The Witcher 3 might be the most relatable RPG I have ever played.
While it’s true that the game takes place in a fantastical world full of sprites and fell beasts and supernatural spooks, where mages and dwarves and elves and humans live and die and battle to survive another day.
But more than many games it really is the story of one man, in this case Geralt of Rivia. He may look unusual, with his pale skin and slitted eyes, but Geralt is indeed a human, albeit one who has been warped and twisted by alchemy and magiks to become a Witcher, a monster hunter and one of the most deadly ever birthed.
Despite his training and power, he is still merely a man and that really stands out in the landscape of not just RPGs but also videogames in general.
At any time in the hundred hours or more sweep of Wild Hunt you can find death, whether at the hands of a boss-sized enemy or just because you stepped into the wrong den of drowners.
There is character progression to be found here, putting points into various boosts, perks and magical signs but Geralt doesn’t become an all-powerful god by the end-game. It’s always just you, a bagful of potions, some fairly feeble magics. Beyond that, it’s just a slender blade of steel or silver between you and death.
It really does make for a unique game playing experience, and some of my best moments in the game so far. There’s a purity to the life of the Witcher – no need to be bogged down with buying a home and furnishing it, nor spending much time on the colour of your favourite hat. Your job is to kill monsters and get paid for doing it.
Which leads to those moments where you stand, sword in hand, before a cave or pit or mound where you know evil resides. You’ll take a moment to meditate, even letting you choose the time of day for your battle.
There’s more to consider though in terms of pre-fight strategy. Dive into the massive creature compendium of the Bestiary and read up on your foe, including magical vulnerabilities and their history.
Then it’s time for alchemical solutions. You can apply an oil to either of your blades (making sure to consider which will be used – it’s mostly silver for non-humans) and also craft potions, bombs and more. Map them to your quick slots and take a moment to prepare...
It’s this exchange which really brings the game to life for me – the almost palpable sense of a man doing a highly skilled job. Checking each and every piece of equipment before stepping forward to the claws or teeth or horns which await.
In case you haven’t guessed by now, I’m more than a bit smitten by Wild Hunt, the third game in the Witcher series from Polish developers CD Project RED. It’s based on a series of books by Andrzej Sapkowski but you don’t need to have read them, or played the previous games, to dive right in. Though there are certainly references for long-time fans.
The over-arching story sees Geralt trying to track down a former student called Ciri, a young woman who is also being pursued by the terrifying spectral forces of the Wild Hunt. You’ll have to reconnect with old allies and find new ones in the search, which will take you from the urban sprawl of Novigrad to the isolated isles of Skellige.
That main story is well-written and compelling, with non-linear diversions where you get the chance to play as the nippy upstart Ciri, but it’s just one small part of the compelling whole which could easily suck up 150 hours of your time.
There’s a whole world in here, complete with a cast of thousands caught on either side of a war between the invading Nilfgaard forces and the locals. That’s not to mention the racial hatred between humans and most supernatural creatures, including elves, dwarves and magical sorts. There’s a lot of tension in these realms.
There are hundreds of stories to be found, from helping wounded refugees on the road to diving to the depths of the ocean in search of hidden treasure. Notice boards in towns place tantalising question marks on your map, urging you to ride out on your trusty horse to find something new. It might be a bandit camp, monster pit or guarded treasure or – my favourite – an abandoned site. Destroy the enemies lurking there and local people will start to return, helping to reclaim the wilds and bring a measure of peace to your violent journey.
Each discovery feels like a worthwhile thing, whether through the well-written dialogue or a particularly satisfying battle. And, most crucially, it’s all tied together in a meaningful way – Geralt lives to combat evil in the world and each mission, no matter how small, helps to combat that. And it’s refreshing that the game never forgets he’s a man for hire, with even the lowliest peasant usually offering to pay.
I’m hard pressed to find any flaws with the game which feel especially significant in the grand scheme of things. There are some recurring graphical glitches but nothing too jarring (perhaps I’ve been lucky) and only one mission-defeating bug so far. The only frustration is having a horse with a really poor sense of direction, but even that is kind of charming.
In gameplay terms, everything has been significant refined from the sometimes awkward previous game. Combat in particular is much meatier and more streamlined, with a variety of movement options and quick reactions. It’s still pleasingly chaotic, especially against groups of enemies, but you’ll rarely feel like you died due to anything other than your lack of skill.
Everything about interacting with the game is significantly easier, especially the way you cook and use potions and the like – previously you had to meditate to do anything at all. And brews automatically get refreshed whenever you rest, provided you have alcohol in your inventory, which you pretty much always will.
It’s hard to effectively fault the work CD Project RED has done here, especially when you take into account the sheer size of the world, the quality of the script and performances and the moment to moment gameplay on offer. You even get the soundtrack CD, a map of the world and sticker in the game box. Stickers!
The Witcher 3 Wild Hunt is a staggering achievement in game-making, upping the state of the art for the open world RPG and the level of design quality and detail expected in these kinds of worlds. It’s big and broad and silly and spectacular and grim and glorious.
And it’s the story of a man, one both powerful and frail and tasked with a job both terrible and dangerous. A man who stands before a lair filled to bursting with the vile and villainous and ventures forth, steel and silver in hand.
- Daniel Anderson