The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt review – A Hunt to Remember

Title: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Alternative title:
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, The Witcher: Wild Hunt, The Witcher: The Wild Hunt
Developers: CD Projekt RED
Publishers: CD Projekt/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment (North America)
Genre: Action role-playing
Engine: REDengine
Format: PS4 (reviewed), X1, PC
Release: 19 May, 2015

The Witcher is a series of short stories written by the Polish novelist Andrzej Sapkowski. While well received, the unfinished series was not exactly that well-known and success was mostly restricted to Poland and neighboring countries, which made it an interesting case when CD Projekt decided to base a trilogy of video games on it. Suddenly, the series got massive amounts of exposure (and well-deserved worldwide praise) and established CD Projekt as the prime force of game development and publishing in Poland.

I never got a chance to play 2007’s The Witcher or 2011’s The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, so my expectations from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt were rather middling, to be honest. Not to mention that back then my relationships with RPGs wasn’t the greatest. Claiming to be “larger than Skyrim” and boasting to have over 100 hours of gameplay, all while wearing tons of awards from the press, Witcher 3 seemed pretty confident in itself when I bought a copy of it and installed the game on my PS4.

I can see why. Oh, I damn well can see why!

Story & Setting

the_witcher_3_wild_hunt_seems_downright_bucolic-not_necessarily

The Witcher 3 takes place six months following the events of The Witcher 2. Gerald- I mean Geralt – continues his work as a Witcher for hire across the land. For the uninitiated: The world of The Witcher is a dangerous, war-torn place filled with multiple types of different monsters ranging from mere ghosts and werewolves to fiends and giants (honestly, just think Westeros, but a little worse, and throw some multiverse apocalypses and time theories into it). Witchers are artificially-created warriors mutated and hardened to become skilled monster hunters with little emotion or weakness. Geralt is one of the very few Witchers left, now roaming in the bitter and deteriorating landscapes of the Northern Realms, waiting to be hired by peasants and soldiers to slaughter the neighborhood menace.

Searching for his lost lover Yennefer, Geralt is eventually hired by an old associate of his, Emperor Emhyr var Emreis of the Nilfgaard Empire. The emperor tasks Geralt with finding his daughter Ciri, a “child of destiny,” Geralt’s one-time apprentice and the only person in the world Geralt actually views as family. Thing is, Geralt is not the only one looking for the missing young woman; the Wild Hunt, a mythical group of wreck-causing riders and warriors also seek to find Ciri, and take control of her secret powers. Oh, and Geralt used to be one of them for awhile before the trilogy’s events.

The Witcher 3, like most RPGs, talks about some world-changing wars and upcoming apocalypses and crises. But more importantly, it’s a story about humans, life and hope, using its amazing setting and intriguing history as the perfect stage of a narrative that, in its very base, talks about a tired man trying to find his daughter in a hopeless, broken world.

The characters of The Witcher 3 are what making the story come to life. Unlike most fantasy worlds, there is no black and white here; almost every character – be it the main character or just some random peasant in a minor side quest – is presented as a deeply flawed, hurt and morally struggling human (or monster? Elf? Dwarf?) being. A lot of them have their reasons to believe and act the way they do, motives and painful backgrounds. Many characters, some are even rather “villainous” in their behavior and actions, can be revealed to be highly broken and sympathetic, such as the infamous Bloody Baron of the Velen chapter; here is a drunk, violent man with little regard to stuff happening outside his fortress, but as you delve further into his life, you find a deeply scarred man consumed by regret and grief. And he’s not the only one to be further explored and developed like that, as people here act like people – and it’s absolutely brilliant!

