Review: The Witcher 3

Hello fans my name is Gio and maybe you’ve heard me talk about Marvel movies on the traditional review podcasts with the team here at Everything Action. Today I’d like to talk about my favorite thing ever, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. This review won’t be the conventional sort of stuff you see on paid sites as I am no professional, However I’d like to say where I’m coming from up front so if you finish reading, you’ll finish for details, and not the “But should I play it?”

First confession is that I’ve read all of the books, played all of the games, and am currently wearing my medallion.  I waited in line 2 hours to see the panel for the Wild Hunt at Pax, and went to the booth when it was slow to chat up the devs, and try to earn up the nerve to approach the cosplayers. If you’ve heard me tear apart Marvel movies on the podcast then you know I have thoughts on anything and everything so I’ll try to make this as exhaustive as possible without spoiling where I can help it.

This game isn’t perfect by any means, it’s a huge technical achievement but it’s not without flaws, regardless this is pound-for-pound the greatest gaming experience possible, in perhaps the entire history of the medium, even more so if you’re already a fan of rpgs and the first two games.. Or the books.  Also as a disclaimer, unsure how many parents will read this, but the game is not for kids.  Complicated moral dilemmas, realistic portrayals of violence, abuse, murder.. and visits to the brothel.. are not conversations you wanna have with kids.. If you like how Game of Thrones doesn’t pull any punches.. This is even better.. Or worse… eh, semantics.

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Now that that’s out of the way, the game follows Geralt of Rivia, the famed “White Wolf” on a giant overarching adventure to find his adopted daughter Ciri before a hyper-magic army of interdimensional elves finds her and uses her for what is to be assumed are nefarious deeds, thus saving the world.

First let’s go over the basics. What do you do? Why is it even called the Witcher? Are there witches that need to be witched?  It’s free-roaming yet level based map and gameplay design, the map has an edge but within those edges you can traverse near everything, there are thousands of monsters that need killing, alongside reprehensible bandits, zealots, various human dregs that need killing.

Geralt and his fellow witchers are alchemically and magically enhanced humans created to hunt monsters as a profession. They are called witchers for a fun reason, the original polish is Wiedźmin, which will loosely translate to “The Hexer.” now this sounds dumb, and it was universally agreed that they’d need something with the same punch that would be iconic as well, and settled on Witcher.  Also In my entire time playing through the games for 200 hours, and the countless hours I spent reading the books, there are only 3 witches.  That said, court sorceresses and mages exist in spades, whether they’re good or evil doesn’t matter, the universe reserves the witch title for necromancers and other diabolical crones.

Back on topic, to do their jobs Witchers have two swords, steel for men, and silver for monsters.  They also have limited magical potential, and a wide array of alchemy to enhance themselves for fights.  Said magical abilities are Witcher Signs and I will detail them below:

Aard: Kinetic blast used to stun, you can put talent points into making in 360 ground wave that will knock everyone back.

Igni: cone of fire in front of you, can ignite enemies which will burn for a percentage of health per second, can be augmented/toggled into a flamethrower.

Yrden: Trap sign that will slow enemies in it’s field, fun fact in the books and in the 2nd Witcher game this is the sign of the Heliotrope.  The toggle is actually Yrden, an it’s a trap on the ground that enemies get stuck in, regardless, use it on ghosts and win.

Quen: Magic shield that will take exactly one hit in any mode but normal, even if you’re specced into signs. This is because it took three hits and arced out aoe lightning in the Witcher 2 and was the only viable way to win with the difficulty turned up.  The toggle is a bubble that will restore health with each strike.. So go hold it down and find a pack of wolves.

Axii: only sign that has FOUR things it does.  One is a talented ability to use it during conversations and get out of spending coin or having to go on a murder spree. The second use is to calm down/capture horses. In combat Mode 1 in a stun, and mode 2 is full on mind control.

