The Witcher Cancelled Prototype Demo Showcased

The folks at GamePressure have managed to get their hands on an early 2003 demo of the original Witcher game. It looks nothing like the game we know as The Witcher and instead resembles hack 'n' slash action RPGs like Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance or Diablo II. You can read the article to find out how that came to be and why the vision for the game has changed so drastically during its development. But before you do, you can also see the demo in action:

And now, an excerpt from the article:

But before I explain why the proto-Witcher would have had trouble conquering the world, I must give you some historical background of the production. As you may already know, in the beginning of their operation, CD Projekt’s operation focused on importing games from western publishers, and localizing and distributing them in Poland. These were the guys behind the now iconic Polish translations of such classics as Baldur’s Gate or Planescape: Torment in the late 1990s. But in the end, with the coming of a new century, the Polish publishing market became an uncertain place to earn one’s daily bread and the company started looking for other ways to expand.

One such new opportunity was presented to CD Projekt by one of the most influential players on the Western market, Interplay, then led (not much longer as it turned out) by Brian Fargo and famous for having released many outstanding RPGs. At that time, the company was focusing all its efforts on Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance – a hack’n’slash set in the universe of the iconic isometric RPG series under the same title. CD Projekt was very eager to get the game published in Poland, but also voiced its disappointment with the fact that the game was developed exclusively for consoles (PlayStation 2, later also for Xbox and GameCume). Seeing the Poles’ wasted enthusiasm, Interplay suggested that the Polish company could develop a PC port on their own. And that’s how CD Projekt RED was born.

As you may easily check, for example by browsing our Games Encyclopedia, the PC edition of the first Dark Alliance never came to be. In fact, by the beginning of the 21st century Interplay was already on its last legs, and it soon became clear as day to the REDs that doing anything worthwhile for this publisher was pointless. Before that happened, though, a small fragment of the game had already been made – and the comapny felt that it would be a waste to pour several-months worth of work down the drain. A straw to clutch at came in the form of a certain popular fantasy writer (yes, I’m talking about Andrzej Sapkowski) who happened to live in Lodz, the same city the studio used to operate at the time, and who was willing to sell them the rights to adapt a certain popular book series about a white-haired monster slayer.

Having made sure that Metropolis Software wasn’t getting anyhere with their own Witcher (the studio led by Adrian Chmielarz and Grzegorz Miechowski wanted to adapt the books ever since 1997) and having transfered the equivalent of roughly $4,000 to Sapkowski’s bank account, CD Projekt RED managed to secure its further existence. The PC port of Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance was suddenly renamed The Witcher. The team, led by Zielinski at the time, was able to resume work, and several months later – in 2002 – they presented a working demo, which was taken on a tour around Europe in hopes of tempting some significant publisher to enter a cooperation. And that’s the demo we’ve got our hands on – or rather its newer, slightly modified build to be precise (although still an alpha).

When the witcher hacked and slashed

Well then, how does it feel to play a 15-year-old Witcher game? Comparing screenshots from both titles and noticing many similarities in things like camera work or visuals, one could fall under the wrong impression that this ancient Witcher was – just like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance – a dynamic arcade game. Nothing of that sort. The Polish developer refrained from simply translating gamepad controls to keyboard + mouse combo, discarding manual attacks or jumps from the mechanics. Instead, the character was controlled just like in the original Baldur’s Gate – both movement and combat were reduced to executing single left mouse button clicks and observing the effects. To introduce some variety, we could also use the right mouse button to cast a magic sign (the only one featured in the demo was an overpowered Igni). At least that’s how it looks in the demo we tested.

The visuals also give off a false impression of connecting the proto-Witcher with its Baldur origins. Interplay wasn’t kind enough to share with the REDs either the game engine or any kind of developer tools used by Snowblind, the creators of Dark Alliance. The Poles had to resort to Calaris IC, a technology created by Sebastian Zielinski for the shooter game Mortyr. It enabled them to render rather impressive visuals – at least for 2003 – including such bells and whistles as volumetric light rays, trees shaking in the wind, or waves forming around a character wading through water (the last effect was taken straight from BG:DA though). The future was to show that it was this advanced game engine that would become the final nail to the coffin of the would-be first Witcher... But let’s not get ahead of facts; we’ll get back to this in a moment.

Despite its unsual, hardly engaging controls, in almost every other aspect The Witcher from 15 years ago looked like a model representative of the hack’n’slash genre – or, if your prefer, a typical action RPG. The gameplay focused on combat. The locations were linear (though sometimes offering several alternative paths to follow), and the protagonist moved from point A to point B while killing dozens of bandits and monsters. What needs to be noted here is the fact that it had negligible character progression mechanics – the demo includes a scarce few character stats, the equipment is rudimentary, and character skills or atributes to increase are nowhere to be found.