Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “geralt of rivia”

The Tower of the Swallow by Andrzej Sapkowski

I wasn’t in love with the previous book in the Witcher series, Baptism of Fire, feeling that it felt too interstitial and didn’t do enough to further the plot. The Tower of the Swallow is not dissimilar, with the plot once again focusing on Geralt’s journey to find Ciri, but is improved for a number of reasons; an interesting playing around with time and narration and the increased role of the wonderful Ciri herself.

Geralt and company are continuing their journey to find Ciri, after their run in with the Lyrian forces at the end of Baptism by Fire. Along with Dandelion, Milva, Regis and Cahir, Geralt must head towards the Nilfgaardian Duchy of Toussaint. Yennefer has arrived in Skellige, as she seeks Ciri’s location, becoming drawn into the machinations of the sinister Vilgefortz. The heart of the story lies with Ciri, who we find terribly injured in the home of a hermit. Still being hunted by Nilfgaard, Ciri relates to him her time with The Rats, how they came to separate and her run in with the terrifying bounty hunter Leo Bonhart.

In terms of Geralt, The Tower of the Swallow does not move the plot forward much further than Baptism of Fire did. Ciri is absolutely the protagonist of this one though, with her story mostly related through flashback as we see the trials and tribulations she has been through. We regularly dip into several layers of narration, as present day Ciri in the hermit’s house flashes back to middle of the story Ciri who flashes back to earlier Ciri. This happens with other characters too, such as a mercenary who relates her role in events through court testimony. It can be confusing to put together the chronology of everything; this playing around with structure of the Ciri storyline feeling a bit clever for its own sake, but it is interesting and I’m always up for genre authors pushing out of their comfort zones and doing something a bit different with the form.

The Tower of the Swallow is very much ­Baptism of Fire Part 2, but it does leave things in a good place for an exciting finale. I’m going to be sad to finish this series, although hopefully it won’t be too long until The Witcher Netflix series manifests itself.

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Baptism of Fire by Andrzej Sapkoswki

Fantasy series often have a ‘middle book problem’, where in telling an extremely long form story, you end up by necessity having an entire book which exits to react to events in the previous book and establish events for the next book, with little memorable actually taking place in the book itself. The absolute nadir of this concept was comfortably Crossroads of Twilight, the 10th Wheel of Time book, the most supremely uneventful book I’ve ever read. Baptism of Fire is very much a middle book, in fact it is the literal middle point of The Witcher novels (not counting the short stories). Although it may not forward the plot of the series as much as I would have liked, Sapkowski’s origin as a writer of short fiction means that the vignettes which make up this book are entertaining in their own right and it never ends up boring.

Baptism of Fire takes place not long after the end of Times of Contempt and the Thanedd coup, which saw the Chapter of Sorcerers torn apart, Ciri flung into an unknown part of the Nilfgaard empire and living as a bandit and Geralt, terribly wounded, being treated by the dryads in Brokilon. When Geralt hears from Milva, a talented human scout, that Ciri is in Nilfgaard and due to be married to Emperor Emhyr, he sets out to rescue her, along with Milva and erstwhile poet companion Dandelion. Along the way they join forces with a few new faces, such as a dwarven band led by one Zoltan Chivay and a mysterious medicine man named Emil Regis. Meanwhile, a group of sorceresses gather, human, elven, Northern, Nilfgaaardian, to form a new, all female, organisation from the ashes of the Chapter; the Lodge of Sorceresses.

The meat of this story lies in Geralt’s journey south from Brokilon, through the wat torn Northlands towards the Nilfgaardian border. Along the way he, along with his group, get caught up in a few scrapes and conflicts. Where Times of Contempt was largely about magic, Baptism of Fire is more grounded, and arguably the grimmest of the series so far. I’ve read a lot of descriptions of the brutality of war in a fantasy setting, so it takes a fair bit to shock me by this point, but Baptism of Fire can be genuinely horrific. True to Sapkowski’s style though, it isn’t all war and suffering and the moments of lightness and humour work well, particularly in Zoltan’s band of dwarves as well as the ever enjoyable fop Dandelion. Still, it’s difficult to shake the sense that Baptism of Fire is an interlude, setting the stage for the next books to come. Sapkowski’s a good enough writer that even his wheel spinning is pretty enjoyable, but obviously I prefer when he is pushing the story onwards.

Geralt is as enjoyable a protagonist as ever, with an interestingly petty and vindictive side coming through, adding further layers to one of the best characters in the genre. I liked the new characters a lot, such as the acerbic but vulnerable Milva. It was also nice to see a couple more characters I was familiar with from the games, such as the generous and kind hearted Zoltan, as well the enigmatic Emil Regis, who I very much enjoyed in the Blood and Wine DLC for The Witcher 3. Geralt has a proper old school fantasy travelling band with him now and I enjoyed seeing them bicker and grow together.

