The Witcher is, from all accounts, based on a series of Polish novels spanning the darker side of the fantasy genre, or at least the more cynical area. In that, at least, the game stays true to the source. Whether the rest of it is accurate will have to be answered by someone who has actually read the books, particularly since the game makes many passing references to previous exploits, although it remains friendly to those who have no idea who all these people are.
You are Geralt of Rivia, and if you leave your spoken language settings in English, you will also be voiced by Deus Ex‘s J.C. Denton, which is a head trip to say the least. Through some unknown and poorly-explained plot point, Geralt begins the game conveniently amnesiac, and injured badly enough to account for being at a mere level one despite having a reputation of being a feared and famous witcher. Despite meeting many old friends in the game, none of them seem to know him well enough to shed any insight into his past.
Witchers, for their part, are something like roving monster-hunters and troubleshooters, who also have to suffer the angst of the whole Nietzchean Abyss thing, being seen as monsters themselves for being mutants, or warriors, or something. It’s kind of taken for granted as common knowledge, as is the fact that the process to turn a man into a witcher renders them sterile, letting them boink as many women as they want without the threat of child support, a point which will turn out to be tangentially ironic as the plot progresses.
No, I don’t know if there are female witchers. The topic never came up.
Geralt goes through the game as a sort of walking WMD, capable of altering the balance of power with his mere presence, since everyone in the game appears to want something from him, be it his help, his death, or the contents of his trousers. To be fair, the gameworld is already in the grips of both a sizeable criminal organization with delusions of power, as well as enough racial tension to make me think that the game is trying to tell me something. In addition, the various political entities in the game see Geralt’s interference as an unwelcome complication, although the smarter ones learn to take advantage of him. The stupider ones just keep sending waves of minions towards Geralt, in handily-packaged bags of experience points.
All Geralt wants to do is to get some stolen items back. By the end of the game, I doubt he even cares about that much, if his growing sarcasm is any indication.
Combat in the game is easy enough to understand. You have three styles: Strong for heavily-armoured enemies, Fast for nimble dodgers, and Group for the sort who like to surround you. The last can be used against both armoured and nimble foes, but nowhere near as effectively as the dedicated styles. These three styles can be used with Geralt’s steel sword, which is useful against regular enemies like humans and such, and his silver sword, which is useful against magical beings. Each style for each sword has to be levelled separately, as with each spell you get. It is certainly possible to create a balanced character, and indeed it is a good idea to at least stick a few points into each style, but you’re not going to have enough by the end of the game to max everything out. Personally I didn’t encounter any situation that couldn’t be solved through steel, silver, and desperate panic, but I understand a magical approach can work just as well.
Also, the Aard sign (the first you get) is extremely useful, even if you don’t intend to use magic much.
Experience in this game is primarily obtained through quests, like a MMORPG, and grinding, like a MMORPG. Quests can range from Beating Up People/Monsters to Deliver Items to Collect Stuff to Beating Up People/Monsters to Collect Stuff in order to Deliver them, all like a MMORPG.
You may notice a theme here.
In fairness, there is little need for grinding, although the endless treks through monster-infested territory just to get from points A to B work out to be much the same anyway.
Gameplay aside, the story in The Witcher is actually somewhat engaging, if predictable. Choices made in an early chapter may influence plot and difficulty in later battles, to a significant degree. While there are the occasional obvious Saintly Bearing or Selfish Bastard choices, the majority of decisions have their own merits either way, or more precisely demerits, where you more or less have to choose the lesser evil: burn the innocent witch or slaughter the misguided villagers? And more significantly, side with the human bigots or the non-human terrorists? The “optimal” gameplay path is heavily dependent on your playstyle, be it an easier encounter now rather than in the future, or a new power for yourself versus a powerful ally later.
The Enhanced Edition box comes with a walkthrough with most of the choices and their consequences spelled out, if you want. Plot spoilers are inevitable, but fairly skilfully avoided for the most part.
With all this plot, it is odd that the infamous bonus sex sequences are at best tangential to the main story, or indeed any story in the game; only a couple of them are maybe plot-important, but for the most part they could be removed from the game without story consequences. If you’re planning to buy the game for them, don’t bother: you’ll get a heavily-blurred suggestion of movement in the background while the Sex Card, artfully censored from softcore porn to merely softcore in the US version, is momentarily flashed. One gets the impression that the sole point of all of this is for the completionists, especially since some of these cards are mutually exclusive.
In all, The Witcher (assuming you have the Enhanced Edition, which is basically the game as it is supposed to be, rather than the bug-ridden mess that was first released) is a worthy game to play through once, if you don’t mind a bit of cultural dissonance. The game itself, completing every quest without grinding, may take something like thirty hours, a respectable amount of time. Replayability is optional; the gameplay is not bad, but the frequent fetch quests might annoy anyone not inured to them by MMORPGs. Whether this is worth the box price is, as always, up to the individual.
A final tip: there are fewer bugs in the Enhanced Edition, but there are still some left. Save often, but be warned that having too many save files (especially since Quick Save creates a new one every time) may cause some technical problems down the line.