The Witcher series differs from most fantasy RPGs in a fundamental way. It’s not the self-conscious HBO-style adult theming or the wilfully unusual combat mechanics; it’s in the storytelling. Series protagonist Geralt of Rivia comes fully formed, not shaped by the player at all; to whatever degree sprawling RPGs can be, it’s a story being told to us by CD Projekt Red. The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is the franchise’s long-awaited blowout into full open-world territory - can CDPR maintain their focused storytelling while delivering satisfying sandboxy freedom?
While most similar games see the player engaged in a broad storyline about some world-ending cataclysm or other, The Witcher 3’s main story is refreshingly personal. That’s partially due to the protagonist coming fully-formed, and partially due to the character-driven writing. There’s a larger threat looming - the supernatural, heavily armoured Wild Hunt, appearing as if out of a heavy metal album cover - but the motivation for stopping it is personal, driven by relationships. Nearly all the in-game stories (and there are many) have palpable weight to the characters involved, and that’s incredibly refreshing.
In keeping with its contemporaries, The Witcher 3 takes place in a huge, gorgeous open world full of adventure, discovery and sidequests. Despite too many pop culture references to things like Pulp Fiction and Fifty Shades, the world’s rich lore and lived-in environment are extremely immersive. It’s in the sidequests and smaller moments that the most delightful surprises can be found. You’ll do quests for characters old and young, male and female, gay and straight, powerful and powerless. Often, quests can be completed in surprising and/or nonviolent ways. The craft of these stories is exceptional, but the open-world structure frequently reverts to the icon-chasing that plagues Dragon Age: Inquisition and others. Early on, you get that sense that the game is enormous and it’ll take dozens of hours to even scratch the surface. And you’re expected to spend serious time with it: without levelling up via sidequests, you’ll be hopelessly outclassed in the story missions.
The missions themselves play out in ways connected to Geralt’s role as a Witcher, which is sort of like a chainmail Jedi - he roams the land, using his specialties in monster-hunting, potion-making, detective work and even diplomacy to help people. The “witcher sense” detective sequences are much better than comparable bits of Batman games, with no major mechanical changes - it’s a matter of level construction. The mechanic might be overused, but it’s still better than the combat.
After spending hours with Bloodborne, the combat and controls of The Witcher 3 feel clunky and unresponsive. That’s especially true in combat, where locking-on is unreliable and attacks don’t feel like they connect, but even walking around is a chore sometimes. My horse frequently got stuck in geometry, and the swimming controls are, no joke, the worst I have ever encountered in a video game. Once you come to grips with the mechanics, combat makes more sense, but attack hitboxes are still grossly unpredictable, making it difficult to make judgements in the heat of battle.
Accordingly, combat in The Witcher 3 leans heavily on preparation. Before going into battle, you’re advised to stock up on potions, oils (seriously, so many oils) and other items, and to select weaponry appropriate for your foes. Sadly, your weaponry degrades faster than a chocolate spoon in hot cocoa, necessitating regular trips to blacksmiths. There’s too mujch back-and-forth maintaining your inventory, which is far less fun than romping around the countryside talking to people and fighting imaginatively-designed monsters.
While my worries about the series’ grim and gritty reputation were proven somewhat false by the game’s tonally varied writing, The Witcher 3’s numerous notorious attempts to be “adult” still meet with wildly varying success. It’s for grown-ups in the way that Game of Thrones is for grown-ups: full of political nuance, sure, but overfull with violence and sex like it’s got something to prove. Rather than feeling “adult,” it often comes off as childish - like a kid clumsily smoking a cigarette so he can fit in with his dad’s drunken friends.
The sexual content in particular is clumsy, gratuitous and even leery at times. Oddly enough, the writing isn’t to blame here so much as the directing. The game’s women have their own wants and needs and goals. The central romance, between witcher Geralt and sorceress Yennefer, feels like a natural and genuine relationship of equals. There’s even a playable female character in the form of up-and-coming witcher Ciri; every time we cut to her story is a refreshing change of pace.
But the game’s women are also designed and shot like goddamn swimsuit models. Most of the prominent female characters are shown nude at least once, and compared to the male characters, there’s a lot less variation in character design. Granted, Geralt gets naked a lot as well (hell, the game opens on him naked in a tub), but the camera doesn’t linger on him in the male-gazey way it does on the female characters’ lovingly modelled breasts. And it’s pretty damning that most of the female enemies you’ll face are witches, love-scorned wraiths or hags of some sort. Also notable: the game takes place in a Nordic fantasy-land where people of colour don’t exist, but griffins and supernaturally-possessed miscarried fetuses do. That doesn’t make it a bad game; it’s just a curious and visible omission, unexplained by the “historical accuracy” defence that inexplicably gets pulled out to defend the honky-only skin tones.
The characters may not be diverse, but they’re certainly interesting. A surprising portion of the game’s varied sidequests are fully voiced, by characters with personal stake in the proceedings. Those characters have some of the best faces I’ve ever seen in video games. It feels strange to highlight faces, but those of The Witcher 3 are wonderful. It’s like the game’s populated by the greatest character actors who never lived. Complementing the superb facial animation, the voice performances are uniformly great, with one extremely visible exception.
Which brings us to our main protagonist, Geralt of Rivia. Of all the gravelly voices in all the video games, Geralt’s is the gravelliest. Maybe years of monster hunting have taken their toll; maybe he’s born with it; maybe it’s Maybelline. Whatever the reason, the guy is just unable to emote past a low growl. Whether joking, threatening, teaching or seducing, Geralt’s monotone is as inscrutable as his heavily scarred face and abs. There’s depth to his character, but you wouldn’t know it from his vocal range. It’s an expressionless performance - though possibly knowingly so: I laughed out loud as Geralt played hide-and-seek with a group of children, gruff and resigned as ever. I, for one, chose to play Geralt as compassionate and sensitive, as it seemed funniest against his battle-scarred exterior (and larynx).
CDPR delayed its sci-fi RPG Cyberpunk 2077 in order to focus more on this game. The volume of work they’ve put in shows: the base game is huge and polished, while further, free DLC is set to come out regularly for months to come. The Witcher 3 isn’t a perfect game - the janky movement, over-complex inventory system and dodgy gender/minority representation stand in the way there. But coming from a smaller publisher, it’s a phenomenally ambitious one, with some of the most unique writing in the genre. Like its Dragon Age and Elder Scrolls peers, it’s a game to get lost in.