Baptism of Fire is probably the weakest entry in the series so far, but it’s certainly not bad. Not enough happens, but this world and these characters are strong enough that just spending time with them is enough to provide a decent time. It’s not a reason to stop reading the series, and if you’ve got this far you’ll likely find plenty to enjoy in Baptism of Fire.

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Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski

I’m thoroughly enjoying my time ploughing through The Witcher saga, with Time of Contempt building on the successes of Blood of Elves and addressing some of its faults.

Time of Contempt picks up not too long after Blood of Elves. Ciri is now under the tutelage of Yennefer of Vengerberg. Yennefer is taking Ciri to the Island of Thanedd, a safe haven for mages and sorceresses where she plans to enrol Ciri in a school to hone her magical training. It is not long before Geralt is reunited with his surrogate family of Yennefer and Ciri, and the three arrive at Thanedd, for a gathering of the magical users of the Northern Kingdoms, known as the Chapter of Sorcerers. The politics of the North have become more unstable, with the Northern rulers desperate for a pretext to go back to war with Nilfgaard and regain Cintra.

Where Blood of Elves was a bit more unfocused, feeling like a series of connected novellas more than anything else, Time of Contempt is a bit more self-contained, dealing primarily with the internal affairs of the Chapter of Sorcerers and the role of the magical community. The sharper focus benefits the book massively and it moves the story forward in a range of interesting ways. A lengthy epilogue shifts focus for a while, but it leaves a lot of important character sin very interesting places for the next book.

The action scenes are good, but Time of Contempt may be the funniest book in the series so far. A wonderful scene where a proud Yennefer parades Geralt in front of a series of lustful sorceresses, each more ridiculously provocative than the last, is a lot of fun. I had thought that the games had over sexualised characters like Keira Metz and Phillipa Eilhart but…nope, they’re like that in the book too. Geralt struggling to keep composure is a joy to behold. When things get a bit darker it all works well too, particularly during a harrowing scene in a desert which ratchets up tension to almost unbearable levels.

A lot of my favourite characters from the games play large roles here, such as the brilliant Redanian spymaster Sigismund Djikstra and a range of sorceresses. Sapkowski does a brilliant job of making these characters feel distinct; we’re introduced to about 8 new sorceresses all at once, but they all feel distinct and memorable. Ciri seems to be taking over from Geralt in main protagonist duties, but this isn’t a problem because I love Ciri.

I always struggle to write about middle books in a series. It doesn’t shake things up, but Time of Contempt keeps the story ticking on at a nice pace and leaves me excited to get into the next one. What more could you ask?

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The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine DLC for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Blood and Wine may very well be the best piece of DLC I’ve ever played. I’m not as dogmatically anti-DLC as some; there has been some wonderful stuff out there from companies like Bioware and Bethesda but Blood and Wine blows them away, offering an experience which I would have been happy to pay double for and an almost perfect conclusion to the Witcher. If this is the last time I get to play with Geralt then at least I’ll know he got a great send off.

Blood and Wine takes place in Toussaint, a small French inspired duchy in Nilfgaard. A series of murders by a mysterious beast have set off panic in the usually courtly and peaceful land and Duchess Anna Henrietta summons Geralt, an old friend, to find the beast and put it down. Unsurprisingly, things are not what they seem and the seemingly idyllic land of Toussaint is revealed to harbour dark secrets and a history steeped in blood and betrayal.

Toussaint is rather different to anything seen in the Witcher series so far. Some are populated war zones such as Velen and others are relatively untamed and wild like Skellige. Toussaint is a courtly land out of a fairy tale, where tournaments are fought for honour and monsters are only slain to gain the hand of a fair maiden. The arrival of the grizzled and sardonic Geralt into this gives Blood and Wine and entertaining fish out of water feeling. A great side quest sees Geralt having to deal with the bureaucracy in a bank; the sight of the hulking, scarred, twin sword wielding Geralt queuing impatiently is hilarious whilst remaining true to the character. Blood and Wine tells a brilliantly compelling story with a strong streak of moral ambivalence running through it. There are two figures who could convincingly be described as villains, but neither are true monsters and have been hurt greatly and most people would likely do the same as them in their shoes. The main weakness lies in the fact that the core antagonist simply isn’t given enough screen time. We hear a lot about what he has been through, but there’s a bit too much telling and not showing. This is a quibble though; the writing for Blood and Wine is as top notch as it always has been in this series.

