The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Dave Played a Game
2015, developed and published by CD Projekt
So I just dumped a hundred hours into The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and it was pretty goddamn enjoyable. Now I'm going to dump far fewer than a hundred hours into sharing my thoughts on it, which will also be pretty goddamn enjoyable, just in a different way.
There are spoilers in this review, so don't read it if you don't want to read spoilers.
"I hate open-world games." I utter this opinion a lot, but I'm thinking it's high time I revised it. I hundred-percented Horizon: Zero Dawn, an open-world game, and loved it. The hundred hours I put into The Witcher 3 may be the largest number of hours I've put into a single-player game since...childhood? I mean, it's weird to think about that, but I'm having difficulty coming up with another title to say that about.
"I hate Skyrim and I irrationally decided to pre-hate The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild based on my hatred of Skyrim." That's kind of a mouthful, but it feels more accurate. Wait, does NieR: Automata count as an open-world game? I loved that game, too. Shit, dude, I may just hate Bethesda/BioWare games. I may actually like open-world games in general. Maybe I should at least try Breath of the Wild...
Anyway, let's talk about The Witcher 3.
Despite being the final game in a trilogy that tells a continuous story (based on and set in the world of the novels of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski), TW3 never punishes you for not having played the first two games. It does a great job of letting you know that there's a ton of backstory between almost all of the main characters while never once getting so bogged down in its own history that you're left wondering what the hell is happening. It's worth mentioning that up front, because other series aren't so willing to pander to filthy backstory-casuals. Remember in Final Fantasy X when Auron and Jecht had a thirty-minute conversation about how Squall's actions in Final Fantasy VIII would eventually pave the way for Yu Yevon to create the fal'Cie, which don't even show up until Final Fantasy XIII? I don't, but if I did, I'm sure I'd remember finding it really confusing. You won't have to wrap your mind around that kind of stuff here, thankfully.
Let's start with the not-so-great stuff.
[Self-Insert Here] of Rivia
As with the first two games in the series, the player in TW3 controls Geralt of Rivia, a witcher: an alchemically modified human who gains the ability to be really good at sex-stuff with the trade-off that he's got yellow Scut Farkus eyes (I know, I've been saying "Scott" Farkus my entire life, too!). "Witcher" isn't just the type of human, though; it's also an occupation: witchers are monster-hunters for hire. Like, I'm pretty sure all witchers are witchers in a non-tautological sense; that is, I don't think any witchers are, like, plumbers, or farmers, or whatever.
Witchers do battle using a combination of weaponry and alchemy: a steel sword for non-monsters, a silver sword for monsters, a crossbow, alchemical blade oils, alchemical bombs, ability-enhancing potions and decoctions (special potions made from animal mutagens that can only be created at one of the world's many blender stations), and a variety of weak (relative to what the game world's mages and sorceresses can do) magic abilities. You've got access to all of this stuff pretty much immediately, which makes for an overwhelming start to the game, but once you settle in, it feels very natural to make use of it all, even if there's ultimately an unreasonable amount of options (way too much more on this in the next section).
Geralt is a witcher, and he works as a witcher, and he's probably the most poorly written character in a game that, overall, features some great character writing. Unlike a blank-slate Bethesda game character, he has an existing personality and existing relationships. You can control his personality in individual instances that largely exist in little vacuums (generally either "be compassionate" or "just be the 'ass' part of that," but his default state is kind of one of generic alpha-male self-insertion:
- Bathed in liquid rugged
- This-town-ain't-big-enough-for-the-two-of-us machismo
- Kill-first-ask-questions-never violent streak
- Swipes hard right on anything with tits
- Razor-sharp dry wit
- Literally a sex legend
Maybe in the books he's a total Marty Stu as well; I dunno. He's just a really unexciting contrast to some of the game's better characters, like the Bloody Baron, who seems like just another drunken, abusive asshole at first but who is eventually revealed to be a man whose war-related PTSD drove him to be a drunken, abusive asshole who still legitimately loves his family but can't cope with his situation. I was disgusted by the Bloody Baron, but I pitied him, as well. And I loved that. As a very non-rugged, non-alpha-male male, the only emotional connection I ever managed to make with Geralt was when he was visibly uncomfortable during one later-game scene (putting Uma through the Trial of the Grasses). But that was only a handful of minutes over the course of spending a hundred hours with this dude. The rest of the time was just "sure, I'll help you...
