Description: A refreshingly unique CRPG.
Conveniences: Very thorough log that records every step of every quest; numerous auto-save slots.
Annoyances: Occasional crashes.
Standouts: A fantastic sense of verisimilitude.
The Witcher treads a lot of common ground when it comes to RPGs, but it does so with a distinct swagger. To illustrate this, here’s a quick story.
Early on in the game, the protagonist Gerlat can accept a quest to deliver a package into a quarantined city. When he finally makes his way in, he’s arrested and his possessions confiscated.
He eventually recovers them all, except for one: the mysterious bundle he was asked to smuggle.
Jethro, the city jailer, non-chalantly informs Geralt that he’s lucky not to be in more trouble. The package contained fisstech, an illegal drug similar in properties to cocaine. It quickly becomes obvious that Jethro himself is an addict and the confiscation wasn’t exactly legal.
Geralt can get his hands on more fisstech by dispatching Salamander troops, henchmen of main antagonist who tend to carry the illegal substance. The drug can then be used to bribe more information out of Jethro, shedding some light on the local crime syndicates.
Eventually it’s revealed that the Salamanders were trying to squeeze out their competition by framing Ramsmeat, a local crime boss, in hopes of Geralt going after him and the two sides weakening or eliminating each other.
Following a clash between the religious Order of the Flaming Rose and the Scoia’tael, a terrorist group (or a freedom-fighter one, depending on how you look at it), the Salamanders expand their operation into the swamps.
Various factions Geralt had dealt with in the past are affected by this: the woodcutters are slaughtered, numerous brickmakers are kidnapped and put into slave labour, and a large Salamander band move into the former Scoia’tael encampment.
When Geralt rescues the brickmakers, he discovers they were made to gather plants for fisstech production. The Salamander’s treasures even contain a book on swamp plants, the very same book Geralt had to have read in order to loot local flora.
Back in Vizima, Jethro requests that Geralt follow a lead on a fisstech pusher under the guise of cleaning up the streets. In reality, the jailer simply wants to secure the source of his addiction by cracking down on its suppliers.
The trail eventually leads Geralt to the sewers and an abandoned crypt where the Salamanders produce fisstech. Among their servants he finds a frightened alchemist who rewards Geralt with a potion-recipe if he promises not to report his slacking.
When the hideout is cleaned out, the crooked jailer and the city guard storm the area in order to secure the contraband. It’s at this time that Geralt bluntly tells Jethro that all the drugs better stay confiscated or he’ll come after the jailer next.
Finally, the documents Geralt retrieves from both the Salamander cells point him to the ultimate stronghold. As Geralt storms the base, a cutscene plays out showing a Salamander leader requesting more money following the group’s recent failures.
All these events make perfect sense from gameplay, plot, and setting perspectives. The slaves need proper skills and instructions, the bad guys require funding for their operations, and powerful factions constantly vie for supremacy.
Every element serves as a gear snugly connected to another, and when the switch is pulled, the machine doesn’t grind to a halt.
What’s more, the game itself is not homogenized. Fisstech doesn’t come across as a bullet point on a worldbuilding checklist that needs to be adhered to at every turn. It’s just part of the tapestry, and there’s a lot more of it to experience.
“An ancient sapphire ring.
It subdues your presence, making it difficult to be detected by enemies.”
The description for the Thief’s Ring in Demon’s Souls is innocuous enough, but it’s one of the most useful items in the game.
When I first obtained it, I scoffed at its effects. I generally tend to be underwhelmed by “ancient and powerful artifacts” that serve as nothing more than marginal stat modifiers. I also wasn’t playing a stealthy character, so it seemed like a fairly useless trinket.
Demon’s Souls is a game where a small boost can have an enormous effect, though, and a few deaths later I quickly discovered the benefits of donning the Thief’s Ring.
There’s nothing magical about it, really — it simply does what it says — but its effects are very deliberately tied into the game world and its design.
Here a few examples:
Unlike many 3rd person brawlers, the enemies in Demon’s Souls do not patiently wait for their turn to attack the player. As a result, it’s often important to draw away individuals from a group to take them on one-on-one.
The Thief’s Ring facilitates luring enemies by preventing the player from being pelted with projectiles during the approach. What’s more, the combat in Demon’s Souls requires a lot of movement, and the Thief’s Ring makes it less likely to draw the attention of more enemies while battling a solitary opponent.
Avoiding the Dragons
The ramparts of Castle Boletaria are patrolled by hostile dragons that roast anything in their sights. These sections are quite unforgiving, but the Thief’s Ring expands the window of safety between the dragons’ fiery onslaughts.
Slaying the Geckos
Crystal Geckos are timid creatures that are almost impossible to catch with a melee attack. They can spot the player from very far away, and if they do, they skitter back and fade out of existence. The Thief’s Ring slightly dulls their awareness, making it easier to catch them and the large quantities of minerals (used to upgrade armour and weapons) that they drop.
Chances are that during most everyone’s first playthrough at least a few of the boss battles will not end in victory, but the Thief’s Ring makes it easier to give ‘em another shot. Simply running past enemies is often a valid option, and equipping the ring lowers the duration/distance they’ll take into account when chasing the player.
Upon defeating a boss, the player can warp back to the boss’ lair from the Nexus hub. This not only provides a shortcut going forward, but it also allows the player to go back through a completed area in order to obtain more items and souls (the game’s equivalent of gold and experience).
What makes this backtracking different from playing through the same area from the start is that enemies tend to face only one direction. Combined with the Thief’s Ring, this makes it quite easy to sneak up on them and unleash a backstab, a special attack that deals extra damage and yields more souls.
Scaling the Shrine of Storms
Equipping the Thief’s Ring is practically the only way to travel up narrow mountain paths without being shredded by flying Storm Beasts.
Defeating the Old Hero
The blind boss of the Adjudicator Archstone is quite a fearsome opponent, but it’s actually quite easy to stay out of his reach with the Thief’s Ring equipped.
Invading Other Worlds
Player vs. Player combat is not greatly affected by the Thief’s Ring, but it does partially obscure the invader. This makes it more likely that the battle might begin with a sneaky backstab.
Even without any significant gameplay mutators, though, it’s still quite unsettling to see a swirling, red aura make a beeline for the player’s character.
Description: One of the first examples of a climbing game morphing into a single-screen platformer.
Conveniences: Enemies that kill the player are removed from the screen, often making a particularly difficult room easier to traverse.
Annoyances: The order in which the coloured keys are meant to be collected is very specific, creating some scenarios where it’s impossible for the player to proceed.
Standouts: An excellent sense of exploration and cohesion despite severe hardware limitations.