Potions and decoctions I can’t even begin to cover in detail because it’s complex.  Maybe the most positive change in this game, besides the general combat overhaul, was that once you make a potion you just refill it with booze… like in the books, past games alchemy was just as powerful but it was annoying to make potions and take them from the menu.. And just overall not worth it.  What you’ll need to know going in as far as what to throw your talent points in, is that Alchemy beefs YOU up, swords makes your swords hit harder (duh), and signs improve your signs in fun ways, normally besides making them stronger (like the alternate modes above).  In higher difficulties unless you use alchemy effectively you will suffer, regardless of your build there is a useful way to augment those talents with potions.  Just a matter of hunting that way down, by whether exploring everywhere or just hauling off and buying the formulae and materials.

Combat in general sits in a nice sector somewhere between Dark Souls slow and methodical hitbox porn, and the action combos of God of War and it’s ilk, maybe dead center between those extremes, BUT only if you just whoosh your swords around.  The glossary will tell you everything you need to know about monsters before you go fight them, weaknesses, how to prepare etc.  You’re a walking armory with bombs and potions and magic.. Use all of it and you’ll succeed and the combat will stand on it’s own apart from other played out or iconic systems.  The reason people may find the game difficult is there’s a tendency to feel like Arnold in an action movie.. You’re not easy to kill.. You against the world.. Well sure, but ya can’t bullrush a fucking rock monster and not expect to get smashed into the ground.  The game rewards preparation, less so than the 2 former games that made it a necessity though.  There aren’t just rock monsters, got standard corpse eaters, flying monsters some of which are dragons etc…

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The hunt quests, which is your actual job, stand out because of the general mechanic of hunting, tracking and investigation, made possible entirely by witcher senses.  Which is a more robust system than the crime goggles in Arkham games, and there’s no incentive to feel like you have to leave that toggled on.  Basically you hold the button down and important things you need to look at, blood smears, scratches on logs, dead people etc.. and then you hunt down whatever did it, or the people you’re looking for to rescue or kill.

That’s the meat and potatoes of combat and Witching in general, if you exclude the expansions, the main story in one of the few faults, it’s a typical problem in big RPGS where the characters and the minute to minute gameplay make up the experience and the main storyline only really serves as glue for the entire project. I’ve heard this called “Mass Effect 2 syndrome” and I can’t find a better example myself.  Also considering that is in my opinion the former “best rpg of all time” give it a play for comparison. In essence, every single quest has weight and you will never be asked for 6 wolf pelts and then miraculously managed to kill 10 wolves who were obviously hairless, or headless raptors.. Or any old world of warcraft quest reference. In ME2 it’s to get new team members or advance their plotlines, in the Witcher it’s fun monster hunts, a wild and random assortment of side quests that are directly involved with the main story or completely off base, and also treasure hunts.  For instance, you only need complete the first of the quests with the Bloody Baron to advance the main quest, but there are two more, and that storyline is so tight and well-executed I have seen them critically broken down trying to figure out what makes them as great as they are, a quick google search should yield multiple results if you’re interested, but don’t spoil it for yourself.

This is a game where you’re encouraged to do everything, and it’s not until much much later in the game where that may seem exhausting.  This isn’t a spoiler but the ocean in Skellige is littered with pirate caches, and if you’re a masochist you’ll sail out to them, kill 20 harpies, swim down, loot them, and then sail back to down when your bags are full, then rinse and repeat 20 times. Unless you’re cash starved this is the only part of the game anyone could ever argue is not worth doing.

Some would say that the in-game card game is also not worth doing, but they are all so very wrong.  Gwent is a masterwork in fun distraction.  Does it hold up to Magic or Hearthstone? No.. but only because it’s not an entire game, it’s a bonus distraction.  Every shopkeep and most major characters play the game, and building up your desk and taking on the various gwent quests is good fun, the occasional story advancements you can get by beating someone in gwent instead of knocking them out or bribing them, are always worth taking.

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At it’s heart the game and the tale of the Witcher is about Geralt, his complex relationships, and his more complex morality.  For all the subtlety, and all the well-written narrative, Geralt is an atypical Witcher.  He’s normally failing to stay neutral in situations when Witcher code calls for non-involvement.  Despite trying to stay out of politics, his best friend is an information broker for every country on the continent, he also happens to be a Bard who’s made most of his fortune writing and signing about Geralt and his travels with him.  Because of this Geralt finds himself in the company of important people, royals, court sorceress’, generals mostly due to a track record of success. Geralt’s witcher brother Eskel is his antithesis in every way, his life is devoted to the craft and he calls himself a simple witcher, though every bit as skilled and experienced as Geralt, his life has been nowhere near dramatic, most of the noteworthy events in his life are Geralt’s fault.