...for a price" and "ay bby u want sum fuk?" And, of course, want sum fuk bby did. Want sum fuk bby did indeed.
I Didn't Actually Beat the Game Because I'm Still Waiting for the Menu to Load
I played the PS4 version, and, based on videos I've seen from other players, this is really a console-exclusive problem, but I wouldn't be shocked if navigating the menu constituted about 85% of my overall playtime. Realistically, between the main story quests, sidequests, cutscenes, and travel, there's probably only about 15 hours' worth of content in the game.
When I first started, using the menu felt okay, if not great, but as I acquired vast amounts of worthless shit over the course of the game, it felt more and more like I was doing my menuing while immersed in a simmering sauce of some sort, and every herb or butter knife or monster head or detailed record of sexual conquest I picked up was like another tablespoon of corn starch dumped in. By the end of the game, most panels in the menu took multiple seconds to load, and moving the cursor between items felt like I was doing it over the internet with a half-second ping. Especially unbearable was placing items in the storage stash; each individual transfer gave me plenty of time to play TW3 in its entirety on the PC. It'd be more forgivable if you didn't have to constantly go into the menu for stuff.
I suppose one solution would have been to destroy all of the crap I was likely never going to need, but that's a more daunting task than it should be, given the glut of random shit in the game. There's just too much of everything: between junk, herbs, monster parts, alchemy substances, alchemy recipes, potions, decoctions, gear, repair kits, postage stamps, crafting recipes, crafting ingredients, food, drink, artisanal cutting boards, horse equipment, Gwent cards, trophies, bombs, guns, quest items, oils, letters, books, runes, vintage license plates, and like forty-six variations of crossbow bolts, there's just waaaaay too much shit in the game. Full stop.
Look at all this garbage. Tiny-ass scrollbar circled for your horror. Image taken from this old reddit post.
And a lot of it is so niche as to be straight-up worthless: a potion that gently increases magic power, but only during cloudy weather? How about one that reduces the potency of enemies' vitality-draining effects, but only if they're critical vitality-draining effects? Or one that gives you a one-strike attack bonus if you attack while mounted after combining various attack types beforehand?
I made one of those up, and you probably can't even tell which one it was.
Anyway, like I said, the menu-lag was a console problem, so it's hard to fault the game for it too much, especially if it's just a limitation of the hardware, but it did make me acutely aware of just how much...stuff there is in the game. And while you absolutely will use a lot of it, you absolutely will also have several hundred (if not over a thousand) items that you'll never touch. I think I dismantled a monster part once to craft some gear? And I crafted like four or five complete sets of gear.
More frustrating was that, despite my system-crippling inventory, I never had the shit that I needed. Almost all higher-tier potions and alchemy reagents require an alcohol mixture called "White Gull," and you can only get the base ingredients from random vendors, and they never had enough in stock. I had many unused dozens of several types of herbs, yet a couple that kept popping up in recipes (looking at you, green mold) seemed available only for purchase from herbalists, but not all herbalists, so crafting a number of items just felt like these really non-immersive wild goose chases. Overall, it's a minor complaint, but I do love me some complaining.
Oh, and I actually didn't make up any of those potion effects. Those are all real.
Geralt's writing and Inventory Massacre 2: The Game: The Enlaggening aside, I don't have much else bad to say about The Witcher 3, so I guess I'll start lavishing praise on it.
