18 May 2011

The Witcher [Blog special]

Fantasy literature and RPG's, two things that seem intertwined with each other. The fantasy subject makes for perfect PC games where moral choices, character development and story is the main focus. Black Isle studios were masters of this genre, when that studio closed Bioware was created by former Black Isle employees and Bioware carried the torch. Recently however Bioware seems to be getting sloppy at the one thing they used to be the best at - deep involving storytelling of epic proportions set in a high fantasy world. Dragon Age: Origins was a very good game.

But Dragon Age 2 has been critisized for being Mass Effect with sword and Magic.

Bethesda made the fantasticly immersive game "Morrowind" and followed up with a very shallow Oblivion. Overall the fantasy genre went from topdown perspective and painted backgrounds (Baldurs Gage/Icewind Dale) series and transformed into 3D which in my opinion put focus on the graphics too much during the few years of transition.

There are still good RPG games out there, but I don't think I've played a better "modern" RPG game than "the Witcher"

Before I go into the Witcher games I'll explain the books the games are based on. The books are written by the Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski.

The main character - a monster slayer for hire whose name is Geralt of Rivia. Geralt is a "Witcher", in the books they are something of a monster slayer guild that abducts or otherwise obtain male children, expose them to mutagenic experiments and turn them into something not quite human. The mutation process kills the majority of children exposed, but those that survive have heightened senses, can see in the dark, lightning fast reflexes and are drilled in sword combat, alchemy and knowledge about various monsters. When they reach adulthood and have completed their training they are free to leave the Witcher stronghold and venture into the countryside, offering their monster slayer services to everyone who has coin.

The tradeoff becoming a Witcher is that people tend to shy away from these individuals who are looked upon with deep mistrust as they are "mutants". They are most of the time left alone, and people tend to keep away unless they really need a Witcher so handle some problem. The process of mutating into a Witcher also makes the individual sterile, which is why the Witchers obtain orphans, sometimes accept male children as payment for their services or outright abduct male children. Witchers offer their services to anyone they deem worthy of their time, and anyone who has the coin - but - their code of conduct is that they should try to remain neutral in conflicts (taking sides may reduce the amount of available work).

The world created by Andzrej Sapkowski is a dark fantasy world, gritty and unforgiving. There are no happy bands of human/halfling/elf/dwarf fellowships here. Humans are in majority, but there also exist dwarf and elves in the world. The non-human species are treated like shit by the - most of the time - outright racist humans. Non-humans are forced to live in ghettos in the human settlements, get harassed by locals and guardsmen. Outside of the towns a sort of non human resistance is attacking human travelers and merchants.

Everything is run down and dirty, very much the picture of eastern Europe during medieval times. Many of the monsters and stories in the Witcher are also based upon eastern folklore with unique monsters and creatures roaming the forests and countrysides, the sewer canals and swamps. There are no goblins or orcs in this world, instead you have Drowned Dead, flesh eating ghouls, specters etc which lends to the unique and fresh feeling of the world.

The rulers of the lands are often douche bag landlords, depraved kings and barons, religious fanatics and the very worst of human nature. Geralt has often to weigh the truth of the situations and tales told to him, sometimes he can reason with the so called "monsters" instead of killing them, sometimes the human employers are worse than the monsters. Geralt travels alone but he has friends and companions with whom he meets up during his adventures like the bard Dandellion or the sorceress Yennefer.

So far only 3 books have been translated into English, "Last Wish", contains a bunch of short novels about Geralt and was the first book to be translated. The second full length novel is Blood of Elves, the third book and second full length novel and most recent translation is "Time of contempt".

I think the universe of the Witcher and the main character is unique enough to warrant a purchase of at least "Last Wish" to get a taste of the world and the main character.

Onto the games. The Polish studio CD Projekt obtained the rights and made a fantastic and immersive RPG simply called "The Witcher". Released in 2007 it has since then been re-released in a enhanced edition that straightened out the bugs and added additional quests and game content. The game featured moments and quests based on the novels - without spoiling to much - one of the quests was about the daughter of King Foltest. The daughter suffered from being cursed into a "Striga", her body transforming during the night time into a manslaying monster that roamed the city of Vizima. Geralt is tasked to subdue and cure the daughter without killing her.

The main quest of the Witcher revolves around the Witcher secrets being stolen after an attack against the Witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen. Geralt and other surviving Witchers set out to find clues about the thiefs and regain their secret formulas. The quest takes Geralt through the countryside near the capitol city of Vizima, and later inside the huge city itself. Quests are often multi layered in a clever fashion where Geral has to make one  or several choices - which affect the outcome of events hours into the future during gameplay. As such you cannot save before making a choice - see the outcome and re-load if you don't like how it turned out. The game is very mature in content, it features a large amount of violence, nudity and "strong language" that makes the world more realistic and believable than the "chivalrous fantasy" of most PC games.

