So a long time ago I purchased The Witcher on sale via Steam and put around 20 hours into it before walking away. Looking back at it, I understand why. 14 years ago I was a very different person, and I was used to my RPGs being more like an offering from BioWare or Blizzard. I knew nothing about the world of The Witcher, and approached it with an eye to it being another standard hack-n-slash with a story sort of game. When it failed to meet that expectation of mine, I dropped it in the 2nd act because I couldn't figure out how to kill a particular plant-based monster in the swamps and rage quit after a while.
Current me is rather disappointed with past me, because I missed out for a long time on a very engaging story, realistic characters, and a world that doesn't shy away from ugly facts, such as diplomacy does not always work or get anyone what they really want. (Facing those sorts of facts in fiction can help us better understand reality, if we're paying attention, but I digress.)
I won't spend much time hashing out the story here, because that would be doing those who want to go and experience this for themselves a severe disservice. That said, the plot offers a pleasant amount of twists and does not broadcast the ending from the beginning. If you have watched the Netflix series, read any of the books, or played either of the other 2 games, you will appreciate what's here.
I chose to play the game this time around on Hard difficulty and using WASD controls. On Hard difficulty, it demands that you learn about the world and not treat it as any other RPG. I had to think critically about upcoming fights and prepare for them using strategically chosen potions, signs, and combat styles. These things became as natural to me as getting dressed in the morning by the time I was half-way through Act 2. A game that makes you think the way the protagonist would is a highly engaging experience, and I have to commend CDPR for this design choice.
The music fits the setting so well. There are appropriate settings for orchestral and vocal elements that will instill tranquility, pulse pounding tracks utilizing instruments that would not seem unfamiliar to the Renaissance period, and even one or two tracks with distorted guitars at exactly the right time and not over-done.
The sound effects are also well chosen, and the voice acting is certainly serviceable. My only issues with both is that some of the sound effects during combat are highly repetitive, and occasionally the tone of the voice actors doesn't fit the flow of the conversation. That said, both certainly serve the setting appropriately if not spectacularly.
Speaking of the setting, what a setting it is. This is not an idealized fantasy kingdom. This is the worst of life as we know it: war, famine, plague, political intrigue, and general human barbarism. It understands what people are capable of and what the worst tend towards. It also offers the best of life as we know it: mercy, compassion, understanding, and standing on just principles. It makes sure the beauty of life is there and is valued, because the best doesn't stare you in the face for as long as the worst does.
An element which helps cement the setting to me is that your character, Geralt, is a known entity in the world and by its inhabitants. You are still able to piece together his past and play his character your way. That said, being able to run into people who know your character as a person instead of "Hail, generic savior character" was a welcome change of pace. People in Vizima don't worship the ground Geralt walks on, do not consider him to be "the chosen one" (usually), and generally don't want too much to do with him until he proves himself worthy of their time and trust.
Combat is a point of contention in this game for many. Overall, I'd say the combat is simple and serviceable once you get the hang of the rhythmic elements. However, this game struggles in larger combat engagements. Since attacks are all done by clicking the enemy you want to engage, there will be times you think you've clicked on a foe in front of you, when in reality due to the camera another enemy behind you has taken priority. This means rather than finish of Foe A, you actually target Foe B. This can become quite tiresome. The only other complaint I have about combat is that there are some bosses that are easier than garden-variety henchmen, and others where the difficulty level spikes considerably. Both extremes break immersion, unfortunately.
The last element I'll touch on is the leveling system. At the beginning of the game, you will only ever receive Bronze leveling points to select skills. After a number of levels (10 iirc,) you begin receiving silver and bronze, and then after another 10 you will receive gold as well. You will receive fewer silver than bronze, and fewer gold than silver overall. This means you should have a look at all the skills fairly early to determine where you ultimately want to spend your experience. I ended up focused heavily on swordplay, Geralt's characteristics, and the Aard sign. I had alchemy up to being able to make bombs, but the bulk of my points went into stabbing things, and stabbing them very well.
All in all The Witcher is a very memorable game for me, and I will miss it. I'll probably come back to it another time (maybe in a few years) in order to make different choices, but until then I'm going to enjoy the sense of satisfaction I got from The Witcher. It felt like a story I really grew into and was definitely invested in, which I can say about very few video games over all. I highly recommend it. Just remember, when you play The Witcher, you play it's game, not your expectations of it.
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