The Witcher was released originally in 2007 to generally positive reviews, but it also came with a number of major issues. Developer CD Projekt RED decided to listen to all of the problems - mainly long loading times and inventory management nightmares - and release a large upgrade a year later, along with a redone set of voice-acting and text dialogue, and bonus adventures. The size and scope of this upgrade was so far beyond a mere "patch" that it was given its own retail SKU, though the update can still be downloaded for free by anyone who has the original title. With that history aside, I'll be reviewing this title as a complete package in lieu of treating the original game and the Enhanced Edition separately.
You play Geralt of Rivia, Witcher. The character and the world come from a series of short stories and novels from Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, though Geralt is conveniently given amnesia as a plot device to reduce the need for any prior knowledge of the series. Witchers are monster hunters, humans who have undergone mutations to gain special skills and attributes but sacrificed their ability to have children and, some would say, their emotions and humanity. The world you're dropped into is not your typical medieval fantasy fare - you are presented with a dark and dirty medieval setting, which aside from the obvious fantasy aspects (magic, monsters, elves etc.) - would closely resemble a worn-down city in Europe a thousand years ago. There's disease, famine, political intrigue, and a whole lot of hatred to go around. Humans are busy prosecuting elves and dwarves for, well, not being human, while the latter races have taken up terrorist-like activities to secure their freedom. And of course, none of them particularly like witchers, caught between being human and non-human as they are. The combination lends the game an authentic feel, though it is of course not without its comedic moments.
The Witcher: Enhanced Edition is a fantastic game in many respects, but it starts and ends with the narrative. Without spoiling too much, you're forced to make a number of decisions as you progress through the game which actually have real impacts in later chapters. Furthermore, these effects are delayed rather than immediate, so that choosing to save or kill a certain character at one point will affect whether or not he comes to your aid in a battle many hours later - no save and reset tricks here. The best part about the choices the game gives you is that they are not the typical cliche good vs. evil alternatives, you have to decide for yourself which path you want to follow and, not to sound trite, more often than not you are asked to choose the lesser of two evils, where each action you might take will have both positive and negative consequences. All of this takes place in the context of a truly epic and interesting storyline that is, for the most part, a refreshing departure from standard RPG fare.
The presentation is greatly enhanced by the visuals. Character models are fantastic and environments are breathtaking. Unfortunately there is a bit of an "uncanny valley" effect, as the faces look a bit lifeless and stiff, while character animations during dialogue are kind of random and out of place. Lip-synching animations are particularly bad. While there are a number of clipping and collision detection issues, they don't really hinder the gameplay. Finally, it's a shame that with character models that have such personality and detail, they're reused so often throughout the game, even for some fairly important story NPCs. However, the end result is a beautiful looking game that has a number of minor issues that don't ultimately detract very much from what you experience.
The narrative would not have been nearly as enjoyable without the excellent voice-acting. Doug Cockle (the voice of Geralt) does a fantastic job in particular, and really helps make Geralt a strong protagonist who's a lot of fun to play. The Enhanced Edition includes completely redone dialogue, including newly recorded voice-acting, and this aspect of the game in particular has really benefited from the extra effort. The quality voice-acting really brings the story to life and goes a long way towards drawing the player into the world. In addition, the music is great, with a more intense track kicking in when you're drawn into combat. Sound effects work well but are really only a minor part of the experience.
On the technical side, there are some hitches. The game will frequently crash to the desktop, requiring you to save your game nearly constantly - I experienced a full ten crashes myself, and I'm not alone in this regard, though the Enhanced Edition has apparently reduced this problem significantly. The necessity for frequent saves leads into another nitpick - every time you quick save, a new save file is created. Whenever you want to load a game, it generates a list of every save file ever made. By the time I was 80% through the game I had over 6GB of hundreds of save files and the file select screen for loading a game took over a full minute to show up. Loading times have generally been pretty quick and there weren't any noticeable framerate issues, but my machine is a fair bit above the recommended specs, so your mileage may vary.
Six paragraphs in and we're finally ready to talk about the gameplay. Since The Witcher: Enhanced Edition uses a (heavily) modified version of Bioware's Aurora Engine, the basic mechanics may be familiar to you. You can walk around with the WASD keys in a zoomed-in over-the-shoulder camera mode and click on people and objects to interact with them, or zoom your camera out to a more familiar isometric view and use the mouse to both move and interact keyboard-free. Personally I prefered the close-up view of things for a more personal, cinematic feel that let me identify more with the main character.
