Time to make the donuts!
What's considered "great writing" is often highly subjective, but especially so when you're talking about video games, an immature medium that's only even been attempting to tell complex stories for about 25 years or so. Relative to all literature, "fantasy novels" are usually pretty crappy. Tolkien was the only great author in this realm that I can think of, and everything else has more or less been a re-tread of his ideas. The better ones put an interesting spin on the formula, and are entertaining and decent, but still not what anyone would seriously try to champion as "great writing." Still, compared to the caliber of most video game writing to date, the better fantasy novels are a phenomenal leap forward in quality and complexity.

That's pretty much where we're at with the Witcher, a game based on a series of Polish fantasy novels that were published in the 1990s. The world of the Witcher is "low" Tolkien; picture the Lord of the Rings but every concievable monster from every other fantasy story has been airlifted in, and they seemingly outnumber humans by a solid 100:1 ratio. Oh, and the humans run everything, and they're massively racist towards elves and dwarves, forcing them to live in ghettos and be second class citizens. The only thing keeping the common citizenry from getting murdered by some beast every time they go out for a walk are Witchers, dedicated monster-hunters-for-hire that mutate themselves using alchemy to get superhuman abilities. You play as Geralt of Rivia, Witcher who died in a non-human riot some years before the start of the game, and has now come back to life for unknown reasons, since he also lost his memory. Geralt heads back to Kaer Morhen, the stronghold and training base of Witchers, to get a handle on things, but while there the place is raided by a pack of bandits and a powerful mage, who steal the Witchers ancient alchemical secrets and disappear. So the rest of the game is a quest to find this mysterious bandit organization, called Salamandra, open a can of ass-witching on them, and recover the stolen formulas.

It's an RPG, though with more action-oriented combat than most. When baddies approach, you use either hotkeys or a menu on the left-hand side to select a "combat style" - "Strong" does the most damage to heavily armored slow enemies, "Fast" does less damage but is necessary to keep up with nimble lightly-armed enemies, and "Group" lets you acrobatically wave your swords around 360 degrees, not doing much damage to any one target, but fending off packs that try to surround you from all sides. Then you simply left-click on your current target to start an automatic chain of a few hits. During this athletic display, at some point Geralt's sword will flash fiery orange, which is your cue to click again to continue the combo. You can also click to interrupt the combo and parry, or click anywhere outside of the enemy to dodge and do a combat roll. Geralt also gradually acquires "signs", basically magic spells that you activate by clicking the right mouse button at any time, stuff like "force pushes" and a shield against damage.

The Witcher is equal parts story and combat, however, with a stronger dose of "adventure game" and dialogue than most RPGs. There's a "moral choice" system in play in which decisions you make may not bear fruit until hours later into the gameplay, and are not black/white moral absolute choices. Geralt has to do nearly as much investigating and talking to people as fighting; in fact, the entire third chapter of the game is a criminal investigation in which you try to piece together who among a list of suspects is secretly a major player in Salamandra. There's numerous ways for you to get this wrong if you aren't investigating thoroughly, and while the game proceeds all the same even if you finger the wrong culprit, you can potentially piss off a valuable ally down the road.

The Witcher is the first major production from previously unknown team CD Projekt Red, who apparently just licensed the Neverwinter Nights 2 engine and tweaked it to their liking. The inexperience shows in minor clumsiness in nearly all of the game's facets. Movement in the isometric view, which has you clicking all around the map, often gets obstructed by various objects and living things you can interact with, forcing you to use WASD to get to a clear patch before you can get to clicking away again. The click-timing of the combos in combat just feels "off" sometimes; you learn that you can't click too soon when Geralt's flaming sword appears, or it'll register as a mistake and break the combo. Sometimes you'll lose your current target in combat while trying to click on them, because another target wandered too close and now the game thinks you're trying to target them instead. Sometimes the camera will swing wildly around for no apparent reason while you're trying to adjust it. Cut-scenes are bizarrely and awkwardly placed sometimes. And the game's optimization is poor to non-existent; even though the graphics are nothing amazing in terms of effects, the game still requires a fairly beasty rig to run. The fact that the game on the whole is rather on the easy side (at least on "normal" difficulty) offsets a lot of the problems in combat, however; hinks will happen, but you truck most enemies anyway, so it really doesn't matter. All problems are also occasional, as well, never really consistent enough to drag things down.

