Valleys, forests, marshes, caves, lakes, and the ocean, their beauty barely contains their wretchedness. Soldiers march on paths, bandits lie in wait, monsters spurt from the ground, and countless bodies hang from trees near and far. This is The Witcher 3’s dark fantasy world, its size and content near-bottomless, similar in scope to Tamriel or Middle Earth. Yet, a dark filth rises to the top of its veins that will seem atypical and refreshing to western RPG fans who have been sheltered from the series. The world here is one normal folk wouldn’t prosper in, but for a witcher, a mutated mercenary who kills monsters, it’s a wondrous stretching orchard filled with juicy apples that are ready to be bitten into.
Wild Hunt is the third in the action RPG Witcher series. It sees us continue the journey of the witcher Geralt, a yellow-eyed swordsman and mage who’s the fantasy equivalent of Solid Snake in his voice, mannerisms, and philosophical questionings. He has a deep story full of twists, turns and realistic beard growth, but his main goal here is simple: to find and save his adopted daughter Ciri.
However, it’s the backdrop that makes things complicated. Ciri’s being chased after the ghostly gang the Wild Hunt because, according to a prophecy, she’s the chosen one. To add complexity, her biological father is ruler of Nilfgaard, a nation that makes up the haystack of lands and individuals who are all about to get into an all-out brawl. Ciri is your needle.
The breadth and scope of the political landscape is to be expected due to the game’s origin as a series of fantasy books, written by Andrzej Sapkowski. Fans of Game of Thrones and the fantasy genre will feel right at home here, and will revel in the backstabbing, subterfuge, surreal racial tensions and clashing of nations. However, at times the story’s breadth may seem a bit much, especially for those just jumping into the series. If you truly want to engage with the story there is a creatively written glossary available, but it can be a pain having to open this at every passing conversation in order to discern how Geralt knows someone. Nevertheless, the well-rounded characters and the importance of interactions will cause old and new fans alike to sink into the tainted world.
Your typical quest begins through meeting an NPC, or by grabbing a contract from a notice board. Speaking to your quest-giver, the trajectory of your mission begins near immediately; it may be something as simple as negotiating the reward, or there could be an important decision to make. Conversations are given spice through some creative methods, decisions that progress the story are highlighted in yellow, and a timer is in place at times to add a sense of urgency to your choice. Life or death can rest on your words; a quest can be finished with a brief conversation or over a long trek filled with bloodshed. You write the adventure, wielding a pen just as much as a sword.
Important decisions will pop up throughout quests, and most conversations require you to pay close attention and really think about your actions. Unlike other tales that have unrealistic self-contained stories, in this tale it’s rare that a quest or side quest taken on won’t have an outpouring effect on the world around it. It’s unfortunate that some results can seem unfairly unforeseeable, but in a way this adds to the gamble. This is a treacherous world, where even a straightforward question can have hidden consequences. For me, one potent quest had its outcome resting on believing one of two suspicious individuals. The decision I made left me with one positive outcome, a group of children saved, and I did complete the quest, but the aftermath was countless leagues from palatable. A village was terrorized, and a man I’d liked hung himself.
The game excels at evoking emotions, and the realistic characters cause you to care about your choices. Some you’ll like, others you’ll hate, some you’ll despise, and there are some you you’d catch a grapeshot bomb for (not a very pleasant experience, I imagine). Yennefer and Triss are particularly important ones as they form a love triangle with Geralt. The choice between them is a painful one, and saying no to advances feels like you’re breaking a heart. There are constant struggles for you not to reload, and to accept your decisions. In comparison some decisions seem lacking in consequence, and being able to sleep with several prostitutes after professing your love, all without any moral dilemma, seems ridiculous, and well… just a bit assholish.
Atop this there are some characters and aspects of the world that leave niggling qualms in relation to sexism. To name a few, I met a dreamwalker who was showing a ridiculous amount of cleavage, and many of the women who fight don’t seem to wear very practical clothes. Overall though, The Witcher does have a refreshing amount of strong female characters, with the likes of Ciri seeming immensely powerful. Also, Water Hag boobs do show a lack of discrimination between displaying attractive and unattractive boobs, but the sight of them will burn an unpleasant image into the back of your head.
The quests on offer here are diverse, and whether you’re tracking down a monster, getting involved in some political turmoil, or just finding an old lady’s frying pan, investigation skills are nearly always a necessity. Geralt’s witcher senses come in handy here, and these allow you to see anything of interest in the environment with the push of a button. It’s very similar to what’s seen in the Arkham series, and as such suffers from some of the same issues. It can feel as though the game’s holding your hand too tightly, as though your observation skills are that of a headless griffin. Sometimes Geralt does actually behave as though he has no head, and he does seem to have a deep fear of opening certain chests and doors, until you wiggle the camera just the right way.
