Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Who Witches the Witcher?

I'd planned to wait until finishing the campaign before writing another post on The Witcher, but the game is massive enough to merit an earlier check-in. I just reached a decent stopping point after a ridiculous amount of gameplay, and can tell that there's still a ways to go.

So, first of all, the good news: it's definitely growing on me! Some of the specific things that had initially irritated me have proven to be more palatable later on.

I've gotten used to the combat and it no longer bothers me. I'm definitely not an expert. I'm playing on the normal difficulty level, and have gotten by with just a single fighting technique: quick strikes and combat rolls. I never parry, dodge, or use heavy strikes. I do frequently use Yrden to slow my enemies, and will break out Igni against drowners or Aard against flying foes. Now that I've gotten the hang of it, fights are generally pretty short and enjoyable.

The bigger and nicer surprise, though, has been to realize that, in proportional terms, there's actually surprisingly little combat in The Witcher. This wasn't as apparent to me early on, since I was systematically clearing the map and fighting literally every monster I saw. Ever since reaching Novigrad, though, I have shifted to just doing main and secondary quests, and have been delighted to see how frequently you're able to clear quests without fighting. Quite often you'll be able to choose multiple approaches, or perhaps be able to break out Axii to stall a fight from the start. When there are fights, they're usually either very quick affairs, or interesting boss fights with enough good mechanics to feel worthwhile.

I should probably warn right here that this post will probably be filled with comparisons to Dragon Age, particularly Inquisition. DA is my favorite current franchise, and The Witcher is one of the only competitors to its AAA-fantasy-RPG throne. Anyways, after playing The Witcher 3, I think I finally understand what BioWare was trying to do with combat in Inquisition. I didn't particularly care for the fighting in that game, particularly as a melee fighter. It makes sense, though, if you think of it in terms of moving the DA franchise closer to TW, adding an element of action RPG fighting to its existing party-based, semi-tactical combat. At the same time, I kind of wish that BioWare would focus on improving its party-based combat, rather than adding new elements.

Back to The Witcher: Inventory has also become much less of a hassle. One big piece of this has just been getting more inventory space. This is done by getting bigger saddle bags, which is a great in-universe explanation (theoretically, you aren't ACTUALLY carrying around two dozen broadswords at all time, you're just having your horse carry them). It also helps enormously to have found quick travel points close to merchants, so I can easily sell off excess goods between quests.

Besides encumbrance, the other thing that was previously irritating was just sorting through equipment, figuring out what to keep and what to sell. For better and worse, there isn't a clear progression path. Do you keep a lower-level Relic or switch to a higher-level Magic item? Do you want more Glyph slots or more raw power? Take an item with Burning or one with Stun? Not to mention the trade-offs between light, medium, and heavy armor.

This got much more tolerable for me once I decided to just stick to Witcher gear. This is the best equipment in the game at any given level, and you can upgrade it at various points as you level up. It's kind of fun to acquire; there's a "scavenger hunt" element to finding the diagrams, and then you must gather the materials to craft it. It isn't too time consuming, either. Once you have it, it'll be better than anything else until you reach the level for the next tier of Witcher gear. (The only exception is that, at least at lower levels, it has fewer glyph slots; but even this is arguably an advantage, at least in terms of keeping it simple.)

So, on the one hand, that's great: I can now go through a half-dozen quests at a go, and then simply sell off every piece of armor and weaponry in my inventory without giving it a second thought. But, on the other hand, why?! What's the fun on mindlessly clicking on a ton of things to loot them, and then right-clicking a bunch more times to sell them? I increasingly feel like the Shadowrun games have spoiled me for RPGs. After experiencing a radical system where you get money for finishing quests, and then use that money to buy better gear... that seems like it should be the most common game design system for RPGs, and it's kind of stunning that it's such an outlier.

Er, that compliment kinda morphed into a criticism. Sorry. Bottom line: the inventory system was very annoying early on, and is hardly annoying at all now.

Other high points have continued to be good and get even better. The environments continue to be astonishingly beautiful, and grow ever more varied as you progress through more of the game. Reaching Skellige in particular opens up a whole new set of ecosystems, some of which are reminiscent of Skyrim but more gorgeous. Skellige also features my favorite ambient music thus far. It took me a while to notice, but it's great of the game to reflect different cultures in the different music you hear.

