Gripping, Brutal, Enthralling...I could go on, so I'll just let the review do the talking.
gameplay 97 / story 99 / graphics 99 / sound 96
In my time wandering the lands of the Northern Kingdoms as Geralt of Rivia, doing odd jobs for money, solving political conflicts, slaying grotesque monsters, and having “fun” with several beauties, something became quite clear to me. There has indeed never been a more intimate, rewarding, and grand RPG series quite like The Witcher. It’s with the third installment that the series really explains why so many are drawn to it. While previous installments suffer from clunky combat (the first) and a limited view of the world (the second), The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt expands its scope and fully realizes the land in which Geralt makes his living. What follows is an example of an open-world RPG that practically shames all the rest in everything it offers, from narrative delivery to quest design to even its deep and rewarding combat.
The story begins some time after The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. Geralt, with his memories now intact, has begun a search for his adoptive daughter named Ciri, who is being chased by a mysterious and dangerous force known as the Wild Hunt for her incredible and highly misunderstood power to travel through space and time. With the help of companions old and new, Geralt must find Ciri, whose destiny lies in Geralt’s choices across the lands, all the while getting sucked into an ongoing war, a witch hunt against mages, and having to find work as the monster slayer he’s renowned for being. Geralt must work with several people on his quest, such as Vessemir, his mentor; Yennefer, his strong-willed and feisty ex-lover; Triss Merigold, the sweet yet tough woman he fell for during his amnesiac days, and several others including a pathetic bard, a fierce emperor, a former spy, and several other morally dubious characters in a world that has no real right or wrong answers; only solutions to complicated situations.
It’s in this tale that The Witcher doesn’t just find its footing with those unfamiliar, but also brings closure to long time fans, as the structure is set to both satisfy adherents and intrigue newcomers with its rich, detailed world full of magic, monsters, and complex characters. All with a pacing that chooses to embrace the smallest of tasks within the overarching main narrative rather than distract you, giving time for the serious, often emotional moments as much as the sillier, friendly encounters that keep your interest alive. Sitting down to drink your brain out with your witcher friends after removing a powerful curse from somebody is something that I would never have thought to put in a story, but it works here as an example of the pacing. It maintains this throughout, with not a single moment sacrificing the payoff for a smaller, less meaningful distraction. There’s a reason The Witcher is often considered the A Game of Thrones of the gaming world.
This is due to the high caliber of writing on display, showcasing natural sounding dialogue with branching choices that staggeringly stay consistent with Geralt’s overall character traits. Moments you have with others allow for expression and action to show much more than can be said with mere words. Even your romance options show a maturity and tenderness that is almost nonexistent or even poorly managed in other video games, to the point where typical game-like decisions can quickly bite you in the ass as reality ensues. Even the multiple endings of the game show off the amount of character choice you’re given, in both blatant and hidden choices you make throughout the adventure.
All of this is placed in one of, if not the most beautiful landscapes ever seen in any game. In my travels, I’ve encountered fast green forests teeming with life, lush grasslands overlooking cliffs dropping into coastlines of blue rivers and oceans. Contrast this with murky swamplands, and a set of mountainous islands burdened by harsh winters and grim forests reminiscent of Skyrim, and you have a varied and gorgeous environment that never ceases to amaze with its vistas, with wonder attention to detail paid in the smallest aspects. Especially if you can ignore the occasional blurry textures and a bit of pop-in when up close to some objects.
So how do you interact with this marvel of a world? You run around and even climb a bit, that’s how. Geralt can run from point to point in any direction, only limited by the size of whatever zone he’s in. Along the way you can collect plants, find hidden areas, collect loot, and fight enemies. His movement can seem a bit stiff at times on its default setting – yes, there is an alternative setting that has him immediately running instead of getting a walking start, so utilize that if you want to get anywhere faster. For longer stretches between area, he can ride on Roach, his trusty steed. Though trusty is a stretch, as the horse has a difficult time following commands properly. Whether it’s going towards the wrong road when autogalloping, getting stuck on terrain, or ignoring your calls, this is probably one of the dumbest horses I’ve ever seen. In place of Roach are fast travel points that you can discover, though you can only travel from point to point instead of from anywhere.
