The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Review
(and Everything Inbetween)
The Worst of Times
The Best of Times
Prior to The Witcher 3, I put roughly ten hours into both the first and second game and walked away feeling completely done with whatever they had to offer. I found protagonist Geralt of Rivia to be cumbersome in combat and didn’t particularly enjoy my time with him as a character, gruffly muttering threats or gruffly being stoic or gruffly being gruff. The combat felt wildly complicated, making killing even simple monsters a dangerous task that had the potential of setting progress back hours if I hadn’t been studiously saving my game. Understand that my inclinations toward CD Projekt RED’s latest outing were dubious at best. I went in fully expecting I would hate my time spent hunting monsters. Almost one hundred hours later, I emerged from the experience a changed man. I have seen the war-battered plains of Velen, the huddled, persecuted masses of the beset city of Novigrad, the inhospitable isles of Skellige, and the vastness of a universe beyond measure. There is richness to The Witcher 3, texture to its characters, and deep attention paid to almost every interaction possible.
The Witcher 3 follows a Geralt of Rivia changed from the previous games in which he was plagued by amnesia. Geralt knows his own past and is allowed to grow as a character without some terrible secret lurking clichédly towards the end of act two. Simply clearing up his amnesia and freeing him to be himself allowed me to empathize and invest myself into the adventure. Amnesia might be a time-honored RPG plot hook, but it provides a significant barrier when you are asking players to care about the affected character because all of the answers regarding motivation, disposition, etc. come back around to “I dunno, [insert character] has amnesia.” So, we have a fleshed out Geralt. He’s still unrelentingly gruff, but he also has a fun side and cracks some deadpan jokes every now and then. One of my favorite moments of the game is an exchange between Geralt and one of his companions that is nothing but dog puns. He feels like a person instead of a caricature. I realized my experience would be different early on in The Witcher 3 when I came across an old woman who hired Geralt to find her stolen frying pan, which is about as much overkill as bringing a bazooka to a friendly game of tag. Listening to gruff, grumpy Geralt accept a frying pan retrieval contract was delightful.
With minimal exposure to the previous games, I had little trouble understanding the basics of what was going on in The Witcher 3, which leads me to believe that it is the best jumping on point that The Witcher series has had to date. With minimal fluff, Geralt is looking for Ciri, a young woman who he took in as his ward some time ago. Ciri has become a fugitive, pursued by various nations, crime syndicates, and otherworldly powers. Geralt steps into the chase as well, looking to find Ciri before anyone else can make her a pawn in their schemes. Geralt is joined by a host of old friends and new acquaintances in the pursuit of Ciri across The Continent and beyond. The relationship between Geralt and Ciri falls somewhere
between an equal friendship and that of a father and daughter. During Geralt’s pursuit of Ciri we are slowly given more information about who they are to one another and it does a lot to humanize our mutated, monster hunting protagonist.
It becomes apparent when you first fire up The Witcher 3 that it is easily one of the most gorgeous games made to date. That appreciation only grows as you are loosed into a world of colossal scope. There are a total of five open areas to explore, the smallest of which will take hours to traverse and explore. As you roam the fields and forests hunting dangerous creatures or pursuing quests, a day-night cycle spins and weather shifts. You’ll encounter stormy days where winds bend the bushes and trees, sending them swaying hypnotically beneath cracks of lightning under a cloak of darkness. Other times the weather will be sunny and bright, lending the landscape an inviting air. These various lighting and weather conditions provide a unique flavor to cutscenes, which occur in real-time in whatever weather is currently occurring. But it isn’t just the environments, the characters and creatures are beautiful as well. Facial animations, hair, eyes, each model looks phenomenal. When animals move, their muscles cause their fur to ripple. The art direction is truly top notch.
If there is one aesthetic choice that left me baffled, it is the inclusion of graphic novel-esque, slightly animated stills that are sometimes inserted into the main storyline with accompanying narration. These feel very jarring and out of place, especially when compared with the in-game production values. However these short segues occur infrequently, resulting in only the occasional incredulous raised eyebrow.