While Geralt suffers from several common problems RPG and open-world protagonists tend to have, I’d argue that CD Projekt handled him well. Player actions may influence some of his decisions and thoughts throughout Wild Hunt, but he remains very much his own, distinctive character. In a way, Geralt and the relationships he has had with other characters help shaping up some of the player’s choices, too. Geralt’s many allies and foes vary, ranging from his idealistic and confused daughter figure and co-protagonist Ciri, to his two scheming, mischievous lovers Yennefer and Triss, to the flirtatious Dandelion and the cheerful Zoltan. Each boasts personality and depth of their own, and provides a sometimes vastly different and new outlook on Geralt’s journey. Many of them are also equipped by a sharp sense of wit and a clever sense of humor, which some of them use to hide deeper scars, pain and fears.

A key aspect of the series’ appeal is their “consequences” choice system; every now and then during the main story and side quests, Geralt will be presented with several choices of words. Those choices vary and rarely ever clear cut in their meaning or impact, and as I mentioned earlier about the game’s lack of black and white visions, players will find it very hard to understand which one is “good” and which one is “bad.” Even some of the more “positive” choices often carry a bitter taste of defeat and regret in their wake. And as the name implies, your choices carry over to future quests and areas, sometimes even hours after having finished the associated quests. The game never alerts you when and where your decisions will come back to bite your arse, and it is this sense of suspense and uncertainty that make The Witcher 3’s choices that much more harder to make. Avoiding some certain side quests may also affect your progress and the fate of different characters.

Also, the fact choices have such weight and influence within the game makes CD Projekt’s effort all the more astonishing. It’s awe-inspiring to just realize how much care was poured into the writing and execution, in an industry filled with lazy scripts and banal “player freedom” that more often than not tend to make fools of players. And when I say weight I also mean in the emotional manner of the word; knowing that I may damn an innocent to their fate or unwittingly help causing havoc to a peaceful settlement is a heart-wrenching thought.

The Witcher 3 is very well-written as my review has implied thus far. It also knows when to take itself lightly; despite the game’s dark nature and grim setting, humor can be found occasionally and the characters know when to break from the seriousness. Even during some heated conversations or bleak situations, characters will often find a moment to crack a joke or tease their fellow cast.

The good writing extends to side quests as well. The side quests presented throughout the game are just as absorbing and intriguing as the main plot, sometimes even more. They can vary from as grand as choosing the future ruler of a nation to as small and personal as a desperate husband looking for his wife. Many of those little stories are not as straightforward as they first sound, with many surprising twists and revelations taking place. They help in making players understand the bitterness and wasteful pain the world of The Witcher 3 is facing, how the pointless war affects people’s lives and rip their loved ones away from them, and the multiple pointless conflicts between humans and other species that resident in the Northern Realms.

I find it incredibly surprising how accessible the story is for newcomers; indeed, new players will be a bit confused at the beginning of the game, why the world is at war, what’s that memory problem of Geralt and etc, but considering that this title was preceded by two games and bunch of books, it’s a damn fine achievement to make it both friendly to new fans, but also rewarding to the long-timers. And don’t get me wrong: once I can, I am going to get both The Witcher 1 and Assassins of Kings.

Obviously, not every part of The Witcher 3 is as well-written, but those moments are surprisingly far and few. It’s generally uncommon to see such a long and packed game armed with consistently strong writing and reasonable pace, but The Witcher 3 manages. I do wish that some of the more racial analogies of the game would be more fleshed out and believable beyond the general “Elves hate humans,” “humans don’t give a damn about Elven culture” and “both kinda spit at Dwarves’ faces,” but I guess you can’t get everything, and The Witcher 3 has already given me plenty in the story and world building departments, so much that the lesser-written parts just feel a tad disappointing due to how everything else is so excellent.

Gameplay & Design

the-witcher-3-gamescom-screenshot-fiend

The Witcher 3 is a huge open-ended RPG played from third-person perspective. Maybe “huge” is a little of understatement; this game seriously redefines scale, boasting a multi-map world filled with monstrous amounts of content and tons of things to explore and find. Each map is built from multiple villages, forests, bandit camps, maybe a few paddles and lakes, mountains, caves and abandoned settlements. Sometimes there also might be some major city. Oh, and question marks. Lots and lots of question marks.

