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Petri Wessman's weblog

Final thoughts: The Witcher

Some time ago, I finally finished The Witcher. The “finally” there is relevant, since I’ve been playing this game on and off (mostly off) for years and years. I started it before the current “Enhanced Edition” existed, quite enjoyed it despite the poor English translation (from the Polish original) and other woes. Left it for a bit, and started again when the (awesome!) Enhanced Edition was introduced. Played until midgame, where the endless swamp and its deadly denizens tired me out… and it’s been sitting on my hard drive ever since. Until a short time ago, when I got a twinge to finish the thing. Glad I did, it was a great story and a very good game as a whole.

It’s also a huge game, and the fact that it’s very uneven doesn’t help. There are lots of great sequences and characters, but especially the quite freeform midgame portion has some problems. You get tons of side quests, most of which are boring Fed Ex ones, but you’re never quite sure of what’s relevant and what’s not. At some point the main plot kicks in again, and things start moving. The game interface is, frankly, a bit weird and takes some getting used to, but it’s fine after a while. The combat is a bit tricky and can be somewhat frustrating, especially since some of the fights are quite difficult.

The best thing here is the “shades of grey” plot and the general Slavic fantasy tone, quite welcome after your generic D&D-inspired typical fantasy game world. Sure, there are elves and dwarves here, but neither are quite what they tend to be in other games. Elves are especially interesting, since here they are at the brunt of racial discrimination and have by and large turned to terrorist tactics. In many rpg games, you do get choices, but the choices are of the stupidly black/white “help old lady cross the road” vs “kill her, take her stuff, and set the corpse on fire” type. Not so here, the game specializes in choices with no really good options available. You can choose to help the elves… but in this case you are specifically helping terrorists, the sort that thinks killing civilians to support their cause is fine (especially if said civilians are lowly humans). You can choose to help a knightly order trying to fight the elves… but then you’re helping a bunch of self-righteous bigots, whose attitudes are the root of many of the problems. And of course, you can try to stay neutral, in which case everyone will hate you (and potentially try to kill you).

The main plot is fun pile of political maneuvering, with lots of false fronts and wheels-behind-wheels.

Much has been made of the sex in this game. I mostly thought it ok… sure, it can be viewed as somewhat sexist (why are so many of the women in skimpy dress and why do pretty much all of them want to jump in the sack with Geralt?) and the “cards” you get after each sexual encounter arequite juvenile. On the other hand, the main character is both sterile and immune to sexual diseases, so it’s more in the “safe sex” department than most fantasy rpgs – and also, there are quite a few strong female roles here. In the end, I found the sex content here mostly entertaining, if a bit juvenile in places.

My final score on this one is very positive. It’s a huge, complex game based on Slavic mythology, with many interesting and personable NPCs and a good plot. The action is fun once you figure it out, and the same can be said for the character advancement mechanic. Some minus points for a very uneven game experience and an over-abundance of semi-useless side quests, and also for a UI which really takes a bit of getting used to.

One of the better fantasy roleplaying games I’ve played.

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Minireview: The Last Wish, by Andrzej Sapkowski

Here is something of a rarity, a relatively unknown (outside Poland, that is) fantasy book which gave birth to a fantastic PC game (The Witcher) – so most people will encounter this book via influence from the game, even though the book (written around 1996) is the basis for the game. For once, both the original book and the game it’s based on are very good; usually one or the other (or both) suck in cases like this.

I gather Andrzej Sapkowski is quite well known in Poland nowadays, but I admit to never having heard of the guy before this. The Last Wish is a collection of short stories, some of which were originally published in a Polish fantasy magazine. They feature his trademark protagonist, Geralt of Rivia, and are loosely connected in places though mostly standalone.

Geralt is a “witcher”, a mutant solo monster-slayer, who makes his living traveling the countryside looking for monsters to kill for money. It’s not an easy life, and people have a mixed opinion on Witchers – they are seen as necessary (at times), but also shunned. The world is a fantasy version of old Eastern Europe; lots of traditional folk tale monsters abound, though the writer gives most of then new twists. Few things here are quite what they seem, and many of the stories here are actually very twisted versions of old fairy tales. It’s not aimed at children, though; like the computer game, this is written for adults and contains sex, violence and difficult shades of gray in the moral arena.

