"Fine, obscure gems." Part of a periodical series: Great Games You Never Played.
In a world where the standards and expectations for RPGs are set by industry powerhouses like Bethesda and BioWare, I always have to turn to the smaller guys whenever I want to play a true RPG. Piranha Bytes and Obsidian get a lot of my respect, but CD Projekt RED added their name to the list in 2007 with The Witcher, a true testament to the glorious PC gaming master race.
You play as Geralt of Rivia, one of the last remaining witchers---a society of monster-hunters who alter their bodies with mutagens to fight supernatural monsters. After an organized group of out-laws infiltrates the witcher stronghold and steals the supply of mutagens, you set out to recover the stolen goods and get to the bottom of the conspiracy, but not without encountering more monsters (both human and beast) and moral conflicts along the way.
What makes The Witcher so remarkable is that it puts a lot of weight on your actions, with many of your decisions having lasting effects on the entire game. Often times you make a seemingly-trivial decision in one chapter, and then it affects a quest in the next chapter. The moral decisions you make are complicated shades of gray with no right or wrong answer. The way you develop your character is important to how you'll play the game. There's a consequence for nearly everything you do. And all of this is done in a rich, mature setting that feels more real than it should.
The Witcher is already well-known among RPG enthusiasts, so there are reasonable odds that some of you may actually have played this one, as contradictory to the article title as that may be. Nevertheless, it's still overlooked by the mainstream and remains more of a cult hit, while getting a lot of criticism from people I would venture to say just don't "get it." So I've got more words on its brilliance (and why you should play it) in the full article.
The Witcher plays much like what you'd expect from any typical action-adventure-RPG, with the gameplay alternating between walking around towns talking to NPCs, battling your way through longer combat sequences, completing quests, collecting loot, and leveling up. Each of these elements is competently designed in their own right, but they're pulled together with a tight story, an immersing atmosphere, and a moral choice system that makes the end result greater than the sum of its parts.
The intro cinematic.
The world in The Witcher is broken into districts that unlock as you progress through the story, each with its own unique side-quests and ecosystem. So it's not a completely open world, but there's a lot of freedom to explore and complete tasks at your own pace. There's a main quest line to follow, which is basically linear (with lots of branching decisions that change later quests), but you're free to put it off and focus on side-quests as much as you like. If you don't feel like doing side-quests, you can progress the main story and unlock the next district, and still go back to some of the old districts as you please.
The nice thing about this kind of world design is that it keeps the game moving forward at a comfortable pace, while giving you a sense of direction in your adventures. You're not overwhelmed by a huge, sprawling map, and you know that every side-quest you complete along the way is designed to give you a better understanding of the world and to better prepare you for the main questline. These areas also get filled with a lot more detail (everything is there for a deliberate purpose) that can keep you busy exploring, questing, and talking to NPCs for a long time you're so inclined.
Dialogue with NPCs is a prominent feature because it actually has an important role in this role-playing game. This game was based on a series of books, after all, so the dialogue is where a lot of the philosophical ideas and moral issues from the books come into play. Characters talk about serious issues that can make you think, both in terms of how it applies to the game as well as in the real world.
A bit of dialogue with a dwarf.
At the start of a typical conversation, you'll have a couple of different subjects to talk about, and each one goes into its own branching path with different kinds of responses. Say the wrong thing to an NPC and they'll stop talking to you, or you miss out on some kind of reward. The voice acting is generally pretty good (unless you find Geralt's emotional detachment to be boring), and the Enhanced Edition improves the writing, voice work, and character animations tremendously. But perhaps most important is that the dialogue is where you make many of the decisions that shape the story of the game and your role in it.
I'm not a big fan of moral choice systems, as I've written before, because they often belittle their own intended effects, but The Witcher does it right. Whereas most games force you into a binary "good or evil" situation, every decision in The Witcher is a shade of gray with no easy solution. It keeps track of your decisions and provides lasting consequences for your actions, but nothing gets weighed on some kind of invisible scale that only affects your own skills. It's just you and a tough decision, and you have to live with whatever consequences present themselves down the road.
The choices are rarely ever easy to make. Someone will suffer, and there will be unintended consequences no matter your decision. When you're presented with a problem, there is no right answer; you have to weigh the implications of each option and decide for yourself which one is the most fair, with the fewest repercussions. Your decisions, therefore, have actual depth to them, and represent something far greater than just a karma scale.
There's a moment early on, for example, where you have to decide to condemn a witch to die, or defend her from an angry mob. The townsfolk make claims against her, and you find some evidence that could support those claims, but in the process of snooping around you also dig up a lot of dirt on the townsfolk. To put it simply, they're all guilty of something equally bad as their claims against the witch. Your decision comes down to whose stories you believe more, your personal disposition towards characters, and how you feel about killing one person versus laying waste to an entire village.