Chasing Girls: It's Not Sidequest Material Anymore
Probably the most surprising thing about this game to me was that its main story is really not all that long or interesting. The emperor of the imperialist nation of Nilfgaard charges Geralt and his sorceress lover Yennefer with finding his (the emperor's) daughter, Ciri, who is also kind of Geralt's adoptive daughter, but she's proving elusive because she's being chased by the Wild Hunt, a bunch of elves that have the ability to move between parallel universes and who make things really chilly when they swing by. I feel like there's probably some backstory there.
The Wild Hunt wants to invade Geralt's world and start running the place, but they can only travel through time and space in little packs. Ciri, however, has got some special ancient elven elder juice tucked away in her capillaries and probably also her other internal juice-tubes, so she could conceivably do time and space stuff real good enough to transport the entire Wild Hunt army. This is expanded on in the game's first expander-pack, The Witcher 3: Tube-Juice, but I haven't played it yet.
Imlerith, one of the generals of the Wild Hunt. I like that TW3 eschews the typical slim, frail elf stereotype for these Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson-looking motherfuckers.
Anyway, you spend probably two-thirds of the game hunting Ciri down, then you fight the Wild Hunt, then Ciri goes off-camera to save the world from a universe-ending threat that...really didn't get all that much screen time, for some reason. Then Geralt runs off to settle down into monogamy. Or he doesn't. The game can end in like 30 different ways, and I'm not sure if any of them are canon.
For me, the pacing was strange, but I'm pretty sure that was my fault and not the game's: I spent probably 60 or 70 hours during the "chasing Ciri" portion of the game, but most of that was exploration and doing sidequests. The second and third acts flew by once I focused on them, with the exception of a few quests before the final battle that felt more like busy work than anything else, but, again, that's on me: I'd hit a threshold where I was like "I need a break from this game," so I was really eager just to get it finished.
Chasing Girls: It's Totally Also Sidequest Material, Though
The real charm of The Witcher 3 is its world, and the supporting cast contained therein. Much of the game takes place in two locales: the Temerian-Redanian border, with the Nilfgaard-occupied northern Temerian province of Velen to the south and the southern Redanian free city of Novigrad to the north; and the Nordic-trope-steeped Skellige (pronounced "SKELL-ih-guh") isles. If any of that sentence was confusing, that's good, because I'll be slightly less embarrassed to admit that I played a hundred hours of a game in which the nations of "Temeria" and "Redania" are mentioned every ninety seconds, and I still didn't really know what either of them were until I looked them up a minute ago.
Rich, poor, man, woman, old, young, human, elf, dwarf, or even troll: no matter one's nature or station in life, the need for a witcher bridges all gaps. It's a little strange that there aren't more witchers out there, given the number of people who seem to be desperate to make use of their specific skillset, but then we as players would miss out on an awful lot of fantastic side content. Right from the very first contract job in White Orchard, the game's tutorial area, you can tell that the sidequests are more than just filler content.
That contract is called "Devil By the Well," and it was put forth by a man whose daughter has fallen ill because of bodies from the war being dumped into the nearby river. She needs clean water from a nearby well, but a malicious spirit haunts the well, attacking any who come close. As he explores the area around the well, Geralt determines that the spirit is a Noonwraith. By constantly talking out loud to himself, he essentially opens a one-way dialog with the player, explaining how a person becomes a Noonwraith after death. While investigating the abandoned homes nearby for objects that tie the wraith to the well, you discover a tragic story of love and betrayal, ultimately resulting in the summoning and killing of the spirit and the saving of the contract-poster's daughter.
A Noonwraith. As far as I know, you can't have sex with them, but I'm pretty sure I got a dude to kiss one during one quest. He died.
And this is just one tutorial quest! You'll take on dozens of witcher contracts throughout the game, not to mention a massive number of side quests that expose you to all facets of life in Redania, Temeria, and Skellige. While some quests are just quick one-offs, others interconnect to form their own microcosms: the power struggle between Novigrad's underworld crime syndicates, the everyday trials of life under Nilfgaardian occupation in Velen, and several hopefuls vying to be crowned ruler of Skellige after the death of their king. Some of these things are touched upon tangentially during the main story, but if you really want to immerse yourself into the world of The Witcher 3, the side-content is where it's at.
