You know you’re playing something special when the introductory scene lasts about five minutes, contains some of the most breathtakingly detailed graphics ever devised and teases you with a powerful and intriguing storyline that’s guaranteed to start your heart racing.
The Witcher is that rare phenomenon: a role-play game that is truly innovative, set in a universe that is subtly different from the usual Tolkien-esque fantasy world. The story comes from an acclaimed Polish author, Andrzej Sapkowski, who created the central protagonist Geralt, a mutant swordmaster who slays monsters for a fee using a mixture of natural ability, magical potions and supernatural skills.
Geralt is an anti-hero, despised and feared by all yet always needed. At the beginning of the story he’s lost his memory, and the key element to the gameplay is that the degree to which his memory returns is determined, at least in part, by the moral choices you make as the game progresses. You are immediately hurled into a world in turmoil, caught up in political plotting and forced to confront malevolent beasts that are the product of human evil.
There are familiar RPG elements, of course: quests and sub-quests must be pursued, clues collected, weaponry, spells, skills and sustenance have to be gathered and upgraded. Here, too, the range of possibilities is vast, with over 250 special abilities, and the various ethical paths your character can walk down means there are three alternative endings to the story. In many ways this is a truly adult drama as there’s sex, swearing and drug-taking mixed in with the violence, but there’s also a strong undercurrent of wry humour.
The graphics are jaw-droppingly stunning: swamplands with swirling murky waters, town slums where you can almost smell the population, vast underlit caves, cathedral-like hospitals and stone ruins. In addition, both the sound effects and the music score are wonderfully married to the drama. Such care over synchronicity is a joy to behold.
As well as a gripping narrative, the combat system is challenging and exciting, involving a degree of research and planning before you tackle your foes. There are six completely different combat styles and you carry two swords – one for tackling monsters and one for humans. Unexpected assaults are also frequent occurrences, so you’re permanently kept on alert and care has to be taken over who you offend and when, as you might need their help later.
The only irritation is the lengthy load times which are especially frustrating when you make frequent visits in and out of buildings or when saving, but if you control your impatience long enough you’ll discover the best RPG of the year.