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Review: The Witcher: Enhanced Edition

I started playing this game in June 2013 and then abandoned it later that same month, after doing pretty much what I could do without really advancing the story much in chapter two, the attempts to pick it back up over the following two months ending very quickly, after only some grinding. Eventually continued in October 2014, once again temporarily abandoned it later that same month, but this time I did manage to get myself to pick it back up the next and more or less kept playing until I finally finished it this February, with the included adventures also finished in March.
Based on that, you may be inclined to believe that it failed to grab my attention, at least in the early parts, but that’d be completely wrong. Closer to the truth would be to say that it rather drove me away despite all of its good parts and I had to make an effort of will to force myself to continue in face of the one issue that triggered unpleasant and undesirable reactions in me. And that issue is not one of the few rather clear problems the game has, as I found those quite easy to overlook when compared to its many positive aspects, but rather because the developers achieved one of their stated goals perhaps too well. As such, what bothered me to such an extent is something that others appreciated, perhaps even more than any other aspect of the game.

But let’s step back from that for the moment and get to what I actually liked, starting with the fact that The Witcher is so obviously a labor of love. It’s also a good game, of course, and that’s what the rest of this review will focus on, but if you read the books and know the story, characters and lore, you’ll see so many little, or at times not so little, moments and elements in a somewhat different, more complex and, more often than not, overall better way. This doesn’t mean you can’t play it without knowing the background from other sources, because great care has been taken to ensure that’s not the case, but simply that there’s significant added value if you do, and that these elements were implemented in a way that makes it clear the developers were fans of the books and did their best to do them justice.
This obviously also helps the atmosphere and the feeling that you’re part of a living, breathing, believable world, but prior knowledge is once again not exactly necessary, the game itself doing a good enough job even on its own, despite limitations due to the engine, possibly the available hardware, and definitely the team’s size and experience at the time. The nice dialogues and decent implementation of NPC schedules also aid in this, along with the books and journal entries which, while shorter and more utilitarian than what can be found in the most memorable games from this point of view, you will actually want to seek out for both information and benefits, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and you will end up caring about the consequences of your actions not merely in terms of which will do more to aid your progress but also of how they’ll affect certain characters and events for their own sake.
On that topic, I must also say that the story shows proper planning and tackles real and important issues in a relatively mature way, putting before the player moral choices that are far from black and white, at times the decision regarding which may be the slightly lesser evil being uncomfortably difficult. Some of the consequences of those choices could have been handled better, however, considering that they can at times be particularly significant and only become apparent much later, but later is also when I’ll get to that. For now, I’ll say The Witcher is a notable example of implementing this concept at a time when it was noticeably less popular and developed in games than it is now, several years later.

But I wrote a fair amount and didn’t even mention the combat, which makes up a large part of the game and is quite enjoyable and fluid, at least once you figure out how it works and Geralt gains a few useful skills. Some kill moves, especially those usually performed on people, are too long and leave you exposed when fighting multiple opponents and it may at times be somewhat difficult to continue attacking the same single enemy when surrounded and using the over-the-shoulder camera, but for the most part, and regardless of the chosen style, the combat simply flows with a smoothness that’s very rarely seen in games, and it does so thanks to the character’s skills, without making it too difficult for the player.
In addition, the enemies are varied and actually different, requiring tactics you’ll want to learn before facing them, as Geralt’s skills won’t do much good if you, the player, won’t know which ones to use or how in any given situation. This adds another layer of realism and makes it feel that you actually need to prepare for a fair number of fights, including the first few with just about any type of enemy, as even opponents that would otherwise be easy can cause trouble if your approach is particularly careless or simply wrong, while those meant to be difficult tend to become impossible without the correct tactics, and at times also potions or various other items. Which, at least in my view, is exactly how it should be.

Despite all of that, however, I was saying I repeatedly had to force myself to continue, initially requiring a long time to be able to do so. The reason for that? Just those choices and consequences I was mentioning above and the fact that a fair number of times the only way to find the right solution, or even simply the order you need to do some quests or phases in for best results, is to make a lucky guess, possibly even before being made aware of any need to do so. That made me feel that whenever I did one thing I was likely to break three others and won’t even realize it before it’ll be too late.
Now I appreciate it when choices require careful thought and consequences are significant, long-term and at times even undesirable, but with the way I play, and in fact with the way I am, I need ways to do things right and to fix what I see as wrong, and obviously also need to be aware of the need to do so in time. When that’s not available or what is available is insufficient, it goes past frustration and turns into a feeling of powerlessness and an actual fear of advancing or deciding anything, which is something I’m all too familiar with on a daily basis and most definitely don’t want to experience while playing games as well. As I was saying, others have embraced this completely, but for me it’s a terrible aspect of the realism which I have otherwise appreciated in this game and was very close to making it unplayable from my point of view.
And in the above paragraph I wasn’t referring to the times when things don’t work as intended, mind you, because sadly the game still has quite a number of bugs. Many are only nuisances, if they’re triggered at all, but a few may be major and require the player to know how to avoid them ahead of time. In addition, there are also some purely technical problems, possibly due to a memory leak, since they’re more likely to occur the longer you play. These usually result in crashes, especially while saving, which in that case will destroy the old save game as well if you were overwriting, but a couple of times the game even caused my computer to freeze. The first time I eventually resorted to the reset button, though after that I found that there was a way, albeit a rather tricky one, to end the process even in that situation.

