I Am Interface
I remember hearing a great deal about the Witcher’s interface back when the game was first released, and I must say that for better or worse the UI is a thing to behold. It’s terribly imposing the first time you encounter it, with swathes of tabs and buttons and modifiers and filters sparingly labeled in inscrutable hieroglyphs all laid out before you at once. It absolutely must be fiddled with and prodded at by the user to be understood. To its credit however, at least you can actually see what you need to see.
Intuitive design is always a good thing in any interface, but I think economy of action and fluidity of use should take precedence especially in a menu-heavy classic RPG. You only need to learn a UI once, but you’ll rummage through it thousands of times over the course of the game. Many developers seem to value a menu that can be learned instantly over one that’s smart and efficient to use. It’s possible to do both, but more often the games end up saddled with interfaces that look smooth, sleek, and simple, but under the surface are actually a web of obfuscating menus, baffling dependencies of action (Gained a level? You need to assign all of your skills and stats right now before you can do anything else!), and inefficient scrolling lists that turn every interaction into a chore.
I challenge anyone to kill two dozen Geth and then try doing anything at all in the original Mass Effect’s inventory without being there for longer than than two minutes. I imagine the average player spends entire wasted hours of compounded list-scrolling during a playthrough of Skyrim. Whatever its faults, The Witcher’s UI doesn’t waste my time. I will gladly accept a few minutes of initial confusion if it means I can do what I want to, as quickly as possible, with minimal hassle for the rest of the game.
The Witcher is quite possibly the only RPG I’ve ever played which has managed to make potions actually feel like strange and mystical draughts of unknown power wrought by alchemy rather than mundane boxes of fruit juice used exclusively to fill a series of abstracted bars, and so omnipresent that even dead rats are literally awash in the stuff. Potions can generally only be created manually or bought from alchemists, can’t be imbibed by the dozen without poisoning Geralt, and have long durations which persist for whole dungeon crawls and make choice a factor (Dark cave of ghosts? Which combination of potions is best?).
Almost every type of potion has its own interesting unique effect – some of them permanent. A mutagenic elixir made from the fur of a unique werewolf makes Geralt a more fearsome fighter at night; another special tincture grants him the ability to eat alchemic ingredients raw for an emergency health boost; a more common mixture allows him to see in the dark for several hours. Every permutation is useful, distinct, and makes a big impact on the gameplay. You’ll find no Minor Draughts of Brief Sewing or Elixirs of Imperceptibly Faster Movement Speed biding their time in the inventory for a circumstance you will likely forget to use them for in this game. More often, killing a rare species of monster results in a special reagent which can be mixed to grant big-ticket items like free skill points.
Because each active effect comes with a cost in toxicity, chugging these conspicuous elixirs feels more like customizing Geralt’s physiology for the situation at hand than manually feeding his IV bag of liquid health for the umpteenth time, which is precisely how the Witchers do business in the established universe. Death can no longer be deferred by quaffing eight gallons of red soda in the middle of a battle. It’s a wonderful mechanic that reflects the internal logic and lore of the setting in gameplay and adds depth to the encounters at the same time. For once, potions are the rare and fearful flasks of mysterious power they deserve to be.
Face The Strange
The art in The Witcher has some serious character. Far too few games choose style over realism when it comes to visuals, and this is especially obvious when it comes to character design. Although the models for its common NPC’s are frequently reused with only minor differences to represent different characters, each one has heaps more personality than your standard troupe of shiny-faced, same-bodied Bioware plot robots, and more appeal than Bethesda’s unintentionally hideous spawn of the random number generator. They remind me most of illustrations by the late Maurice Sendak, or the grotesque characters of an old Russian storybook. Off-hand, the only game I can think of which does this better is American McGee’s Alice/Madness Returns, and only because it has the advantage of such a colourful and diverse setting with a clear lunatic running the show.
Are they ugly? Ye gads are they ugly, and that’s evidently the point. As a stylized fantasy world it doesn’t need to be real and it doesn’t need to be pretty; it can jump the uncanny valley in a single bound and make every face totally unique. The Witcher’s art direction laughs in the face of the idealized characters employed by its competitors, limited as they are by impeccable fashion sense, angelic features, and indestructible styled hair… then it turns around and serves up an entire supporting cast of grimy, shady, flabby, greasy, leering, fleabitten vagrants – and that’s just barely describes Vizima’s nobility. It takes the convention of implausibly photogenic character design and runs, cackling and gleeful, to the total opposite extreme where it founds a city of the weird, fantastic, and grotesque. I love it.
Long Is The Way
Simply put, the game is long. Possibly too long. Too many of the quests ask you to retread familiar ground simply to kill an extra monster or loot a specific chest which only spawns after a certain event, and without any means of transportation it can take five minutes simply running through loading screens and empty wilderness simply to see if an area contains anything of interest. I would not have felt slighted in the least if my stay in the obligatory maze-like swamp was half as long and half as full of randomly-spawned hordes of enemies, and if the masons of Vizima’s temple quarter had seen fit to construct streets with fewer artificial barriers demanding ludicrous feats of circumnavigation.
There really isn’t much more to say on the matter. It’s not uncommon to spend 3-5 minutes with the W key held down as Geralt runs from one end of the map to the other to turn in a single quest, is forced to take the longest possible route, and gets hung up on anything higher than his ankles along the way. Even with a fast-travel function the amount of backtracking would seem silly – without one it’s absolutely maddening and the pacing of the story suffers as a result.
