Game Name: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015)
Developer: CD Projekt Red (The Witcher 1 and 2, Cyberpunk 2077)
Platform: PC (reviewed on PC, w/ PS4 controller or Keyboard)
Categories: 3rd Person RPG, Solo, Real-time Swordplay, Spellcasting, Potion Swigging, Buff Stacking, Extreme Crafting and Inventory Management, Massive Equipment List and Discoverables, Boss Monsters, Exploration, Collectible Card Game, Sprawling and Realistic World, Grounded Fantasy, Modern Epic, Gigantic Cast of Characters, Polish Folklore, Spattering Gore, Mounds of Tittilating Nudity, Superb Writing, Extensive Dialogue, Gorgeous and Detailed Graphics, Riveting Musical Score, Branching Story Resolutions, Delayed Ramifications, and Situations that Challenge your Wit, Judgement, or Reflexes
May Appeal To: “mature” gamers lusting for blood, sex, and dwarves to drink and curse. Oh, and it’s easily one of the most thoughtful, poignant, fun, engrossing, expansive, and surprisingly well-executed roleplaying experiences made in my lifetime.
May Repulse: the bitter, chaste, and cranky individuals that can’t see past that first sentence to internalize the second. There is some offensive stuff in here, and the game skirts a fine line in appeasing both carnal delights and cerebral pleasures.
Comparable To: Conker’s Bad Fur Day at first glance. The Witcher 3 improves on everything Skyrim, Oblivion, and Morrowind ever attempted. It has the lore scope of Mass Effect, the personality and themes of Dragon Age Origins, better execution and relatability than Dragon’s Dogma, and the ronin spirit or horse-riding of Red Dead Redemption. This third installment has incredible graphics, re-tooled game mechanics, and an older/wiser Geralt as opposed to the previous incarnations. Heavy crafting titles like Dark Cloud 2, Terraria, and Rogue Galaxy get thrown around a lot when I need references though my TW3 inventory was possibly larger, more unwieldy than those games, and focuses on potions and armament creation. This game suffers from the traditional UI bloat and lag found in Bethesda titles but it has some of the best DLC since Dark Souls 2 (and similar control clunkiness).
Learning Curve: I was learning the Gwent CCG for several hours of dedicated play. Politics in the Northern Realms proves itself as a trial of learning up until the very end though you never, ever get used to Geralt’s awkward gait. All else should be familiar.
Game Length: 50 (main) +75 (extras) +50 (DLC) +10 (Gwent) +100 (reading)
Difficulty: Hardness Slider, rudimentary and skews higher than expected
Mastery: Listen, I crushed all but three available quests, crafted all master equipment, ventured into every nook of the map to clear every icon over a few hundred hours, and I still only managed a character level in the 50s (out of 100), read only like 25% of all biographies/literature in the game, and I STILL harbor suspicions that I missed a broad swath of content. You really gotta pick your objectives when mastering facets of this game, which proves both broad and deep. Just keep doing what you enjoy and get to it.
Story: What folks will argue as the most nuanced and memorable part of the experience, this vastly dense and layered tale of rulers, societal castes, genetic upheavals, and generational wars initially intrigued me but eventually devolved into this steady hum of white noise, serving as backdrop to what actually appealed to me: the microcosm of situational events and in-the-moment decisions. The Witcher 3’s high-level exposition on in-game celebrities and key figures didn’t necessarily bore me, though very little of the regal posturing, interfactional disputes, or political machinations retained more than a passing impression on my gray matter (and this includes the main storyline’s struggle).
Perhaps it’s the most “Geralt” opinion I could possibly have but I’m immensely more interested in the plight of fantastic beasts and where to find them than the feuding successors of some Scottish analog (and I absolutely binged the Game of Thrones books). Turns out that problems of the common folk were the most entrancing -a local curse, mysterious disappearances, an abused dwarf, a masquerade festival- and I felt much amusement by your character’s entwinement after grumbling his mantra, “best not to get involved”.