While pretty much every second of time in-game is gorgeous, I appreciate the quest building and structure even more. I loved Dragon Age: Inquisition quite a bit, but many of its sidequests were structured like an MMO. I found myself going to areas to kill an arbitrary number of enemies or to obtain a certain number of items dropped by an enemy type or needing to kill a specific enemy. For a huge game, that kind of repeated mission structure can get dull really quickly if there isn’t much context for the repetitive action. Every sidequest in The Witcher 3 is given some sort of context and often distances itself from repetitive formula. Witcher contract missions are a great example of this. Some of them are long, complicated affairs to track dangerous beasts through the wilderness, requiring wiles and proper preparation to come out alive and collect the reward. Tracking monsters involves using specially honed witcher senses to find clues and piece together what and where the creature might be. Other contracts might be smaller undertakings that can be resolved through dialogue that offers moral dilemmas.
Even regular sidequests are more interesting than your typical “go kill X number of dudes” affairs. Often there’s some moral wrinkle to the quest that the game asks players to resolve. One small example of this is the case of a certain peasant whose son has been cursed to slowly die. Geralt discovers the source of the curse, revealing that it can only be lifted by the person who cast it or by redirecting the curse back at the caster. Either way, he needs to discover the culprit. After using witcher senses and deduction, players encounter the caster, a jilted lover who was abandoned by the peasant when he started his family. She agrees to lift the curse on the condition that he forsakes his family and lives with her. Alternatively, Geralt can redirect the curse to slowly kill spurned caster. Either way, the quest is resolved with a tiny reward, but the moral implications will stick around in your head.
That moral ambiguity permeates The Witcher 3. Few choices that the game asks players to make have definitively right or wrong answers. Instead, decisions often seem to fall along a spectrum of grey, with some choices being better or worse than others while still maintaining negative and positive qualities. Struggling with those options makes the stories told throughout The Witcher 3 memorable and significant. More than anything, the small encounters are what make The Witcher 3 into the grand experience CD Projekt markets itself to be.
As great as the individual stories of The Witcher 3 can be, they also present the source for my biggest complaint. It often feels like there are two separate games occurring: The chase after Ciri and being a politically neutral witcher during a time of war and persecution. The vast majority of sidequests deal with the fallout of war between the countries of Nilfgaard and Redania, which of course attracts dangerous beasts and provides opportunity for witchers to ply their monster hunting trade. Even given the length of The Witcher 3, that’s a lot of material to cover. And it feels like a number of opportunities were missed that could have been explored in more depth had CD Projekt narrowed their focus to one or the other. Late in the main quest the idea of multiple universes, a central concept of The Witcher series’ setting, briefly surfaces and reveals how creative the developers could have been if they hadn’t tethered themselves to the Nilfgaard-Redania war. The conclusion of the core story feels a bit anticlimactic and rushed, lacking the tension I felt during the early hours of the game. Alternatively, the war itself is near to bursting with intrigue both personal and political. Alliances and backstabbing take the center stage in missions involving the conflict and it is gloriously conniving and murky. There was a lot of room to expand Geralt’s political involvement as he is co-opted into underground organizations, resistance groups, and by the kings of both countries. What we are left with is a wide-ranging game that delivers several good narratives that are kept from rising to truly great heights.
Merely adequate mechanics also hold The Witcher 3 back from perfection. It is clear that CD Projekt set out to simplify combat, making it more fluid and intuitive. To some extent they succeeded, as I enjoyed fighting more than I had in previous Witcher games, but it falls short when it comes to depth. There are fast attacks, strong attacks, magical signs, blocking, dodges, bombs, potions, and a crossbow. All of these are available from the beginning and with a few additions in the late game, remain your only tools. Progression and innovation in combat is largely relegated to finding better items, new recipes for potions or bombs, or improvements to potions or bombs. Timing and preparation become the most important parts of fighting, and after a few dozen hours it just becomes dull. I only found levelling to be exciting because allows for more powerful weapons and armor to be equipped. With each level, ability points can be spent to upgrade an aspect of Geralt’s fighting skills, but absurd numbers of points need to be spent to unlock top tier abilities, so don’t expect to be using any of those unless you commit nearly all of your points to one area of your skills. Also, chances are that some of those points are going to go to waste as you won’t be able to equip more than twelve ability upgrades total by the end of the game (fewer earlier on, as equip slots for upgrades are unlocked by levelling).