I liked it quite a bit. The stories vary in quality, but all are at least readable and the best of them are great. Some few characters (aside from Geralt himself) from the computer game make an appearance, but mostly this book is separate from the plot of the game; this fleshes out Geralt as a person, gives him a history. The first story is actually featured in the game’s initial cutscene (the one with the ruined castle and the striga), but otherwise I didn’t find any direct plot connections – I haven’t completed the game yet, though, so some more connections may exist.

Quite ignoring the fact that it’s the basis for a game, this is a good collection of sword & sorcery -type Polish fantasy… and there’s not much of that going around, generally. Geralt is a complex character, and the Eastern Europe tone of the world is a nice change from the usual bland Tolkienesque surroundings.

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The Witcher considered pretty damn good

A funny thing happened some months back. I was hunting for a copy of Knights of the Old Republic on eBay since I heard so much praise for the game, and found one on sale for a reasonable price. The same guy was also selling a copy The Witcher, so I went “might as well check it out” and got both games. I didn’t know much about the Witcher… a friend had praised it to me, but Yahtzee’s typically hilarious Zero Punctuation review gave some pause. Sure, he hates most games, but still…

Anyway, the games finally arrived and I checked them out. KotOR had very dated graphics (no surprise, it’s a bit old) and pretty cheesy dialogue. It seemed fun enough, but after playing a bit I decided to check out Witcher. Some time near midnight, I noticed I was still playing and KotOR was the loser here.

Despite being sceptical, I have to say I liked (and still like) the Witcher a lot. Some of the complaints about it are quite justified. The controls and inventory does take a bit of getting used to, it is huge and slow-paced, some of the dialogue is extremely corny, and it does seem that being a scar-faced & white-haired swordsman is an instant sexual turnon for the babes, which can get a bit silly at times. To me, none of those quibbles got in the way of enjoying the hell out of the game.

It has a nicely east-European feel to it (natural due to the developer being a Polish game house), and is much more related to Conan-era sword & sorcery -fantasy than D&D fluff. Taken in that context, the big-chested babes lining up to have sex with the hero actually are quite in-genre. To be honest, I found the open inclusion of sexuality in the game quite refreshing, most fantasy games totally ignore the whole thing and go the “family friendly” route. It’s nice to find a somewhat more “adult” game now and then – even though some parts of said game may come off as a bit juvenile.

You play Geralt, who is a “Witcher”: a bio-enhanced & sterile member of an ancient order of monster hunters. Some bad guys organize an attack on the order and steal some stuff, and it’s off you go to fix things. The whole thing is based on some fantasy books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, apparently. Haven’t read them.

The best thing about the game (other than the babes lining up to… ahem) is the shades-of-gray morality and freedom to do real moral choices (sometimes with no easy answers). There is no “good” or “evil” here. It’s also a damn good-looking game, which never hurts. The plotting is pretty ok; there are some “FedEx quests”, but also some more interesting scenarios.

By the way, the U.S. version (which I got) is slightly censored – the pin-up pictures of the girls you sleep with are not quite as explicit as in the European version… so get the Euro version (or Enhanced, see below).

One additional small negative that needs mention: the difficulty varies wildly. Some fights are dead easy, some are extremly hard and need a zillion reloads to complete… which is especially galling if the fight in question happens to automatically start after a cutscene, so you’re forced to watch the same cutscene (with dialogue choices to make) N times. Grah. Fortunately the really hard bits seem to be rare.

I played the thing quite a bit, but then heard that the developers are working on an Enhanced Edition. Apparently the reason the English version of the game has pretty corny dialogue is that a large part of the original (Polish) dialogue is left out, and what remains has been “dumbed down” a bit – this new version includes a redone version of the dialogue and voice acting, which should enhance things and make some of the dialogue less cringe-worthy. In addition, it should include some more content, some gameplay enhancements, even better graphics, etc. In short, I decided that the game is so good that I want to wait until the new version is available (in September) and then start over with the game.

So yeah, I’m buying another copy of the game, when it becomes available. That’s pretty rare, for me.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t (quite) a new Baldur’s Gate 2… but it does come close, at times. Much better than Neverwinter Nights 2 in any case. I was extremely impressed, despite some small flaws.

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