Unsheathing his silver sword once more, Geralt of Rivia, Butcher of Blavikin and White Wolf, sets upon a new journey in The Witcher 3 that introduces political fallout, magical sorcery and unseemly creatures to ensure the legacy of one of gaming’s most beloved franchises. With a beautifully woven central narrative, Witcher Geralt becomes an even more human character as he Aards and Ignis his way through lush, multi-dimensional settings full of all manner of unedifying looking menaces looking for his surrogate daughter, Ciri. The only real drawback of CD Projekt Red’s masterpiece is the time needed to play it as the world is so densely populated that there’s an almost never-ending amount of things to do and see.
The Witcher 3 starts by introducing you to long time friend and mentor Vesemir as you go in search of Yennefer, a sorceress and previous love of Geralt’s whose disappearance much of the series is predicated on. It’s certainly not the strongest part of the story which picks up later when the game branches out but it provides a deep understanding of how the game plays and introduces strands that develop as you progress. The small village of White Orchard nevertheless is Geralt’s first stop and it highlights the very heart of the game: political discourse rife throughout the kingdom, magical rumblings threatening to boil over and a wonderful monster hunt spread across dozens of acres of woods and fields.
While the central story arc is articulate and well-developed, Geralt’s adventures take him to such unique places that often side stories take over. Many are so meticulously developed and fine-tuned that they become whole stories of their own. Whether it’s an entire village slaughtered to an unknown threat hiding in caverns beneath the ground or a hallucinogenic acid-trip into a cave with beautiful whales swimming in the air, quests are as varied as they are superbly scripted. CD Projekt Red has done a fantastic job in making sure that such a large scaling story doesn’t get bogged down in its own self-importance by sprinkling hundreds of stories that contribute to a wholly well-rounded and ‘lived-in’ world.
What’s impressive is the hundreds of side characters who come together to tell the story. The Witcher 3 is ultimately a last hurrah for Geralt but it’s also a last hurrah for characters that we’ve engaged with and learned to love, harking back to the original game. Characters like Dandelion and Zoltan Chivay come together as part of the running story as well as wheeling out side quests of their own. They’re part of the tapestry of this extravagant tale and provide something both familiar and new. It’s almost impossible to cover many of the characters because there are so many but expository glimpses into the past come thick and fast through Sorceresses of the Lodge as well as King Radovid and Triss Merrigold. Has there ever been a game so utterly defined by the very men, women and beasts that inhabit the landscapes?
It’s a pertinent question given that The Witcher 3 seeps story from every orifice and pore but one that is ultimately answered by simply walking through towns and villages. I have never experienced a game so full to the brim with charm and character – villagers cat call, they punch one another, they argue and they stare in eerily realistic and appropriate ways. These are fully functioning men and women designed to signify that you’re not the only one with problems. Poor washerwomen cry on the streets as they sit over the dead body of a loved one, beggars swear at you when you rush into them and children skip naively through the streets stopping wide-eyed as the White Wolf strides past them with luscious locks floating in the wind.
These men and women also have things to say. They discuss events that have happened, they carefully whisper about the prospects of their village and they worry about the aftermath of a war bubbling beneath the surface. Uncovering the history and current affairs of the continents through the people that live in them seems all-together immediately understandable for a game that prides itself on providing as much information as the player wants. Books and scrolls also litter the land as ways to further understand the motivations of political leaders and warring factions, as well as rewarding players for finding various literature by giving hints as to how best to fell a creature like a noon-wraith or ghoul.
The Witcher 3 is full of minutiae of gestures both big and small, from the gentle gurgles of a bubbling brook to the unraveling of a vindictive vampire serial killer. Many open-world RPGs tend to overly rely on grandiose acts and look for evocation through cut scenes or unexpected reveals but from the very first moment we met Geralt of Rivia, his journey has been defined by everyday things that we take for granted. While it’s exciting to hunt down a thousand-year-old vampire in its lair, water dripping slowly from the damp on the cold, hard stones that constitute its home, it’s equally matched by hard, raging waters crunching into the side of a cliff or the far away delicate tones of a troubadour performing to a closed audience.
All this aside The Witcher is at its heart about hunting all manner of monsters. In the powerful accompanying cinematic trailer, Geralt points out that he enjoys hunting monsters before killing a group of rapists and murderers. The Witcher is never as black-and-white as it makes out – creatures are all killable but leave them alone and the majority will be content leaving you be as well. The emphasis and philosophical quandary that this particular title raises is humans are often bigger monsters than the monsters themselves. Rapists and killers lurk on the outskirts of small villages and greed plunders the morality of men. So, often, creatures don’t need to be killed for the sake of it but when a lofty decision has to be weighed as to the destructiveness of their existence. Geralt battles with this often despite being fully outfitted to deliver silver strokes to any manner of beast.
Mechanically, the sword system functions as it always has done with a steel and silver sword slot for man and creature respectively. Whereas The Witcher 2 felt incredibly difficult from the very beginning, The Witcher 3 dials it down, meaning that the ultimate experience lies in raising the difficult level up a notch. Slashing and dicing remains fluid and self-explanatory, with hard and fast attacks, while much of the trickier fights rely on dodging and rolling past enemies as a means of counter-attacking. Counter-attacking very much defines the gameplay experience as very few enemies can be charged at head first without taking considerable damage. Geralt can also equip a crossbow along with a selection of bombs for a more finessed and strategic assault.
