The Witcher’s (Hard) Easy Difficulty

1,044 words.

Before getting back to Dark Souls, of course I have to finish The Witcher, which I started after I got bored with Battle for Azeroth. I’ve never finished it before. I think I’ve always crashed out of it somewhere in Chapter II. Probably because of all the tedious running back and forth in the Temple District.

The first Witcher game gets a lot of flak for its odd combat system (and rightly so), but I’ve never been bothered by it. It’s weird, but it’s not difficult to comprehend how it works. You point at an enemy and press the left mouse button. What could be simpler? It’s just that you have to press the button at the right time, or else the game yells at you and your guy just stands there. The temptation is strong to simply spam the left button like you would every other game, but you have to wait until the cursor turns yellow before you can click to get those chain attacks.

It’s kind of dull as a combat system, but it’s fine. What I don’t care for is the tendency of the enemies to be ridiculously difficult to kill even on easy difficulty. I, like I’m sure most of the gaming population of the world, picked the easy difficulty because I just want to see the story play out as I make narrative choices. The story is by far the best part of any Witcher game (with the possible exception of Witcher 3, which has a deep, satisfying combat system somewhat like Dark Souls-in fact I think I was really inspired to get into Dark Souls after finishing The Witcher 3).

At the end of Chapter III there’s a string of combat encounters that combine to make a ridiculously difficult and frustrating, rage-quit inducing time, even on easy difficulty. First there’s a bunch of Salamandra (human bad guys), then there’s a bunch more Salamandra, then there’s a bunch more Salamandra, then there’s a boss fight with The Professor and a couple kikimores, then there’s a monstrous Kikimore Queen surrounded by hordes of hostile kikimore babies. All in a row, with no opportunity to prepare in between.

In hindsight, you learn shortcuts, and you actually don’t have to fight the Kikimore Queen at all. But it takes a lot of trial and error to get through it, which in gaming terms, means dying over and over again until you learn the “tricks.” For example, I had no idea there was a portal in one of the caves I had to open to let the cavalry come in to finish off the Salamandra. I stayed in that cave for twenty minutes, fighting an endless stream of Salamandra that kept spawning and running in, until it dawned on me that they would never stop spawning, and I had to do something to stop them. The portal is visually very subtle and hard to see, particularly when you’re in the middle of combat for twenty minutes.

Those kinds of things are really irritating. It makes me feel like the game isn’t playing “fair,” because it hasn’t shown me the rules beforehand. I’m a very rule-based person… give me the rules and I will deduce the winning conditions within that context. Otherwise I have to beat blindly against a wall, trying different things, stumbling through failure conditions, until I find the winning condition. I hate failure conditions. I don’t ever want to fail in any aspect of life. It’s particularly vexing when you’re playing on easy difficulty expressly because you don’t care a whit about gitting gud, and are only interested in skipping ahead to the next dialog scene. You shouldn’t see very many combat failure conditions when you’re playing on easy.

Anyway, the point is, I almost gave up on The Witcher (again) before I finished Chapter III. Then I discovered some mods.

I don’t like to mod games very much, but in this case it was either install a mod or quit the game and miss the rest of the story. So I went to Nexus. I installed one mod that lets you stack inventory items higher than 10 items (a ridiculous limitation). The only combat mod I could find to make things easier was a mod that basically makes you invincible.

What it does is increase your health and stamina regeneration to ridiculous levels, so you can wade through anything without fear of dying, while blasting people over and over with your Witcher powers. It was too much, so I looked for a more subtle alternative.

I couldn’t find one, so I looked at modding the mod. The mod worked by altering a couple of values in a file called witcher_atr_abl.luc. I figured out how to extract the original version of the file* and made some adjustments myself. I increased the health and stamina regeneration to a point that felt “easy” to play, but also not impossible to get killed if you run blindly into a mob of enemies. You know, sort of what you’d expect from playing on “easy” difficulty in the first place.

Anyway now I’m back in the game and tooling through Chapter IV, further than I’ve ever gotten before.

I don’t know what it is about The Witcher universe but I just love everything about it. Every part of the story, setting, and characters resonates, even when it’s ridiculously campy. Instead of rolling my eyes at the absurdity, it makes me giggle. The only thing I can figure is that it reminds me of those lost Sword and Sorcery days from the 80s-of movies like Conan the Barbarian, and books like Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series, which I devoured like candy. Conan and Fafhrd existed way before the 80s, but that’s when I first encountered them. So I suppose in a way The Witcher and the whole genre makes me feel like a kid again.

* You have to use an “unBIF” tool to extract the file from a packed archive, then you have to use a LUA decompiler to convert the binary LUA to text. I had to extract the original so I could compare it to the invincibility mod I downloaded. Turns out only two numbers changed in the entire file.

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