Before you read any more of this review, I’d like you to take a moment to appreciate how incredibly strong-willed I am to have stopped playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt for long enough to write it. I’m proud of me.
The reason I’m so impressed with myself is because this is my dream game! I’ve been waiting for it since the minute it was announced, and waiting for the announcement for even longer. I followed its development like a hound, and I had ridiculously high expectations.
And it exceeds my expectations!
The Witcher 3 is a tour de force that’s set new standards for the RPG genre. This game gets so many things right: it’s gameplay mechanics are smooth and intuitive (after some tweaking of the default key bindings), its narrative is gripping, its combat is challenging yet rewarding, and it puts you into the role of Geralt, the master witcher, in a way that makes it easy to totally lose yourself in the fantasy. The characters are wonderfully constructed, especially the women, and the relationships that Geralt can form with them are emotionally powerful and moving. I’m definitely in love with Geralt and Yennefer. The music is beautiful and haunting, and communicates the state of the world and its events with ease. All of this works together in The Witcher 3 to welcome you with open arms to become a part of the world.
The Witcher 3 puts you in the shoes of Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf, a professional monster slayer for hire. War has broken out in the Northern Realms, but all Geralt wants to do is find his daughter-figure Ciri. She’s been gone a long time, living in another dimension, but now she’s back, and being chased by the Wild Hunt – a cavalcade of ghostly riders who bring death in their wake. Geralt is also on the trail of his long lost love Yennefer, who’s the closest thing Ciri has to a mother. Together, Geralt and Yennefer travel across the Northern Realms searching for Ciri. It’s a grand adventure across vast continents and against the clock.
As a long-time fan of the franchise looking for one more adventure with her favourite characters, the story is what’s most important to me in Wild Hunt. Finally, here is a game that strikes a perfect balance between story and side-quests. When I spend an entire play session on side quests I never feel like I’m neglecting the story. Part of this is because Geralt isn’t trying to save the world. He’s not the most important or powerful person in the Northern Realms, he’s just a professional trying to save his daughter, and along the way he comes across people who need his help.
The other reason there’s very little disconnect between the two is that side quests are treated with as much respect as the story missions. The cut scenes are as detailed as main story ones, and conversations with lesser NPCs are still as beautifully animated as ones with main characters. Side quests feel important in this game because they’re shown to have a meaningful effect on the world and the narrative. Above all, every side quest contributes to building the game world: your choices, even the ones that seem inconsequential, can have a huge impact on the world, so choose carefully and be prepared for the fallout. Save a man from being killed by drowners and you may come to regret it when you find he used his freedom to slaughter refugees.
In addition to meaningful side quests, Wild Hunt gives witcher contracts a new sense of importance. Instead of sending you to kill ten wolves or collect five vampire fangs, The Witcher 3 pits you against particularly fierce monsters that have a backstory and a reason for existing. You won’t get sent to clear a harpy nest, but you will be asked to save a village from a noonwraith who happens to be the spirit of a girl who was murdered there. Witcher contracts are separate from regular side-quests and require you to conduct an investigation that may include asking witnesses, examining the surrounding areas, and hunting down a beast’s lair. The investigation is just as important as the eventual encounter with the beast, which makes you feel smarter while also driving home how intelligent Geralt is: he knows all there is to know about monsters and how to kill them, and now so do you!
Working through the new and improved witcher contracts also constructs a more complete understanding of the game world. By taking on these jobs you’re shaping the world: the villagers’ survival is implied to hinge on Geralt slaying the monsters, and by removing the threat to their settlement you’re making sure the world carries on.
Most, though not all, of these contracts result in combat. So thankfully the combat in The Witcher 3 is wonderful, having been massively improved since its predecessor. I rolled my way through The Witcher 2 and looked ridiculous (but had fun – “wheee!”), so the new dodge ability is a welcome introduction. And those of you with sign-based builds will adore the alternate form of each of Geralt’s magical abilities. Overall, the combat is challenging and will punish you if you’re impatient, but it’s easy to master and once you do, you can weave your way through fights without getting touched and look magnificent doing so. While you can get away with hacking and slashing your way through this game, it isn’t the most efficient technique, and you won’t have as much fun. The combat demands that you pay attention and learn how to fight properly, but it rewards you with a sense of mastery and power.
The Witcher games are based off a series of novels and short stories, and where the first two games created independent narratives, Wild Hunt brings in iconic characters and plot lines from the books and knits them into the world of the previous games. The Witcher 3 acts as a continuation of the books, but one that benefits from the new narrative and world established in the previous games. CD Projekt Red has done an amazing job adapting characters like Ciri and Yennefer and Dijkstra into the new medium. They all look and sound amazing, and there’s none of the unpleasantness that comes from an unfaithful adaptation. It’s the most loving adaptation I’ve ever seen, and also one of the most intelligent.