So you’ve tracked down the monster, or maybe found the thieves, and words seem to be lost on them. Well now’s a good time to remember this is a game about a man who carries around two swords, steel for humans, and silver for monsters. Combat is simple enough to pick up while being deep enough to sink into. Geralt has his regular quick and strong attack, along with dodging, blocking and parrying. He has a range of spells including a devilishly fun fire attack and mind-controlling telepathy, and has a variety of bombs, a crossbow, and can charge in on horseback. All the side weapons and powers can be used in a very fluid fashion similar to BioShock and the Arkham series. Little touches, like the time only slowing down instead of stopping when choosing a spell, make dexterity a necessity.
Depending on the foes you face you’ll have to use different strategies. Fighting humans means you can block and parry their sword strikes, but fighting any of the wide variety of monsters or animals renders this strategy ineffective; you’ll need to roll and dodge beasts. Going further into the detail you can look up the bestiary for specifics on the type of monster. Some will be vulnerable to a certain spell or to a specific type of bomb, and there are oils for your sword that are powerful against certain foes. All this is necessary for you to prep to face tough monsters; for example, you’ll meet a griffon fairly quickly, and will be pestered by sexy sirens later in the game. You’ll need all the help you can get to quash seemingly insurmountable odds.
The crafting system is easy enough to grasp, but, just like the combat, has a lot of aspects that can be explored further. Potions, oils, bombs, swords, and armour can all be created by using a diagram and ingredients/components, and can be made more powerful through upgrades, and with the latest patch update the organization of your inventory looks set to be improved dramatically. Abilities can be learned and upgraded by using points, acquired when you level up or find a place of power. Altogether this gives a huge amount of customization that allows you to create a unique fighting style. It’s one of the many reasons to sweep every area of the treacherous landscape, and when it’s coupled with the amazing story, you’ve got an utterly fantastic game.
The massive world is staggering equally in size and beauty. Fast travelling is available –through discoverable signposts— when you want to use it, but most the time your trusty steed Roach will act as your mode of transport. Wandering through the environment there’s a definite feeling of life to it; the sun set will cause you to pause and stare, the wind shaking the trees will make you shiver, and the fall of rain coupled with smoke and fog will cloud your view as a monster approaches you from behind. The graphics are truly surreal, and I say this playing the vanilla PS4 version. The modding community is growing for the game, and will doubtless have much to show us soon.
Areas are filled with monster’s nests, bandit camps, sunken treasure, and the above mentioned places of power. Places of interest are marked by question marks, and this does take a bit away from the exploration. Stil, you never know what you’re going to find when you wander into the wilderness, and coming across some bandits burning a house, killing them, slicing down the door to rescue the occupant, is just one of the many spontaneous moments of heroism I had on my journey. There is always more to see in this world, and always more to do.
Perhaps you’ll play some Gwent, a card game played in every corner of the world; from high nobles to warring gangs, everybody’s dying for a game of gwent. With a fervent passion akin to that of a child collecting Pokémon cards you’ll find yourself tackling the simple but fun card game. Or if playing cards isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other ways for you to occupy your spare time. You can also get into the fistfighting scene, where Geralt strips off his top and takes on the manliest of foes. Or if, for some bizarre reason, you don’t like that you can go horse riding and win some valuable upgrades for Roach. Then maybe you’ll go to the barber and choose between one of the many hair and beard styles available for Geralt. My personal favorite style being the short wavy hair and a goatee which when combined make him look like a member of a boy band.
In passing I’ll mention that there are many bugs that pop up, but most of these are trivial things like a character floating in the air, or sound effects playing when they shouldn’t be; Geralt at times seems to think he’s riding a horse when he clearly isn’t. But this is nearly expected considering the unreal amount of content in the game, and CD Projeckt Red have and are continuing to put an astounding amount of work in here. Patches have been continuously released fixing bugs and adding small and large touches, 16 free DLCs have and are being made available, and there’s still the season pass content to hand out; it’s more than enough to keep any player in this beautiful world.
I’m going to continue hunting down side quests and completing my gwent deck, and this type of investment is something I haven’t made in a long time, not since Oblivion. This is a game that surpasses all open world RPGs I’ve played before, a game that truly feels next-gen, and that has elevated CD Projekt Red to the level of Bethesda. That’s quite a big level up.
In case you haven't heard, this is the biggest fantasy RPG since Skyrim.