Another great thing: Gwent! I've become kind of obsessed with this card-game-within-a-video-game, and, if I'm being totally honest, my biggest single motivation for advancing the story and exploring new areas is so I can find new NPCs to play against and win cards from. I think that I now have what's more or less the ultimate deck. I play as Northern Realms, with the ruler who can clear weather effects. I have a lean deck: 22 units, including 4 spies, 9 heroes, 2 medics, and 3 groups of Bonded Pair cards. I usually just run with two Decoy cards, plus a Scorch and a Siege Horn (and Dandelion). I am kind of tempted to try out Nilfgaard, mostly for the leader's awesome ability (draw one card from your opponent's discard pile; unlike a Medic, you don't even need to immediately play it). I almost always win my matches now, but it's still fun as I set myself new challenges like running up high scores or shutting them out in the first round.

Now, onto the more mixed stuff...

Like I mentioned in my initial post, one thing that TW3 is particularly good at is varied character modeling. Once again, I'll invoke a comparison to Dragon Age. In most of those games, apart from a handful of iconic characters (your companions and a few major NPCs), most characters look very physically similar. There's a "human male" body type, a "human female" body type, an "elf male" body type, and so on. Different people get different hairstyles, skin tones, and so on, so you get the impression that they're all distinct, and I never really thought much about it. After playing The Witcher, though, I've been thoroughly impressed at how diverse their bodies are. Even random unnamed merchants and innkeepers are fat, or squat, or cockeyed, or unusually tall, or have huge jowls, or beer bellies, or goiters, or... well, you get the picture. That's all fantastic; but, on the flip side, most of the women you meet are attractive damsels with wide busts and narrow waists, and virtually all of the people you meet are white. It feels like CDPR did the harder part by representing unusual body shapes, but missed out on an easy opportunity to add more variety to their characters.

That said, it does feel like CDPR is moving in a great direction. I didn't make it all that far in The Witcher 1, but one thing that did feel kind of squicky was how you would unlock playing cards by sleeping with different women. This felt like an explicit conquest/trophy system which is troublesome in general, and particularly in a video game. There's none of that here: Geralt can still sleep around, but the game (generally!) pays more attention to the emotional situations of its characters. There's also a bit, in a very early quest, where you realize that your quest-giver is gay. The way it's delivered feels a bit clumsy and ham-handed, but the fact it's in there at all is great, and I think it shows that the developers are caring more about how they portray people in their games.

So, yeah. I feel a mixture of optimism and frustration in so much of the game's story. I don't think it needs to be a morality play, and there's probably a place for a "James Bond of Fantasy" somewhere in here. But the game seems to sometimes realize that it's capable of being more than "violence + sex = fun!!", and I wish it could lean more into that vein.


As noted before, the big problem with this is Geralt himself. Geralt is a fixed protagonist, and you have only limited control over how he expresses himself. He has kind of been growing on me, and I have a better understanding of his deal. It isn't like Talion from Shadow of Mordor, towards whom I felt almost pure frustration by the game's end. Geralt is part of a community, forms relationships, and has some capacity for introspection and growth.

For a lot of the game, you don't really get any significant choices at all: you can take a contract or not; you must say a certain line to advance in the plot. I miss the conversation systems of Dragon Age and Shadowrun and Pillars of Eternity and others where you would have a variety of options in how you respond to something: the game might make you go from point A to point B, but you can decide why your character agrees to do it and how they feel about it. Here, the answer is almost always the same: Geralt is doing it because he's getting paid, he feels annoyed by it.

There are some points where you can make a choice that affects the plot, and a couple of places where you can actually (gasp!) say how Geralt feels about something. I was delighted to find these, but in one of the earliest examples my delight was quickly replaced with horror. The Bloody Baron is an interesting character: a straight-up bad guy, a warlord who is responsible for suffering on both a macro political level and a micro personal level. During a long plot thread, you eventually piece together the story behind his missing wife and daughter: the years of separation, anger, resentment. At the end, you can pick between two options like "It was your fault" and "It wasn't your fault". I had some sympathy for the Baron, but I thought he was clearly in the wrong, so I chose the first option.