Note: I would suggest playing through The Witcher 3 one of the lower difficulty settings unless you are truly masochistic and are willing to die repeatedly to the simplest of monsters.
The music in The Withcer 3 hits all the proper beats for a sprawling fantasy epic, but by the fifty hour mark you will be wishing they recorded a few additional tracks for bards to play, they seem to have a repertoire of about five songs. Don’t get me wrong, they sound great, but it becomes a bit repetitive after a while. It’s a good soundtrack, but you probably won’t be rushing to download it or humming the main theme after the credits roll.
Mentioning The Witcher 3 at this point also will conjure to mind the eloquent opinion piece by Tariq Moosa on the issue of race, specifically the lack of non-white characters. Let me clarify that I am white and I both grew up and live in Minnesota, one of the whitest, scandanavian-est places in the United States. I grew up with some of the mythologies and folk tales that crop up in The Witcher 3, so I get the story CD Projekt wanted to tell and that it is a story seeped in Polish culture. That being said, I found the absence of people of color to be disconcerting. I understand the impulse to explain it away as “just being the story they wanted to tell,” but please understand that game development does not occur in a vacuum. We live in a world where the vast majority of games already tell thoroughly white stories. In a multinational game that has staggeringly ambitious scope, spanning virtual continents, it is bizarrely negligent to completely ignore people of color in favor of elves, dwarves, and shapeshifters. I spent almost 100 hours in that world and found no reason why some of the NPCs couldn’t have had non-white skin. The Witcher 3 is so white it makes the eight season run of Full House look diverse by comparison. So, new rule of thumb for game devs: If your game is whiter than Full House, maybe take that as a sign to include some diversity.
While I am on my soapbox, there is also a disturbing amount of sexualized violence towards women. I get it, it is an adult game full of mature themes. But does that mean the game REALLY needs a villain who butchers prostitutes and hangs their corpses around his room for no other reason than to thoroughly hammer home that he’s a terrible person? Does it REALLY need a serial killer that horribly tortures and mutilates several women because reasons? Does it REALLY need the numerous female-bodied monsters that justify the player’s violence by being the aggressors? I get it. The setting is grim. It’s dark. But I am sick to death of seeing this kind of thing used for no other reason than to demonstrate the “grittiness” of the setting. You can achieve the same effect without resorting to the laziest, most overused shorthand in fiction. CD Projekt can do better than what was written and designed in this respect, as the rest of their game demonstrates.
You should probably play The Witcher 3. It stands a good chance of being on many critic’s top 10 lists this year. It isn’t hard to see why, either. The gorgeously realized world of Geralt of Rivia is constantly amazing and full of surprises. The Witcher 3 offers challenging questions, questions that will stick with players for a long time. The story ranges from satisfying swashbuckling to backroom intrigue. Danger and death, the bonds of family and fellowship, love, romance, danger, despair, the whole gamut of expression is present to tug at the player’s heart. Just don’t expect for it to tug on any one emotion particularly strongly. There are issues that invite valid criticism of The Witcher 3, certainly, but you can recognize something’s faults while still enjoying the crap out of it. And I certainly enjoyed my time wielding the silver sword of a witcher.
Is It Fun?:
Conclude(?) the Witcher saga with a tale of war and family
Probably the most gorgeously realized game to date
Music can become repetitive, but is high quality
Combat is adequate, higher difficulties frustrate needlessly
Yes, though I could do without the light misogyny
Fantasy hounds looking for their next giant RPG time sink
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was reviewed on PC and is currently available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
Review originally appeared on www.extra-life.org 07/22/15