I would like to preface this review by stating that I have not played the previous two games in the series. This experience is my first. I only need a single word to describe this game in its entirety; Wow. Never before has a video game given me an experience quite like this before. A comment like that is typically used for hyperbole but I genuinely mean it. The Witcher 3 is quite possibly the greatest video game that I have ever played, and I am about to dig into just why.
This game begins after the previous two games, how much further into the future I can not say; however, the year of the game’s setting is completely irrelevant as it does an incredible job of providing you with all of the context you need to understand everything. The previous two Witcher games are very different experiences to this one and the developers must have anticipated that this game would be the entry point to the series for many players and they put in the effort to make sure that your first experience with this series is a pleasant one.
The story revolves Gerarlt, the titular Witcher, on a quest to find his adoptive daughter Ciri; who serves as the macguffin for this story. Ciri possesses a strange power that is capable of destroying the world, resulting in her being pursued by an evil army known as the Wild Hunt. The search for Ciri is actually only a small portion of the overall game, and this is where the true strength of the game comes into play. The overwhelming majority of what makes this game so great is the perfect blending of quality writing, storytelling, and voice acting; and you find most of these elements inside of the quest system. Most of the game play takes the form of the side quests, not the main quest line, which serve as a means to develop all of the supporting characters in the game and give you their backstories. Because there are a lot of supporting characters in the story, and the side quests serve to develop them, this game is LONG. My playtime was clocked at 70+ hours to finish, and I left a large number of quests. I have friends that spent well over 100 inside of this world trying to do more than I did.
I found, while playing, that typically when I started a main story quest I would pick up somewhere between 5-10 side quests that I can complete while poking at the main objective. Very frequently I decided to postpone the main story and work on one of these side quests because of how compelling I thought they were. The resolution of a side quest will lead directly into another side quest, and another, and another. Sometimes you will start a quest chain while already working on a quest chain for a different character, and the whole situation can spiral out of control. Quests can be directly related to one another and sometimes the resolution of one quest chain can lead to something completely different; only linked together by virtue of the characters involved, like when Geralt helps his best friend, Dandelion, start a theater. After a lengthy quest chain, the theatre finally opens and on opening night the lead actress is the victim of a brutal assault and Geralt finds himself, on a different quest chain, going through the sewers looking for clues to discover who committed this attack.
This constant assault of new quests only works because of the strength of the writing and voice acting. Every single character (with the exception of a few single use throw away characters) is a deep, multidimensional character with goals, motivations, aspirations, friends, enemies, and with the voice acting bringing them to life. Lesser games would feature bland voice acting for cardboard cutout characters. The strength of the writing and performances transcend the medium, which has a history of poor writing and voice performances.
Another positive element of The Witcher 3 is the stunning visuals. The characters look great, and being able to see these characters move around the world and interact with things is a treat. One thing that I was not aware of at first, but I slowly started to notice is that the characters age while you play (at least Geralt does). Geralt’s hair, and facial hair will grow while you play, and you can either leave it alone and have a scruffy Witcher, or you can visit a barber to style his hair and wait for it to grow out again to be able to repeat the whole process. This is just a tiny little throwaway feature, but it adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the experience, and I imagine that it was a real pain to develop.
The real showstopper, visually, is the environments and the world. I was playing the game on my new computer that features a Nvidia GeForce GTX970, and I had all of the settings cranked up to their maximum, and I was blown away by all of the landscapes that I was able to see; ice capped mountains, sparkling oceans, and lush forests looked marvelous from afar and continued to impress when I finally made my way to each of these locations.
What would great locations be without great monsters to slay? Thankfully The Witcher 3 has that covered. You will be forced to engage with your standard open world creates like wolves, bears, and standard fantasy monsters like griffins, werewolves and vampires. Because this is a game from a Polish developer, based off of a Polish series of novels, there are things that I was unfamiliar with, like striggas, water hags, and downers. I am not sure if these are common creates in Polish folklore but I still appreciated something different than the normal fantasy fare being thrown at me.
There are very few bosses in this game, but thankfully the bosses that are present share most of the attention to detail that the rest of the characters do. Unfortunately, the bosses are not quite as complex as other characters; they are defined a lot more by a singular objective than other characters, many of them came off as if they were evil just because the plot demanded it and their actions were defined by them being evil. Despite this they are still great characters to engage with both through dialog and in combat.
After all of this gushing I will say that this game does have its flaws, after all no game is completely perfect. The only core aspect that I could describe as disappointing is that the combat does leave a little bit to be desired. I played on the medium difficulty, which let me regain health through mediation, and found the combat to be very repetitive. The game taught me about potions, and different attack and defense stances, that I didn’t use whatsoever. I just slashed and dodged over and over and over, which didn’t bother me enough to be an issue. I am sure that the combat is a lot more engaging on the harder difficulties, but my experience with the combat in The Witcher 3 was nothing like my experience in Bloodborne.
The one feature that I found completely off putting, that I completely avoided, was the card mini game Gwent. There are some quests that are based around this Collectable Card Game. Some of them were actual issues that some people could conceivably get into, like a friend who has a gambling problem related to this game, or another who spends all of his money looking for rare cards; but the quests that involved me playing this game were just completely avoided. I didn’t find this card game fun to engage with and I didn’t bother to properly learn the rules resulting with me having a frustrating time with it in the few situations where playing it was mandatory to proceed.
I, personally, wouldn’t let these two, minor, issues get in the way of experiencing my 2015 Game of the Year, especially because one of them can be completely avoided. The depth and complexity of the characters would be more than enough to get people interested in this game. What will keep them coming back again and again is how often you will find yourself engaged in a quest or mission that you find yourself personally invested in and want to see to the end, only to have that lead into another quest that is equally engaging.