What sets The Witcher 3 apart from a lot of other open world games is the depth of its content, particularly its side content; each side quest and activity is surprisingly prolonged, detailed and varied. One can only imagine how many hours went into writing, designing and developing those individual parts of the game, and the initial exposing to the world can be quite the overwhelming shock as you view the multiple maps for the first time.

Major side quests are divided across Witcher contracts involving monster hunting, treasure hunting that involves finding fabled objects and forgotten Witcher gear and other, more story-driven quests, and you can be guaranteed that almost none of them is as straightforward or simple as they sound; nearly all of them will require patient exploration and investigation. Other side activities include destroying monster nests, getting rid of bandits terrorizing the roads, and even playing the game’s card game Gwent.

Key to Geralt’s success in his work are the Witcher Senses, the game’s version of those all “special sight” mechanics seen in Assassin’s Creed, Batman Arkham, and etc. I actually quite like its usage in The Witcher 3, however, even though sometimes it becomes too relied on in-game, with some quests being entirely built on it. It’s also useful when searching for loot to find, or noticing enemy voices from afar.

When it comes to combat, The Witcher 3 can be as brutal and violent as it is tactful and intelligent. Geralt swings his blades with grace and passion, with attacks being divided to the usual normal and strong strikes, alongside timely counterattacks and dodges. Players are constantly advised to keep on movement and quick reaction else enemies will slice them apart, and The Witcher 3’s various bandits, guards and monsters have a tendency to strike back all at once, abandoning the predictable “take a turn” approach most games tend to go with. It’s actually surprising how satisfying The Witcher 3’s combat is, with each kill is grotesquely executed as blood splattered across the land.

In contrast to most other RPGs of its kind, The Witcher 3’s combat feels far less clunky. Geralt is also equipped with “Signs” – five “basic magic” abilities that are meant to aid the Witcher in his job. Those include offensive spells such as a sudden telekinetic blast that briefly breaks a foe’s flaw or a burst of flames that melt armors, to more status-like abilities such as mind control and protective force shield. Those initially underwhelming spells end up becoming quite central to your strategy during fights, and players can upgrade them alongside other physical and mental skills as they progress through the ranks. The upgrades offer slight improvements – very fun improvements – to toy around the battlefield, such as the awesome ability to turn an enemy on their allies and see how they slaughter their former comrades for several precious moments.

Another supposedly key item to Geralt’s inventory is the usage of potions and oils. Potions allow enhancement of certain aspects in Geralt’s body, strength or senses, such as night vision or making his blood lethal to vampires and their related brethren. Meanwhile oils can improve Geralt’s weapons, and there are many oils that are made to fight specific kinds of monsters. Those are generally nice ways to add another layer of depth into the combat, and it’s nice to have a game that actually advises you to prepare yourself before the next skirmish.

However, oils and potions feel much less necessary than one would imagine, and save to several shockingly difficult struggles, one can pass most of the game without experimenting or even touching this feature of the gameplay.

At several points throughout The Witcher 3, players will take control of Ciri as associates and other people who met her unfold her story to Geralt. While very similar to Geralt in terms of overall controls, Ciri is presented as a far more agile character than her teacher, and her combat strategy is more centered towards quick dodging and backstabbing as she lacks the ability to cast Signs or use potions and oils. To make up for it, Ciri possesses an ability called “Blink,” which allows her to elegantly teleport across the warzone and properly dash through upcoming attacks, and while it does take a bit of time to master Ciri’s abilities, the addition of her story and playability are rather refreshingly welcome.

Gameplay is also where most of The Witcher 3’s problems lay bare, however minor they are.

A common issue with RPGs are unannounced difficulty spikes occurring in the game world, and The Witcher 3 is no exception to this. Lower-level players can easily find themselves fighting against werewolves and Leshens (weird, tree-loving monsters) who in terms of ranking are already into their mid 20s, and such powerful monsters can appear quite frequently and with no warning. Difficulty spikes can also occur within main and side quests, although by the end of the game this issue is mangled as players grow stronger and may even suppress individual quests. Still, the initial hours of the game, and even during the middle Act of the story, can prove difficult and frustrating at times.