Geralt’s most important relation out of all though is to the game’s entire focus, his daughter Cirilla.  Witchers and Sorceresses trade power for sterility.. So Geralt and Yen will never have kids.. but Ciri keeps the flame alive for them.  Ciri was promised to Geralt by the Ancient “law of surprise” he invoked when he saved Ciri’s parents and grandmother.

Ciri’s biological father the Emperor of Nilfgaard Emyhr var Emreis is who jumps starts the story and gives you the overarching mission to save her so she can succeed him.  Side note he is known as “the white flame dancing on the graves of his foes” which sounds way better in elvish.. As does everything.. For instance geralt’s nickname of white wolf is “Gwynbleidd” (awesome).

If I gush about the story anymore I’ll ruin something for someone, suffice to say you have complicated choices and hundreds of quests to do, none of which will leave you saying “eh” even the treasure hunts are interesting if you read the accompanying notes that lead you to the treasure.

Let’s move onto environments, it’s not the prettiest game ever, it’s too massive.. The tech doesn’t exist for those two things to coexist quite yet, that said the game is beautiful and there is a noticeable distinction between all the major continents. The NPC actions, night and day transitions, and world-building are unparalleled. The only map I have ever been equally into was the original Dark Souls.. And that was meticulously designed to be interconnected and interesting.. This is open world.  How open world is it? Well take your favorite sandbox game and then realize that in this game there are no load screens unless you change continental masses.  If you take Velen, the starting zone.. If you ride your horse from the southeast corner of the map, to the city of Novigrad in the Northwest, you will run into dozens of points of interest, and though you loaded as far away as possible, if you enter any room in this massive city.. You’re in the room.. No bar, no nothing.  This should blow your minds.. Because this is the only game that happens in..

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after playing the main game I was openly annoyed in other games every time I entered a door and saw load times.. A team of 200 people made this.. And major studios are all playing catch-up.

Novigrad is the standard all games will have to meet in the future, it is twice as dense any city I’ve ever seen in a game, and more colorful and full of things to do.  There’s so much to do, hunting monsters, killing random ones at points of interest, helping out old friends.  This all culminates in the middle of the game, where after a seeming eternity of chasing after Ciri, and even playing as her when people are retelling stories of meeting her, you find her.. And it’s heartbreaking.  What then ensues is the greatest in game battle of all time, you’ve gone and collected every friend you can, and you’ll need all the help you can get.. But oh man it’s the greatest.  The rest of the game has you taking the fight to the enemy and the game goes into overdrive.. The section is just as long but it’s faster paced and will seem to move much faster, and before you know it, you’ve made choices you can’t undo, and had no way of knowing what the effect would be, basically boiling down to how good a father you are.

It’s wonderfully executed, they didn’t want you to be able to reload if you didn’t like the payout.. Like in Mass Effect which I promise to stop mentioning.  Also there’s no color pallet for choices, you do what you want and hope for the best.  Even if you do what you think is right, sometimes you won’t like what happens because of it… act too impulsively without knowing the whole story.. Welp you won’t catch the real murderer, or cure the werewolf and get the extra loot, as an example.

Of choices, I promise this is the last time I mention Mass Effect, but there’s a romance option that’s wonderfully executed.  You have to decide between the plucky redhead Triss Merrigold who’s been with you all three games, but deceived you while you had amnesia. OR Geralt’s girlfriend Yennefer of Vengerberg who has a VERY tough exterior with a soft spot for Geralt and Ciri.. Said bitchiness puts off most players who haven’t read the books, or understand she’s single mindedly trying to find and protect her daughter, and damn everyone else.  This will be the only spoiler, but if you say you love one, you have to cut it off with the other to get your happy ending.  For me this wasn’t a choice, but it’s the most personal one in the game because it has to do with your taste, and not just in looks, these girls both have great personalities, flaws, and complexities.