The story itself is the winner here; while not "great literature" by any means, it's more complex and subtle and well-thought-out than what we usually get from the medium, with a host of well-realized characters. Though Geralt's primary mission is always ferreting out the leaders of Salamandra and recovering the Witcher's stolen secrets, the game plays against the backdrop of an escalating confrontation between the Sc'oiatel, a militant non-human resistance group who want to overthrow human rule, and the Order of the Flaming Rose, a religious militia formed to combat the increasing Sc'oiatel threat to human cities. You're free to support either side, or stay neutral, and will have to make "morally grey" choices frequently about how to handle both, which end up coming back to have repercussions, sometimes much later. Neither side is portrayed as either "good" or "evil". The Sc'oiatel have genuinely legitimate gripes about their racist treatment and the overthrow of their homelands, but their response is wanton murder of human targets with no concept of "non-combatants", often killing innocent peasants, even women and children when it suits them. The Order is definitely religious extremist, and advocates extermination of the elven and dwarven rebels as the solution to the conflict, but is also often the only line of defense between Sc'oiatel terrorists and innocent lives and property, and also makes it their mission to selflessly hunt down dangerous monsters that threaten everyone.

The game advertises "80 hours" of play. The main quest took me more like 50 (doing nearly all of the optional side-quests), but I guess that could still be accurate since the game includes seven stand-alone bonus quests to play separate of the main game, and there's also an Adventure Editor so you can make your own. A lot of that 50 hours of the main quest, unfortunately, does consist of "fetch quest" padding. The second chapter is almost non-stop padding, running back and forth to talk to the same people over and over who are spaced out across the map, or fetching 10 Goblin Knobs for Floozijib the Wizard so he can make martinis. A lot of this stuff is technically optional, but if you don't do at least some of it, you could find yourself in the endgame too much of a chump to handle the final challenges.

One of the elements that really surprised me here was the soundtrack quality. It was excellent! WRPGs usually have that melodyless symphonic "epic" music, some peices of this are kind of like that, but there's also a heavy Celtic influence that reminded me of the Suikoden Celtic Collection of all things. There are some great melodies here that are almost Yasunori Mitsuda-ish. The voice acting is usually at least passable, a few exceptions aside. Geralt has a bit of the old Grimm Shado thing going on, but it's acceptable in terms of the character, and the source material. It could have been better, especially the bard Dandelion, a major supporting character who narrates the ending scenes but unfortunately sounds like a flatter, less competent version of Otacon from Metal Gear Solid. But Geralt is overwhelmingly who you hear the most, and his gravelly, sarcastic delivery is not unpleasant, and fitting of the character. You also can separately choose both your preferred delivery language and subtitles, which would be in every game in a perfect universe.

I've seen some complaints about the alchemy system - which I don't get, unless it was more complicated in previous versions. Really, once you get a recipe, it's basically automated. The only complexity is that you have to find recipes first, and also info on herbs and monsters via books or talking to other characters. Never felt like that was at all difficult though, and again the general difficulty of combat is so low that alchemy rarely seemed necessary anyway.

I've also seem some complaints about the game being juvenile. You can have sex with a bunch of women, and when you do you get a "sex card" memorializing your conquest (featuring some softcore pic of the woman in question.) Geralt is also fond of dice and boozing, in fact strong alcohol is the basis for all alchemical potions in the game. I dunno about this one. Some of the "sex scenes" definitely seem gratuitously tacked in and the whole concept of "sex cards" is pretty juvenile. On the other hand, it's nowhere near the overdone T&A fanservice levels of a DOA Beach Volleyball or something like that. And it's also in keeping with the established character, who apparently banged everything that moved in the novels. I mean, if you lived in this world where it was non-stop monster fighting all the time, you'd probably be fucking and boozing every time the opportunity presented itself.

Finally, there's the stand-alone chapters and Adventure Editor. These are ... OK, I guess, but not much of a selling point by themselves. Out of the 7 included adventures, only two look like they were professionally made by the original designers, with new voice acting and even some new character models. The other 5 were apparently made by fans using the Adventure Editor, using old settings and resources. I only took a quick look at this just to see that it looked like some AutoCAD shit that I wasn't about to try and learn, but apparently it's just a derivation of the Neverwinter Nights 2 scenario maker thing, so if you're already familiar with that you've got a jump here I guess.
While rough around the edges in a number of ways, the Witcher is a very pretty (and aurally pleasing) game that manages to walk the line between story-driven adventure and Diablo-style RPG very well. Certainly worth the $2.50 I got it for from Steam over the holidays.
Links :
* Help with the Chapter 1 boss (seems to be the biggest sticking point for most people)
Videos :
* Zero Punctuation review (was not a fan)