But the developers went above and beyond by giving Ciri her own playable sections. Being able to play as Ciri is not only a fun gameplay change, it’s an effective storytelling method. As you progress though the story you’ll meet certain individuals who met with Geralt’s adopted daughter. Instead of simply listening to them tell their story, you take control over the events being retold. Hearing about her journey is one thing, but being in control of it empowers players and expands the world of the game beyond Geralt.
Ciri is faster and weaker than Geralt, and her dodge is replaced by a blink ability. She can’t use signs but she can blink from one enemy to another on the battlefield in a devastatingly beautiful display. Her sections are very linear, and without a skills tree or inventory they’d get boring as a whole game, but used sparingly as they are they’re a wonderful addition to the game.
The Witcher games have always been set in large maps, but with Wild Hunt’s move to an open world came a map approximately 32 times larger than all the locations of the second game combined. With such a massive space to fill, it would have been easy for CD Projekt Red to populate it with bland copy-pasted landmarks and repetitive events. Instead, the world of The Witcher 3 is one of the most vibrant and exciting I’ve ever experienced!
There’s something amazing wherever you look, which is doing terrible things to my sleeping pattern. It’s scarily easy to tell yourself “I’ll just check out that tower over there and then I’ll go to bed,” and suddenly realise it’s somehow 3am.
And there’s so much to explore! Say goodbye to Dragon Age: Inquisition’s mosaic pieces and shard collector quests, to the bottles and planting flags, to the logging stands and quarries. I love Dragon Age: Inquisition and collected most of these, but they always felt separated from the world, as if they’d been dropped onto the map on the last day of development. In Wild Hunt, every landmark is built into the terrain logically, and every point of interest offers some task for you to achieve. Whether it’s clearing a monster nest, exploring a cave, rescuing prisoners from bandits, tracking down a great treasure and slaying its guardian, everything feels significant for the world.
On top of the way it’s constructed, the world is gorgeous! Don’t worry if your PC hardware is beginning to fall behind the times – The Witcher 3 is beautifully optimised and chances are you’ll still be able to make it shine. Part of this is thanks to the fact that the developers are still improving it. So far they’ve released four patches that have given lower-end GPUs a performance boost, fixed bugs, and implemented changes that the community has called for. With a game that offers so much content and boasts so many hours of gameplay, it’s relieving to see the developers dedicated to supporting its longevity.
Certain gameplay changes have also been made to accommodate for the open world. This time around you’ll only need to brew potions once. After that, you’ll have a stockpile in your inventory which can be replenished by meditating for at least an hour with a strong alcohol in your inventory. This means no scrounging around for that one last petal, which was annoying enough in the first two games and would be beyond tedious in Wild Hunt. Potion effects have been reworked too. In The Witcher 2 the Swallow potion gives Geralt a 10 minute vitality regeneration buff, which was long enough to last for the entirety of pretty much any encounter in the game. In The Witcher 3, Swallow only lasts 20 seconds. To balance this out, potions in Wild Hunt aren’t as toxic to Geralt, and he can consume them during combat. Taking potions in preparation for battle worked well in the previous games, when the location of monsters was more structured, but this methodical approach isn’t practical in an open world with beasts hidden behind every corner.
Also facing roster changes is Wild Hunt’s selection of mini-games. Gone is the love-it-or-hate-it dice poker from the previous games. Welcome instead Gwent, a Hearthstone-esque, Magic the Gathering-esque card game that I can sink whole nights into if I’m not careful. Gwent is a 1v1 game that simulates two armies meeting on the battlefield. You can play against almost any merchant and certain main story-characters, and defeating opponents earns you a tidy bag of coins and a card to add to your collection. Building your deck by winning cards gives the mini-game a real sense of progression, and when you’ve progressed far enough you can take part in Gwent tournaments. I hope that one day we get a multiplayer Gwent tournament, because the developers have put so much work into this mini-game that it’s almost like they’ve made two whole games and sneakily bundled them together.
There’s not a lot to fault in The Witcher 3. Most of my issues with it are actually backhanded compliments. The lack of a photo mode is disappointing – because the game is so beautiful that I spend 30% of my time in it taking screenshots and just gazing at it in wonder. An updated inventory with more tabs and filters would be nice – because there’s so much amazing gear to find that it can take a while to sort through. I wish there were markers above the NPCs you’ve already defeated in Gwent – because I’m so addicted to building my deck.
Aside from that, I have no criticisms. This is a game made by people who love what they do and want to give people the best game imaginable. I’m so glad CD Projekt Red took their time and delayed the game. The wait was hard, but it was worth it to be delivered this masterpiece of an RPG that just keeps getting better.
The Witcher 3 is a powerful roleplaying experience that serves up a complex and emotionally persuasive narrative. It treats its characters with respect and its players with even more respect. The world of Wild Hunt is a grim place to live, and your actions can be its salvation or its ruin. It’s impossible to be involved in these kinds of ambiguous and far-reaching decisions and not feel a connection to the world and its characters, and this is where the game shines. Above all, The Witcher 3 makes me believe that I am Geralt, I am a part of these character’s lives, and I am a part of this world.
Review by Alana Young
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