Extra Credits did a great video on it (link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6PUReOuHVw) and how it’s more complex because Geralt is an established character, instead of the blank slate that is Commander Shepard, picking the one the player finds more attractive.

That’s just the main game, an even more impactful choices await in both the DLCs.  I hesitate to call them that because combined it’s roughly 50 hours of content with huge additions.  The other DLC for the game were all free, the standard armor packs and alternate costumes, but also NG+ and new quests.  In Hearts of Stone, without spoiling anything.. It’s basically akin to a long chapter of the two episodic Witcher books, you are the proxy for a literal god who has to use you to collect a soul because of a caveat in their contract where he has to use a proxy.  There’s a wedding, a vault heist, and a truly heartbreaking trek through the antagonist’s backstory with his wife, and I hesitate to call him one, though a terrible person you might figure from the title, he’s done some terrible stuff.. But has a heart of stone so he’s a total nihilist in every way.. Not like the fake ones in the Big Lebowski.

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This is 10 hours of intense fun, new monsters, bosses, great characters, and huge extremes of fun and good times at the wedding, and the soul crushing “Scenes from a Marriage.” It’s condensed to so the emotional rollercoaster hits you harder, a few times I cried tears of joy, disgust, and heartbreak during the main story.. But those were spread out, hours apart.  When you play Hearts of Stone, devote a day to it and go through the entire thing, it’ll muster up some complex emotions you don’t wanna feel delayed over the course of a week.

Which brings me to Blood and Wine.  This expansion didn’t feel real to me, but that was sort of the intent.  In the books when Geralt arrives in Toussaint with his company, it’s like a land out of fairy tales they all find hard to leave.  They nailed that in the game. The colors are all more vibrant and the Duchy is run on the soldiers of gallant knights.  If i had to sum it up, you’re surrounded by typical French feudal society, but in the Italian countryside.  No more washed out colors of the warzones you were in for the entire rest of the game, this place is breathtaking.  Considering it’s the last stop they give you a punch of perks too, you’re awarded a house early on as part of your reward for taking the contract that brought you in.  Also since there’s a lot of content they’ve given you something to do with your extra mutagens and talents you haven’t slotted yet with the enhanced mutation menu.. One ability in particular “Euphoria” is a game changer as it tripled my sword damage and made signs useful, gone are my days of only using quen to hope I don’t die, I was lighting things on fire, knocking guys over with Aard.  On the hardest difficulty, combat is tense always unless you run into enemies of a radically lower level, so this one ability made combat go from scary, and back to fun again.

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You were summoned to this pristine land untouched by war, because there’s a murderer no one can catch.  Two tipping points occur due to this, because nothing is ever black and white.  You chase him down easily and find he’s a higher vampire, you then fight before an old friend intervenes and enlightens you to the situation, and the both of you investigate together.  Because I’ve read the books I was fiercely loyal to said cameo character, who gives a marvelous performance by the way.  The main villain is sort of a weak character, made worse when you find out he’s being forced to commit the murders he’s committed.  He has a personality, and even saved your friend from events in the books that lead everyone to believe he died.  That personality however is basically being an old soul fighting his beastial nature, the only reason the game gives you to to take his side and try to clear his name to stop the murders is because your friend asks you to try, so this was the path I took through. I feel as if the route I took changed the story entirely at a crucial point and I’ll need to play it the opposite way to see everything the expansion has to offer, though it will hurt to disappoint my friend.  All in all the expansion is an incredible send-off to the series, there’s room for a sequel but it’s implied heavily that Geralt has earned a break, even looks at the “camera” saying so.  Though the main antagonist doesn’t measure up to the either one in Hearts of Stone he’s still a better villain than the big bad of the main game and his one-dimensional motivation to capture your daughter.

It’s a wild ride from start to finish, despite the main narrative of the game lacking and a few frankly hilarious bugs, there’s nothing immersion breaking, overtly frustrating, or really wrong with the game except that there’s no more of it.  I award it a perfect score, and will continue to hope daily that there will be another game of it’s caliber during my lifetime.  This is 60-120 hours of your life you won’t regret spending, even if it ruined other games for you like it has with me.

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