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Retrospective: The Witcher

Hungry like the Wolf.

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Image credit: Eurogamer

Those sex cards, eh? I was determined to collect as many of them as I could. If that meant going out of my way to safely escort a barmaid home late at night, so be it. Convincing a dryad that sex is not just for procreation, that it's fun and can relieve stress? No problem. I couldn't help myself. It was like sexy Pokémon.

The Witcher's anthropological commentary on humans' slavish obedience to their base, animalistic instincts, to the detriment of the greater good, was intelligent and incisive. Or at least it would have been if that's what the sex cards represented. Realistically though, they were purely for titillation.

Irrespective of the heavy-handed way developer CD Projekt RED implemented erotica in The Witcher (a concept the studio didn't so much flirt with as take it to an abandoned mill and indelicately shag senseless), its inclusion was representative of the core elements of characterisation that run through a game influenced by the short stories of Andrzej Sapkowsk, which tell of the infamous Geralt of Rivia, the 'White Wolf', a monster-slaying mercenary known as a 'Witcher'.

The game plumbs the ethos of these short stories to add definition and weight to the world and its characters. These are people with histories. Some share a personal history with Geralt, though none are probed in too much detail. Nor are you beaten over the head with endless conversation trees, because the developer attempts to shoehorn the origins of each relationship into the tale of the amnesiac White Wolf.

Cry me a Rivia.

The amnesia mechanic is a little unfortunate - a clumsy way to explain why it is that you play Geralt as a 'level 1' Witcher rather than the famed monster-slayer that everyone else seems to know him as. It's especially clumsy as much of Geralt's skill progression is based on combat prowess that you imagine would be so ingrained in him as to be second nature.

The stripping away of abilities and powers is the eternal conundrum for games that tell you you're a fully-formed powerhouse but still need to leave room for progression. CD Projekt RED wisely chooses not to make too much of a song and dance of it. You're Geralt of Rivia, you have amnesia for a reason that is never fully explained. Now get on with it.

Being assigned the role of Geralt, amnesiac or not, enables some smart narrative twists based on the choices you make guided by Geralt's ambiguous moral compass. You are not some abandoned child or lowly commoner destined for great things, one who starts with a blank slate to be written and a forehead size, degree of overbite and hair colour decided upon by random tugs on a sliding scale. Here you play Geralt of Rivia, Witcher, professional monster-slayer, gambler, womaniser, drinker and, frankly, a bit of a hard nut.

It's awkward when you bump into an ex during a game of musical statues.

He also has his bad points. He doesn't seem to know how to stand naturally during a conversation, for one thing. Despite CD Projekt RED's love for its first game being plain to see in other areas, you sometimes have to squint and turn your head sideways to see past the ugly. The dark fantasy art direction is sufficiently bleak, gothic and full of character and, granted, Geralt's movement in combat is fluid enough, with cuts, thrusts and balletic twirls to reward the well-timed mouse clicks that facilitate the combo system. But during conversation the characters appear beholden to an incompetent puppet master.

The 'Enhanced Edition', released almost a year after the original, went some way toward rectifying this, introducing extra animations and NPC models alongside other welcome touches such as an overhaul of the inventory system to separate and sort the numerous alchemy ingredients. The developers also made a significant gesture of removing digital rights management altogether, resulting in no install limits and no disk check. Furthermore, it packaged all of the extras up as a free download for those who had already bought the game.