So I finally got around to playing this, hailed by many as perhaps the greatest RPG ever made. I held off for a long while because of the high recommended technical requirements for the CPU and I only just built a new rig a few months ago. It’s a massive undertaking and according to Steam, I spent over a 130 hours on it without any big DLC content. In fact, I’m so tired out after this that I probably won’t buy and play the DLC stuff even though they’ve been well reviewed.
After finally having his memories restored, Geralt remembers his relationships with Yennefer and Ciri. A letter from Yennefer informs him that Ciri has returned to the world and after rendezvousing with the former, he sets off in search of the latter. He travels across Velen, Novigrad and Skellige to retrace her footsteps as she is continually pursued by the Wild Hunt. In the background, Nilfgaard’s thus far successful war against the northern kingdoms may be temporarily stalled but the usual travails of war grip the land. The city of Novigrad becomes increasingly hostile to mages and other deviants while Skellige undergoes a succession crisis after the death of the popular King Bran. Even after Geralt catches up with Ciri, he and his friends and allies need to find a way to permanently deal with the threat of the Wild Hunt.
I’ve read before that this game is massive but I didn’t quite believe it before actually playing it. Not only is the map huge but it also has a fully realized seascape with wrecks, underwater monsters, flooded caves etc. to explore. You need to do a fair bit of sailing to get through this game. This massiveness extends to other aspects as well: tons of quests and witcher contracts, tons of little points of interest on the map, tons of crafting diagrams, potion ingredients and so on. I’m usually pretty obsessive about completing every little bit of content in a game but there’s no way I’m going to be able to visit all those little question marks on the maps, especially those off the coast of the Skellige islands. Then there are all the side activities like horse racing, brawling and the new Gwent card game. There’s good reason why playing this game clocks up so many hours.
If anything, I think there is too much stuff in the game. The main plot is fantastic, one of the best I’ve seen in any RPG in fact. I particularly like how it’s a deeply personal quest for Geralt and not primarily about saving the world or even a nation. I have to say that the quality of the side quests and witcher contracts are excellent as well, well above the average of what you see in most RPGs. Yet there is still so much of it that it disturbs the flow of the main quests. It’s cute that the characters occasionally comment about it, like Yennefer quipping about how Geralt took time out for a drowner contract or something before meeting up with her but all these distractions still undermine the emotional impact of the main story. Stuff like hunting for diagrams for witcher gear and the huge number of potion ingredients are even worse. I think all this is unneeded bloat. Take for example the mechanic of negotiating for how much you will be paid for completing a witcher contract. It doesn’t seem like it adds much to the game.
The combat mechanics are a vast improvement on the previous games. Playing at the second hardest difficulty level, I found even dealing with groups of weak enemies to be quite a challenge. More powerful enemies like the griffin at the beginning of the game or the werewolf quite early seemed almost impossible. This state of affairs doesn’t last however as combat even against the hardest enemies becomes trivial once you make full use of the mutagen system and deploy oils, potions and bombs. Oddly enough I find that mixed groups of powerful humans rather than monsters are the hardest to fight. Dealing with fighters with shields takes time while their nearby friends pepper you with projectile weapons. Overall combat is fun enough but it still can’t compare to stuff like the Dark Souls games, probably because Geralt is too absurdly good at dodging everything.
One element that I can heap praises on without reservation are the amazing graphics. They are routinely breathtaking, with the environmental effects of wind and rain storm being especially immersive. Naturally the character models look just as fantastic with Geralt’s hair being oft touted features. It feels kind of extravagant how they made it so that his facial hair grows back over time after shaving. Most incredible of all of course is the facial animation system. The expressiveness of the faces as they deliver the voice acting is flabbergasting. Seeing as this is a game originally released in 2015, I can’t believe that EA dared to release the awfulness that is Mass Effect: Andromeda which I will stay far away from. One downside is that they reuse faces for many characters. Perhaps the animation system can’t deal with randomized faces?
Still my favorite bit about this game is its writing, not so much its plot as how adroitly it handles the relationships between the many characters and its dialogue. I believe that this may well be the best written romance plot in any video game. The designers trick gamers a bit as those who have only played the games but never read the books will only have known a relationship with Triss Merigold while those who have read the books know that Yennefer is always Geralt’s one true love. The writing for the relationship with Yennefer especially good once you meet up with her, giving every impression that this is a long married couple who have been together for ages. Yennefer does push Geralt around but only because she’s her own person and not subservient to him. Triss, on the other hand, feels very much like someone who has always loved Geralt but isn’t as familiar with him as Yennefer.
Geralt’s relationship with Ciri is great as well. You don’t often see a father-daughter relationship like this in video games. I love how bits of story are imparted through incidental dialogue. A great example is when Philippa Eilhart notes how uncomfortable it must be for Ciri when Geralt and Yennefer are her de facto parents and Triss plays the part of the elder sister but Triss is all too willing to fall into bed with Geralt when the opportunity presents itself. The previous games were also known for their sex sequences but I appreciated how these have been restrained in favor of better developed romantic relationships. Though there are still sex scenes, most of them are very generic now. All in all, the game’s attitude towards sex seems to be matured over time and I really appreciated that.
There are plenty of things that I dislike about the story. It’s weird that the Wild Hunt are now merely an invading force from another world with none of the mystical stuff about how they are spectral rider who recruit the souls of great warriors. I don’t understand how Geralt once rode for them. Do they have some kind of mind control magic or something? In this game, their warriors all seem to be elves from another world. I also serious problems with how powerful magic seems to be in the Witcher universe and how few restraints it has. How can Triss and her fellow mages be trapped in Novigrad if they can teleport? Why is Geralt and everyone else so protective of Ciri when in-game she is by far the most powerful fighter? It’s laughable how easy fights are when you control her instead of Geralt. The events in the final fight flow kind of oddly with both Skellige and Nilfgaard helping against the Wild Hunt and Ciri popping off to stop the White Frost. Why does everyone seem to love Ciri even if they hate everyone else and even each other?
Anyway these story problems didn’t stop me from enjoying a truly fantastic game. I was much more bothered by how distracting the side-quests are and how the game feels too busy with so many moving parts. I even found myself wondering how much better the story would flow if it were presented in the style of a Telltale-style adventure game. I definitely disliked the more open-world presentation of this game and preferred the more linear experience of earlier games. That helps allay some of the disconnect between the urgency of the main quests and Geralt gallivanting all over the place to do minor stuff. As it is, I felt thoroughly exhausted by the game due to all the optional activities and even though I like the writing I don’t feel very enthusiastic about the DLC content.