortal "Witcher" who has gone under vast amounts of training and weeding out, alchemy and experimentation, to become one of few protectors of a world full of evil wizards and monsters. But this is no Camelot and these guys are no knights in shining armor. Geralt is not a nice guy and doesn't always save the princess. And when he does, he almost always gets to bed her. More on that later.
You'll realize quickly that the most compelling part of The Witcher is that the dialog is what pulls you into the world. The game engine is based on old Neverwinter Nights code, but has been tweaked and improved over the years to deliver not-quite-Oblivion levels of visual detail. The voice acting is passable, but the sheer volume of it means that some is better than others. But it's the actual dialog, the words that match the voice acting, on your screen that will make the difference. The story, based on a series of Polish fantasy novels, unfolds in an interesting way with plenty of unique twists and major happenings going on. This is a good thing, because while there are side quests, most of your sixty-plus hours with The Witcher will be spent furthering the main quest.
And what better way to "further" anything than to kill people? Combat in The Witcher is certainly unique, and will probably feel pretty alien at first - especially to for RPG fans used to Diablo and Elder Scrolls. After choosing your weapon style and then your attack stance, you initiate an attack with a simple left click. When you've finished that attack, the cursor changes to prompt you - and you click again. You do this until your character's combo (which can be different for your stances, and can be improved with new moves over time) is finished. If you mash the button, you'll only be blundering out a single attack repeatedly and will likely die. It takes some getting used to, and while I still would have liked something that let me do things like block with a shield or more effectively move to dodge an incoming attack, The Witcher's combat system is still pretty solid and rewards patience over button-mashing.
As you progress throughout the game you'll learn how to use Alchemy to make potions and have five different magic spells that you can customize and power up in different ways - along with your combat upgrades, too. But unlike many RPGs, you won't be constantly flipping to your character screen to see how long it is until you level up, and you won't be drowning in standard RPG minutiae trying to figure out how to beat a really tough opponent. Usually the game gives you a nice, smooth difficulty curve and only a couple of small tactical options, many of which are almost forced on you, will make the difference between win and loss. In some ways, The Witcher is too easy, like the developers championed story above all and wanting to reward any gamer with the requisite number of hours to get through it all. This might rub some RPG fans the wrong way, but I think it's a fresh look at what these games really mean to the people that love them the most.
From a story perspective, you'll realize quickly that this game combines a lot of classic RPG themes with some very final choices you must make. Dialog is given in the classic way, with you getting to grill the game's hundreds and hundreds of NPCs on various topics. Major NPCs ofter large conversations with plenty of backstory, and at some points in the game you'll be forced to make a choice that will have consequences later. No, this is not a "good guy" or "bad guy" thing, and it's not quite as ham-fisted as choosing between freeing a person from slavery while showering him with gifts or just murdering him and his family on the spot. No, you'll be forced to choose between loyalty or the promise of power, picking one friend or another to save (and no, there's no contingency plan for someone else to save that person), and the like. For the serious RPG fans, this adds depth as they get to see different sides of the story on different play-throughs, but the more casual gamers still get to feel like they're making a change. They're not changes that affect the whole world, but they certainly affect Geralt's.
Unfortunately, some of the most compelling things about many RPGs didn't make it into The Witcher. Your main weapons can be improved, but you're pretty much stuck with them, and you won't be finding a ton of loot with all kinds of configurable enchantments or the like. To me, the most important thing about RPGs is making choices that affect your character's in-game performance, and in that respect, this game doesn't quite hit that mark. Most of the important choices affect the story, but don't really help you kill monsters in any different or more efficient way. Sure, you still gain abilities and can put points into melee attack and magic styles, but you're not also creating or equipping all kinds of gear with various properties to help you fight better. The ability to create potions through Alchemy is there, however, and while Geralt usually doesn't need it to win, that is one option for finding that RPG-like depth.
Speaking of Geralt, you'll be stuck with this guy long enough that it's important to address just what this guy's like. He's a tough guy with a moral compass that can swing around quite a bit, so while you overall are fighting evil, you'll find that he's no saint. Unlike many RPGs which try so hard to make you good or evil and nowhere in between, The Witcher lets you be a good guy with bad intentions. And the developers at CD Projekt, being European and all, don't have any problems putting things like sex into their games. Geralt will get the chance to spend the night with many of the game's female characters, and while developers did very mildly censor the US version of the game (they covered up bits of nudity from the hand-drawn art of the women Geralt beds), most of the actual theme is there. For those considering importing a non-censored version of the game, it's not really worth bothering. Geralt still has all of the sex as the European version and it's not like this version of the game only happened because of some kind of crazy ESRB demand - the developers voluntarily did it and it's got all of the mature content and suggestive language otherwise.
Yes, The Witcher still follows the stereotype of a European RPG when it comes to bugs and issues. The first patch for the game has dozens of small fixes for the story and gameplay, but unfortunately it doesn't seem to do anything for the memory leaks or crashes. I highly recommend you use the game's save system heavily, and the auto-save is sometimes not quite enough to stop you from getting frustrated at replaying the odd several-minute-long chunk of the game. Hopefully the next major patch can let go of the smaller stuff and start working on the big picture. As far as performance goes: while the system requirements might seem a bit steep for a game using the Neverwinter Nights Aurora engine, the game does look pretty good and the minimum system will play the game well enough. But to me, the biggest problem is with the nasty load times - it's not so bad at the beginning of the game, but when you start visiting houses in a city, you'll be spending almost as much time staring at the Loading screen as you will actually playing.
While just about every RPG out there has lots of dialog, The Witcher is unique in that the dialog becomes one of the more compelling reasons to play. Yes, the combat is good, and your character does gain new tactical options and cool abilities as he improves, although the lack of new gear will turn off those for fans of games like Diablo. The world design is realistic but interesting and the enemies you fight are generally worthy opponents, but it's the story of Geralt and how he affects his world that will keep you playing. Some technical problems plague the experience, but overall I think you will have a hard time finding a better fleshed-out story in any game released in 2007. The Witcher is not for everyone, and even some hardcore RPG players might find this a disappointment, but it's still an excellent fantasy game with enough merits for me to recommend it for any fan of the genre.