There’s some bad news for you in this review of The Witcher 3

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This image is the essence of The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. It’s all about giving sad people news they really didn’t want to hear. CD Projekt RED’s open-world RPG includes monster hunting, murder investigations, gang warfare, sailing, a collectible card game tournament, horse racing, and a search for a missing daughter, but this is what’s going to stick with you. The sometimes heartbreaking, almost always less-than-positive news you give people and the moments right afterwards. Someone has to do it, and it’s fallen on your shoulders to be the bearer of dark tidings.

After the jump, you’ll have to make the best of a bad situation.

The Witcher 3 may be one of the best RPGs ever made, but it is so thanks to the broken lives of the characters that inhabit its world. Peasants are victimized regularly, or at best serve as grist for the millstone of royalty. Religions are savage and frightening, promising punishment for transgressions, and rewards for blind faith. Beasts mythical and mundane abound in the wilderness, but the worst monsters can be your neighbors. Cities are filthy collections of humanity, and villages are primitive outposts. There’s rarely any purely good people and the few that get close to true innocence usually end up as lessons in medieval injustice. This is a grim and dirty reflection of Polish folklore as seen through CD Projekt RED’s interpretation of Andrzej Sapkowski’s books.

As Geralt of Rivia, an itinerant monster-hunter, you’ll grunt and shrug your way through roughly 80 hours of adventuring. “Adventure” is probably the wrong word since that implies a kind of jolly holiday and The Witcher 3 is most definitely not that. You’ll constantly run up against how shitty life is for the people in the lands of Velen, Novigrad, and Skellige. You may have successfully killed the hag that plagued the village, but you did so after it already ate the miller’s son. “Thanks for clearing the fields of that beast, Witcher,” he sighs. “Now I can bury my boy and try to get the rest of the family through Winter.”

It’s not all grim-dark bleakness. There’s humor from the unlikeliest folks. There’s romance. (Oh, how you’ll agonize over the choices you’re given!) There are grand views in the land. For every terrible, awful thing that happens in The Witcher 3, there’s another thing infused with beauty. That’s the strength of The Witcher universe. There’s a couple of particularly emotionally harrowing bits that may make you think it’s time to hang up your swords, but they are followed by simple acts of kindness. The steadfast look, the embrace, the hand offered in friendship.

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Geralt battles foes with a pair of swords slung across his back. There’s a silver sword for monsters and a steel sword for humans. Thankfully, Geralt will pull out the appropriate sword on his own most of the time. The few times he doesn’t, you’re going to be treated to some unintentional hilarity as he punches at a spectre or a fully-plated guard. When weapons do get drawn, it’s time to get to the business of witching. Geralt becomes a dodging, rolling, lightning force of steel and silver. Enemies fall to his blades, spells, or grenades. On the harder difficulties, fights become exercises in timing and threat management. It’s not quite Arkham Asylum and it’s not Dark Souls. It occupies a lower tier that gives leeway for screwing up, rewards agility, and still has some jank. It’s serviceable at lower levels, but once you start investing enough points in Geralt’s skill trees to unlock some synergies, combat becomes almost rote.

If not for the early game struggle, one might think CD Projekt RED made combat unbalanced on purpose. After all, you’re a Witcher. Passers-by comment on your reputation for martial prowess all the time. You’re supposed to cut through monsters like a hot knife through butter. That would make sense except for the beginning hours in which Geralt is laid low by a mud-drinking Drowner or random bandit #247. Later, there’s almost no challenge in combat. You’re The Mountain That Rides versus a starving prisoner.

At times, it feels like the developers threw every RPG convention into the game to solidify its credibility. Not only are there character and quest levels, there are potion recipes to collect, equipment to craft, and loot to gather. It all feels a little much, to be honest. It’s impossible to travel 20 feet in The Witcher 3 without being reminded of its RPG-ness. Here’s a plant to harvest! Do you have enough mollyweed to make that potion? Maybe you should temporarily boost your armor on the workbench? Oh! Ask that smith if he can craft this sword with the diagrams you found scattered around the land! You’re supposed to be a Witcher with two other games’ worth of history, and you’re scrabbling up levels so you can get high enough to take on a contract that your journal says is beyond your capabilities.

Much of it isn’t even tuned that well. Loot seems ridiculously out of scale. You’ll go a half-a-dozen levels with the same weapon because the modifiers are too good to pass up, then you’ll be running through multiple swords in one level for the incremental bonuses. At one point, a quest reward included a sword that the giver proudly said was a powerful relic of his family, but the stats were about three levels below Geralt’s current kit.

