Skyrim was the ultimate fantasy role-playing game of the last-gen. It coupled a fantastic setting with beautiful visuals, expansive lore, streamlined skill, magic and trade systems, a living ecosystem of towns and cities populated by numerous citizens of various species, and an epic story that saw your own character become a powerful figure that could wield the voice of dragons. It was fantastic, and is loved by many to this day. In my opinion however, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is better. It creates a wonderful world with a story rich in pathos and excitement. Its mature tone crafts a realistic and relatable society and its principle cast members are involved in numerous personal struggles. It is a game that builds upon previous tales of sword and sorcery and places itself well above the standards of fantasy proper.
Geralt of Rivia
Geralt has the stony exterior of Solid Snake. His gruff voice, cold demeanour and absolute efficiency in battle present a character that can be seen as ruthless, as well as heartless. This is only one side to Geralt however, as throughout he epitomises severity but also abounds in keen wit, sarcasm and tenderness. He jokes bitingly with his enemies, jests nonchalantly with his friends and even acts lovingly on more than one occasion. He may sometimes teeter on the borders of morality, but overall, Geralt is thoroughly likeable through his honourable mission, endless charm and great camaraderie with others.
In Skyrim, we get none of this with the Dragonborn. He or she is simply a conduit for the player to immerse themselves in the Elder Scrolls universe. It is a successful immersion to say the least, but the lack of conversation between the silent protagonist and other characters diminishes communication to that of hollow, one-sided interactions. Geralt’s intonation when speaking heightens his personality and drives the story forward through emotive language rather than through unspoken dialogue options.
Geralt’s task is also more compelling than that of the Dragonborn’s. Instead of saving an unwelcoming world from destruction with no genuine motivation, the Witcher is driven forward to rescue his adoptive daughter Ciri from a vicious spectral group known as The Wild Hunt. His love for the girl is clearly evidenced, with Geralt partaking in both virtuous and shameful acts as he desperately struggles to find her; he speaks of Ciri as if she is his own flesh and blood. Therefore, the story of The Witcher 3 is more satisfying, as it focuses on the personal bonds between characters, rather than concentrating on the world-shattering impact of dragons. The diminution of epic towards a smaller scale story makes for more emotive resonance while playing.
Friendly, as well as not so amiable relationships between Geralt and others flourish throughout The Witcher 3. He shares some banter with his friend Zoltan, has a flirty encounter with the witch Keira Metz and berates the Bloody Baron of Velen for his treatment of his wife and daughter. Through these interactions we are able to see a deep level of characterisation. The Baron in particular provides one of the most interesting quest lines because of his drunken brutality, honourable sobriety and afflicted existence. He is a menagerie of emotion and depth and his well-spoken lines emphasise his torment through a heavy speaking voice, something that is missing from the non-playable characters of Skyrim. The dark elves are callous and bitter, the nords are indignant and headstrong while the imperials are severe and controlling. Apart from a select number of individuals, few NPCs have a distinguishable personality, let alone show genuine emotion in a moment of stress or heartbreak. Monotone speeches abound in Skyrim.
Furthermore, the Dragonborn may have gained acquaintances upon his quest, but characters such as Karliah or Balgruuf the Greater could hardly be considered friends. They are merely focal points within quests lines and do little more than to provide the protagonist with information regarding a location, enemy or vignette of lore. Geralt’s companions are numerous, and are available at all times for a bout of humour or a round of cards. These relationships are refreshing, as they remove an element of isolation from the game and create a world that feels realistic, thriving in numerous and believable interactions. The Dragonborn may be a lone adventurer, but even his or her spouse remains strangely distant throughout, emphasising the awkward passivity of Skyrim’s inhabitants.
Cinematic Cutscenes and Animation
Skyrim’s clumsiness is also apparent in the manoeuvrability of characters during both scripted events and real time gameplay. The game’s “cutscenes” are limited to scenarios of inactivity for the protagonist, in which the Dragonborn stands idly by while others walk around the environment like stiff, strange puppets. Animation is also limited to the clunky movements of limbs with almost non-existent gesticulations of the body. For example, during a Dark Brotherhood quest, the insane jester Cicero laughs maniacally in a conversation with the player, but remains immobile throughout with his arms by his sides. His laughter falls short of anything but inane, and feels out of place in a scene that should have been filled with disquietude, rather than unintentional silliness.
Cinematic cutscenes in The Witcher 3 remove this level of awkwardness. Some truly awesome instances are captured with panning camera motions and close-up shots. Griffins flying over fields, guards riding their horses hard to give chase and ruffians being tossed out of brothels allow many facets of the world to be shown in full while retaining a realistic flow of movement. Geralt also traverses nimbly through the lands of Velen, Novigrad and Skellige, running and prancing over structures quickly, akin to the lifelike dashing of Assassin’s Creed’s protagonists. Even when he is conversing with others, a sense of liveliness is preserved. Through simple hand gestures, tilts of the head, pacing, looks of shock and ugly grimaces, long instances of dialogue are transformed into emotive, evocative performances that capture the spirit of each moment successfully.
The combat in Skyrim boils down to a haphazard mechanism of whacking: the victor is the one who can swing their bladed weapon the fastest. In The Witcher 3 this can also be done, but defeat is usually close at hand for any who take on this button mashing lifestyle. Attacks are needed, but so are dodges and parries, in order to best enemies that can be sometimes seriously tough. Your abilities are truly tested when fighting, indicating the game’s focus on skill and depth of combat. Victories feel earned within The Witcher 3, increasing the fun and satisfaction of its bloody battles as a result.