After spending hundreds of hours exposed to three games worth of characters and reading several hundred of the in-game tomes, I couldn’t possibly construct the crudest of histories regarding this Earth-parallel (which I first learned is called The Continent during research for this article) though at least thirty haunting, hilarious, hedonistic, or harrowing tales could fall out of my mouth when describing what it is to play this game.
Though I literally Googled the phrase, “is King Foltest a bad dude?”, to avoid making a regrettable decision during some late-game questline, Geralt’s exploits and small-scale misadventures steal focus from the epic clashes of queens and sorceresses – which are certainly catalogued and present if that’s your bag. Recanting my favorite narrative moments would include accidentally crushing Thumbelina, exhibiting compassion towards a werewolf, using spoons to lift a persistent curse, romancing Triss, exchanging philosophy with a horse, bargaining with the devil, being possessed by a party-going apparition, burying a stillborn, guiding fellow witchers, and plying the bonds of friendship with one vampire in order to hunt his kin.
I suppose I just wanted you to know of personal failings in seeing the bigger tapestry, mostly due to the immersive and lively brush strokes. If raw numbers would better express the detail and sheer breadth of this illustrious world, the game boasts:
500+ “Books”, journals, and documents, inspired by the book series
100+ detailed “Character” entries
100+ “Bestiary” foes from Polish folklore
350+ separate, multi-tiered quest lines (many with multiple paths/endings)
Presentation: It’s detailed and gorgeous. Weather cells roll in and cast gorgeous lighting effects depending on the hour of the truncated day cycle; massive cities span from hill-to-sea, exhibiting an organic growth and “lived in” quality through gutter trash, stagnant pools, and haphazard plank placement; and the sprawling countryside is littered with dilapidated windmills, stockades, fiefs, cavern systems, and other oddities to capture your inquisition while traipsing randomly in the abundant underbrush. Massive, mystical castles await, the type of fairy-tale constructs this series works feverishly to subvert, and the game acts as its own self-foil in bringing wild and varied environs that don’t restrict adventures to either the jaded grit of adult-themed expectations or the fantastical whimsy found in your typical medieval action title.
(Geralt remains the same weary, soft-spoken constant throughout.)
The Witcher 3 delights the eye with incredible lighting and portrays a massive, detailed world where every rock is deliberately placed, every screenshot evident of the craftsmanship and artistry that required its execution.
Similarly, you’d be hard-pressed to find fault with the audio – which features a rollicking assembly of acoustic, percussive, and woodwind instruments in wild intensity. With raw female chants and orchestral waves washing over buoyant tambourine measures, I can only describe the result as “gypsy rock”, something that’d draw crowds at a local Renaissance Festival. With almost 3 hours of 70 tracks included with the DLC, this folksy collection of epic proportions is bound to sweep the listener up with a broad range of mood pieces, whether they be exciting and bold, morose and somber. With such an expressive musical score, it really steals a section of the game’s entertainment value for itself, similar to the sea shanties in Assassin Creed: Black Flag. Check it out!
Less exciting are the controls and user interface. Although demonstrably better/quicker than most Bethesda titles to date, the Witcher 3 still succumbs to its own girth as the player hoards every herb and loads up on every glowing item within Geralt’s augmented sightline. Quest items are rarely removed, hundreds of notes clutter the inventory grid, and a glut of reusable potion types and blade oils are navigateable only by color – not to mention the 50-something icons for food or drink that perform the same but must be equipped manually. (There’s no good use for the various alcohol so why’re they there?) For fuck’s sake, multiple currency types must be converted at specific bank locations, but even THOSE have their own item slots! And I haven’t even mentioned the actual equipment…. whose multiple bomb and bolt types are near negligible in the face of rechargeable magic. Options to “sell junk”, “hide quest items”, “sort superior equipment”, “sell down to x quantity”, “bulk dismantle”, or otherwise manage inventory more efficiently would have been helpful. Other than the inventory elephant-in-the-room, most other tabs like the bestiary, map, skills/mutations, and hyper-detailed journal and character index stand alone as attractive ways to display large accumulations of data.
