Back in the Saddle
It feels real good to be back in the boots of a Witcher. After a series of welcomed delays, CD Projekt Red has given us a game that feels like the definitive experience for fans, packed to the brim with gruesome monsters, fascinating characters and political intrigue.
The mantle of a Witcher is a hard one to carry, and I felt this weight on my shoulders many a time throughout my experience with the title. As Geralt sets off on the trail of Yennefer, a sorceress and companion of the White Wolf, the decisions you make all seem to matter, changing the lives of the people in the world that surrounds you.
It’s these decisions that are paramount in how your experience of the Witcher 3 pans out. After the discovery that the mysterious Wild Hunt is after Ciri, Geralt’s journey to find this woman creates an overarching goal to house the pivotal segments that showcase characters, monsters and the war still raging on the Continent.The narrative takes no time to get going, throwing you into a monster encounter and hunt within the first few hours of the game. The pacing is spot on here, giving high action and intense moments punctuated with more emotional and harrowing events. You can take this at your own speed too, with the game spanning fifty to a whopping two-hundred hours depending on what you choose to do. There’s plenty of time to interact with the people of the Witcher 3, sharing stories of triumph, loss or horror. It really lets you go as deep or as light on with the lore as you’d like, feeling especially rewarding as you become more immersed.
Given that this is a direct sequel to The Witcher 2, CD Projekt Red has done a fantastic job of making the lore accessible and engaging to new or casual fans of the series. I’ll admit, I’m not incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to the lore of the world — despite playing the previous entries — but I found myself understanding the story and wanting to delve deeper into the world at every turn. All of this information can be easily found from the in-game menu too, a handy resource for catching up on the varied cast of characters you’ll come across.Deceptively beautiful, the world of The Witcher 3 is dripping with blood, sex and politics. From deep caverns, through war torn fields and to mountain top keeps, danger is ever present, cloaked in some of the most stunning scenery this console generation has seen so far. Lakes, forests and swamps allow for extra exploration, filled with creatures to fight and loot to collect.
While the kingdoms of The Witcher may be famous for the monsters known to inhabit them, it’s the people that really bring it to life. You’ll meet helpful, downtrodden and fascinating individuals, as well as some worse than any monster out on the Continent. The side missions and short activities that showcase the backing cast of the world really help to give the game a ‘lived in’ feel, rounding out the focus given in the core narrative.
The Wild Hunt themselves are every bit an imposing force as they should be, standing tall and cloaked in ice and wind. As an adversary, the Hunt rival some of the fiercest creatures you’ll face as a Witcher, with some pretty powerful abilities to boot. When engaging them in boss fights it really gets your heart racing, taking a page out of the Dark Souls handbook with difficult but rewarding encounters.
Accompanying the Wild Hunt are forces of ice and snow, one of many elemental and weather effects that change the tone of the world. Thunderstorms in-game are particularly impressive, rolling in loudly to drench the land in flashes of light and rain. The vegetation all sways and moves with the changing winds, adding a real authentic dynamic to the landscapes you’re exploring.In this wild world, a Witcher comes equipped with a whole host of tools to dispatch the men and creatures that dare to challenge you. Customisation of your Witcher features heavily here, allowing you to shape your play style through the weapons and armour you choose to carry into battle. You can buy, craft and upgrade these items as you level and explore, and it’s important to keep building on your gear load out as you progress, as the harder enemies definitely require you to pick up some more durable gear.
The Witcher 3 features a weapon and armour degradation system which sees your equipment lose effectiveness and eventually stop being useful overtime – something that didn’t feel out of place. You get a lot of time before this occurs, but it’s a good habit to ensure that you repair your gear on a regular basis, and have a few repair kits in reserve should you find yourself in a tough spot mid combat.
A returning feature of the Witcher’s arsenal is Geralt’s ability to use ‘signs’, the magic of the world. From burning foes to shielding yourself or influencing minds, these tools become very handy both within and outside combat scenarios. The sign system has been nicely smoothed for the console versions in the latest instalment, easily useable in the flow of a battle. Besides being very handy, the animations created for these signs are really top notch, with the embers of ‘igni’ – a fire based sign – being one of my favourites to use.Putting Geralt’s abilities with steel and signs together creates a really smooth and streamlined combat experience that doesn’t hold your hand. Timing for parries, using the right signs and striking at the right time can lead to some truly memorable victories against tough foes, but rushing in and button mashing usually ends in death. It’s a really smooth system that retains the complexities of the previous title’s combat but with a much more accessible and streamlined control scheme.
The fights themselves, especially encounters with bosses and huge monsters, are nothing short of exhilarating, helped along by the fantastic score that picks up as battles begin. Using your potions and food to keep full health and boost your abilities as well as keeping your sword coated with potent oils when encountering enemies all feeds into the strategy of some lengthy fights. The system is a lot of fun and very rewarding once you get to know the intricacies, allowing all sorts of different styles and combos to win out as you play your own Witcher.
There’s plenty to do and see in The Witcher 3 besides just fighting. The hundreds of side missions and activities that fill the villages and country roads, as well as treasure hunting all help bring the Continent to life. While the main storyline could easily take you around fifty hours to complete, you’ll often need to level up by doing activities in order to take down tough foes. I also found myself quite distracted by people in need on the road, venturing from one town to the next and instead roaming around the countryside for hours on end hunting, looting and completing side quests. There’s a lot of story packed into these segments too, with some particularly interesting and recurring characters.
Despite some minor issues with looting when fire is nearby (you’ll end up extinguishing the flames and trying to position yourself perfectly to loot), collecting and exploring is a lot of fun. Taking a boat out onto a vast lake and visiting little islands was a particularly cool feature, occasionally netting you some rare gear and even gwent cards!
Witcher contracts are by far the best side content, taking you on Batman-esque detective missions to track down some fierce monsters. Preparation is key here, as making sure you have the correct oils and equipment that can do extra damage against these foes allows you to defeat some truly stunning mythological beasts. As an added bonus, the trophies you collect can be held on your horse, giving you bonuses depending on which you choose to carry.
Between all the adventuring and violence, a quiet game of gwent in a tavern quickly became a habit of mine. The card game of the Continent is really quite deep and well structured, allowing you to buy and find cards to build the best deck you can. A huge amount of the inhabitants will be willing to take you on, offering coins and cards for wins, it’s a neat little mini game that offers a lot of strategy and fun.
As a part of the main story you’ll also get the chance to play as Ciri, who plays quite differently to Geralt. Instead of signs she gains three core abilities, alongside a teleport dash, with a focus on swiftly dodging, hitting and dashing around her foes. This adds some nice variety to the overall package and helps to create a link with her perspective within the world.
Ultimately, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt delivers on the vision that CD Projekt Red set out to achieve, and more. Despite some minor technical hitches and some slight clunkiness in swimming and looting, the game manages to be a fantastic and immersive fantasy tale with a near infinite amount of things to do. Improving upon its predecessors, The Witcher 3 rises above its competition in the genre to deliver a truly spectacular experience for both veterans and new fans alike.
Developer: CD Projekt Red
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Platforms: Playstation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One and PC
A review copy was provided by the publisher.