Collecting items along the way allows you to use them for a variety of things, such as ingredients for potions, bombs, and weapon buffs to use appropriately, and junk items you can sell or dismantle for crafting materials, even though knowing what you get is a bit tough since the font for each line of text is a bit small compared to other games, as well as having a bit of a pickup issue if you’re standing too close to the item of interest. You even come across books to read if you want to take a break, with some even giving you information on beasts and people for certain quest lines in order to progress a little better, and with the possibility of shifting the story of said quests around a bit. You can even come across things like monster nests you need to destroy, hidden stashes, and even find letters on dead bodies that bring about new quest lines or expand upon currently existing ones.
Speaking of which, this being an open-world RPG, you can talk to people who can give you quests, ranging from simple fetch quests to criminal investigations to witcher bounty contracts that have you killing some particularly nasty creatures. You utilize the witcher sense often, which is how you see what Geralt sees in his adventures. The way he knows how to follow scents, tracks, and understand what happened during certain situations is almost like he’s a medieval Sherlock Holmes. And with creature hunts, it also allows him the opportunity to know what he’s up against, so you can help him prepare before the fight or task. At first glance, these seem like typical throwaway quests designed to give you experience and loot. However, their narrative delivery and overall construction is beyond compare. Many of them have twists you never expect, and others turn into longer, more in-depth affairs that are just as engaging and well-paced as the main plot, the consequences of which can affect future events and how certain people treat your presence. All of a sudden, you end up caring as much about how these stories end as you do about your tangible rewards. To spoil any of them is to betray their very delivery
These rewards, however, don’t come without cost. Bandits, mercenaries, monsters, and all other sorts of enemies will be there to block your path. Fortunately, Geralt is a highly skilled swordsman who trained since he was a child to dispatch is foes quickly and efficiently. You use strong and normal attacks in combat, and you can parry with your weapons, since you only carry two swords: one made of steel for humans and regular animals, and a silver sword meant to damage the more fantastic of beasts prowling around. There are two methods of dodging: a quick step and a diving roll, which you have to alternate between in order to both minimize your damage and maximize your damage potential. You can even wield signs, which are minor magic spells taught to witchers to aid in combat. There’s Aard, a basic telekinetic blast; Axii, a mental spell meant to cause confusion and can even influence foes to fight for you; Igni, a simple yet effective flame spell; Quen, a protection sign used to absorb damage; and Yrden, a magic trap meant to slow foes down.
There’s a rhythm to Geralt’s fighting style that takes a bit of getting used to, as you have to time his dodges and parries to counter the unpredictable nature of both humans and creatures. Combat is fast paced and has an elegance to it, almost like a dance as described in the books, but can seem slower due to more often than not being surrounded by foes instead of engaging in one-on-one skirmishes. However, learning when exactly to block and attack, what signs to use most effectively, and what potions to use against whatever beast you face, is what allows the depth of the combat to show. You can even eat food during a fight to replenish your health. Sure, you can try to mash the attack buttons to win most fights, but that comes at the price of efficiency against these foes, and makes your weapons and armor wear out faster. This is especially the case on higher difficulty settings, where enemies are less prone to losing their aggro range and act as though they’re a more consistent threat instead of randomly deciding whether or not they’re as skilled as they claim to be. If anything, always play on the second-highest or highest difficulties if you really want this game to test your combat skills.
Each quest you complete and enemy encounter you succeed in gives you experience points, which allow you to level up. You’re given a skill system where you unlock perks for your abilities, be it melee, signs, potion building, and vitality-based perks, which you can place in sockets to activate them. You can level each perk up to increase their effectiveness, but they only activate when you have them equipped, so to speak, and some are more obviously better than others, such as a majority of the alchemy sections, as they rely mostly on percentage boosts than any actual, noticeable change to the game mechanics. You can further boost their effectiveness by adding mutagens, which is a new addition to the series. Mutagens are specialized items that you can place into one of four sockets on your character. These further boost your perks depending on what color they are. You can even create better mutagens by combining weaker ones in the alchemy section. This new addition to leveling adds further depth to leveling, as it allows you to customize your fighting style based on what you prefer using the most, be it your signs, your potion effectiveness, or your trusty, yet sometimes delicate weapons.
