How much witch could the Witcher witch if the Witcher could witch witch? That seems to the question on everyone’s minds as Witcher Week here at No High Scores apparently kicks off. If you’re groaning “not more Witcher stories”, don’t worry- we’ll get back to being angry about the games business and posting “bad journalism” like my Fez review soon. But hey, that stuff beats “good journalism” about DLC announcements and Mega Man cosplay pictures, doesn’t it?
Anyway, I love the game, and I would be extremely surprised if it didn’t turn out to be my pick for Game of the Year. I think it’s a masterpiece that deserves to be mentioned alongside the very best titles in the RPG genre. It’s classical and revisionist, grim and funny, beautiful and brutish. Truth be told, I read almost no reviews of the new Enhanced Edition on the 360 or the PC version last year barring some of Chick’s comments about it so I wasn’t really quite sure what to expect outside of some very general parameters. So I managed to get surprised by the game on a couple of counts, which is pretty hard to do when you write about and read about games all the time. Here’s six things that I didn’t expect out of the game.
1) There is actual role-playing. And by role-playing, I most certainly do not mean fussing around with stats, custom faces, classes, and micromanagement. The Witcher 2 has some of that, but it’s definitely not a spreadsheet RPG like far too many examples of the genre are. What I mean is that in the game, you take on the role of Geralt and you do the kinds of things Geralt would do. He’s got to prepare for difficult fights by laying traps and brewing potions. He’s more or less a broke vagabond so he has to take on odd jobs and prize fights to earn a living. The kinds of choices you’re given in dialogue are not the typical BioWare Paragon/Renegade forked paths- they’re almost all Chaotic Neutral decisions where all options are still feasible for Geralt’s character as written and intended. The neat thing is that the player is still given plenty of agency to craft the character, but it occurs within specific boundaries so that regardless of what the player does, they’re still playing the game-and role-playing- as Geralt.
2) It’s like a Western Monster Hunter. I totally didn’t expect the game to be so similar in certain areas to Monster Hunter, but there are elements that are almost identical in concept if not in execution. In the Monster Hunter games, the player has to kill monsters and craft things from their parts. You’ve also got to find herbs and other raw materials, and crafting is a big part of the game. The idea in both games (at least as far as I’ve played into The Witcher is that you spend a lot of time preparing for a major, impending and imminent boss battle. The trapping, bombs, learning about prey and even elements of the combat are straight from Monster Hunter. The build-up to the Kayran menacing Flotsam is totally reminiscent of the popular Japanese series. Of course, it’s a Western RPG so it’s not quite as obsessive and it’s more story-focused.
3) The writing is really damn good. The game isn’t written like a video game, which is incredibly refreshing. It’s written, paced, and structured like a reality-grounded, literary fantasy novel- it’s definitely not potboiler genre trash. It’s in line with fantasy writers like Glen Cook or Joe Abercrombie with just enough of a taste of Howard’s Solomon Kane stories to make it interesting and a little two-fisted without going full-pulp. Even the freaking tutorial was well-written, presented as a kind of short story about Geralt making his way to the arena. Motivations, ambiguities, conditional moralities, and passions blaze through the well-framed, Even though I do feel like I’m missing important story elements from the first game due to the in media res nature of it, I’m completely immersed in the world, its atmosphere, its politics, and its particulars. Most surprisingly, I’m actually reading all of the lore- something I never do because it’s almost always Biblically painful to read through horrendously didactic Z-grade garbage writing (see: any Elder Scrolls game). But The Witcher 2’s supplemental writing is handled with a smart levity, framed as the work of Geralt’s chronicler Dandelion. I’m listening to the all dialogue too and not skimming through it, because I actually care what these people have to say. I even want to read the novels, which is something of a shocker in itself since I don’t read many contemporary fantasy books.
4) The Sidequests don’t suck. Adjunct to the good writing, the sidequests- really more subplots- aren’t the usual filler junk. Sure, you pick flowers in The Witcher 2, but at no point does someone with an exclamation point over their head tell you to go find ten of a certain type and bring them back. Geralt might be asked to do what seems like a FedEx task, but even the most mundane quest tends to turn into a more interesting and compelling situation that is actually worth pursuing. In one that I did last night, I was asked to go find these two men that were last seen going out to this burned-down- and haunted- mental hospital. That sounds awesome enough, but when I got there a complete short story unfolded complete with a chilling resolution that was grim, brutal, and honest. Another involving an alcoholic troll lead into a little investigative work and a couple of possible outcomes, one of which could have involved a sub-subplot involving the poker dice minigame. Even the arm wrestling and fist fighting feel reasonably framed and never superfluous- largely, I think, because the game is so focused and it steers away from the typical morass of phony content and false free will that plagues open world games.
5) Some RPG habits are hard to break. This one is the bad surprise. I was disappointed to find some of the same silly, incongruous, or unrealistic things that have been breaking immersion in RPGs for decades now turning up in The Witcher 2. Yep, you walk into some guy’s house, talk to him, and loot everything he owns. Or you walk in and he’s asleep (or planking) on his bed. Talk, and he says cheerfully “Ah! Welcome!” without getting up. Inventory is a mess and there’s needless junk items adding to the clutter. People forget that you ever talked to them before. That said, there are so many places where the game breaks from genre expectations these things are negligible. But by the same token, they’re also more egregious.
6) I don’t regret spending $60 on it. All too often when I buy a new game, I almost immediately have buyer’s remorse- even if I like the game. I usually have this feeble “I really should have just rented this” epiphany sometime within the first three hours of a game. But given that this is a game very clearly cared about and labored over by its creators- who thought enough of their product to grace it with an actual manual, a map, and a quest guide, none of which are tied to marketing schemes- I felt that I had bought something that was actually worth its asking price. This is a game I want to own, not just play through. The craft on display is exquisite, and it feels like a product with lasting value rather than some flash-in-the-pan, 10 hour play-and-forget title that I would trade within an hour of the credits rolling. This is one for the Forever Shelf, alongside Metro 2033, Mirror’s Edge, Dark Souls, and Bayonetta.
I doubt that I’ll formally review the game because I want to take time to savor it, but rest assured it would get our highest marks here at No High Scores including our new High Score award…which is, ironically, not tied to any score because we don’t score games here. I’m glad to see it’s selling well, not only because that means we might see The Witcher 3: Witch Hard with a Vengeance sometime in the near future, but it may also convince CD Projekt Red that the 360 audience would buy a port of the first game. The success of The Witcher 2 could also prove that a solid, lovingly made game that’s complete and not whored out in DLC and preorder bonuses can make money and be successful. And that is proof that the games industry needs to be paying attention to.