The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Review
I’ve been a huge fan of the Witcher series since I played the first game, so much so that I wound up following the second game’s release back in May 2011 and became an active poster on their forums. I even managed to win a contest they sponsored, which netted me a copy of the official Witcher 2 game guide with a bunch of developer signatures. That being said, I’ve been hugely critical of the games and developers because my enjoyment of the series causes me to expect more out of it than most people, so I made an effort to play through this absurdly long game three times in order to get a feel for the choices and consequences and determine which of the choices aren’t choices at all. In some ways I’m impressed by the game, most notably in the quest design that effortlessly trumps the boring simplicity of other open-world games’ quests. In other ways I’m blown away by the laziness of some of the underlying systems given all of the potential the series had in terms of your actions having consequences. At the end of the day, The Witcher 3 is a lot of fun, but I can’t shake the feeling that it’s a shadow of what it could have been.
This is more a sequel to the books than the games
The first two Witcher games rendered main character Geralt an amnesiac as a way of introducing the world and characters to the player for the first time apart from the events of Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels that the games act as a continuation of. This worked and allowed you to be any version of Geralt you wanted to be, from a book-accurate neutral Witcher to someone more actively involved in the affairs of politicians. The third game restores his memory, however, which leads to awkward situations where the game references past events and characters that those who haven’t read the books have no knowledge of. I suppose I should probably mention that I find Sapkowski’s writing incredibly boring and amateurish (I have the same impression of many other famous authors), though I’ve picked up major plot points from years of hanging around on the forums that rave about the books. To be fair, the introduction of book character Ciri is handled surprisingly well, with the game explicitly giving Geralt the opportunity to revisit memories he has about her, allowing even those who haven’t read the books to understand the father-daughter dynamic the two have.
Other characters fare far worse, however, with Yennefer being a particularly ugly example. In the books, she’s Geralt’s selfish-and-terrible-but-fated love who he bound himself to after making a wish on a djinn. In the third game, she makes her first appearance in the series, only to be shoved down your throat at every opportunity, relegating past games’ lovable sorceress Triss to a supporting role that comes with drastically reduced screen time. This all makes sense in the context of the books, of course, but for those like me who enjoyed the games more than the books or chose not to read the books, it’s a shift in focus that makes absolutely no sense. Worse, “show, don’t tell” is completely abandoned as more and more characters from the books show up and reminisce about events game players have never been privy to. There’s really nothing inherently wrong with this, and most will pick up on who everyone is after a little time, but it leaves the game feeling like a poor conclusion to the trilogy since it has little to nothing to do with the previous games.
Nothing drives this home quite like the save import, which affects virtually nothing save for a handful of short cameos despite the hugely different end states the Witcher 2 allowed. No matter what you import, Radovid rules the north and Henselt is dead. No matter what you import, Loc Muinne is determined to have been a massacre of mages (even though you could easily empower mages at the end of the second game). Saskia and Iorveth, both major players in the second game, aren’t even mentioned unless you count an alleged (I’ve yet to find it) NPC comment that suggests that Iorveth is dead. Basically, nothing you’ve done in previous games has any impact. A character you can kill in the first game even magically reappears if you import a save where he’s dead. It’s railroading at its finest, and this is a huge departure from previous games where your decisions actually mattered a great deal.
It’s not all bad, though—the writing and quest design are incredible, especially given the fact that this is an open-world game. While such openness usually means the death of good writing, the series’ trademark moral grayness permeates even the sidequests, allowing the most straightforward-seeming quests to challenge your concept of what constitutes good and evil. The last third of the main story more or less abandons this grayness, turning the Wild Hunt into cartoonishly evil villains, but the writing in the rest of the game more than makes up for this, and there’s far more content in all of the “good” sidequests than in the “just okay” main quest.
