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We Witched Once

I should start with the normal disclaimers that come with discussing older PC games, which is to say that in spite of all the efforts and polish CD Projekt put into the Enhanced Edition of the Witcher it still crashed on me kind of more than you want a game to crash (particularly because it did not choose to start crashing until chapter 4, when the plot is cooking and maybe if you're me you don't remember to mash that quicksave button as often as you should), and also the sex card collecting thing, which felt weird and gross back in fucking 2007 when the game came out, has managed to age even more poorly! So yeah, forewarned is forearmed, and there's some Issues that you'll need to make your peace with to play it. Hey, on the bright side running the game in administrator mode seemed to stop the crashing problem at least!

Anyway, here's Wonderwall a few thoughts on having finished the first of the Witcher games.

The World is Surprisingly Lively

The dwarves are also kind of great
The dwarves are also kind of great

I know this is kind of old news in 2018, but while the action of the game is centered around one city and a few swamps (we'll get to the swamps later) it's taking place in a surprisingly lively world. It's nothing particularly groundbreaking, but you can pick a pedestrian and follow them along their daily routine, as they wake up, wander about the city doing whatever it is they feel like doing, and then go home when it gets dark to go to sleep. Then you can take all their shit, if you are me and cannot help but steal bread from people (or whatever else isn't nailed down).

It's the sort of stuff that most open world games do now, but the bit that stood out to me the most is probably how the weather will change the routine of some of the people. Merchants and other pedestrians will seek shelter from the downpour (essentially changing their shop locations to somewhere out of the rain), and the ambient dialogue will shift to comment on the weather (my personal favorite line is "my head's getting wet," delivered in the tone of someone who is highly offended by this development. It's endearing). There's a surprising amount of variety to the ambient lines too - yes, by the end I'd heard most of them at least three or four times, but that was 45-50 hours in and, lest we forget, the Witcher was made on something of a small budget. Considering how much they managed to wring out of the Aurora engine, it's something of a miracle. It's a hell of an achievement for 2007, and holds up surprisingly well against other games with that sort of interactivity (looking at you, Skyrim).

I Love Buying Books

And in the game.

Look, the amnesia stuff is some well-worn territory when it comes to RPGs, but I love that Geralt's amnesia extends to his knowledge about how to best combat particular monsters and what useful plants and such are needed for potions. I love this because of the way the game deals with it, which is that Geralt ends up buying books on monsters in order to learn about how to best kill them (also, how to harvest their delicious organs).

This dude is fucking great. Also, a random book I found gave me what I needed to kill a boss that he sent me to.
This dude is fucking great. Also, a random book I found gave me what I needed to kill a boss that he sent me to.

This is also how you learn to make new potions and bombs and stuff, which is precisely how you expect it would go. It also ties into the plot of the narrative in its way - the secrets of Kaer Morhen got fuckin' stolen, and in the time it's taken Geralt to get to the city and start his investigation, copies of what once were proprietary Witcher potion recipies are now just floating around the marketplace. It actually makes sense in the mechanics of the world and hey, that's kind of fucking cool? They soften this mechanic in Witcher 2 and 3, but that also makes a kind of sense, as Geralt's had a whole game's worth of monster hunting experience by the time we get to Witcher 2.

The other thing I like is that every book (not just the ones titled something like "How to kill Wyverns vol. 1") adds to your store of knowledge. It's how you fill out the game's codex, and you can also pick up hints as to how to solve some quests as well. This is extremely my shit, and one of the best parts of the game. I loves me some fucking research, y'all.

God Help me the Writing is Good

There's a lot of talk about the end of the world in this game, some of it delivered by the witch I spared back at the beginning
There's a lot of talk about the end of the world in this game, some of it delivered by the witch I spared back at the beginning

Everything about the elevator pitch of the Witcher, including the visuals, contributes to the idea that it is one in a long line of GRIMDARK FANTASY things that mistake tits and swearing for maturity. Maybe it's a result of years of Game of Thrones clones (which wasn't really a thing back in 2007) but if you come to me today and say "hey we made a mature fantasy game where morality is expressed in shades of grey," I will probably not bother taking a look. Especially if you also put "collect sex cards" as a bullet point on the box.

Like so many things, the marketing for the game potentially did it a disservice (well, what little marketing the game got in the US). At any rate, if you can get past all that nonsense and get into the actual game, you'll be fucking delighted by the quality of the writing (particularly since they went back and retranslated everything for the Enhanced Edition - this means they also re-recorded a lot of things, which is sometimes pretty goddamn obvious, but hey, that gives it a bit of charm). Damn near every quest gets more complicated than it first appears, or leads you to somewhere you didn't expect, or hey, allows you to make friends with a goddamned intelligent ghoul who's just kind of chilling out in a graveyard. Which, if we're being honest, might have been my favorite quest in the whole game.