It's become somewhat trite to say that a game world "feels alive," especially because that's usually an unwarranted accolade. I see it a lot with MMOs: reddit posts like, "look at this conversation two NPCs had in this city," with a slew of comments lauding how these little details make the world seem so lived-in or whatever. But then when you actually walk around the city, there's really not all that much there.
So let me be trite and say that the world of TW3 really does feel alive -- especially the city of Novigrad. It's hard to adequately convey the hugeness of the world via words, but suffice it to say that Novigrad actually feels like a legitimate, to-scale little piece of city. You can walk down every street and every alley, you can go into almost every building at some point or another, and every corner is teeming with residents just going about their day. Little background conversations are so commonplace that they're not even worth mentioning -- you're in a city, and people in cities chat with each other. What's special about that? It feels odd to say it, but one of the game's greatest achievements is turning things that may be considered special in other games into nothing more than background static.
The Butcher of Basically Everywhere You Go
Combat against monsters in this game is fantastic. It takes a long time to learn the ropes, so there's this exciting element of preparation before battle that's not really present in other games. You have, at your disposal, a silver sword, a crossbow, bombs, potions, blade oils, and five different lesser magic spells called "signs." You also have a skill tree, in which you can improve your melee abilities, your signs, your alchemy-related abilities, and various other things as you level up or find bonus ability points at "places of power" scattered throughout the world. You're sharply limited in the number of active augmented abilities you can use at once, however, so you really have to commit to a specific build.
Last but not least, you have a detailed bestiary at your disposal, which outlines the various weaknesses of every type of enemy you've come across (and some that you probably haven't). On lower difficulties, I think good ol' button-mashing hack-n'-slash play is enough to get by without much trouble, but on "Blood and Broken Bones" and "Death March," good preparation is essential. Though you feel noticeably more powerful at the end of the game than at the start, it's always startlingly easy to get swarmed by necrophages or rapidly two-shot by a griffin. Proper sign usage, among other things, is key.
The "Igni" sign is particularly effective against humans. I stole this image from this very in-depth review of the game. I really need to start taking my own screenshots.
I did feel that the game could have done a bit better of a job easing you into all of the combat options available to you. Early on, when you open your menu (not knowing that one day this action is going to free up several hours), you're bombarded by far too many tutorial messages for any one of them to stick:
Hi, welcome to the menu of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt! Here, you'll find everything you need to ensure Geralt is prepared for his travels and his battles. Here's the map screen you can fast travel well you can't do it here but when you can do it you'll use these icons and if you want to see fewer other icons you can go here and change your map icon filters and you can zoom in and out and pan and DID YOU KNOW YOUR HORSE CAN WEAR GEAR TOO put blinders on him to make him harder to spook and saddlebags go in this box and APPLYING BLADE OILS is as easy as LOOKING AT THIS CRAFTING PANEL if you press R3 you can set filters for your recipes but IF YOU HOLD R2 BACK ON THIS PANEL you can see a detailed list of your stats WHICH ARE MODIFIED OVER HERE ON THE CHARACTER PANEL but don't take my word for it try looking at these subpanels this one's for mutagens which you get by killing monsters which you can do with BOMBS BACK ON THIS PANEL but you can only have two equipped at once, so be careful you're bringing the right tools for the job (WHICH YOU CAN READ ABOUT IN THE BESTIARY SUB-GLOSSARY OPTION HERE)! And this is the food and drink panel.
Fortunately, fighting humans and non-humans (not to be confused with monsters, who are also, confusingly, non-humans, a mistake I made for seventy hours) is a bit more cut-and-dry:
Geralt is frequently referred to as the "Butcher of Blaviken," a throwback to an earlier mobile shop-simulator game in the series where he attempts to be the first non-witcher witcher by running a successful butcher shop in the cozy Redanian hamlet of Blaviken. During the course of the game, he has an altercation with one of his suppliers and murders him in broad daylight, thus earning him the nickname.