Combat is always satisfying in The Witcher as a combination of intuitive gameplay and audio combines to create crunching blows and crackling explosions. Outlevelling enemies in RPGs can be a source of dissatisfaction but The Witcher creates fun ways to counteract this by giving most enemies specific weak spots, but also resistances. A group of Drowners for example will be susceptible to fire but impervious to any form of poison or mind control – furthermore, trying to attack a group will result in a quick death as they’ll overwhelm Geralt and whittle away his health before he can react. Similarly, a Harpy will always attack in a pack and because it flies is desperately annoying to take down. Bombs and crossbows will take one down for an easy kill, but be prepared to roll and dodge a lot as the others swoop in for a bit of Witcher meat.
Magical signs return once more and are perhaps the most overpowered aspect of Geralt’s arsenal, outside of his stellar bod. Although Geralt is not himself a mage, years of mutagens and experimental treatment to become a Witcher has allowed him short-term, short-casting signs to incapacitate enemies. Aard can blow back lighter enemies, Igni can cast devastating fire, Yrden can snare, stun or slow, Axii can control the minds of weaker creatures and humans and Quen casts a brief indestructible shield. Character development is vastly superior to previous games and allows for advancements and upgrades to signs so that a simple Igni can be developed over time to deliver an all-encompassing wall of flames that incinerates anyone and everything in the direction of the blaze. This is useful when fighting tougher monsters like an over-armoured Fiend or an invisible Ekimmara who present trouble without the right tools in the toolbox.
A theme of combat in The Witcher series has always been about developing the right ingredients and mixing them together to accentuate your weapons. Geralt can now brew up concoctions to apply to weapons as oils or poisons, specific Witcher potions for seeing in the dark or slowing down time briefly, or maybe even a potion that harms any creature that takes a nibble. It’s an incredibly simple concept that becomes more complex due to the sheer number of potions at your disposal. It’s nonetheless great fun to create a Black Blood potion, combined with a Blizzard potion and some Vampire Oil, and go into a fight knowing you’re prepared and at maximum capacity. What’s even better fun in retrospect is still getting slaughtered by a creature as a result of poorly executed combos or using the wrong sign. There’s never a simple answer and every facet of how you play the game is challenged in the fairest way possible.
Of course brewing a potion requires specific items and loot plays a demonstrably important part of The Witcher 3. Your main quest might last anywhere from 60-120 hours and let me say that if you don’t like collecting loot then, well you’re playing the wrong genre of game! Seriously though, there is a lot of loot collecting and it’s an exemplary experience for other similar-minded games. Everything is useful. From planks of wood to base oils to rare minerals, all loot either serves two main purposes: To craft or break down to make specific materials, or simply to place on your body and use. The majority lies in the former category and you’ll spend a lot of time wiling away the hours at a blacksmith or armourer messing around with your inventory to try and create something useful. Other times, you’ll be following maps trying to find specific items and weapons from previous Witcher clans as a means of causing mayhem and havoc on any discernible bad-looking dude.
After a while you might think The Witcher 3 would get a bit too much. There’s a lot of land to ride through on trustworthy steed, Roach, (wait until you get his personal quest!) but what might seem overwhelming never ever gets monotonous. This is a quite beautiful game full of snowy vistas, savage lighting strikes and it reminds me of Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption in that there’s much to be said for simply riding to the edge of the world and looking out into the horizon as the sun threatens to disappear for the foreseeable future. The peacefulness never lasts as it’s interspersed by deafening screeches and gurgles of dying men, women and children but that you can find these private moments speaks volumes to the achievement of the developers and how they’ve interjected violence with occasional and great beauty.
Like games of great magnitude there are definitely some bugs and glitches. In my run-through I encountered one that meant rebooting but given I’d invested 130 hours by time of completion I’d say that’s relatively acceptable. Think of a similarly large-scale open-world game, like Skyrim, which presented repeated bugs and glitches – with a much larger team I would add. There are frame rate issues when travelling for long periods of time and graphically the quality occasionally drags and lags but it would be a disservice to say this had any worthwhile impact on my run-through, and I imagine other players will have a similar outlook.
Geralt’s journey has been a long time coming and because of the impact the previous games have had on the genre you could have understood CD Projekt Red playing it relatively safe. The Witcher 3 is such a good game that it almost defies belief – and likewise a rating system – because every element has been tinkered, tailored and improved upon to the nth degree. It’s all very emotional given the investment from fans that they’ve been treated as adults and the mature, unraveling and complex story compliments the degree of difficulty that comes from particularly nasty creatures.
Where The Witcher 2 iterated and improved, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt continues that marked improvement. The vast open expanse is a joy to explore – more so is the unenviable task of filling that space with a remarkable array of wildlife and nooks and crannies to explore. Geralt’s entire life is dictated by hunting monsters yet he is now embroiled in an overflowing, tumultuous political world that requires him to take a side. Yet for the pomp and grandeur of castles, kings, queens and dragons, it’s the small underappreciated, cerebral moments like hearing twittering birdsong amidst the retching of local drunks that make The Witcher 3 so full to the brim with heart and soul.