One of the most popular series of the past few years is The Witcher. With the release of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, this adaptation of a Polish novel series has skyrocketed in popularity. While it is possible to play the games non-sequentially, I decided to start from the beginning with The Witcher. It is evident that this was CD Projekt Red’s first title, as The Witcher is incredibly rough around the edges. Mechanically, The Witcher is clunky and lacks a level of polish. Narratively, The Witcher is fairly interesting, but it starts slow and seems to be setting up a story for the future.
The Witcher is a medieval fantasy game in which you play a Geralt of Rivia, a professional monster hunter who suffers from amnesia and cannot recall any of his past experiences. The story told is based off of “The Witcher” novel series by Andrzej Sapkowski, a Polish author. It is one of mythical monsters, political intrigue, and general mystery. The game simply begins with a criminal organization stealing powerful potions from the witchers, and you must track them down. During this hunt, you unravel a web of secrets and learn the true motivations of the criminals that you have been pursuing. The adventure is filled with morally ambiguous choices, it often feels like you must choose between the lesser of two evils. I quite like the more gritty and difficult story choices that the game forces you into. In other RPGs like the Mass Effect series your options are plainly labeled as good and evil, but I prefer pondering about my actions and their consequences. The tale it tells is grim and gritty, it is filled with death, war, sex, politics, and monsters. As a whole, I felt as if The Witcher was more setting up a world and narrative layout for future titles. It starts off slow and lets the player absorb information about the world and it progressively gets more intriguing. Even the ending obviously is setting up the next title in the series. As a standalone story The Witcher is solid, but it evidently is more concerned for preparing to tell a much larger story.
The major issue with The Witcher lie within its gameplay, and most notably, its combat. The Witcher feels antiquated even for a game that was released in 2007. The controls are slow and unwieldy and the interfaces are unintuitive. As an open world RPG, it felt like the developers wanted the player to take no shortcuts. There is very limited fast travel, walking from area to area is a slog, and you must grind through hordes of monsters that respawn every time you load into the area. The Witcher puts a lot of emphasis on preparation and the role-playing aspect of the game rather than the combat. You must collect herbs and create potions to give you an edge in combat, because your skill alone will not get you through any encounters. One of the biggest oversights is how you go about creating potions, leveling up, or just waiting. In order to perform these tasks, you must find a campfire to meditate at, which sounds fine on the surface but in reality, there are so few of these campfires scattered throughout the game. This is especially aggravating as many quests require the player to talk to another character at a specific time of day. Often, I found myself talking to a character, realize that I can’t talk to them at night, run to a campfire, rest until day, run back, talk to the character again who gives me a quest that can only be completed at nighttime, run to a campfire, rest until night, and then finally start the quest. All of those steps could have been avoided if you could just rest or wait in place rather than at a campfire. The Witcher is filled with irritants that just blatantly waste the players time, but nothing can compare to its abhorrent combat.
Every game has its flaws, and I certainly commend CD Projekt Red for being so ambitious with its first title (which I’m sure they learned many lessons from to become the revered studio they are today), but the combat in The Witcher may be one of the single worst experiences I’ve had in a video game. Essentially, you must pick a combat “style” (fast, strong, or group), click on an enemy, and hope for the best. As Geralt goes through the animations, you can click again at a specific timing to increase your damage. It is remarkably simple, and honestly it could have worked in a game like this that focuses on preparation like your skills, potions, and selecting the right combat style. The issue is that there are a ridiculous number of instances where the combat just falls apart. The first issue is with large groups of enemies, you just pop some potions, select group style, and pray that you kill the enemies before they completely surround and annihilate you. The next issue is with enemies with any sort of immobilizing effects like blinds, stuns, or knockdowns. You are immobilized for a ridiculous amount of time, and enemies can even chain these effects together to keep the player permanently immobilized until they die. Moreover, some singular enemies that are just too strong, you can’t use skill to beat them, and I often used cheesy tactics like kiting them around the arena while my health regenerated before going in for a singular hit. On top of all that, the controls are just unwieldy, the game doesn’t always register your commands correctly as you are in the middle of a “combo”. Often, I would try to back off from enemies to regain some health, but Geralt just wouldn’t budge. Furthermore, there is just so much randomness in the combat with dodges, parries, stuns, and inconsistencies with the enemy AI. Some encounters took me 4-5 tries, but there is really no alternative tactics you can use other than to prepare better, so I felt like I was bashing my head against a wall at times. Like I said earlier, this simple, preparation based, point-and-click combat could work, but there were just so many frustrating instances. The developers should have known that their combat mechanics were weak and should have toned down the amount of action that was in the game and how grandiose the battles were. At times it felt like The Witcher was trying to be a hack-and-slash, but as a point-and-click RPG it was just painful.
After slogging my way through The Witcher, I am excited to play the next game in the series. Partially because it is a universally lauded title, partially to see what this story has been building up to, and partially to see how much CD Projekt Red improved. The story was definitely interesting so I would like to see more, but the gameplay needs drastic improvements. Combat needs an overhaul and the rest of the game just needs a lot of polish. The foundations for a great series are certainly there, the developers just have to refine it. Unless you are a fan of The Witcher series or if you want to start from the beginning, I do not recommend The Witcher, it is just too janky and clunky, I recommend starting with a future title in the series and just reading a summary of the first game.