Combat is another of the game's defining aspects. There's an awful lot of depth to a system that, at its most basic, is just click to attack. You have a couple of different weapons to use - one for people, one for monsters - and three different attack styles: Strong, Fast, and Group, all pretty self-explanatory. Attacks are done in a timing-based system, where the cursor will light up when you should make your next attack to chain together combos. You'll also learn "Signs" to use in and out of combat, which can inflict a number of different special effects on the enemy, including stun, knockdown, fear, and incineration. Lastly you can make and find a variety of items to aid you in combat, including stat-enhancing potions, weapon-empowering oils, and enemy-affecting bombs. More on these later, but the combat system has a kind of simple depth to it, keeping players interested and engaged in each battle without overwhelming them with options.
Inventory management was a big issue in the non-enhanced game. You were given a very large inventory full of hundreds of kinds of items and no way to sort them out. The Enhanced Edition has overhauled the entire system, dividing your inventory into two parts - alchemy ingredients and other items - allowing you to sort each one independently. Sadly the item storage available at any inn has not received the same overhaul, and you'll find yourself searching each tiny icon for the one particular thing you dumped in there hours ago. As a side note, there's a curious design choice to not allow the player access to item storage throughout the entire final chapter of the game, without warning, so make sure you don't leave anything critical behind.
I mentioned alchemy ingredients earlier. Every monster and most plant life in the game can be harvested for multiple different ingredients, consisting of a half-dozen different types. Some potions will require particular ingredients only available in certain boss monsters, but for the most part you can use any ingredient of a particular type in your potion, oil, and bomb formulas. You'll gather these formulas as you progress throughout the game, and can receive others from merchants or completing quests. On the harder difficulty levels you will absolutely need to make use of alchemy in order to survive the more difficult battles as they can have a sizeable affect on your combat performance.
Level progression is a simple experience formula where you earn experience points both for killing and for completing quests. Upon gaining a level you get a number of talents that can be spent to upgrade abilities. There are three levels of talents - bronze, silver, and gold - ensuring that you can't overpower a single area too early in the game, and you generally won't gain enough levels to max out all of your abilities. Points can be placed in abilities relating to a key attribute (strength, dexterity, stamina, intelligence), one of your Signs, or one of your six combat styles (with different sets for both sword types). There's a lot of customization available here to build the character the way you want, playing into how you want to fight your battles - via sword, Sign, or alchemy.
There are two mini-games you'll come across in each chapter, and neither one are worth playing on their own merits. Both are required to be completed for a couple of quest lines that span all chapters, however. There's a boxing mini-game, which really isn't much different from regular combat. Left-click to throw a punch, right-click to block. It's both incredibly easy and rather boring, and you'll do this once for each chapter to advance the quest and collect a prize, and that's it. Dice poker is a little more viable as a mini-game, but it's somewhat rigged in your opponent's favor since you always have to roll first. You throw five dice, with standard poker rules determining the value of your hand (except there are no flushes, obviously). Then the AI-controlled opponent throws its five dice. Then you get to pick which of your dice you want to reroll, and you have to roll them before the AI makes its own selections. There's a lot of weird luck going on in this game, with the AI re-rolling its entire hand to magically get a four of a kind (and it goes both ways). However the dice poker game actually has a use in the game besides just advancing a quest line - it's a great way to make money in the game, especially with all the expensive books available for purchase. It's also pretty easy to cheat by saving just before playing, and then re-loading if you lose.
One final note on the retail package for the Enhanced Edition. In addition to the game, two adventure packs, and adventure editor, you'll also get a CD with the official soundtrack, a CD with music inspired by the Witcher, a lengthy game guide, an original "Witcher" short story by Andrzej Sapkowski, and a map of the Witcher's World. If you upgrade via patch from the original game, or purchase the game online and download it, you can get the same extras but in digital form only (including PDF files for the guide and the map). As if that weren't enough, the entire package is only $39.99.
The depth here might be overwhelming for a lot of players, but a lot of it isn't necessary at the lower difficulty levels and the tutorial chapter and the screens that pop up each time you access a new option do a good job of bring the player along gradually. Depending on how many of the side quests you do, the game should take most players upwards of 40 hours. However, in the end, the meaningful choices in the narrative and the variety of gameplay styles actually give The Witcher: Enhanced Edition a lot more replayability than most RPGs, making additional playthroughs an enjoyable experience. Overall, the combination of an excellently crafted and well presented narrative meshes well with a refreshing and deep combat system to produce a remarkably fantastic experience that is unfortunately held back by a myriad of technical issues. The Witcher: Enhanced Edition is a fantastic game for any RPG fan.
- Keith Jackson