Controls….well, they went for “realism” initially. Geralt’s stride has a heft to it that is stiff to redirect due to the animation’s desire to plant his foot firmly before kicking off in a different direction. CDPR provided a post-launch option to control the character less like Dark Souls and more like Dynasty Warriors but I never felt fully comfortable with either option. Combine that design decision with the throttled speed inside structures and the scheme’s shared mapping of interactables/pickups, and you’ll get a jilted mutant bouncing off the walls while collecting shelf contents who inexplicably snaps his fingers to toggle a burning candle a few times before stutter-walking out of a confined space.
Unique Features: Ever “save scum” a game to find a decision tree’s ideal outcome? The Witcher 3 spits in your face! True to form, not every set of choices contains a rosy outcome but the “threat” of immediate gratification has been completely removed, committing players to several hours of gameplay before storylines are resolved. Not only does walling off that playstyle spare players the labor of additional reloads, it enhances the engagement level of its RPG aspect and gives players a customized experience in covert ways. Characters die, kingdoms are conquered, and plotlines diverge in drastic ways depending on your action (or inaction).
Gameplay: Be aware that you’re not defining a character from scratch. Rather, you’re role-playing Geralt – an old, storied warrior with a stygmatized existence as a sellsword monster-slaying demihuman, and thus, this game is not the outlet for slaughtering civilians, tormenting guards, or scaling the ranks in wizardry schools while moonlighting as a werewolf. He’s a tired, weathered soul who adopts a persona of “disgruntled nomadic hermit”, someone a quintessential D&D player might incorrectly consider a “murder hobo” if the whole thing wasn’t just a veneer for the thoughtful egalitarian traits Geralt tries to obscure. This isn’t your typical emotionless protagonist that the player projects his own will upon, make no mistake. Geralt speaks plenty about his intelligent opinions…. just at a lower volume than the rest of the cast. Player options will reflect this, especially in dialogue where, more often than not, you end up being a willing cat’s paw for powerful entities.
It’s not to say that customization isn’t available – far from it. Witchers in the video games carry two swords, one forged from silver to prey upon monster vulnerabilities and another useful for non-magical beasts and humans – either of which can be supplemented with foe-specific blade oils, enriched explosives, or supporting magic that slows time in a denoted zone, blasts fire, or conquers the weak-minded (sometimes available in conversation). Whereas Witchers will often shun and distrust the politically-minded witches coven whom influence the land’s many kings, their abilities for solo combat certainly include the lower echelons of mysticism, wielding magic, and alchemy. Any of these disciplines can receive your attention in modeling a preferred fighting style, whether it be in boosting reflex-oriented sword arts, conquering your quarry with pyrotechnics, or expanding your collection of various toxins with which to gain unnatural abilities. Rarely is there a bad combination and hundreds of assorted arms/armor exist to emphasize your particular strength or shield your personal weaknesses. No matter the chosen “class” or combat affinity, I highly recommend attempting to forge specialized Witcher equipment and brew concoctions so as to stack buffs even higher than that MMORPG you swore off playing.
My playstyle operates as if Santa was shot down by ground-to-air missile, scattered Christmas across the land, and I’m trying to recover his black box data recorder. In-game, this resembles a wild man roaming the country-side engaging his “Arkham Asylum detective vision” to highlight bushes and civilian bookshelves to drain them of their available matchsticks, broken oars, encyclopedic collections, and assorted shades of lichen. It’s hard to overstate how much time I spent with inventory management, crafting, and displacing equipment but believe me, there are plenty of other attractions!
When on the prowl or otherwise mission-oriented, you utilize Geralt’s heightened senses to deploy modern forensics in solving mysteries – whether it be sniffing out perfume trails, visually performing autopsies, or exhibiting savant levels of foreknowledge about local lore, fauna, and customs. Broad, varied, and deep quests are available in abundance, many of which aren’t as straightforward as they’d first appear, many of which have optional objectives and alternate endings. Whose (or what’s) plight you align yourself with mid-quest is indeed fun but I’d say that ferreting out the mysterious origins of a disappearing damsel, a wailing crypt, or deciphering the motivations of a supernatural curse or creature straight from Polish fables are the game’s most impactful highlights. Straightforward hunts or extermination missions are sprinkled about for those allergic to nuance, though The Witcher 3 does have a penchant for involving Geralt in local and national politics (much to my chagrin.)