Ultimately though, Blood and Wine mostly just reminded me of how much I bloody love Geralt. Most modern Western RPGs have you create your own character, which naturally results in a slight blandness in their characterisation. They can be fun and likeable; I particularly liked my Inquisitor in Dragon Age and my protagonist in Fallout 4, but the very nature of the design means they can never achieve any sort of complexity. Geralt is a deceptively brilliant character; someone hated and distrusted wherever he goes who has moved past anger into an amused sardonic looseness. There’s a feeling that he is gently mocking almost everyone he encounters. The phrase about the deepest waters being the stillest applies to Geralt; he may not show it, but we are given enough to see that Geralt is a man with deep wells of feeling and emotion, which rarely surges to the surface. More so than in many other games, I’m really going to miss Geralt. I suppose the time is right to read the original novels and get my fix.

Blood and Wine plays much the same as the main game, with the slight addition of a new levelling system tied to the Witcher mutations, which gives you something new to plough your points into. The bread and butter is the same, but there are some really cool, fun, interesting missions. I loved how almost every mission in The Witcher 3, no matter how trivial it seemed, had some kind of twist to make it feel special and Blood and Wine continues this. Some of the quests are scary, some are deeply tragic and epic and some are just plain silly. An example would be a Gwent tournament which is being protested by a group furious at the addition of a new deck (which I can only assume is a dig at irate internet commenters.) They didn’t need to do this; I would have been perfectly happy with a straightforward Gwent tournament (I bloody love Gwent) but CDProjekt always do that little more work than they have to. This is a massive expansion which would put many full priced games to shame with Toussaint being roughly the size of Velen from the main game, if more densely populated.

Toussaint is sickeningly picturesque and a true delight to explore and marvel at. It may not compare to the PC on top settings, but I was still bloody happy on my trusty PS4. The new monster designs are brilliant and the characters look appropriately silly; there are definitely a few visual nods to Monty Python’s Holy Grail. The voice acting is outstanding, naturally, with richly realised and complex characters. The Witcher 3 is confident in the willingness of its audience to simply watch its characters talk, which suggests that CDProjekt knew how good the writing is. There’s a bit on jankyness at times, in line with the main game, but nothing which ever drew me out of the experience.

Blood and Wine is a perfect end for an almost perfect game and the send of that Geralt of Rivia deserves. I’m truly going to miss this series. Sooner rather than later I’ll read the books; I’ve grown to love this world and need to spend more time in it. They may not have created it, but CDProjekt did an incredible job bringing it to life.

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The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone DLC for PS4, Xbox One and PC

In any year that didn’t contain Bloodborne, The Witcher 3 would be my game of the year. Open world fantasy games are my heroin and The Witcher 3 may be the best ever made. Elder Scrolls have wonderful exploration but lesser story and Dragon Age has wonderful story and less exploration. The Witcher 3 had the best of both worlds. I waited until both DLCs were out to play them back to back and have now finished the first; the smaller, more focused, Hearts of Stone.

Hearts of Stone throws Geralt into the path of Olgierd von Everec, a cruel and capricious nobleman who seeks Geralt’s aid for a contract and also happens to be immortal. After fulfilling his request, Geralt is aided by Gaunter O’Dimm, the mysterious merchant who set Geralt on Yennefer’s path right at the beginning of the main game, who brands Geralt with a strange symbol and uses him as a tool of vengeance against an earlier slight against him by von Everec.

The Witcher 3 did a wonderful job of spending extended moments exploring individual figures. The most lauded of these has been the Bloody Baron, but I also loved Sigismund Dijkstra and the Skellige royal family. Some of these characters were shockingly nuanced and revealed just how superior the writing in these games is to other RPGs out there. I love many of a characters in Dragon Age and Elder Scrolls, but is there a single character there as interesting and well developed as the Bloody Baron? Von Everec joins the ranks of these characters and this DLC is really about him. It’s a relatively focused, character driven story which is where much of the writing for these games is at its best.

There isn’t much new from a gameplay point of view and Hearts of Stone is literally just more Witcher 3. This isn’t a problem with me as the talk/examine/fight structure of this game never really grew stale in my opinion. The focus is on Oxenfurt, the college town in Velen which was perhaps a little underused in the main game. There are some really interesting missions, such as one which riffs on GTAVs heists and one which sees us exploring the memories of a trapped wraith. Hearts of Stone feels like The Witcher in microcosm and I couldn’t really ask anything else of it.

Hearts of Stone is a small, focused slice of Witcher goodness. It may not be as grand as Blood and Wine (review following soon), but it perhaps tells the slightly better story. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of stepping into the shoes of Geralt of Rivia, although those days are soon to be over.

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The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt for PS4, Xbox One and PC

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.  the_witcher_3_wild_hunt_prepare_for_impact-100564760-orig

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