Nowhere is CDP’s commitment more notable than in the quests. Mechanically, they’re usually pretty simple – a straight list of ‘go here, do this, now do that’, and if you created a drinking game around the words “Using your Witcher senses-“, I guarantee you’d be paralytic by the end of the prologue. But! At no point are they ever phoned in, with the stories and characters full of twists and decision points, cool moments, quiet relationship-building sections and imaginative premises – particularly the ones that play off myth and fairy tales, like the twisted version of the Graeae living in a dark bog.
In fact, looking back I can’t think of another game of this scope so committed to not wasting my time. There’s no ‘go get me five bear asses’ stuff. Quests to kill monsters usually involve a complex mix of investigation and preparation to show off why people need a witcher instead of just a random guy with a sword. You’re constantly dealing with emperors and powerful sorceresses, digging into the sadistic family lives of aristocrats or removing the curses from haunted houses, always making choices and meeting great characters and watching scenes that burst with incidental detail, jokes and bursts of genuine humanity in the darkest stories and most unlikely places.
Straight-up monster bashing is typically limited to minor distraction on the way to interesting places, with nests and guarded treasures awaiting you if you can be bothered and easily ignored if not. By the time I finished the game, there were great swathes of the map I’d not even visited, and even just doing the main missions you’ll level up just fine. As with The Witcher 2, the combat difficulty starts off hard and then gets pretty easy, since once you’ve got the knack of its dodge/parry core, there’s not a lot most enemy types can do to raise the stakes except hit a bit harder.
One disappointment here is that, while this is fine for the regular trash enemies, the bosses and bigger enemies rarely do anything more interesting. Geralt is primarily a swordsman, but he does have other tools constantly available, like his magic Signs, a crossbow and a few handy items. They almost never come into play during a fight though, with enemies generally limited to hitting the ground in front of them for a shockwave, charging or teleporting around, or calling in a few friends. This makes bosses more challenges of attrition and occasional cheap-shots than tricksy foes with clever patterns and arenas to use for their advantages. For the most part their tactics are just to try and drag the fight out until you make too many mistakes, running out of Swallow potion and healthfood, rather than being varied challenges. This won’t be too bad if you’re coming to it from other action RPGs, but as said, it’s sure as hell no Dark Souls. Not even Dark Souls II.
More specifically annoying given the concept is that you can’t really prepare for most battles in advance, simply because you have no idea what you’ll be fighting until it happens. I’d love to play a Witcher 3 where CD Projekt had the faith in players to make going up against a werewolf without the right oil on your sword into a suicidal affair, at least for the Monster Contracts (optional boss fights, essentially) – to have the element of research, then figuring out how to make whatever potions and oils you need and only challenging it once you’re sure.
As it is, the benefits are things like ‘10% bonus damage to this monster type’ rather than anything particularly worth searching for. You can also go the entire game without even mixing, never mind taking a see-in-dark Cat potion, never mind anything cool like “Enhanced Black Blood”. This way is obviously friendlier and less frustrating for mainstream players, but it does render much of what makes a Witcher an entirely optional extra primarily aimed at hardcore completionists. In the event that there’s a big patch, I’d quite like to see a Witcher mode that makes this side more important, without boosting the regular guards and trash that Geralt absolutely should be cutting down without a thought.
Still, the wrapping of all this remains spectacular – visually, the stories told (which are always better than just ‘there’s a big thing in the woods, go kill’), and how well it grounds the stories and gives them weight. If you were to pretend to be a prisoner to sneak into a witch hunter lair in, say, Dragon Age: Inquisition, it’d probably be a jolly little adventure. Here, you’re likely to have your fingernails pulled out with pliers while your friend watches, having to maintain their cover.
In fact, Inquisition came to mind many times, not just for its far less successful mix of open-world and narrative. A big issue I had with that game is that it’s very light, not least for how little resistance there is to the Inquisition itself. Sure, a few people talk about it as being problematic or dodgy, but that’s completely undercut by every other damn NPC either wanting to join it or just plain signing up, and the nations of Thedas being oddly calm about the potential threat you pose.
Here, things aren’t so cuddly. Decisions are important, often made without full information, and whatever you decide, someone usually suffers. Just trying to save people in trouble often leads to the verbal equivalent of a clip round the ear and the question “Right, and what do you think those thugs you just humiliated are going to do after you’ve gone?” Even when you’ve helped, you’re rarely thanked, and just because you think you’ve done a good thing doesn’t mean it’ll work out in the long run. Every opportunity has a dark side, up front or otherwise.
Rarely too has a fantasy world had such a feel of history. That’s obviously helped by the books, but is far from guaranteed by them – being able, for instance, to present two sides of a mythological punch-up where both sides are inhuman and sinister is no easy matter. Nor is having the maturity to play with the expected outcomes of events, and not just to cheaply spit in your face for the fun of it. For example, there’s a point when you meet the family of someone you might have killed in the previous game, and while one of them is understandably hostile, the other is just “Wow, you’ve got balls coming here. Anyhoo, fancy a day at the races?” It’s not a trap. He just wants company.
It doesn’t hurt that while most RPGs of this kind have you visit a place, make a moral choice, and then never think about it again, the Witcher 3’s winding story regularly involves revisiting places and seeing the effects of decisions instead of having to wait for “And later…” cards during the ending. The changes might not always be severe or change the course of the game, but they work together to build an astoundingly reactive world, where the tiniest decision can cast unexpected ripples.
(And by god, is this a long story. You know how games like Final Fantasy VII will pretend you’re about to finish the game, even though you can see you’re only on Disc 1? This is the reverse. At the point I was convinced it was about to end, all the areas resolved and it even told me I was making a point of no return save, it transpired there was a whole act and about ten more hours left to go…)
On page 3: Plot and problems – and triumph