Then Geralt opened his dumb mouth. "It was your fault. This never would have happened if you hadn't left to go to war." NO! I didn't blame the Baron for doing his job. I blamed the Baron for beating his freakin' wife! At that point, I almost wished that the game didn't offer dialogue options. That way I wouldn't feel complicit in Geralt's assholery, just an observer of him being an asshole.

That said, that was the one scene I remember where I felt quite so blindsided by one of Geralt's statements. For the most part the game either shows Geralt reacting to stuff going on around him, or lets you tone his reactions up or down. So far they've avoided anything quite as disturbing as, say, scenes in Shadow of Mordor or GTA V where the player is forced to torture a prisoner in order to advance the plot.

Speaking of plot... I'll probably hold off on my overall reactions to characters/storylines until the end of the game. Just a quick check-in on where I am now:

I had a really hard time choosing between Triss and Yen, to the point where I put their plots on hold while I did everything else that I could. They both are fantastic, in very different ways. I love Yen's confidence and accent, and Triss's kind spirit and red hair. I ultimately decided to stay with Yen: partly because I see Geralt as a bit of a pragmatist, and think Yen's ties with Emhyr could prove most useful in both finding Ciri and potentially reshaping the world; and because some supplemental information in the world suggests that Ciri sees Yen as kind of a mother figure, and I like the idea of us being a pseudo-family together.

I almost immediately had cause to regret my choice. Right after making up my mind, I watched as Yen committed a horrifying act of necromancy, simultaneously mistreating a damned soul and defiling one of the world's most sacred sites. But I'm ride-or-die, so now I'm just backing Yen 100% no matter what and seeing where it takes us.

It will probably take us somewhere bad.

To be honest, if I had played the earlier games I probably would have chosen Triss. I just finished the segment at Kaer Morhen, and am starting to realize that Yen has little hesitation about treating people like disposable assets in pursuit of what she wants. That said, what she wants now is Ciri and, to a lesser extent, Geralt. If nothing else, I do appreciate the different dynamic of the relationship. I'm so used to video-game romances being gradual wooings, where the motivated player wins over a receptive NPC. Yen is (at least at this point in the story) the total alpha, though, and everyone knows it. It's a dynamic I haven't seen before, and there are elements of it that are really cool.


In terms of main story beats, so far I have:
  • Aided Keira in her various efforts, but ultimately persuaded her to leave Velen and seek refuge in Kaer Morhen rather than attempt to barter the research for Radovid’s protection.
  • Reunited the Baron with his wife. He’s currently traveling with her in search of a hermit or someone who can help cure her mind.
  • Helped Lambert track down his prey, but then forced him to abandon his plans of revenge.
  • Supported Triss in rescuing the mages of Novigrad, except for two who we left behind.
  • Used deception to trick a hym into abandoning its parasitical hold on a lord of Skellige.
  • Helped Cerys uncover Birna’s plot to kill off the competitors and crown her son, and saw Cerys made ruler of Skellige. (I do really like how she’s the King rather than the Queen.) I am a fan of her “maybe we won’t kill ALL of our enemies” policies.
  • Put on a fantastic new play by Priscilla, starring Geralt as The Witcher. It was a financial and critical success!

There’s a TON more quests, of course, but those are the major choice-related ones that come to mind at the moment.


I assembled another album for this, and it’s frankly ridiculous. 704 pictures! That’s probably the most I’ve ever done for a game. (Checks.) Yes, it beats my previous record of 599 pictures for Part 4 of my second Dragon Age: Inquisition run. There are many spoilers in here, but mostly just in the captions. The pretty pictures are pretty to look at.

I’m not sure how much of the game I have left. I’m currently level 24, and I know that the DLC is targeted for around level 35. That said, I’ve been earning XP at a crawl lately because I’ve been clearing low-level quests (and not even touching Witcher Contracts or Treasure Hunts), so that probably isn’t the best gauge of progress. Anyways, I’ll have at least one more post, possibly more if I do the DLC separately.

Speaking of which - big thanks again to Andrew, who clued me in on the insanely vast array of free DLC available for the game. In Steam, it’s all accessible under the “DLC” link in the Library. There’s a huge amount of content available, from new character skins to new Gwent card art to new quests to new equipment and more. Really cool to see how much effort the developer put into expanding and enhancing the game after it was released (and another affirmation of my policy of generally waiting until at least a year after an RPG is released before I start playing it).

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