The main plot is equally good, and manages to provide not just a meditation on what makes a monster, but it's also concerned with legacy in a way that I found fascinating - there's a concern with how the things we say to others can end up coming back to bite us in the ass later, even if what we said and did was done with the best of intentions. I was quite simply stunned with how well the game manages to avoid hitting you over the head with its themes - even if one of those themes is something as cliche as maybe the human race is the real monster, maaaaaaan the execution is incredibly impressive. More importantly, it doesn't make the other side of the equation (the Scoia'tael) out as being saintly. At the same time, they aren't necessarily equal in villainy. You can see how they find themselves in such a desparate position where guerilla warfare seems like the only way out. Equally, even the primary villain is acting in what he believes to be the best interests of the world - like any well-written villain (and real-life villain), he's convinced he's the hero. There's a nuance that's not present in a lot of games. Even Dragon Age, a series of games that I quite enjoy and generally consider to be well-written, has its villains be almost cartoonish in their desire to Fucking Murder Everyone, (and their attempt at nuance in Dragon Age 2 kind of falls into an unfortunate both-sides-are-bad trap that is downright jarring in its suddenness).

The Combat is Weird, but Good? Mostly?

With its Aurora Engine pedigree, and original concept of being a bit like Diablo in terms of gameplay, it's not surprising that the combat isn't particularly mashy. Indeed, it's got a weird rhythm-based mechanic to it that takes some getting used to, but is surprisingly deep. You have to manage your sword choice (steel for humans, silver for monsters) but also your stance and style based on the sort of foe you're fighting. Additionally, the game rewards preparation - consume the right potions, prepare the right bombs, use the right oils on your sword, and you'll breeze through most fights, although some will be a real motherfucker no matter what you do. Also, the early sections leave you with no silver sword, meaning that fights against monsters can be intensly frustrating. Which kind of brings me to the next bit...

The Quest Pathing Can Be Real Bad

That red arrow is as good as it gets, and it probably isn't even pointing to the right thing.
That red arrow is as good as it gets, and it probably isn't even pointing to the right thing.

They can also break in ways you don't expect. I had a quest to give this dude badges taken from bandits (it goes somewhere, I promise), but if you go a step too far in another quest, not only does said dude relocate, but you will forever have the quest marked as being active and in-progress until like, basically the end of the game. If you, like me, enjoy the feeling of seeing quests marked as complete, it will drive you insane to see this quest constantly taunting you. Plus you'll have a bunch of bloody badges you can't do shit with taking up room in your inventory which I'll get to in a minute.

Also some of the monster hunting contracts are pretty prefunctory in design - go bring me six claws from this monster so I know you've killed them, etc., but they also are excellent sources of income so, you know, there's that at least. What's really frustrating is that sometimes you'll find yourself up against a horde of a particular sort of monsters that you've got a contract for, only you forgot to read the right book so you can't harvest the necessary proofs of your murderin'.

It can also really be bad about what you're meant to do next. One in particular involves a guy asking you to find his sister, and the quest gives you zero direction as to where to go or indeed, what to do once you find her. I kind of ended up keeping a walkthrough open and looking over at it when I needed to get past particular parts. The game does offer waypoints, but if the person you're meant to talk to wanders off or changes location, the game does not adjust at all, so it will literally point you in the wrong direction. Like I said, I kept a walkthrough up to get through some of the worse offenders, and blindly stumbled into the solution for others.

Hoo Boy The Inventory Sucks

I mean that says it all, really. You can't pick up weapons without dropping the ones you're using (so you can't sell off your old stuff), and everything else is on a pathetically small grid. Some items stack, but others don't in The Most Frustrating Way, in amounts determined by the game's own weird logic (why does water stack in 7s? Who made that choice?). You can, of course, store stuff in a Resident Evil style item box at inns in order to manage, but it's still a fucking misery. I think I probably spent most of the game throwing away stuff I wanted to sell, or getting collectables for quests that were over but couldn't get rid of (I had like five stacks of Salamandra badges by the end of the game taking up space in my item box and it was infuriating). Rough times, man. Let me tell you about how I got rid of a bunch of quest items that I had no use for at the time only to get a quest for three of them which, as it turns out, I literally never got again - until the next chapter, when I couldn't turn the quest in but was swimming in the fucking things.

It's Still Pretty Good Though

In spite of my frustrations with some of the game (and, one more time, the creepy porn card thing), I think I kind of love the Witcher. It's got moxie, and it remains one of the better RPGs out there. It helps that the sequel improved upon it in basically every way, although the smoke on the street is there's less to do in terms of sidequests and such (I'm not super-far into it yet so I can't say one way or the other). That I was able to import my Witcher 1 save into the Witcher 2 and get some dope fucking armor and also cool swords from the jump was a nice bonus, and surprisingly the game seemed to carry over some of my decisions - particularly where a certain princess was involved, which is cool! I like when things carry over from game to game.

I'm taking my time with Witcher 2, but I'll probably write up some other thoughts on that once I get through. Shockingly, it appears that I'm running the series. Hope y'all like reading another one of these things in like two months or however long it takes me to beat this thing!