The dying, bare trees are twisting in the rising wind. A murky, cavernous hole yawns open, a shattered, splintered entrance to a lair hewn from the mountain’s very stone. As an ashen and scarred hunter slugs back a potion, his pallid skin tightens, fighting the toxins that are sinking into his blood. Feline eyes glow, adjusting to the gloam, settling on a shape that lurks within the fissure. A low growl emerges from the creature. The hunter unsheathes a glimmering silver sword with ease. The blade is coated with a bubbling oil that will rend the werewolf’s hide and hanging at his belt is a set of poison bombs. Sparks dance on the witcher’s fingers as he prepares to summon a stream of fire to drive the monster back. He’s prepared, but is it enough? The werewolf’s bloodied claws can rip through even the heftiest armour in seconds; he will not be given a second chance against the ravenous beast.
That kind of feeling is what playing The Witcher 3 is like. Truly, utterly, jaw-dropping.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])
Released May 2015 | Developed/Published: CD Projekt Red
Our dour and grouchy Witcher protagonist is Geralt of Rivia. As a witcher, he’s a monster hunter for hire; unsurprisingly many quests involve him being hired to dispatch whatever creature is terrorizing the local populace. His world is in the midst of a massive conflict; the southern empire of Nilfgaard has launched a huge invasion against the Northern Kingdoms, united under the banner of Redania and King Radovid the Stern. Both sides get some varied presentation and the player is invited to consider supporting either; Nilfgaard is an empire of propriety and grace but ruled by a leader with a fierce and cold hand (Charles Dance puts in a stunning performance as Emperor Emhyr var Emreis, essentially channelling his Tywin Lannister), while Redania represents a varied alliance of lands resisting the fearsome empire, but their King is paranoid and controls his subjects with fear and fire, hunting down magic-users and persecuting non-humans.
Geralt however has his own concerns beyond politics. His adoptive daughter, Ciri, is missing, drifting between worlds. She is being hunted by the titular Wild Hunt, an army of beasts and soldiers that chase her across worlds, always bringing with them vicious and deadly freezing winds and ice. Constantly a step behind, Geralt enlists the help of longtime allies as he tracks Ciri down; series mainstays such as the sorceresses Yennefer and Triss, the Dwarven warrior Zoltan, and Geralt’s witcher brethren return, though the game never strays too far into making new players feel lost or unwelcome. That might be one of its finer points in fact; making a trilogy of equally massive RPGs is a tall order enough, but that this one is easy for newcomers to drop in without feeling remotely overwhelmed is fantastic.
In general the quality of the writing is phenomenal, and is probably the main draw for many players. It’s a testament to the quality of the writing team that so many characters are presented with nuance and intelligence; rarely do we see characters that are either good or bad, but instead are far more human. This subtlety is on display in the quest writing as well; though are plenty of quests that are reasonably straightforward, many side-quests dive headfirst into more interesting narratives, with plotlines that branch out, and character interactions that prompt the player to seriously consider their choices.
Despite being a 2015 release, The Witcher 3 definitely still holds up today in stunning fashion. The character models, animations, and world design are all gorgeous; the aesthetic and world design are among the finest I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. You can really see it during the dynamic weather effects, with trees swaying more or less depending on wind strength, while storms cause rain to whip across vision and battles become far more tense when they’re lit up by the occasional flash of lightning. The little touches of polish serve to make the game that much more engaging, like Geralt’s beard growing in real time.
The soundtrack is simply phenomenal. It adopts a cinematic/folk fusion, and makes extensive use of period instruments to match the game’s timeframe and feel, such as lute, hurdy-gurdy, pipes, and bowed gusle. It features heavy use of eerie wailing vocal lines to magnificent effect, while strings and powerful, low percussion contribute to the heady and potent sense of atmosphere. Those vocals sometimes rise to a strained and visceral screeching howl that send shivers up the spine (The Trail, Hunt or Be Hunted), while slight out-of-tune phrasings and a faintly twisty progressions are characteristic of the tracks that aim to capture a sense of mystic otherworldiness (Aen Seidhe, Ladies of the Woods). An upbeat folky pace makes for some of the finest and most energetically fun battle themes I’ve heard in recent games (Commanding the Fury, …Steel For Humans, Forged in Fire).
Specific place tunes are also marvelous; you have echoing whistles and pipes seem to reverberate off the glacial valley walls of songs that play as Geralt trudges the bleak islands of Skellige (Spikeroog, King Bran’s Final Voyage, The Fields of Ard Skellig) while places like Oxenfurt and Novigrad either revel in slower music that has just a twinge of melancholy to it, matching the decline of the once-proud towns under Radovid’s maniacal reign (Whispers of Oxenfurt) or indulge in shifty tense themes that fit perfectly as you wander through a city held fast under the grip of witch hunters (City of Intrigues, Witch Hunters). It would be remiss of me while I’m gushing not to also mention the exceptional music of Velen, in which stark and woeful strings encapsulate a land decorated by swinging corpses and the screams of dying men (The Hunter’s Path).