Other issues with The Witcher 3 are rather minor and ignorable on their own, but together they can become quite the unnecessary nuisance. Since one button is used for both interaction with object and accelerating your running, some hilariously annoying moments where Geralt stops chasing some crook to pick up some beard or light up a candle occur without any insight or warning. A similar annoyance is when Geralt wishes to loot some crates and barrels but candles or bonfires are nearby. When you look at such stuff at first, it may look like a fly buzzing next to your face, but as such occurrences continue to prevail, the result can be exhaustively annoying and bothersome.

Movement can also be a bit of an inconvenience, be it on foot or behind the saddle. As said above, Geralt’s sprinting button is shared with the overall interaction mechanics with the world, and that causes unnecessary waste of time and nerves, as well as a minor break of pace. At other points of the game Geralt’s lousy “parkour” abilities cause for some laughingly embarrassing falls and deaths, and I almost chuckle when I remember that CD Projekt once said that their game’s climbing mechanics would be similar to Uncharted.

Roach, Geralt’s awkwardly named mare, also has her issues. That stubborn horsey buddy of the Witcher has its moments where she refuses to come, get stuck in trees, and fears jumping over even the tiniest of obstacles. It made me really miss my time with Red Dead Redemption and its fun, stable and more flexible horse riding. Sure, I mean riding Roach is not all that terrible, but it can be such a hassle that I ended up finding myself running towards an undiscovered Fast Travel mark on foot. More than once.

I do wish to point out, however, that those are more of nitpicks rather than actual criticisms I have with the game’s design, and maybe the only issue I DO have with this game is its stupidly long loading screens. Hell, even a year and a half after its release! I have seen worse, but that doesn’t make The Witcher 3’s case that much better.

The story alone would take players about 50 hours from beginning to end, give it or take it the multiple side quests and additional content they will. The side content itself might take another 50 hours to complete, and perfectionists might even double the whole length of the game.

Visuals & Sound

the_witcher_3-wild_hunt_skellige-_is_a_beautiful_place

Visually I’d say The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is pretty impressive especially when you consider how big and dense the environment is. Lightning is sharp and areas are lavish, detail is almost everywhere and small animations bring another level of realism onto the game. It’s not the most cutting-edge title out there when it comes to pure technical prowess, but The Witcher 3’s sheer scale and gorgeous art direction more than make up to it.

The world is ornamented with a variety of wealthy environments; from grasslands and poor farms scattered across the courtyard, to dark, lonely caves and eclipsing mountains, to snowy islands and rainy swamps. Everything looks so breathtaking and alive, with a scary amount of detail that enhance one’s immersion with The Witcher 3’s world. I also admire the contrasts between the relatively peaceful areas of the game against the war-torn locations and abandoned battlefields players can come across on their journey. It really gets to you how beautiful nature is, and how much it can get tainted by pointless and destructive bloodshed. CD Projekt show themselves as masters of visual storytelling, which is an impressive feat often reserved to From Software and their Souls series.

When it comes to individual designs, CD Projekt make effectively medieval-looking characters of some very well-known archetypes, be it dwarves, elves, bandits, soldiers, mercenaries or fellow Witchers. Each main character has their own iconic design and attire, alongside some distinctive facial features and expressions; the infamous Uncanny Valley tends to strike here at times, but it is far less noticeable than the ones in many of Bioware’s games. Of course, when it comes to side characters and NPCs, CD Projekt were a little less detailed, and those sometimes look a little lifeless in comparison, but for a game of this scale, that’s hardly a complaint.

Monsters are beautifully designed with distinguished features and animations often specific with their class. I love how many of them possess a mixture of classical ideas of their kind alongside a more modernized touch to them seen in newer concepts. Bigger monsters such as fiends or griffins are quite the sight, terrifying and powerful as they roar and charge against Geralt.