It was a tough decision for me to make, because I subscribed to the "people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones" philosophy, but I wasn't comfortable killing the entire village (which had turned into an angry mob), especially since the evidence is mostly circumstantial and inconclusive. All just to protect one person from a violent mob, whose innocence was also slightly questionable. I had to think about it for a while, until I came up with a justification that I was comfortable enforcing. This is the kind of stuff moral choices should be about, not just aligning an arbitrary karma scale.
The other great thing about The Witcher's morality system is that the effects of your decisions don't show up until later on in the game. Make a decision in chapter 1, and you might not see the outcome until chapter 2 or 3, which means that your choices literally have a lasting impact; you don't just see a quick result and forget all about it. Then, once you do see the results, it's way too late to load a save and change your decision, so you have to live with the decisions you make. If it turned out well, you might pride yourself in it, but if it didn't, then you have to justify it to yourself after the fact or live with the regret.
To throw another example out, you get a quest from a merchant to protect some crates of his goods from monsters. You kill them, and then a group of elves (who are part of a social rights group fighting for equality among non-human races) come out of the woods to pick up the crates, claiming they had a deal with the merchant. Do you trust them and let them take it, or do you stick to your orders to defend the crates? If you let them take it, then those elves end up killing an NPC you need for a quest in the next chapter, and the quest changes; if you don't let them take it, then you run into problems with their faction later.
The underlying concept is that there are consequences for your actions in this world. People suffer, people die, and things go wrong. Even when you're making the best possible decision, you're bound to affect your surroundings with some kind of unintended consequences. This means that your decisions actually matter and the role you play in the game has a genuine impact on the story, the characters, the environment, and your gameplay. It challenges you to play intelligently, and leaves a lot of room for replay value because of how things change with different decisions.
Combat is a mixture of swords and sorcery, with a little bit of alchemy. Your primary weapons are your swords: a steel sword for human enemies, and a silver sword for monsters. You switch between them depending on what you're fighting, and you also change your stance depending on the situation. The strong fighting stance is for battling bigger, single targets; the fast fighting stance is for battling smaller, quicker targets; and the group stance is for fighting multiple enemies at once.
A video demonstration of Geralt and the combat system.
Sword combat mostly boils down to a matter of timed clicks while Geralt performs elaborate attacks. If you click in time with the rhythm, the combo continues, getting stronger with each hit, but if you mess up the timing, then the combo gets interrupted, leaving you exposed for a moment. Eventually you get into tougher fights that mix a lot of smaller, weaker enemies with a few bigger, stronger targets and a couple of enemies using ranged attacks. That's where the fun really starts, because you have to be aware of everything that's going on, like what enemies are closing in on your flank, where you are relative to the archers, what stance you're in, and so forth, while also maintaining the rhythm of your attacks.
Among the witchers' arsenal are magical signs, which they use at the cost of endurance. These spells are cast with the off-hand, so you can cast them in the heat of battle, and are especially useful for crowd-control and surviving the tougher battles. The first spell you acquire sends out a telekinetic blast that knocks down and stuns targets; another sends out a burst of flames for damage; another sets a trap on the ground that activates when enemies step on them; another puts up a shield that protects you from damage; and another that can make an opponent your ally for a while.
The combat may seem kind of shallow and boring in the beginning (it's gotten a lot of criticism from people who only ever played the first couple of hours), but this is a system that progressively builds and develops throughout the entire game, layering new things on top of what you already know. So when you start out, you just have a few basic combos and only fight a couple of basic enemies, but you level-up and put points into a skill tree that unlock new combos, new special attacks, new magic spells, and so forth, which become essential later on.
It gets to a point where some of the fights are particularly drawn-out with a lot happening at once, requiring a lot of attention and precision to handle. So you're rolling around dodging heavy attacks and magic blasts, switching into group style to handle a couple of weaker targets that have surrounded you, casting a telekinetic blast to buy yourself enough time to chug a healing potion or to execute a fatal blow on a target, switching into strong stance to take down the big guy, moving around so the ranged attackers can't hit you, retreating when your health is low and dropping a trap on the floor. It ends up feeling very tactical and strategic, in this regard, while still having the high intensity of an action system.
There are also a large number of potions that you can brew, which give you various offensive and defensive buffs, like +50% critical hit rate, immunity to stun and knock-down, or other interesting effects like night vision or detecting invisible enemies before they can attack you. Brewing potions requires that you collect the necessary ingredients (which you find in the ordinary gameplay, it's not difficult to come by most of the stuff), and then mix them at a fireplace. For the most part, potions are best used before a fight, but you have a couple of quick slots that you assign potions to, and use a few of them in the heat of battle. Like spells, these are essential during boss battles and other tougher fights, even more so if you play on a harder difficulty.
Continuing with the "consequence for every action" theme, underneath your health and stamina bars is a "toxicity" gauge that fills up when you consume potions. More powerful potions fill the gauge up a lot faster, and once it reaches its limit, you die. When you start getting close to the limit, you take damage to your health in addition to raising your toxicity. This makes it so you have to use some strategy and forethought in planning which potions to use, since you can usually only have 3-4 active at one time (depending on how strong they are), or even fewer if you want to leave room to use a healing potion midway through a fight.
