I’ve been lookng forward to this one for a while. It probably all started with Ocarina of Time, my obsession with exploring a massive fantasy environment. The satisfation and escapism this gives me is pretty much unparalleled in any other gaming genre. The Witcher series has typically been more focused, less open, with a tighter narrative and more tailored content rather than the scale of other games. In the Witcher 3, CD Projekt attempted to combine the two and damn it if they didn’t pull it off.
The Witcher 3 picks up a few months from where the last game left off, with Nilfgaard in the full sway of its invasion into the Northern Kingdoms and Geralt back in possession of his memories. Years after last seeing her, Geralt is reunited with Yennefer, his legendary sorceress lover in Vizima, now held by Emyhr, the Emperor of Nilfgaard. Geralt is told my Emyhr that his daughter Ciri, a girl who was once Geralt’s ward, who is also in possession with the power to jump between worlds, has reemerged after many years being pursued by the spectral nightmare known as the ‘Wild Hunt.’ Geralt journeys throughout the Northern realms to find the young woman who is like a daughter to him and discover why the Hunt seeks her.
There’s loads more going on too. The storytelling in The Witcher 3 is phenomenal. I could go on for ages about the variety, the scope, the wonderful range of memorable supporting characters, but the real reason is simple; Geralt himself. Feminist Frequency recently described Geralt as an example of ‘toxic masculinity.’ As much as I admire them and agree with them most of the time, on this topic they couldn’t have been more wrong. The Witcher 3 is, primarily, an emotionally driven story, with Geralt’s search for the woman who is, essentially, his daughter being the crux of the narrative. Geralt is capable of great sorrow and great joy, with the general approach being sardonic and mocking rather than stoic and tough. Geralt’s relationships with those around him are varied and fascinating, from the epic love story with Yennefer, to the boys club silliness with his fellow Witchers, to his grudging respect from a spymaster turned criminal boss, Geralt’s relationships with those around him are what drives the plot. It helps that he already knows most of the cast, either from the earlier games or from the original books. The Witcher 3 does have a looming ‘end of the world’ threat in the background, but it really isn’t about that, with the human relationships taking priority every step of the way. The Witcher 3 has convinced me to go back and read the books, something the first two games never quite managed to do and I don’t think I can pay its storytelling any higher complement than that.
The core mechanics from the earlier games return and adapt surprisingly well to the new scale. The combat is as deceptively complex as ever, the initially simple system of Arkham esque strong/fast attacks, blocks, dodges and counters being underpinned with a lot of extra things to think about. Particularly at higher difficulties, preparation is key, with certain potions and substances having advantages over particular enemies. Although you can hack and slash pretty comfortably at lower difficulties, you’ll have a hard time not keeping this stuff in mind elsewhere. The addition of what is essentially Detective Vision from the Arkham games in the form of ‘Witcher Senses’ does a great job of immersing yourself in the role as a Witcher, which is so much more than simply being a monster slayer. Things aren’t perfect; Geralt himself can be a bit difficult to maneuver, similarly to in games like GTAV. Horse riding works well most of the time but can be quite janky and awkward, with galloping over the beautiful terrain rarely being an option before you crash into something and slow down.
Probably my favourite addition is, somewhat ridiculously, the optional in game collectible card game of Gwent. If a quest gave me the choice of cold hard cash or a Gwent card, I’d take the card every time. I won’t go into the rules here, but Gwent is simple enough to pick up and play but complex enough to develop strategies for and build an interesting deck. As well as being fun in it’s own right, I loved that Gwent sometimes integrated into other quests. For example, I was once sent to rescue someone from gangsters and the playful boss offered me the chance to play for his life rather than fighting all of his guards. It’s a simple thing, but the kind of little cleverness which sets this game apart. You also get to play as Ciri during set points in the story and she plays in an entertaining and different way. I wouldn’t mind a Ciri spin-off built around these.
The Witcher 3 has the best balance of scale and quest design since Fallout 3. It’s an accepted fact of game design that larger games generally must rely on more procedurally generated or simpler quest design; Skyrim’s Radiant Quest system or Dragon Age: Inquisition’s fetch quests for example. Well, somehow CD Projekt were able to bring the incredible and interesting quest design to a scale above and beyond anything they’ve done before. The side quests range from exciting and tense contracts to take down local monsters to involved political power struggles. There’s almost no quest without some kind of interesting wrinkle. Basic quests like horse races, fist fighting competitions or Gwent tournaments almost always spun off into something more interesting, meaning that right up until the end of the game I was still being surprised. As much as I love them, it would be difficult to make that claim for Skyrim or Dragon Age: Inquisition.
The Witcher 3 does have its moments of open world glitchiness, but not nearly as much as almost every other game of this scale. The Witcher 3 is stunningly beautiful, even on PS4 despite what the PC Master Race crowd may tell you. From the swampy mistiness of Velen to the bustling metropolis of Novigrad to the haunting beauty of Skellige, I never got tired of admiring the scenery. The characters are all convincing looking, with human feeling facial expressions letting us empathise. A few character designs are a bit overly sexualised, such as the odd unnecessary glimpse of Ciri’s bra and the amusing, if immersion breaking, frequent cameo appearance by the nipple of the sorceress Keira Metz. The monster designs are stunning though, being completely believable as real creatures in a functioning magical ecosystem. The voice acting is a triumph, with the main cast being excellent without fail. The music is lovely, with my favourites being the catchy tavern jig the plays during Gwent matches and the haunting and beautiful theme for the Isles of Skellige. The sound desgn is excellent and holds everything else together. There were moments in The Witcher 3 where I would just stop and watch the trees whipping in the wind, listening to the sound it makes, whilst the ethereal music backs everything else up. It’s stunning.
The Witcher 3 raises the bar on the genre and leaves other games with a bit of catching up to do. It’s not always perfect, but this is a game which set extremely lofty goals for itself and hits almost all of them. The flaws that we’ve come to accept as part of open world games aren’t present here; MMO style fetch quests just aren’t going to cut it after The Witcher 3. If you enjoy RPGs, this is the comfortably the best of this console generation.