Page to Pixel: The Witcher

The Witcher: Origins

In the English-speaking world, it is perhaps forgivable to think of Geralt of Rivia as a videogame character. Since that’s how the itinerant monster hunter and all around anti-hero was introduced to most of my presumed reading public, that’s not really surprising. However, in his creator’s native Poland, Geralt is one of the most well-known characters in fantasy fiction.  Andrezj Sapkowski’s Witcher stories have made quite an impact there, catapulting the author to stardom and his character to a well-known icon. In Poland, the Witcher franchise has expanded to a tabletop RPG and a (laughably bad, I understand) TV series, before becoming CD Projekt Red’s international hit.

Obligatory AD&D Gold Box: Secret of The Silver Blades joke here.

However, having picked up the anthology of Witcher stories released stateside as The Last Wish, I can tell you it’s some damn good reading. In an age where most fantasy is crushingly dark and 700-pages long (I’m looking at you, George R.R. Martin), The Witcher is…still pretty damn dark, but it consistently and often satirically plays with well-known fantasy tropes rather than outright deconstructing them. The Last Wish alone contains at least three stories that are considerably twisted and shaken takes on stories my generation is probably most familiar with through Disney films, most specifically, The Lesser Evil, which is a riff on the Snow White story, and the end of which earns Geralt the nickname “The Butcher of Blaviken”.

Medieval squalor and swamp livin’ at bargain prices!

The anthology of short stories was released in English about the time that the game was, and the first full novel in the series, The Blood of Elves, was released more recently (with a translation of the next book supposedly on its way).  Those of us in the US and UK probably first met Geralt through the PC game. Using an updated version of BioWare’s Aurora engine (which powered Neverwinter Nights and KotOR), The Witcher takes a more action-oriented approach to combat than either of those games, letting you switch between Geralt’s steel (for mundane) and silver (for supernatural creatures) swords, and between three fighting styles for each. Additionally, you can click when an icon appears to string your attacks into a combo, which has the advantages of chaining damage and interrupting enemy attacks. You can also use magic or bombs, but let’s face it – when you’re click-juggling a pack of Drowners to death, you’re probably not gonna bother much with setting them on fire.

I’m not gonna show you the sex cards. Here’s a Tony Gwynn rookie card instead.

While the game presents interesting combat and a decent story, it’s unfortunately gained some infamy in certain circles for its sexual content. (Which basically consists of the screen fading to black and a painted image of the lass you just er…encoited. Engaged in coitus with. Encoited.) Naturally, this is considered quite a big deal stateside because most of us are either 13 year olds who giggle at boobies or fundamentalists who think seeing skin will damn us to the Stygian Abyss (we Americans really are not all like that). We love to blow these things out of proportion. But in some cases this overshadows the game itself, and yes, you do get to keep a “sex card” with that painted image as a memento of your many trysts.

One of the few women in the game you can’t sleep with. Thankfully.

The game does a great job with setting, giving a truly medieval feel. It’s something that I think speaks to the developers being from a country that had a real medieval culture and having actual reference material available locally, something I don’t think you’d get from an American developer. It manages to blend realistic medieval squalor with some really fantastical material, and that’s easily one of the game’s strongest suits.

And so does its sequel.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings arrived on store shelves (and digital download services – I bought mine from GoG) earlier this year. While I reviewed it at length, I’ll still talk about it a bit. For one, it’s a game that grows on you. It initially frustrated the hell out of me, forcing me to forfeit, cowering in defeat like the Silver Surfer, and dropping the difficulty down to easy, for my initial playthrough, at least. Once it was further patched and balanced, I enjoyed the game a lot more, particularly the jailbreak, where I could now run up and beat down guards with a blackjack rather than fighting the game’s “stealth” mechanic.

Also, after finishing up the first game, I’m rather miffed that the second game doesn’t give you much of a choice. Romanced Shani in the first game? Too bad! You’re with Triss now. (Of course, the game lets you cheat on the scheming sorceress to no end.) In any case, this is one of those games that’s too short. It ends just as it’s getting good (and just as Geralt is capable of fighting enemies with some panache instead of getting brutally murdered by a light breeze). So…CD Projekt Red, maybe a full-blown expansion is in the works? A lot of us would really appreciate that. But sigh, you guys are probably too busy porting the game to the 360…

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