Just a personal thing as well but there’s something about being able to hear the scratch of the player’s fretting hand moving up and down the neck of the guitar that I bloody love; it just elevates an already beautiful track for me. (Kaer Morhen). I also have an enormous amount of respect for a game that happily takes 3 and a bit minutes in the middle of the story to slow things down and just have Geralt and Zoltan sit and listen to a minstrel. If you listen to nothing else (you should though), give this a spin (Priscilla’s Song).
I’ve seen some complaints about the combat knocking about but I don’t personally share them. Geralt wields two swords, one steel and used against human enemies, and one silver to be used against monsters; the game will automatically draw the correct one, though pleasingly there is an option to disable that for those who want that bit more control. Basic combat is very simple, with Geralt able to alternate between light and heavy attacks, and he can block, dodge-roll or counter-parry attacks to open up gaps in enemy defence; in general it is sufficiently smooth so as not to be dull or wearing over such a long game.
You also have access to an extensive system of oils, potions, and bombs that can all be used in combat, as well as a crossbow, and various spells. It looks like it is set up to allow players to choose a path to specialize in, and that could certainly be the case, but I personally found myself drawn to a mixture of all three. The swordplay was fine in most cases, but the spells are simple, quick, and effective to use and come in handy often. I habitually ignore alchemy and potion-crafting in RPGs but found myself drawn into using them after having to use them to tip the balance in my favour during a contract against a monster slightly too strong for me, making me realize their utility as being prepared really does allow Geralt to overcome even challenges that are far too tough on paper for his level. They’re also all very easy to use; oils give Geralt boosts against specific creatures, many potions and decoctions augment his stats but taking too many at once will poison him, while bombs come in both standard explosive flavours as well as more esoteric types, such as grenades that weaken mages and the like. Handily, they all remain in your inventory once crafted, and resting will refill your stock; RPG purists might balk at that, but as far as I’m concerned it’s a handy quality-of-life feature that means you don’t waste money on constantly refilling your inventory.
Geralt can also craft weapons and armour, and enchant them with runes. Again, this is something I typically ignore in RPGs but found myself getting involved with in The Witcher 3; it’s a very simple crafting system, and reasonably clearly laid out though the menus are definitely designed with PC players in mind rather than console users. Like the alchemy, while it’s not absolutely essential to do, the fact that it can swing fights in your favour does make it worthwhile, and I imagine on higher difficulties it probably is a real necessity.
Geralt’s magic on the other hand is definitely something I found a real lifesaver. He has access to only 5 spells, each with two forms of casting, but I dipped into using all of them at various points. Some are very straightforward, such as spraying forth a burst of fire with Igni (pleasingly you can also use it to light candles in a completely pointless but lovely little touch of detailing), while others are more tricky, such as casting the sigil Yrden, which slows enemies down when they step into the circle of symbols. Where they come into their own is when you look into the extensive bestiary and realise specific spells will once again give you an edge against certain creatures; for me, a struggling fight against a vicious wraith boss was turned on its head once I hurriedly and accidentally cast Yrden, causing the mists to recede and the wraith to become corporeal, allowing it to be summarily dispatched. That feeling of frantic accomplishment is something that many games really struggle to match, but The Witcher 3 nailed it time and time again; as Geralt stands there, health all but gone, looming over the remains of another tough contract, that sense of victory is undeniable.
As I’m sure is evident, I quite clearly love this game. That’s not to say it’s without issues, of course. Like many massive open-world games, in some respects that can work against it. When I say this is a lengthy game, I mean it; The Witcher 3 took me 111 hours to beat, and much of that is trekking across the utterly massive landscapes. There’s certainly lots of stuff to do but when there’s such a vast amount, it can be both simultaneously totally overwhelming and plunge into tedium if it starts to pile up. I found that the game mandated smaller, focused play-sessions to beat, with targeted goals each time; whenever that wasn’t the case it became a paralyzing experience. Some might also take issue with the over-abundance of quests that involve using Geralt’s heightened Witcher senses to follow a trail or track down a critter; for me, I was engaged enough in the world and narrative that it wasn’t a problem, but I can naturally see how that might not be the case for some, and cause an issue for players.
Also, Geralt’s erstwhile equine companion, Roach? Damn that horse can be a pain in the arse. When you gallop she snaps to roads and tracks, which is a great bit of quality-of-life design, but go off the beaten track and you will find yourself snagging on everything. Trees in Velen, street corners in Novigrad and Oxenfurt, literally every singly rock on Skellige; it all represents an impassable obstacle for your four-legged friend, who will happily rear up, stop dead in her tracks, or sometimes simply totally freeze, leaving you with no option but to reload a save. So, that’s good.
Regardless of the minor nitpicks. The Witcher 3 was an incredible experience. Expansive, intriguing, excellently written and crafted, it set a bar for open-world games and rpgs alike when it released in 2015. 3 years and one 100+ hour playthrough later, and I can say without hesitation that, for me, it matched those lofty expectations I had of it impeccably. It might be a long game, and it might look disgustingly daunting to try and wrestle it off your backlog but good lord is it worth it.
7/7 – TOP TIER. As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.