The endings aren’t as fulfilling or detailed as you’d hope
At its core, The Witcher 3 is about Ciri. Finding her. Protecting her. Treating her as an adult despite your protective instincts. It makes sense that the game’s epilogue would center around her, then, relegating the rest of your choices to storyboards at the end reminiscent of those in Fallout games. What’s not okay is there being only three different “ending” epilogues that wrap up her story. Nothing you do factors in until you’ve passed the point of no return (the game tells you when you’ve reached this point), and which ending you get is determined by small decisions such as whether you drink with her instead of engaging her in a snowball fight. If you choose the snowball fight—which isn’t labeled “snowball fight,” but is instead the result of choosing one of two vague-sounding replies during dialogue with her—then she has a better chance of getting one of the two “good” endings. For a series that’s prided itself on its choices, this is an ugly turn of events reminiscent of Deus Ex or Mass Effect 3’s color-coded endings. The only real difference here is that the ending you receive is dictated by 4 or 5 different choices several hours before the ending rather than being something you choose at the very end. Still, some more varied endings that take more events into account would have been greatly appreciated.
The storyboards at the end need more variety, as well. Right now you hear about the political situation in Skellige, whether the north or south won the war, and Geralt’s fate/who he ended up with romantically. While those are definitely important things to cover, I found myself wondering about the fates of many other characters who weren’t mentioned in the storyboards. What happened to Keira? Priscilla? Dandelion? Zoltan? Yennefer/Triss if Geralt didn’t end up with them? What about the villages Geralt saved or otherwise impacted in some way? What happened to the world the Wild Hunt is from when they were defeated? It felt wrong to be left with so many questions at the conclusion of a trilogy, and this made the ending feel a bit more hollow than it should have even though the bigger events were covered.
The combat is a bit more casual-friendly now
I loved the combat in The Witcher 2; gargoyles would lunge at you, enemies with shields were vulnerable from certain angles, and you had to look around for ingredients whenever you wanted to craft a bomb or potion. While the general flow of combat is similar in The Witcher 3, it’s become quite a bit more friendly to the wild, haphazard hacking and slashing that would quickly get you killed in the second game. Combat seems to move a bit faster, with almost all monster enemies lunging at you like only certain enemies did in the second game. This causes many enemies to “feel” the same while you’re fighting them since a pack of wolves and a pack of drowners act identically. Geralt still possesses the ability to roll behind enemies (though his roll covers a lot of ground, being more like an upgraded roll from the second game), but it’s often a better idea to use the new “dodge” mechanic to avoid an enemy’s lunge, then quickly counterattack. Combat in general feels quite a bit floatier than the second game because of this, and gone is the deliberate, heavy feel of attacks. Personally, I don’t like the change. I’d bet that most people will, however, since few were willing to learn the second game’s combat enough to really savor its depth, and the new combat system is undeniably accessible at the cost of that depth.
The addition of the crossbow doesn’t really add or detract from the game’s combat because of how worthless it is; even when upgraded, you’ll be dealing a pitiful amount of damage with it and only using it to knock down flying enemies so that you can hack at them with your sword. In fact, the only situation where the crossbow is an effective tool is when you force enemies to chase after you to their “disengage point,” this being a point where they no longer show interest in you, and then shoot them with crossbow bolts while they’re helpless to do anything about it. Even though this can minimize the difficulty of certain fights, it takes a ridiculous number of shots to bring anyone or anything down, making it far too tedious to exploit regularly. Speaking of exploits, it’s also possible to stun-lock opponents by backing them into a wall. They can occasionally do this to you, though, especially if you get stuck on some of the scenery (and this does happen at times).
The combat isn’t bad, though. Just different, and some people will really like the changes. One change that many will probably like (but that I personally hate) is that bombs, potions, and oils only need to be crafted once. Doing so gives you a “master item” with anywhere from 2-5 uses, and all of your master items are automatically refilled by alcohol (they don’t require the ingredients used to make them to refill) when you meditate. This means that you only have 2-5 bombs of each type in combat, which makes them far less helpful than those in Witcher 2. Potions, too, seem somewhat less effective than in the second game, though the upside is that you can now use them inside of combat instead of needing to use them ahead of time. Another change I dislike is that you don’t have multiple vigor slots for casting signs; in the second game, having two vigor slots and casting a sign reduced your sword damage by a great percentage, and unlocking more vigor points reduced this penalty. Multiple slots also allowed you to cast two or more signs in quick succession, making sign builds incredibly viable. The Witcher 3, on the other hand, has a single vigor bar that slowly regenerates in combat and seems to have no effect on your sword damage whatsoever. This is just more dumbing-down of the combat system.