No one can doubt the vastness and beauty of Skyrim’s world. It sprawls from the decaying forests of the Rift to the rocky caverns of the Reach. Its rivers and waterfalls move realistically as rushing torrents or as thin, slim trickles. Snow proliferates over valleys and mountains in the form of white sheets or warring blizzards. But colour in the game has always lacked vibrancy, as green trees and bushes are the standout features in a land that is toned in greys, whites, dark blues and browns.
The Witcher 3 may also have its darker features, the foggy area that is Crookback Bog for example, but throughout its world, colours are vivid, deep and strikingly brilliant. The main palette here is a series of greens, blues and yellows that make up forests, farms, fields, beaches, lagoons and seas. But these are not its only tinges of vibrancy as natural lighting dazzles realistically over foliage. It pours through tree canopies with shadows swaying with realistic movements in the breeze and Geralt’s face is streaked perfectly by pale lines from the thin branches above. The sun is a vast, glowing orb that changes the landscape depending on the time of day. Red tinges fleck the sky on mornings with a hue of surrounding yellow, pinks and purples tint the evening into dusk and a fresh, clear blue energises the war-torn land with brightness during the afternoon. The colourful world makes for a more enjoyable viewing experience than the dull province of Skyrim, and produces a journey that is equally wonderful to look at as well as to play.
No Bothersome Enemy Encounters
The dragons of Skyrim begin as exciting encounters, providing a sizeable amount of loot upon the creature’s death. As you progress however, these fights become chores, as they interrupt your exploration and follow you endlessly until they are dead. There is no escape from the bothersome dragons.
In The Witcher 3, battles such as these are nowhere to be found. Most random encounters involve smaller enemies like bandits or wolves, but sometimes larger beasts such as griffins or basilisks are chanced upon throughout the world. If one is found to be too difficult to face, it can then be easily outrun with a few quick sprints from Geralt’s faithful steed. Combat with larger enemies is not forced, allowing you to take up superior challenges at your own pace.
Unique Fantasy World
Skyrim fails to stray far from the well-established boundaries of high fantasy fiction. It deals with the approaching forces of darkness, mythical creatures, human and non-human beings, spell-casting and an invented world distant from our own. The Witcher 3 may share these motifs with Skyrim, but the latter does little to distinguish itself within a genre that that makes use of the same features time and time again.
Geralt’s world is one that distances itself from the normative. Dwarves and elves may populate its towns like any other tale of fantasy, but more unique facets are also included. An awareness of bacteria and mutations are mentioned throughout, indicating a knowledge base far beyond that of the faux medieval setting; a mixture of middle aged and Elizabethan dress is worn by certain individuals; women are allowed to perform on the stage, unlike the actuality of past patriarchal structures. The fantasy world of The Witcher 3 mixes the traditional with the unusual, separating it from Skyrim in a way that is both thoroughly peculiar and therefore more interesting to boot.
As previously mentioned, Skyrim’s quests continually border on the epic. A few smaller threads exist throughout the snowy world, but generally, each tale is one that involves a large faction of people, a fantastical object, a dragon or a world-changing event. Maturity is lost through this escalation as human stories of anguish and suffering are left out amongst a torrent of dragon shouts and mysticism.
Matures themes are then able flourish in The Witcher 3 thanks to its heavy focus on character development and personal plots. For example, the entire quest line of the Bloody Baron’s spans multiple hours and concentrates on his personality, his familial bonds and the problems surrounding those relationships. The tale shows a drunken leader brought to the brink of despair because of his wife’s infidelity, her miscarriage and madness at the hands of his domestic abuse, and the daughter’s difficulty to cope within adult life because of her childhood of violence, pain and sadness. This then creates a series of characters that are thoroughly human. They are not archaic caricatures detached from reality by a historical boundary of fantasy. Instead, they seem truly modern in their struggles and are more relatable as a result.
Dark stories may be prosperous within The Witcher 3, but a surprising amount of humour breaks up the heaviness. Geralt is a serious curmudgeon at times, but his biting wit knows no bounds, throwing out sarcastic insults to lighten any situation. His frigid persona is also played up for laughs, as in one particular scene, he must act in a play in front of a crowd of baying artisans. His lines should be filled with flamboyant emotion, but he can barely get past a low and monotonous grumble. Witchers clearly lack the necessary finesse needed to be thriving members of the theatre community.
This differs greatly from the severe tone of Skyrim, in which its host of characters retain a level of dourness throughout.
Gwent is a deck-building card game that pits two opposing sides against one another in a battle of skill and strength. It starts off as an interesting pastime. You collect a few cards here and there, gradually amassing a sizeable army for each of your four factions. After a while, you begin to search for more cards; fighting any merchant or pub owner you come across for that shiny Saesenthessis. Then, you become almost unstoppable as the rules and nuances of Gwent click together in one bright formation within your mind; a shining light epiphany of providence. You can then beat anyone, low or high born, in a fun and addictive streak of victory. Gwent is a fantastic inclusion to a fantastic game, and is a perfect distraction for both collectors and card-gaming enthusiasts alike.
Both Skyrim and The Witcher 3 are amazing fantasy games. Their huge worlds, vast length, beautiful visuals and grand scope make them both truly special creations that will always be remembered as feats of gaming excellence. The latter is better however, as it melds together characters and stories that are deeply emotive, a bright and colourful landscape, difficult yet satisfying combat, realistic animations and a card mini-game that makes me crave a stand-alone version. The game is toted to be over 200 hours in length. For such an enjoyable, expansive and immersive experience however, that simply is not long enough.