Exploring the wilderness beyond the deceptively safe walls of Novigrad, Geralt wandered upon a couple in danger. The Novigrad guard wouldn’t let them pass – sentencing them to certain death in the harsh, dangerous lands surrounding nearby Velen. The Witcher provided clear passage to the booming metropolis by relieving the guards of a few limbs, promising a better life beyond the walls of the free city. A pair of lives which had unknowingly welcomed the help of their executioner.
The Witcher, as an encompassing franchise, is all about decisions like this. Rarely have games presented players with such murky choices – consequences being left to resolve themselves in often unpredictable ways. It’s this type of unsure setting that makes the series of RPGs so engrossing, but also what shines brightest in the concluding chapter to Geralt’s story.
Geralt of Rivia, Witcher of legends, has been on a long hunt. The journey to find his lost love and a powerful sorceress, Yennefer of Vengerberg, has been the singular driving narrative thread that has tied previous titles together, and it’s brought to the forefront within minutes of opening. Although, much like the rest of the narrative, Yennefer is just a single stop in a gruelling search – one that seeks to reunite Geralt with his one-time ward, Ciri. A Witcher student with fabled blood coursing though her veins, Ciri is as much the hero here as Geralt – but it’s their bond that stands out.
It’s curious that the connection between two characters that will hardly interact in most of your hours playing The Wild Hunt is actually its strongest narrative feature. Geralt regards Ciri as a daughter of sorts, making the desperate hunt for her with the spectral Wild Hunt in tow a personal one. It’s a journey that connected with me while playing as well – with every dried up lead punctuated by the very visible heartache it brings the usually stern, ice-cold monster hunter. Although it takes a long time for the story to really start hitting the dire tones it aims for, the payoff is ultimately worth it. Culminating in a long, grueling ending that is as expertly paced as the rest of the tale, The Witcher 3 caps off the trilogy with a satisfying conclusion – no matter which variation you happen to experience.
It’s a story that’s impacted by decisions both large and small, which have a visible impact on the world and people around you. Sticking with series traditions, these world altering choices come in thick and fast – shrouded by the leisurely nature in which they are presented. Even morally straight-forward scenarios end up have far-reaching consequences that will make you regret them, reminding you that these Northern Kingdoms so seldom have anything resembling happy endings.
These decisions – be they from core story adventures or lowly side-quests picked up from travelling strangers – are expertly woven into one another. Regular monster contracts turn into exciting character expositions, lending some lore to the lands that you’ll travel almost endlessly. There is rarely a line of script wasted here, delivered almost flawlessly by a varied voice cast that set each and every character apart. Absolute strangers broaden your understanding of local customs, haunting legends and normal, daily routines. It’s the writing that breathes a whole new level of life into parts of the game which could so easily fall into tedium.
And it’s welcome too, given the amount of time you’re going to be spending on the dusty trails, overgrown bogs and high-class Novigrad districts. To say that The Witcher 3 is immense in scope doesn’t feel like it’s doing it any justice. Any game can make a map large, but no other has come close to providing the amount of painstaking detail that the Witcher 3 so effortlessly exudes. Trailing off the marked paths often rewards you with interesting surprises; be that loot, treasure hunting or ghastly creatures far beyond your own personal experience to deal with. There seems to be an endless amount of work for the travelling Witcher – all expertly crafted and with some narrative ties to the areas around you. It’s a masterclass in design that’s bound to become an almost impossible task for some to replicate.
As much as The Witcher 3 oozes excellence in quest design, it’s very much a tick in the box for every other department too. This is a game that absolutely drips with beauty – whether it’s the sight of a gorgeous vista at sunset or the raging seas around the Isles of Skillege. Lighting is sumptuous, glistening over water-ridden swamps and breaking through the dense forests of No Man’s Land, supplemented by gorgeous environmental design around every corner. Armour pops with incredible detail, and there’s a certain elegance to watching your sword sheathes sway in the air as you accelerate into a little jog. The beauty is in the detail here – and there isn’t a game out there, open-world or not, that even comes close in terms of besting it.
It does, however, come with a bit of an expense. On the PS4 version at least, the frame rate seems to suffer when too much is going on. Trodding through a water-logged swamp in the middle of a crimson sunset can sometime bring the frame rate to a crawl, or a fight against a nasty Foglet could become a chore thanks to some input delay. These are minor hindrances, but they do manage to break the illusion that The Witcher 3 successfully puts you under most of the time. Annoying, and hopefully open to improvements with a patch very soon.
It’s a bit of a shame too, because it detracts from the strong mechanics that The Witcher 3 improves on from previous ventures. When you’re not talking your way out of situations, the alternative usually ends with the swiftness of your blade. Whether it be hard steel or magical silver, combat in The Witcher 3 is a greatly improved, much tighter affair. You’re still going to be rolling out of the way at the best of times, but a new dodge coupled with a far greater auto-focus turns skirmishes into tantalising affairs. There’s an elegant flow to combat, with a combination of parries, counters and pirouettes vital to deliciously gruesome decapitation.
And while that may have been enough in the past, The Witcher 3 emphasises harmony between swordplay and Signs (a simplification of spells) in order to get the most out of your Witcher abilities. Enemies, especially monsters, will require a keen combination specific spell casting, with each of the five variations returning with new functions. Focusing on this branch on combat also yields some of the most entertaining combat, with fiery sparks flying from your fingertips never truly getting old. It does, however, make later encounters a little easy – encouraging a bump in the difficulty department to keep combat as engaging as it is in the opening hours.
Preparation to combat is key, and you’ll have an abundance of potions and oils to get down and dirty with before you set out. Drinking potions during combat is far more lenient this time, although toxicity is still an ever-present threat for guzzlers of Cat and Swallow. Crafting these potions has also been streamlined, which each concoction only requiring a single tedious scavenger hunt for ingredients. Once it’s crafted it’s automatically replenished using strong alcohol – so as to avoid pace breaking hunts to pick flowers. Crafting weapons and armour is a bit more strenuous, but often just as rewarding too. Nothing quite beats the feeling of kitting up in a full set of Witcher gear – until you manage to stumble on some enhancements. Too bad the menus you so frequently have to visit aren’t as well designed and easy to use.
The Witcher 3’s core mechanics stand as a contrast to the game’s new setting. While open-world exploration is massive departure from the series’ roots, combat is very much a refinement of what was there before. It’s still somewhat loose for those not accustomed to previous attempts, but patience with it reveals its own rewards. Never before have all the branches of a Witcher’s arsenal been so tightly interlocked – to the point where negligence of one or the other could make life fairly difficult. There’s been a keen attention to detail in striking the right balance, it’s it perfectly achieved in the third time out.
And in a few ways, it acts as a fitting description of the franchise throughout the years. The Witcher has compelled players with dark, mature storytelling backed up by fast, violent gameplay – with the formula getting better with each reinvention. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt stands as a crowning culmination of those efforts – an exemplary RPG that rewrites the many wrongs that the genre holds dear. It shouldn’t be a question of if, but rather when you’re going to give it a chance – because you truly don’t want to skip on one of the finest video games, crafted with such care and attention, in years.
Last Updated: May 25, 2015