And hey, what about that urgent quest to find your missing ward? Sure, you could concentrate on that, but then you’d miss out on the activities and quests scattered around the landscape like an omnipotent creator hand-placed them that way. Like most open-world games, the main story will gladly wait while you take part in some frivolous activity like horse racing or card collecting.

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Oh good Lord. Gwent. No look at The Witcher 3 is complete without discussing Gwent, the CCG-like game-within-a-game. It gets introduced and explained to you early on and it gets its hooks into you quickly. You’ve probably already heard about how addictive Gwent can be. At first, Gwent seems simple – almost too easy. As you travel around the lands, you’ll encounter better players with nicer cards and the hidden complexity opens up. There are multiple deck themes with special powers. Card can work together to bedevil the rules. There’s an element of bluffing as well as luck to the game. Part of the strategy is getting the AI opponent to spend his or her cards foolishly so you can open up a combination play.

Unfortunately, Gwent is too good. That’s not hyperbole. With a little bit of balancing, (hero cards are a little too strong as it is now) it could easily be played in real life with two humans trying to outwit the other. In-game it’s a terrible distraction. The mini-game has a near-Blizzard level of polish. Who cares what’s going on with my kidnapped friend or the terror that hunts at night? There are decks to build and Gwent cards to win! It’s so good, people are finding ways to mod it into other games. It’s the only serious misstep in The Witcher 3. Previous Witcher games had dice poker, which was good enough to play as a quick diversion, but not good enough to be an obsession. Gwent will actually delay your progress.

If the quality of the Gwent wasn’t enough to sideline your quests, it’s strangely meta in theme as well. Cards have images and quotes from Geralt and other characters in the game. He’s a famous Witcher, with books and ballads written in his honor, so it makes sense that he’d be the subject of a card game. Why would ancillary characters get their own cards? Even people that shouldn’t be known by the populace are featured. Here’s that artillery soldier from The Witcher 2 with his funny quote! Hey fans, remember that guy? It’s a little too nudge-nudge to be taken literally as part of The Witcher 3’s world.

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It’s the solidity of the writing and presentation that allows The Witcher 3 to transcend its gamey components. All too often the busywork nature of open-world games ends up undermining the story. Here, it only barely threatens to topple the structure. Working for warring kings and chasing after an otherworldly horde of bounty hunters, (the titular Wild Hunt) sometimes takes a backseat to wandering and clearing mapped hot spots. Every side quest comes with a bit of story, and the writing makes all the difference. You don’t just show up and kill the monster. You track it, you gather evidence of its activity, you interview witnesses, you prepare all the while muttering to yourself, then you may or may not fight the beast. Afterwards, you get paid. Geralt’s work is refreshingly blue-collar. He’s more pest exterminator than paladin.

CD Projekt RED has made a game that remembers what the “R” in RPG stand for. You’re not some generic warrior or wizard tasked with saving the world. You don’t get to choose between being lawful good or cartoonishly evil. You’re the Witcher Geralt. Sometimes that means you’re a smartass. At other times, you’re a grumpy sourpuss. But through it all, you’re trying to do the right things in troubled times.

When something bad happens and Geralt has to take care of it, the consequences are sometimes far-reaching but you immediately know it has had an impact. You don’t need to be told “Clementine will remember that.” You can see it on the faces of the people you help or hurt. The Bloody Baron will never forget what you’ve just done. It’s right there in his sad eyes. His life was a mess before and Geralt just heaped more misery onto his back. He doesn’t thank you for the tidings you deliver. He simply pays you for the work done and then looks at you. The things unsaid are more powerful than any binary dialogue option that you’d get in a lesser game. There are characters and stories here that you’ll remember forever.

That’s really the bad news for players of The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. It raises the bar on story and personality so much higher than its been for RPGs. After spending some time as Geralt, it’s tough to shake the sense that being Commander Shepard, The Dragonborn, or even a Jedi Knight is so much less exciting than simply being a monster-hunter in fantasy Poland. Saving the universe is nothing compared to the look you’ll get when you confirm someone’s worst fears.

  • The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • Become a witcher, one of the last monster slayers for hire. Track down the child of prophecy, a living weapon capable of untold destruction. Journey through war-torn kingdoms and slay legendary creatures. Explore towns rife with corruption and sail to untamed isles, home to clans of seafaring warriors. In a world descending into turmoil, your actions shape history.
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