A few segments in the game let you play as Ciri; she moves faster and hits harder than Geralt, but she has far fewer options in combat and goes down quickly if you're not careful.
Fighting humans, elves, and dwarves is really just an exercise in mass-murder. I can't even begin to guess at how many hundreds of people I chopped to pieces over the course of the game. If you can manage to knock down opponents using the "Aard" sign, you can get an instant melee kill while they're incapacitated. Having gone for a sign-power-based build myself, most of my encounters against humans went as follows:
- Run into the middle of the group
- Cast an AoE knockdown blast
- Casually walk up to each of them and stab them through the heart
More disturbing than the fact that it was so mechanical was that it was kind of boring. I eventually got to the point where I was just like, "Oh, hey, a bunch of dudes want to fight. Well, okay then. Boom, stab, stab, stab, stab, loot, loot, loot, loot." I really just felt like some kind of serial killer on autopilot, and I wasn't a big fan. It reminded me of the Uncharted games, each of which features lone also-self-insert-here man Nathan Drake single-handedly gunning down several hundred people without breaking a sweat or stopping to wonder if finding this month's flavor of mythical artifact was really worth the toll in human life (he did it, like, three more times after the first game, so I guess "yes"?).
I Hated Gwent but Then I Hated It Less
Just as Final Fantasy IX had Tetra Master and real life has Final Fantasy IX, which has Tetra Master, so too does TW3 (and possibly its predecessors) contain a playable virtual card-game: Gwent.
The rules of Gwent are pretty simple: given a starting hand of ten cards that are not replenished between rounds, you play a best-of-three-rounds match by putting cards with various point values onto a battlefield at close, medium, or long range. A round ends when both players opt to pass their turns for the remainder of the round. If you have no more cards, you pass the round automatically. The victor of the round is the one who has the highest total number of points. There are special cards that affect the different combat ranges, sabotage your opponents, allow you to draw more cards, etc., but the basic rules are very easy to grasp. The real depth comes from determining when to forfeit a round to maintain a card advantage over your opponent in subsequent rounds or when to go hard and dump everything you have onto the field.
Though it becomes borderline mechanical after a point, just like mass-murder, it's an entertaining enough diversion from the main game. My one piece of advice for new players concerning Gwent would be not to let the tutorial match discourage you: for whatever reason, Geralt has this trash-tier starter deck, and the fucking tutorial AI threw out so many ultra-powerful cards that I think it was mathematically impossible for me to win that game. It was more a tutorial in what the defeat screen looks like more than anything else. I missed out on building up my decks for the first 40 hours of the game because I was so annoyed that I lost that tutorial battle that I swore off Gwent forever, but after trying it on a whim at one point, I started to get into it enough to keep playing it until the end.
There's an NPC very early on in the palace at Vizima who gives you a pretty good hero card if you beat him: get that. Oh yeah, there are hero cards. Whatever, this isn't a Gwent review.
There's also a standalone Gwent game now that I think has an extended ruleset and a ton more cards. If you like Gwent, it's probably worth checking out.
When I read back through what I've written in this review, all I can think about is all the shit I didn't talk about, but it's simply too much. A review that went into detail on monster nests and treasure hunts and smugglers' caches and places of power and places of boner and horse races and witcher senses and about a dozen other things would rapidly balloon to novella length. In short, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt puts you in the boots of a monster-hunter for hire and throws him into a truly massive open world, one where the poor farmer's woes are given equal emotional weight to the desires of kings. I'm absolutely positive that there is a massive amount of content that I never experienced, and can't really imagine not playing through the game again at some point. I want to try the hardest difficulty, a hybrid melee/alchemy build, different gear sets, and, most importantly, picking up a lot less garbage along the way.
If you've avoided playing TW3 for whatever reason, do yourself a favor: sit down and give it a shot. Don't be overwhelmed by the bombardment of early information about various combat and progression systems; you'll pick everything up, eventually. Just let the generally stellar writing and voice acting lead you through one of the best gaming experiences in the current generation.