Geralt levels up every now and then, points are distributed into different categories, such as sword fighting, magic or alchemy skills. you can't master everything during one single game. He has a huge two handed steel sword for fighting againts non-supernatural enemies, and a large two handed silver sword to kill monsters with. Blades can be coated in various salves to make them poisonous, extra efficient against some monsters or human foes. Sharpened with wetstones, upgraded with meteorite rock in smithy’s and Geralt can read books about specific monsters and the local fauna to make it possible to harvest components from monsters and plants needed to make potions. Everything is very cleverly stitched together - not all quests are serious - just like in the books there are moments of comic relief. Most often tied to the party-drunkard bard Dandellion. In one side quest you have to steal booze and the diary from one of your friends landlords, a grumpy old lady that will kick you out of the house if she discovers you.

Geralt can also pass the time by competing in fist-fighting matches in local taverns, or play "dice poker" with people he runs into. Finding better fighters and gamers is also part of small sidequests - but the main goal is to earn some cash.

Overall the Witcher is an awesome RPG game that pretty much gets everything right. The few flaws are fixed in the enhanced edition.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, was released just yesterday. I got my "special Nordic edition" which was only 50SEK more expensive than the regular edition. Including a soundtrack, developer diaries, a map, a "Oren" coin, a very well written game guide which can be used as a walkthrough and which also describes all the moral choices and the outcomes if you want to  spoil the game for yourself or check up on what could have been done differently. The second game is made on a completely new game engine - CD Projekts own.

The graphics are gorgeous without taxing your computer hardware too much, the music and voice acting is excellent, the animations awesome, the story so far - fantastic! The prologue will take you a couple of hours to get through before the first act even begins. And everything that was good in the first game has been brought back and revamped to be even better in the second one. Dice poker and fist fights have returned but have been tweaked to make them slightly more challenging. Arm wrestling has been introduced and is performed in quite a clever way to make it more challenging than just mouse button mash for the win. The environments are probably the best looking in a PC game to date, and the quests and choices are just as good as in the original Witcher game. Stealth moments have been added, and play an important part in several missions. Multi layered quests are back, and the monster hunting and foraging is as good as it has ever been.

The main story picks up where Witcher 1 left off (and actually takes places after all the novels in the Witcher series),  with the assassination attempt on King Foltest. In the second game someone - most likely a Witcher - is killing kings throughout the realm and Geralt sets off to clear his name as he is falsely accused of one such murder.

I rarely get super excited about a game - but I hope that the Witcher becomes an enduring franchise since CD Projekt truly has surpassed their chief contenders for the RPG throne , BioWare and Bethesda should learn from these games. If you like mature dark fantasy and  RPG's then give the Witcher a try!

8 comments:

  1. I was totally oblivious to all this until a mate gave me a copy of the last wish, which took me a chapter or two to get into, but by the time I finished it I realised I really quite enjoyed it.

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  2. I was pretty much the same, "what, another fantasy series?". Though I became hooked after the Last Wish and the first Witcher game myself :-)

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  3. Btw, they made a tv series and at least one Witcher movie in Poland. But it was completely butchered as it had poor budget and the producers had no clue what they were doing. Sapkowski himself was pretty turned off by the end result.

    The Witcher games on the other hand has the authors approval and I believe he was consulted during production of both games about various elements.

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  4. I'm tempted to give the games a shot. They look pretty well-produced.

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  5. First, both "Witcher" games are pretty much world class in terms of role playing experience. And the script, including the lines of all characters - just listen to, say, Thaler, in part one - is both filled with grim adventure and dark humor. Second, it is good Andrzej Sapkowski's works are finding their way to English-speaking parts of the world, and I hope they will not be the very last fruits of Polish fantasy and science fiction writers' labors, that will do so. Heavens know there are quite a few of authors that deserve attention, like, for instance, Feliks "Kill 'Em All Tomino is a wimp" Kres, who writes fantasy so dark that compared to him gloomiest parts of Warhammer seem cheerful and bright.

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  6. @ Marcin, yes I find it very strange that it has taken so long for them to start translating into English as the books have been translated to numerous European languages already.

    Hopefully the success of both PC games will speed up the translating of the books.

    The dialogue in both games is mindblowingly good, possibly the only RPG games that made me laugh out loud when it comes to the jokes (both the subtle ones and the outright hilarious).

    Last night I just couldn't believe how incredibly funny some of the sidequests are, had to retrieve a lost drunk who was found shitfaced on the beach in act II. Dragging his drunken ass with me back into the camp and soon having a following of his drunk buddies singing in my tail and Geralt cursing it all. Brilliant! The plot in act II also really thickens, loving every second of the game so far.

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  7. I just stumbled across this review Alex and have added it to my list of new fantasy fiction to read based solely on your endorsement. Thanks bud!

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    1. It's really good, I hope you will enjoy it! :-)

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