Saturday, April 18, 2009

the witcher

Neither Aili nor I have had much time for blogging lately, what with the end of the academic semester and the wedding plans. It's a hectic time. I've been spending too much/not enough time writing a lengthy review paper on endogenous cannabinoids and steroid hormones and I've just about had it. Fortunately, I recently finished a draft and to reward myself, installed a copy of The Witcher that has been sitting on my desk since Christmas. While it has its flaws, it's a unique, entertaining experience well-worth exploring if you're into RPG's.

The primary reason why The Witcher contains an immersive world is that it's based upon a series of novels and short stories written by Polish fantasy writer, Andrzej Sapkowski. Thus, the world of The Witcher is fully fleshed and, more importantly, it breaks from standard Tolkein-esque fantasy tropes. There's no character generation to begin the game: you always take on the role of Geralt, the witcher.

Witchers are monter-hunters. They undergo extensive combat training, experiment with genetic modification and enhancement, and master alchemy and magic. The common folk respect, fear, and despise them. When the undead begin rising from your local graveyard, you hire a witcher to take care of the problem.

Rather than take you on an extensive tour through the plot or details of gameplay, I'll highlight some of the features that really make The Witcher stand out among its peers.

1. A dark & gritty world.

This is not a G-rated game. In fact, it's very clearly intended for "mature" audiences. There's adult content beyond mere violence towards fantasy creatures: drug use, explicit sexuality, and crude language. Overall, the effect of this is to create a more "realistic" fantasy experience, although at times, the juvenile writing does interfere (for example, when Geralt says something like, "Un-fucking-believable"). There are also adult themes that you typically don't see in games of this ilk.

For example, one sub-plot that runs through the game is the presence of the "Scoia'tael": a radical organization of elves & dwarves who engage in guerrilla terrorist activities, such as attacking human trade caravans and kidnapping. In this post-war world, humans and non-humans live in tenuous co-habitation. Famine, disease, and monster outbreaks have made life very difficult for the common people - and in their fear and desperation, they have decided to blame the non-humans for their problems. As you wander the world of Temeria, you'll encounter a great deal of racism towards non-humans and witchers that is often stoked by those in positions of authority, such as the church. Among non-humans, the Scoia-tael are a controversial organization: some support them (secretly), some find their tactics despicable. It's nice to see a game tackle a mature theme like this, and it makes the world seem more dynamic and politically interesting.

There are slums, mention of pogroms, and disposed corpses in the sewer. All this contributes to a feeling of danger and tension that helps make The Witcher an engaging experience.

(the sewers beneath Vizima)

2. Sexuality.

It's perhaps not surprising that most RPG's have eschewed sexuality. When aiming for a general audience that will likely include children, it's best to avoid anything morally delicate. And yet, violence is always a part of these games. Hmmm... Regardless, the lack of sexuality in RPG's gives them a Disney feel that detracts from your immersion and suspension of disbelief. The Witcher explicitly incorporates sexuality into gameplay, albeit in a highly juvenile way. As you progress through the game, you'll encounter a number of female characters that you can attempt to have sex with. Almost always, you'll have to satisfy some quest requirement to get them into bed. For example, in the city of Vizima, I was hired by the brothel madame, Carmen, to protect her prostitutes from some rapists and assassins who were attacking them by night. After completing this task, I was allowed to sleep with the prositutes "for free" if I simply brought them a bouquet of flowers. Every time you have sex with a character, you'll receive a collectible, virtual "sex card":

Hilarious, no? Well, there are two ways to view this. One: it's juvenile, sexist objectification of women in its purest form. It sends precisely the wrong kind of message to pre-adolescent and adolescent boys who are playing this game. Two: it's amusing and fun. I mean, RPG's always incorpoate these silly, non-vital side quests as part of the game. In Oblivion, for instance, you can spend hours and hours trolling the landscape for fucking roots. In The Witcher, you collect girls. Which is more entertaining, motivating, and to be perfectly honest, realistic? When I was single and in my 20's, I was looking for mating opportunities everywhere. That's how Geralt functions. The game even suggests at certain points that witchers are known for their sexual proclivities. You're a hired monster killer - it's been a long day in the crypt - you barely survived that cockatrice attack - so now you wander over to Shani's house to see if you can get some play. What's the harm in that?

3. Lore.

Other RPG's, most famously the Elder Scrolls series, have incorporated alchemy and lore into gameplay. But I really appreciate how The Witcher does this. Every monster you encounter has certain weaknesses that must be exploited if you wish to survive. For example, this delightful fellow is a Graveir. If you waltz into battle against one (or god forbid, several) of these without any knowledge of how to defeat them, you'll probably receive a beating. But through the course of the game, you'll find books and scrolls, and talk to NPC's with relevant wisdom, that teach you about particular monsters and their weaknesses. When you gather this information, it's added to your Journal's Bestiary. The Graveir, it turns out, it sensitive to silver. You're also told to use the "strong" fighting style against it, and if things are still difficult, you can coat your blade with Necrophage Oil. To make this oil, you need to learn the formula from someone and then gather/buy the correct ingredients. It's all very fun and logical. I was really struggling defeating a Hellhound until I used some Necrophage Oil and drank a potion which enhanced my reflexes (by slowing time down). In this way, I really felt that using Lore to my advantage was an essential component to progressing further in the game. Your character (and you) must be intelligent enough to use gathered knowledge to your advantage.

(the alchemy interface)

Overall, The Witcher is a damn good game. The fighting is enjoyable, although I suspect that it will eventually become repetitive. I especially like how the designers didn't shy away from group combat. If Geralt gets attacked by five zombies, he can switch to a "Group" style of combat that attacks everything within a close vicinity. The combat animations are universally impressive.

The greatest criticism of the game is that it suffers from some frustrating technical issues. It will crash-to-desktop every now and then. Loading screens occur with frustrating regularity (fortunately, the conceptual art displayed during these transitions is quite good and keeps you "in the mood" - see below). Apparently, this was a much more serious problem before they released the "Enhanced" version, which I'm playing. And I'm disappointed to see how much the same face-models are used over and over again. It was disconcerting to see the priest from Act I (whom I killed, for justifiable reasons) "reappear" in Act II - until I realized that it was just the same face model on a different character. Given that there are hundreds of characters in the game, I understand the problem - but other RPG's have solved this issue.

But nothing spoils the soup (just yet) and it's a testament to the game that I look forward to sitting down and spending a couple hours in Temeria whenever I get a chance.

(the hospital, where plague victims are treated)

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