The soundtrack for The Witcher 3 is beyond fantastic, and is extremely fitting for the game, too; it uses multiple strings, some guitar, violin and a lot of haunting vocals as things get faster. I love how a lot of the music in Wild Hunt takes a couple seconds to build itself up before bursting out with energy and a sense of urgency; combat themes against humans and monsters are a particular highlight for me. The usage of the aforementioned instruments and vocals also give the music a nice medieval and “folky” touch, which give off an interesting “authentic” feel to the whole product. And alongside them are some beautifully melancholic tunes during some of the more tender parts of the game.

Oh, and I can’t move on without mentioning the fact that each area in The Witcher 3’s world has a calm, memorable theme to it as Geralt is on road. My particular favorite was the theme for the Skellige Isles – a rather somber tune which feels at first somewhat weird when you realize it plays during your time on a nation filled with multiple warsome pirates and Vikings.

When it comes to voice acting and performances, I am generally pleased with the majority of the voices heard, with Doug Cockle’s stern and gruff, but composed tone leads the cast as Geralt of Rivia. Denise Gough nails it as Yennefer’s calm and mature voice, while Jaimi Barbakoff lends off her talent to Triss’ younger and more energetic vocals. And I just admire Jo Wyatt as Ciri. As a whole, The Witcher 3 has downright great voice performances that drive a lot of their characters. You may hear several different accents along the way, each hinting at a character’s heritage accordingly to their geographical origin, ranging across Irish, Welsh, German and several varieties of English accents.

Not all voice performances are great and consistent – as it often is with a game of such size – and it’s frequent to encounter more over-the-top and ridiculously melodramatic tones from both minor bystanders and supporting characters alike, which can feel very forced and artificial. On the contrary, some performances can be disappointingly emotionless and lifeless in several cases, even by our own Geralt sometimes, which may actually be intentionally done considering Witchers are supposed emotionless in attitude.

Those complaints aside, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an eye- and ear-candy all around. And I am pleased that there are very few noticeable bugs or glitches here, and nothing on the level of game-breaking.

Final Verdict

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has been often regarded as one of the best – if not the greatest – RPGs in recent memory. And this title is almost definitely deserved by CD Projekt RED’s Magnum Opus thanks to its excellent (and mostly consistent) level of writing and the fully-realized richness of its massive, jaw-dropping world. Very few games offer the amount of content this game provides, and even fewer rival with it in terms of depth and attention to detail. It’s a tremendous effort and a titanic achievement to both RPGs and open-world games, one that can make even other giant names from the same genres, such as The Elder Scrolls or Grand Theft Auto, pale in comparison.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is simply fantastic, and easily one of the best games available on the PS4 or the X1, not to mention PC gaming. Not everything clicks here as tightly as in other areas of design, but those little issues just leave a little scratch on Wild Hunt’s beautiful face. With a juggernaut of a story powered by immensely intriguing characters, a solid combat system that offers a little more thought into it, gorgeous art direction and a mesmerizing soundtrack, The Witcher 3 stands tall as a bloody brilliant diamond, and one of the most fully-realized gaming worlds in history.

You owe yourself to purchase it!

Also, Geralt’s beard grows in real-time every time you shave it. Now that’s immersion, people! And it’s glorious.

In points:

The Good:

  • Consistently excellent writing mixed with intelligent decision making that does an exceptional job in developing the Northern Realms setting, the various conflicting points and characters, and the story’s themes
  • Massive, beautiful open-world with plenty of fleshed-out, high-quality content to look for and find – and almost none of it feels repetitive, shallow or filler
  • Brutal and tactic combat system that demands more than simple sword swinging and dodging
  • The music is striking and memorable

The Bad:

  • Some odd, minor gameplay designs hamper down some traveling and combat mechanics
  • Loading screens are tad long and a few bugs here and there
  • Some voice performances are a little hammy

& The Ugly:

  • The Crones
Advertisements

3 thoughts on “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt review – A Hunt to Remember

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s