Saturday, June 26, 2010

Witchering Hours

At the end of my last post, I hinted at my weariness of Bioware's binary approach to narration and character building: Paragon vs. Renegade, Sith vs. Jedi, Light Path vs. Dark Path (am I the only one who remembers Jade Empire?). Dragon Age is a welcome departure from such dichotomies, though your companions' and their approval of you produces a similar sort of judgment system. Don't get me wrong, I love the game (I'll be writing on it soon) and I love Bioware, but I think CDProjekt beat them to the punch where dark, morally ambiguous fantasy is concerned. I am referring of course to their excellent first effort, The Witcher: Enhanced Edition.

I love icons and symbols, and The Witcher's badge is a mean piece of work.

The source material, Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowski's series of novels by the same name, is rich and ripe for a videogame adaptation. Both the books and the game are centered around The Witcher Geralt of Rivia. And what is a Witcher you ask? They are mutant white-haired badasses who get high on toxic alchemy and hunt beasts that go bump in the night. Theirs is a grim and grimy world fraught with feudal greed and supernatural peril. The game does a good job of transmuting this ugliness into a refreshing aesthetic; the world is convincingly and authentically dark, as opposed to being bombastically violent and sexualized.

I am only in the beginning of the game's massive 80+ hour quest, but the writing so far has been superb, and the story telling has been intriguingly receptive to interpretation. An example at the cost of a minor spoiler: In the first chapter, you are confronted by a lynch mob that blames a witch for summoning a hellhound that haunts their town. It is up to you to determine whether she is guilty, (and she is a scheming, feisty, seductive thing), or if the townspeople summoned the creature with their own misdeeds. After you make your call, you live with the consequences. There is no definitive truth revealed after the fact, no slider creeping toward saintliness or descending into antipathy, no "Morrigan disapproves." The game is about interpreting situations as opposed to making obvious moral judgment calls.

Now this is what a badass looks like. Haggard, scarred, but graceful as well, and positively lousy with sharp things. I mean, he's got a huge hook just hanging out on his belt!

The gameplay itself is also admirable, if awkwardly situated between third-person action and traditional western role playing tactics. The combat, even in the enhanced edition, seems like it would really glisten if it had just a little bit longer in the kiln, but I still prefer it to the often tedious, micromanaged tactics of Dragon Age and Neverwinter. The progression system is particularly praiseworthy; a blend of Final Fantasy X's sphere grid and Diablo II's skill trees. Each level up is an opportunity for customization and gaining multiple new powers. The game's alchemy system is also a nice addition, as it really reinforces the ritualistic, "Eye of Newt" approach to magic, while applying another layer of strategy and preparation to combat. I even found the game's "trading card" approach to sexual conquest to be an amusing tongue-in-cheek commentary on videogame romances. No, really. It's certainly no more crass than Mass Effect's Paramour achievements.

Speaking of collectibles, the enhanced edition includes a bounty of bonus loot: a music CD, a making-of DVD, and my favorites; a short story and a map of the fantasy world. They don't often make 'em like that anymore kids, I tell you what. My hopes are high for the sequel, though truth be told, I don't think I'll be able to complete the first game's sprawling campaign before it hits. There's no question of whether you'll be getting enough bang for your buck here though. If you want fantasy action that isn't afraid of gray areas, give ol' Geralt a try. You won't be disappointed.

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