There’s a moment in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’s 200 hour open world campaign where the protagonist Geralt of Rivia is galloping before the setting sun turns the sky a tranquil pink on his trusty stead, Roach, into unexplored woods after taking down a group of bandits. It’s a calm moment in a game filled with tense battles, but it caused me to realize how expansive and alive the world of The Witcher really was.
Released on PC, PS4, and Xbox One, The Witcher 3 picks up sometime after the events of The Witcher 2, following Geralt, with a now fully restored memory, attempting to track down his adoptive daughter Ciri. The Witcher 3 improves in almost every way over its predecessors, offering an expansive world to explore and immersive fights against mythological creatures. Where the game falters is its dense mythology and backstory may be off-putting to newcomers. Those who haven’t played the past two games may struggle to keep up with characters’ relationships to each other and the overall main story. If you can look past its sometimes convoluted story, this game really acts as the conclusion to The Witcher saga, drawing from elements of the past two games and the novel series. If this is the end of the road for Geralt and his companions, developer CD Projekt RED certainly crafted a suitable final chapter.
The main narrative of the story follows the aforementioned quest to find Ciri, a Witcher in her own right, before the Wild Hunt, an otherworldly dark force, can. Where the main campaign struggles is that a sense of urgency is never really felt. Barring a few moments, I never really felt like the forces of darkness was closing in on Geralt and his friends. The main story really acts as a thrust to take Geralt across the many warring kingdoms and immerse himself in other characters’ stories and problems. The Bloody Baron’s story arc was particularly memorable, as the the game portrays him as both sympathetic and antagonistic. That is certainly true of many of the game’s characters. After certain missions, you will briefly assume the role of the ever elusive Ciri, who always seems just out of Geralt’s reach. Despite not sharing much screen time, the father–daughter relationship between the two comes to a satisfying payoff.
“The world doesn’t need a hero. It needs a professional,” Geralt laments, and that true of The Witcher’s sprawling story. Never once during Geralt’s quest to find Ciri did I feel like I was making the right choice, only the lesser of two evils. At one point, you must choose whether to free or condemn a demonic tree spirit that claims it can save a group of children from being eaten by a trio of witches. Either choice comes with negative consequences that players might not see until it’s too late. Where most games offer the choice to be the hero or villain, The Witcher 3 presents something more realistic and ultimately more subtle. It presents choices, both positive and negative, and allows players to shape the world without judgement, without a karma wheel. In the world of Geralt, everything and everyone is bathed in grey. The game offers 3 different endings and 300 variants on those endings, based on players’ choices. In the end based on those choices, players choose the ultimate fate of Geralt and how his story ends.
Side missions and Witcher contracts are what really make the game standout, offering interesting self contained tales and further exploration. Through side missions, characters who only briefly appear in the main story are fleshed out and given appropriate story arcs. Through side missions, Geralt can open a handful of romantic options in the game. For example, Trish Merigold, Geralt’s former love interest in previous games, benefits from such side missions as her rocky relationship with Geralt is explored. Players have the option to either begin their relationship anew or bid her farewell as she leaves. Side missions offer plenty of interesting new characters and returning characters alike, giving a sense of a living breathing world. Witcher contracts are found on sign posts in villages and cities, warning of mythological creatures attacking locals in the area. Once accepted, Geralt will have to traverse the forest terrain in search of clues for the monster’s whereabouts and weaknesses. Each contract felt unique offering a various degree of challenge and provided some insight into what Geralt does for a living.
Gameplay is a mixture of heavy and light attacks, dodges, parries, and blocks. I must confess it took me a little while to get use to the game’s combat system, with many of the game’s early hours spent staring at that infernal load screen (which is almost as long as Bloodborne’s). The Witcher 3 isn’t a game that rewards random button mashing: that’s a quick way to get yourself killed. Instead, many enemies require you to chip health away, dodge an attack, parry another, and attack again. Once you get the hang of it, combat evolves into a certain rhythmic dance. Thankfully, you’ll also have a variety of Witcher abilities called Signs at your disposal to help take the fight to the mythological monsters. Among the five Witcher Signs is the ability to cast fire, slow enemies in a trap, or cast a shield around yourself. You can also equip a crossbow to shoot at enemies from afar, but it doesn’t damage creatures as much as close combat.
Outside of combat, players can craft potions for various effects or craft armor and new weapons out of found materials. Health is replenished by eating an assortment of food. Almost any item in the game can be dismantled into its base components allowing you to craft new items out of others. Your armor and weapons must be repaired at blacksmiths, or they’ll break. Scavenger hunts are available, requiring you to travel across the map and find hidden locations, but you are rewarded with stronger and more damage resistant armor. In taverns and cities, you can challenge shopkeepers and others to a game of Gwent. Gwent is a card game, reminiscent of Chess mixed with a game of Chicken, where players lay down cards assigned with different numerical values that are added toward an overall score. Whoever has the largest score wins the round, but since cards aren’t regenerated between rounds, the game becomes more strategic and complicated than you would think. Overall, these elements add a spice of variety outside of combat and make exploration that much more enjoyable. Finding a Witcher armor diagram, exploring an abandoned mine, or beating the Bloody Baron in a game of gwent puts you in the role of Geralt—it makes you feel like a Witcher.
There are some games you barrel through and can finish in a weekend, and then there are games that come around ever so often that stick with you for weeks. The Witcher 3 is thankfully the latter offering immersive gameplay, exploration, and interesting characters. While the main story can get muddled, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt proves to be a satisfying and at times moving experience, bringing the story of the long traveling Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, to a close.