While I generally enjoyed the story told in The Witcher, it must be said that if nothing else it suffers from a debilitating case of the Teleports. While typically an affliction of poorly-planned comic books and bad fan-fiction, video games may sometimes lack the proper immunities to stave off this type of pervasive of plot-cancer.
Like time travel, the ability to teleport is anathema to a logical and consistent story. The more often it appears, the more unrestricted it is, the more it erodes the actions of the characters and the logic behind them. Travel becomes pointless and arbitrary, previously interesting obstacles no longer have meaning, the protagonist can never be obstructed without an awkward ham-fisted explanation (eg. you can’t teleport over this gate because it’s shielded from the arcane, yet somehow the Salamandra base and the king’s throne room are not). Worst of all, teleporting quickly becomes the go-to solution for just about everything.
Why did Geralt travel all the way to Vizima from the fortress and spend an act trying to earn entry documents if Triss could simply have teleported him inside right after the tutorial? She sends him clear across the country on a moment’s notice later on! If anyone can teleport Geralt at any time, without his consent, from any location, what’s preventing Javed from zapping him thousands of feet into the sky, into a dungeon cell of his fortress, or into a coffin buried fifty feet underground? If that’s not allowed, what about teleporting an angry bear into his bedroom? What about a bomb? What stops any mage out there from doing this to the king on a whim, or anyone else who opposes them?
While decently voiced and modeled, Azar Javed, the villainous sorcerer who Geralt spends most of the game in pursuit of, behaves like the nightmare offspring of a clumsy roleplay character and the GM favourite in a tabletop game. In his first appearance he effortlessly dispatches the Witchers in their own stronghold, stealing the secrets of their mutagens with the help of his lackey The Professor. When Geralt finally reaches the pair, he finds them sealed off behind an impenetrable force field. When he eventually bypasses it they kill his inexperienced subordinate, jump through a magical portal, and disappear completely.
This begins a cyclic chase which seems to take aeons, where any time real progress seems to have been made the same situation repeats itself: a full act’s worth of preparation corners Javed and thwarts his schemes, a fight ensues, Geralt triumphs, Javed teleports away after grumbling about how Geralt understands nothing, nothing is changed, and everything is still going as planned.
The second act is carried out simply trying to force a confrontation with Javed, to the point where Geralt gets electrocuted, fights a massive ancient golem, plumbs the sewers, bails himself out of prison, de-monsters a village worth of clay pits, hires a private eye, conducts a murder investigation, hunts down bodies in a crypt, and roams the entire playable world for obelisks to unlock a magical tower to serve as bait for a trap. As the encounter takes place in the swamp, the idea is that Javed’s fire-fueled magic won’t be effective. Naturally he shows up, summons a giant fire rat and an arena ring of pure fire, fights until he begins to lose… and then teleports The Professor into the battle out of nowhere. When Geralt proceeds to win this three-on-one, they incapacitate him with an unexplained flask of gas and teleport to safety (rather than simply killing him while he’s helpless – that wouldn’t be sporting).
The third act has Geralt eliminating Salamandra cells throughout the city in search of their headquarters. He courts and petitions aid from a princess, a spymaster, a foreign king, a guard captain, a secret society, and either a religious order or terrorist group to accomplish this, thwarting a bank robbery, fighting a werewolf, and breaking up a drug ring in the process. When he finally locates the base with a sufficient fighting force at his back, he learns that the only way to access it is to teleport there. Thankfully Triss is able to spare a teleport for him, just because he asked nicely.
Once inside he finds his old pals Azar Javed and The Professor conspiring in the lair behind a force field as they are partial to doing. Geralt sets about to break the force field. Javed teleports away. The Professor dies during the struggle at the hands of a giant insect only because his boss was too much of a jerk to bring him along this time.
The act ends with Geralt discovering that the princess is in collusion with Salamandra. He’s accosted by her guards and moments away from execution… but Triss, who isn’t even present in the scene, teleports him again to a small idyllic town in the middle of nowhere. Here he spends the next act running errands for townsfolk, ghosts, and Lovecraftian fish-people. At the end of the arc, a battle between the religious order and the non-human insurgents endangers a magically-inclined child Geralt acts as a surrogate father for. He vanishes without a trace; teleported.
A whole act later we catch wind of the final (for real this time – we promise!) Salamandra fortress during a full-blown civil war. Javed is there to greet our hero at the gates with a new round of mutant soldiers. They all die. He teleports away. Inside the fortress, Geralt repeatedly encounters the irrationally smug mage and is chided for failing at things by the man who has lost every fight, failed every scheme, and survived only by disappearing at the last moment. Every encounter culminates with him teleporting either himself or Geralt to a different location, followed by a battle against mutants of increasing size and irritation factor.
In the innermost chamber Javed commits to a fight to the death which for once actually ends in his death. No explanation is given for why he didn’t poof himself away to a fancy bar in Redania during this battle – presumably he ran up a debt and his teleport provider cancelled the service on him.
Just when all seems to be put in order at last, we learn that the real puppet master behind everything Geralt has been fighting over the course of the game is a man who has seen a future in which everyone dies to a natural catastrophe, and will go to the most extreme measures to prevent it. He has become evil and jaded by teleporting through time.