Yes, there is a Collectible Card Game called Gwent and yes, it is addictive. For better or worse, it replaces the digital cards of your sexual conquests in The Witcher 2.
(Don’t worry, despite Geralt’s age, the old man will land more tail than most players.)
Additional Comments: The awkward controls and burgeoning inventory management aren’t enough to subjugate the thrill of character progression or the sheer quality of the writing. Honestly, battles excite, but the system doesn’t sustain gameplay beyond the retention power of unraveling stories leaving your mark upon the landscape.
What I Liked: The Polish folklore, the massive cast, the music, the swordplay, min/maxing my potions, character progression, the cities, the countryside, the weather, the lighting, the quests, the sense of scale, sense of purpose, sense of humor, and sense of despair that I had when finally closing the book on this game after 5 years! 🙁
The game was made for -me- and isn’t some soulless ploy to move product.
The DLC is also inextricable to the overall experience. Please consider buying it.
What I Disliked: Sailing, swimming, jumping, Geralt’s movement controls in general, the inventory slog, UI quirks, the primary story arc, Ciri’s combat, braindead pathfinding that leads you in the wrong direction, and I -hate- having to haggle contracts (I never received more than 50% of the meter and this grand waste of time merely results in a handful of sheckles, at best).
Locked doors still glow yellow until you click on them. Some wearable items don’t show up on the weapons and armor tab. Gwent is too addictive. XP as quest rewards are terribly imbalanced and you can’t really grind up to the artificial level thresholds of that armor you want to equip. (There was a guy on an island in the middle of nowhere, 5 minutes from the closest “fast travel” post. He wanted books on religion but I couldn’t check the titles of what I’d already given him. When done, I received a measly 2XP!)
I also dislike that Fallout 4 outclassed this game in popularity that year, that Cyberpunk didn’t live up to my expectations, and everything about Yennefer….
Glitches Experienced: Massive and complex games should be expected to have some common glitches: load freezing; getting stuck in mountain geometry; falling through the map; random doodads hovering awkwardly.
Some unexpected glitches include: a late game cinematic freezing and needing to be skipped; horse hydra – 3 horses merged into 1; swimming on the land; Roach generally acting possessed or teleporting onto roofs. I did find a single quest that couldn’t be completed and I had to abandon it.
Hours I Played: 295 (Hard mode)
My Personal Reaction: Before they scuttled their goodwill with Cyberpunk 2077 (2020), CD Projekt Red was amassing it in droves with this title, and for good reason. The modern market affords so many options that “hours over cost” has become a deciding metric for a discerning player to make purchases. The Witcher 3 pays absolute dividends for the amount of entertainment packed into this title, and not just the type of “focus-grouped marketing drivel” that oozes into a slough bucket at the end of some manufacturing chain in a business that is 1 part art and 1 part technology. I attest that the third installment of this franchise is a passion project produced by a cadre of developers looking to improve upon its forebears and make a masterpiece of our time!
I’m fatigued by the “medieval fantasy” trope but even I found space in my heart for The Witcher 3 to teleport up to my top ten favorites of all time.
(It joins the ilk of RPGs like Baldur’s Gate 2, Fallout: New Vegas, and Odin Sphere.)
Noob Tips: Press “skip” during loadscreens since they finish quicker than the narration. Keep quality whet stones and repair hammers on you at all times due to equipment breakage. Take your time to savor the story. Do quest chains in sequence to understand/remember the plot twists. Sample different control peripherals and turning off the full walk animation. Don’t save scum; live with the choices. Buy the DLC!
Depth and Replayability: Operates at high “Narrative RPG” Depth, Low Replayability
Suggested Value: $60 + $20 for expansions
Where to Buy: GOG, Steam, Console stores, local gaming haunt
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