As you kill monsters and complete quests, you earn experience which goes towards your level-ups. When you level-up, you can rest at a fireplace to meditate, which brings up the character screen, displaying the skill trees where you can allot talent points for skills. If you look at the screenshot, you'll see a list of skills on the left side of the screen; clicking on each one of those brings up its own skill tree with 12-18 different talents to upgrade over the course of the game. There aren't near enough talent points in the game to master everything, so you have to pick and choose what specializations you want to make and how different stats will contribute to your playstyle, which makes this a very important and strategic aspect of the game.
All of this happens in a very mature fantasy world, which makes the story and all of your actions feel even more genuine. I mean, just look at how many words are crammed into its ESRB description, and tell me that's not the definition of mature:
You may look at that and see it as a cry for attention, like a 14-year old smoking a cigarette and flaunting a Playboy mag to prove to his friends how grown-up he is, but that's generally not the case. It's absolutely ridiculous how many women you can have sex with, especially when you consider you get a provocative trading card after each one (which leans towards the juvenile "cry for attention" side), but everything else is genuinely "adult" about this game.
This a dark and gritty world that's all about the guilty corruption of humanity. As a hunter of conventional, beastly monsters, Geralt now finds his profession falling into obsolescence as the real monsters hide behind the law, ideals, and faith. It's a world where evil and corruption are complacently accepted, and Geralt has to adapt his own moral philosophies to the changing times. The whole point of The Witcher is that the beastly monstrosities of the world are borne from the sinfulness of man; that man invents monsters in order to feel better about his own sins. To draw a quote from the book,
"When they get blind-drunk, cheat, steal, beat their wives, starve an old woman, when they kill a trapped fox with an axe or riddle the last existing unicorn with arrows, they like to think that the Bane entering cottages at daybreak is more monstrous than they are. They feel better then. They find it easier to live."
This concept is explored very prominently in the game's first chapter, in the outskirts of Vizima. Your main quest is to put a stop to the Beast, an ethereal hellhound that comes at night to terrorize the villagers. The townsfolk blame the witch for summoning it (and there are some pieces of evidence that might suggest that), but you start to wonder if the sins of the villagers might have called the Beast into existence, because every one of them is guilty of some sick and depraved crime, be it incestuous rape, greed-inspired murder, selling children into slavery, or selling deadly weapons to guerillas.
The sex is one of the ways that The Witcher conveys this seedy culture of the game. Promiscuity is the norm among the dregs of this society. As a genetically mutated witcher, Geralt is infertile, can't contract diseases, and is shunned by society, so even the main character has his own decadent, lustful ignobility---he literally becomes a monster himself, through the mutagenic training of being a witcher, in order to fight monsters. So when you take a woman to bed, it's not the culmination of some fantastical love (like in a BioWare game, for example), it's just two horny adults having a go at it.
The Witcher is also a visual treat. It looks beautiful, even when it's depicting the gritty and grotesque aspects of its world. It holds up remarkably well for a game that's nearing 5 years old. I don't feel like I need to say much about it, really. Just look at some of the screenshots from GOG, or Steam, and you can see for yourself how good they are. And it has a wonderful soundtrack that's a delight to listen to, even without the game, but it helps tremendously in bringing the world to life and immersing you in it.
It's also worth mentioning that CD Projekt put a lot of effort into the Witcher even after its release. This was a labor of love for them, and they released the Enhanced Edition---basically a 2GB patch of phenomenal updates and new content---for free to anyone who bought the original game. The Enhanced Edition improves the game tremendously, adding thousands of lines of new script writing, voice overs, new animations, more varied models for ambient NPCs and monsters, 80% faster loading times, better performance, better lighting and graphics, and bug fixes.
That's basically The Witcher in a long-winded nutshell. This is one of my favorite games, and it's definitely one of the best RPGs of the last decade. As someone who considers Gothic 2, Vampire: Bloodlines, Fallout 2, Planescape, and Arcanum among the best RPGs ever, The Witcher appealed to my appreciation for "old school" gameplay while bringing a lot of modern twists to the experience.
And yet it's a divisive title, with most people loving it or hating it. Some people find it boring and tedious, on account of the timing-based combat and the slow pacing of the first chapter. If you'll allow me to don my top hat and monocle, I'd like to say that a lot of the complaints against The Witcher are from people who don't have the patience to play a good game. It's kind of like showing up to a screening of Schindler's List and walking out because it's in black-and-white and there aren't any explosions, but it's such a great movie if you understand what it's about and if you stick through to the end.
This isn't a game that everyone will enjoy, but it's an absolutely amazing game if you're an enthusiast of RPGs, especially if you're a fan of the more "old school" titles. And if you're someone who likes your games to have more depth and weight to the gameplay, then this is one you should definitely try.