If your equipment does end up wearing out after a grueling fight, however, you can repair them at local blacksmiths and armorers scattered throughout the world. Not only can they be used for repairs, but they can also create better equipment for you through a deep crafting system, provided you’ve obtained the right diagrams for such a request. Even items you’ve found out in the world can be upgraded if you have the right materials. The same can be done in alchemy, where ingredients you find can be mixed to create potions that buff your abilities, health regeneration, and even special oils that deal extra damage to certain creature types – all of which can be found in the bestiary after discovering the creature through combat or reading. Keep your potion consumption in check, however, they can potentially poison Geralt and bring him more harm than good. If you find you need to rest up and recover your items (since potions can almost be indefinitely refilled), you can meditate, which functions a lot like the waiting mechanic in the Elder Scrolls series. It passes time along and replenishes your potions – your health as well, but only on the lower difficulty settings.
Another good way to pass the time is to participate in some minigames. These range from fistfights (which use the same rules as normal combat), horse racing, and quite possibly one of the best card games ever made: Gwent. Seriously, this one minigame alone is going to steal a majority of your time playing this game. It’s a simple card game that pits two armies against each other, using only ten cards per hand. The rules are simple: get a higher attack score than your opponent on the field using your ten cards, and come out the victor in two rounds to win a match. There is obviously more to it than that, but to spoil any more would require a separate review altogether, it’s that deep a game. There are even full and wide-ranging side quests dedicated to building the best possible deck by challenging the best of the best and winning their rarest and best cards, though you can also buy/win more basic cards from local merchants, innkeepers, etc.
All that being said, the game is not without fault, as no game is absolutely 100% perfect. Being an open-world RPG, there are a plethora of glitches related to that kind of design. Most are minor, such as enemy animations flailing in the wrong ways, AI paths leading people to walking against walls, and even Geralt himself getting caught against, through, and under various structures, such as bridges, walls, what have you. Others can be a bit more sinister. The two most annoying ones I’ve come across are one where I was stuck on a loading screen when the game came back in, finding myself dead before I had a chance to know what was going on. Another one is where I was lead down a path towards an enemy encounter, only for said encounter to be unwinnable due to my signs not working like they should have been against level zero enemies that should have been at least at level twenty. At the same time, underwater controls, while not terrible, are incredibly tight and tank-like, requiring you to feel like you have to push the analog sticks or the movement keys as hard as you can in order to travel where you need to go. And this is if you’re not fighting against the surfacing and diving buttons, which work just as awkwardly at times.
With all that said, I still find it to be the most immersive, engaging, satisfying, and emotional open-world RPG I’ve ever played. I was ready to write off the genre’s attempts at narrative focus and engaging combat, but along came The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt to give me new hope for it all. With its quests that actually mean something in the long run, the deep gameplay options both in and out of combat, the expert level of writing, the gorgeous world you explore, and the memorable cast of amazing characters all combine to make this one of the most complete and powerful games ever made. Sure, not every system works as it should all the time due to animation bugs, and the glitches can get pretty irritating at points. In fact, the only reasons I could think of not to play this game is if you don’t like this kind of setting, are put off by the obscure and often dark morality at play, or if you’re dissatisfied with the combat for not being as tightly constructed as something on the level of a From Software masterpiece or even what you’d find in Dragon’s Dogma. I understand that, I do. But to those who like these things and more, I urge you to at least try it out.
There’s so much that’s engaging here, whether your settling the balance of power in an ongoing war, helping to avert a crisis involving the damnation of mages, or setting out to hunt for dangerous and unique monsters, all in the pursuit of finding your long-lost daughter before evil forces can abuse her incredible abilities. There’s both subtlety and grandiosity here, and it creates a certain magic at work here that not even the most powerful sorceress can hope to fully grasp.
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