Pockets make using more than 2 of anything in combat a hassle
Now that I’ve covered a few things I hate but that most people will probably like, I think it’s time to cover something everyone will hate: pockets. You have your “bomb pockets” where you can select two bombs that are selectable in the radial menu, your “food and potion pockets” where you can put two potions or food items that are used by pressing R and F (or on a controller, by pressing the directional pad up or down), and your “special item” pockets that allow—you guessed it—two items. If you want to select a different bomb, food, or potion in combat, then you’re going to have to open your inventory in combat (which on a keyboard requires taking your hand off of the movement controls and hitting the I key), then manually finding what you want in your inventory and swapping it out. This takes forever, isn’t fun, and the “master items” coming in such small quantities forces you to either ignore them most of the time or deal with constant menu trips. This is designed terribly.
The RPG aspects have gone horribly wrong
I managed to play through the second game without leveling up at all. This was fun, challenging, and it really relied on using potions, bombs, and traps creatively in order to survive. This isn’t possible in The Witcher 3; not only are there no traps in the game (except for in one quest, and you aren’t even the one who lays them), but every quest and enemy has a “level” that arbitrarily determines how powerful they are, and these are only feasible to take on when you’re at a similar level yourself. This not only railroads you into accepting quests in a certain order, but also leads to some strange moments where a nearly-naked bandit can take 300 crossbow bolts to the face without losing hardly any health. Oh, and he can also kill you, the trained monster hunter with superhuman strength and agility, in 1-2 hits. A level 6 drowner is made out of paper when you’re level 10, but a level 20 drowner will seem like an unstoppable behemoth sent down by God to personally smite you.
This is all obviously an attempt to avoid level-scaling like in other open-world RPGs, and yet the resulting system is much worse than level scaling and makes no sense. You have bandits who could easily beat some of the early bosses, and the whole thing serves to make you feel strangely disempowered while enemies are determined to be weak or powerful based not on their type, but on the number hovering over their heads. On the bright side, this forces you to tackle sidequests you’d ordinarily pass up on in an attempt to level up, sidequests that often prove to be the highlight of the game. Still, more often than not I found the leveling scheme distractingly bad.
Geralt’s leveling isn’t much better, either. Each level he gains or new place of power he visits for the first time earns him a single ability point to put into his skills. Sword, potion, and sign (magic) skills have 4 tiers that are only unlocked by putting points into that tree, meaning you’ll only unlock the really strong sword skills if you forgo most of the magic stuff and vice-versa. You’ll never have enough points to unlock everything you want, and this is reinforced by the fact that upgrades aren’t active until you place them in one of nine “skill slots” on the character screen, slots that are initially locked and only gradually unlocked as you level up, greatly limiting you.
One interesting change is in how you use mutagens, though. Each grouping of three slots has a mutagen slot next to it (these are unlocked as you level up just like the slots themselves), and skills are color-coded: sword skills are red, sign skills are blue, and potion/adrenaline skills are green. If you put a red mutagen in a grouping that has a red sword skill, that mutagen’s bonus will go up. If all three in the grouping are red, then you’ll be looking at a substantial bonus. Red mutagens increase your swords’ attack power, blue mutagens increase your sign intensity, and green mutagens give you more vitality (which is health, basically), so you’re looking at some potentially huge benefits that you can play around with.
