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The problem is, the styling of fantasy so often takes precedence over the point of fantasy. RPG gamers and game developers are both guilty of looking for the orcs and elves first. Got goblins? Get in. That’s the wrong approach.
Fantasy is at its best when it acts as allegory, when it uses the mystical to illustrate the real. Frankenstein isn’t a book about a zombie with a headache: it’s about man over-reaching himself at the dawn of the industrial age. Games, it seems, can find this difficult to grasp.
That’s why The Witcher has every chance of working. In this strange world, elven terrorists stand up for the rights of oppressed peoples by committing very bloody massacres. Vampiric bounty hunters named Witchers roam the landscape, dealing with supernatural threats. It’s a thankless job. They’re hated for their work. Hated for what they represent. And the human populace is downtrodden and scared, terrified of things that go bump in the night.
The Witcher began its development using an offshoot of the Neverwinter Nights engine; the same Neverwinter Nights that relied on blocky tiles and drab top-down views of dungeons. But somewhere along the development path, it’s taken a left turn toward Oblivion’s wide open landscapes and languorous day and night cycle. While not entirely free-roaming, it’s a clear step in that direction. The sun comes up. Peasants go about their daily business. Evening sets in. Shadows lengthen. Then, somewhere in the dark, the ghoulies come out.
Enter: you - in the chapped white skin of Geralt, the greatest Witcher who ever lived. He’s the leading character in the best-selling Polish fiction that the game is based on: the ultimate badass. In fact, he’s so badass, the developers have done away with the standard pause and plan combat of Neverwinter Nights, replacing it with fast-paced beat-’em-up action. Click the mouse and you’ll make a swipe. Click it again, and you’ll make another. Time the blow right, according to the pop-up that appears, and your blow will do vastly more damage. The combos blossom outwards - how many slices or dices can you string together?