If you can get past that, the other issues are minor and relatively easy to overlook when compared to the game’s many positive aspects. Still, the terribly limited inventory, especially when it comes to weapons, remains a nuisance throughout and will be the cause of many boring trips after fights in places where items on the ground don’t vanish as soon as you leave the area if you have a need to sell everything you can, as I do. Also, the fact that you can only customize the functions of the two main mouse buttons severely restricts what you can do with the mouse unless you have one that supports multiple profiles and binding key presses to buttons. And, while this may seem like a very little thing, it can be an issue that there are a few cases where a dialogue path changes following certain events but the starting point remains the same, in which case if you had already tried it it’ll stay grayed out, not letting you know there’s anything new there.
Otherwise, the dice poker is poorly done, leaving little room for anything but blind luck, and at the same time causes the video card to heat up significantly more than when doing anything else in the game. Also, the voice acting, while decent, could be better and has jarring differences in some spots, likely for lines that were changed in the Enhanced Edition. And it can be annoying that one fist fighter doesn’t move from the center of the arena, forcing you to get around him every time you fight, or even that it rains so often and yet some NPCs always say it hasn’t rained hard in a while. And, if I may, I’d also like to mention that I was rather put off by the idea of the sex cards and annoyed by how two particular choices are connected and by the fact that a certain outstanding bit of pillow talk originally between Geralt and Yennefer was pulled straight out of Time of Contempt and implemented in the game, in a different location and situation and with someone else taking Yennefer’s place.

Since I’m reviewing this particular edition of the game, before moving on to the conclusions I should also mention the included additional adventures, obviously starting with the official ones, which are both quite short but can be seen as canon and would have almost certainly been paid DLC if the game would have been released by bigger studios. Of the two, Side Effects seems like the better one overall, likely due to the areas and characters included, though it’s nasty that the different paths and quests aren’t clear and you don’t know what you might have done. The Price of Neutrality seems to have less actual content and its duration is somewhat artificially extended by needing to cross the river only in certain spots.
Then there are two others made by Ifrit Creative Group, and they both show a fair amount of thinking outside the box. Wedding is definitely different, weird and hilarious, but I’d rather dwell more on Merry Witchmas, which truly is a great piece of work. It has a few small issues, but overall it features a fair amount of content and shows a lot of effort, care and creativity, including custom assets. It’s also interesting to notice all the included references, though they and the particular type of creativity and humor used do hurt it a bit in my view when it’s at such a high level otherwise, as I’d call it outstanding if it’d feel more natural and fit better in the game world. Others may appreciate it even more just for these reasons, however.
Of the remaining three, Damn Those Swamps! barely deserves mentioning, being very amateurish, extremely short and featuring extremely little content. Deceit tries to be more, though it seems to go through a checklist of elements to include in order to do so, but it has writing issues and is a buggy mess, requiring me to download an updated version to even be able to finish it. Wraiths of Quiet Hamlet, on the other hand, is very nicely done and feels quite natural. There are a couple of notable bugs, one with a fist fighter and the other being that everything goes in satchels and nothing in alchemy bags, but I liked what they did with NPC schedules, all the details like house gnomes or blue smoke, the way the sexual encounter was implemented, and of course the ending, when everything is put together and you’re presented with the results of your actions and choices.

To conclude, if you like RPGs, games with a good atmosphere and a fair degree of realism, smooth, flowing combat and some thinking, including about deeper issues, alongside your action, while at the same time being able to handle some technical issues and making decisions without knowing exactly what the outcome will be and being unable to do everything just right or at least fix everything that didn’t work out properly on the first try, you will most definitely enjoy The Witcher Enhanced Edition. Having read and enjoyed the books is obviously a bonus in most cases, but it’s not necessary, and I did also see a few people saying they were bothered by the fact that a story with a clear end was continued in such a manner.
If, however, you’re like me and get yourself worked up when none of the available choices seems quite acceptable or, far worse, when you can’t know exactly what the consequences will be and, unless you use a guide, at times won’t learn until it’ll be too late, you will definitely be torn about this game. On the one hand, it’s extraordinary in so many ways and, as I was saying above, it gets even better if you enjoy the books as well, but on the other it will cause you to feel frustrated, powerless and even quite afraid of advancing even if you can understand and, to some extent, appreciate why it does so, which is most definitely not what you want from a game. Still, the good outweighs the bad even so, but it requires an effort of will which may be too much at certain times and under certain circumstances, depending on your state of mind.

As for the additional adventures, it’s nice that they’re included and, in most cases, they’re quite enjoyable. If you want, you can look for others as well or, if you’re willing to spend the time and effort, even make your own using the included editor, though if you haven’t already it may be too late to start now. In addition, while I for one did not, you may even look for and apply mods which will alter and possibly enhance the experience of the actual game as well, some even being recognized by the developers as particularly useful. Just make sure that, whatever you do, you save often enough and preferably in different slots, and taking the recommended breaks while playing and actually quitting the game while doing so definitely helps in more ways than one…

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