There’s so much more than what I can even mention
I know that this has been incredibly negative thus far, but I think it’s important to cover the things the game does wrong given how many reviewers have gushed while failing to cover the negatives, or invented problems to complain about while clearly having not played through the game enough to understand how things play out if you make different choices. Let’s get something straight: there are strokes of brilliance in this game. For example, failing to resolve the political situation in Skellige is an entirely viable option, and results in a different king being crowned (and one of the greatest cutscenes in the entire game when you revisit). Inaction being a viable choice is a beautiful touch, as is the dialogue changing somewhat if you manage to complete late-level areas before the early-level ones. There was clearly a lot of attention to detail put into these things. There are references to Game of Thrones, Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, The Count of Monte Cristo, and even moments where people get Geralt’s name wrong in what appeared to me to be a reference to the many colorful misspellings forum posters have used over the years. Beyond that, the developers have taken a great deal of people’s criticisms about the second game to heart, even adding little physical flaws to characters so that they have more personality after a forum thread years and years ago (that I participated in) about it. There are fistfights to engage in, now completely free of QTEs. There’s a collectible card game that many play and that’s devilishly addictive and well-made, allowing you to overcome players with better cards using nothing but strategy and good judgment. Taking on monster contracts often allows Geralt to haggle for a better price, which is a nice little touch. You even play through the game with the Blue Stripes tattoo from the second game if you imported a save where you didn’t remove it, and there’s a scene where you can get drunk with some friends that gets crazier and crazier, leading up to a brilliantly hilarious scene that I won’t spoil. Even this block of praise is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of amazing little things that make the game incredible.
Open-world bugs for an open-world game
However, large, ambitious games like this tend to be bug-prone, and The Witcher 3 fares little better than other such games in this regard. I experienced all manner of unexpected invisible walls, floating objects, endless loading screens, crashes to desktop, broken quests, missing characters, and miscellaneous weirdness such as when I walked into a building and the butler was inside a cabinet. Then there’s the intended bits of weirdness, such as a late-game quest that takes you through several different worlds, including one filled with poisonous gas. You need to be mindful of how much breath you have, but the “safe” areas make no sense; one hill may allow you to catch your breath, while another hill that’s even higher up may be filled with the invisible gas. Getting through this part of the game requires guesswork as far as I can see, and its lack of quality makes it stand out among the rest of the quests. Then there’s nVidia HairWorks feature. This looks good when it’s raining and gives Geralt a great “wet hair” look that’s missing when it’s off, but in any other weather it makes his hair look like cooked spaghetti held together by a rubber band while drastically hurting performance.
The graphics and music are great, though “old Dandelion” needs to die
I should probably explain that “old Dandelion” bit first. Okay, so rather than having simple loading screens, the game shows narrated pictures that cover your progress in the main story, all told from the perspective of a much-older Dandelion. However, much like in How I Met Your Mother, the voice actor for “young” Dandelion and “old” Dandelion are different despite his young incarnation already being quite old, and not only is this jarring, but the voice acting is honestly just terrible. Listening to that annoying voice recap everything every time you go to load a save is bound to drive you crazy before long, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to turn this off.
Dandelion aside, the voice acting is solid all around. In fact, the sound in general has seen a huge improvement from the weird electric guitar and generally weaker soundtrack in The Witcher 2; there’s no question in my mind that the third game sports the best soundtrack of all three games, and that’s impressive given just how memorable the first game’s soundtrack was. There’s even a scene where a singer you meet performs, and it’s obnoxiously beautiful and memorable to the point where I’ve woken up humming it a few times. The soundtrack is just incredible.
The game’s graphics are also very good, with more detailed textures and faces than the earlier games. In fact, the subtle little wrinkles in people’s faces really blew me away the first few days I spent playing the game. Still, the second game’s lighting was a bit more striking as a whole, with scenes like the one where you first meet Roche having a dreamlike quality to it, and comparing screenshots of 2 and 3, the second game seemed to have more contrast in general than The Witcher 3. In the daytime with clear skies or a sunrise/sunset this isn’t much of a problem, but nighttime and cloudy days in the game tend to be flat and lacking in contrast without a torch to liven things up a bit. This is most noticeable when you come across characters from the last game and can’t quite put your finger on what’s changed about them (some have also had their faces tweaked a bit, which is weird).
This is a great game, but I think I prefer The Witcher 2
I’m sure not everyone will share in this opinion, but I really do think The Witcher 2 was the superior game. It’s worth noting that I generally prefer more linear games, so this is hardly a surprise, and The Witcher 3 is admittedly incredible in how it manages to pull off an open world while retaining the series’ trademark quality writing. Still, I preferred the more deliberate combat in the second game and the freedom to carry as many bombs and traps with me into combat as I wanted, and the main story’s pacing felt a bit more solid because something was always happening (whereas you spend a great deal of the third game just running errands for information). Really, though, you can’t go wrong with either game, and there’s no denying that this is one of the best open-world games out there.