At the heart of The Witcher's design lies a rich and compelling roleplaying experience. Unfortunately, the rest of the game serves mostly to obscure this fact. As a storyteller with nearly 20 years of tabletop roleplaying experience, I tend to take my computer RPGs with more than a few grains of salt. I stuck with Gothic, despite its awkward control system and uneven vocal performances. I grimaced through Ultima VII's tongue-in-cheek, Olde English dialog. I spent countless hours wandering the wastelands in Fallout, despite my antipathy for turn-based combat. I even slogged through all of Neverwinter Nights and its follow up modules - more than once. Still, after spending well over 10 hours with The Witcher, I can't see myself returning to it.
The Witcher is based on the best-selling novels written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. You play Geralt, also called the White Wolf. He's an albino, a mutant, a Witcher, a monster hunter, sword for hire, a sorcerer and an alchemist. Despite having all of his professional bases covered, Geralt died before the events of the game begin, and he's been brought back to life without his memory, of course. To make matters worse, he's returned at a bad time - the world is in turmoil and the Witchers are by and large mistrusted. To make matters still worse, the game begins with a powerful sorcerer and feared assassin leading an attack on the Witcher stronghold and stealing their mutagens - secret mystical potions that give the Witchers their power. It's not a bad start to a game, despite the overly familiar amnesia premise and the obvious parallels between Geralt and Elric, Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion.
The marketing for The Witcher proclaims the game to be the pinnacle of storytelling in roleplaying games. Gone is the cliched struggled between good and evil, and moral ambiguity rules the day. It also promises a charismatic, unique protagonist and complex tactical, yet intuitive, combat. So what went wrong?
The story unfolds clumsily via intrusive in-engine cut-scenes, stilted dialog and uneven vocal performances. I understand that a significant amount of the original Polish game's dialog was cut from the English version, which is undoubtedly responsible for some of the game's more non sequitur moments, such as this exchange after Geralt learns his first spell at a Circle of Whispering Stones:
Geralt: Smash it.
Leo: I knew it would work!
Still, given that the game wrests control from the player to present long and awkward conversations between the characters at inappropriate moments - "Hey hero, let's stop and talk about my past as we rush to stop the sorcerer from stealing the Witchers' secrets!" - I can't help but be a little glad that there's less dialog than originally intended. I feel that the game should make we want to read the books, not reproduce them for me, word for word.
The voice acting is bad, too. A lot of the actors, Geralt included, opted to take a very minimal approach to their line readings. Along with the cut-scenes, it makes Geralt seem stiff and wooden, more at home in a Thunderbirds episode than the vibrant and unique story-world the designers are trying to present.
Speaking of "vibrant," The Witcher has some pretty steep system requirements, so be certain your rig is up to snuff if you hope to play. I upgraded to 2 GB of RAM in order to get the levels to load, but that was the only added benefit. Where Bioshock had me gaping at the scenery, The Witcher had me ignoring that Geralt would walk through monster corpses to loot them. Character models frequently had bits of long grass sticking out of their stomach, or two characters would walk through each other in cut-scenes. This is hardly what I was expecting from a game powered by BioWare's Aurora engine.
Navigating the world isn't always pleasant, either. Geralt, as shown in the game's pre-rendered intro, is an athletic and formidable combatant. In game, however, he has trouble navigating around large plants, small ledges, piles of rubble and slight rises in the ground level. I eventually learned to avoid running through grasslands, low hanging branches and small hills, but it was frustrating to need to worry about it.