I’ll be honest here: I had to give up any thought of completing this monstrously large game if I ever hoped to get a review out while it’s still relevant. Take that as your first bit of info – The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is a beast of a game that will keep you busy for many, many hours.
My previous experience with the Witcher series is limited to a lengthy foray into the first game (that ended abruptly when my car was stolen with my laptop in it), and the first few minutes of the second game, which runs so poorly on my current PC that I can’t play it. Along the way I did pick up some elements of the general story and setting. Players assume the role of Geralt, a professional monster slayer called a Witcher, who has become a killing machine through a combination of genetic mutation, magical infusion and intense training. These Witchers wander the land, looking for people who are troubled by monsters and removing the problem – for a price.
In this adventure, Geralt responds to a letter from his former lover, a sorceress named Yennefer, who tells him that his adopted daughter Ciri is being pursued by the Wild Hunt, a sort of ghostly, otherworldly army. There’s also a bit of intrigue regarding the Nilfgaardian Empire in the south, which is pushing ever further north into Temeria, conquering the bickering, “barbarous” northern kingdoms with ease – but really, that’s all just a backdrop for Geralt’s quest to find his wayward daughter.
Upon starting the game, you’ll find yourself in a charming little village and its surrounding countryside. It’s quite extensive, but it’s really just a small area to give you a taste of all the different mission and activity types in the game. Once you beat the first boss, a giant griffin (which introduces you to the Witcher contracts), you’ll find yourself in a much, much larger open world. Melee combat in The Witcher 3 employs a fast-paced, real-time, weak attack, heavy attack, block, and dodge setup. On paper it may seem simple, but the game’s combat is plenty deep enough, with each enemy type requires a different strategy to beat.
Human enemies can be bothersome when they appear in mixed groups of ranged attackers, melee attackers, shield bearers and heavy hitters. Learning the proper timing for parrying is quite handy against humans. You might want to employ some potions, maybe a bomb or some magic to make things more expedient – but really, as long as you learn to take out the ranged attackers first, and to not get surrounded, you shouldn’t have too much trouble with humans.
The monsters are a different kettle of fish. Some require you to learn their patterns so you can develop a rhythm of dodging and attacking that will work even against groups. Others might be weak against a particular one of Geralt’s magical Signs, or a particular blade oil, or a certain kind of bomb. Some might not be obviously weak to any conventional strategy at all.
For instance, I had a lot of trouble with wraiths early on, because they have a habit of disappearing, then reappearing with a three-hit combo attack that’s impossible to block and nearly impossible to dodge. I read a hint somewhere to use the Yrden Sign, which creates a ring that slows enemies who enter it – but it didn’t seem to help. Eventually, I realised that the Yrden trap slowed them down enough to let me get an attack in between the first and second hit of their deadly three-hit combo. So all I had to do was cast Yrden, stand in it, block the wraith’s first attack and then counter attack before their next two attacks landed. Suddenly, wraiths were no longer the deadly threat they used to be.
There are several types of enemies in the game that have similar tricks to beating them. Using Quen (the shield spell) against heavy hitters will make your life easier. Snuffing the flames of fire-based foes with the Aard sign is a must, and you can make shield carriers drop their guard using the mind control sign Axii.
The enemies targeted in Witcher contracts are the highlights of the game. Usually found as part of the main story quests or as the highest-paying missions on town notice boards, these contracts require that Geralt do some preparation, finding out what kind of enemy it is, then mixing up the relevant potions, blade oils and bombs beforehand. If you’re not playing on easy or normal difficulty, you’ll definitely want to do this, especially if the enemy is a few levels higher than you. You’ll still need to be able to figure out the monster’s attack patterns and improvise your response on the fly, but it definitely gives you an edge. These enemies are often unique, so they’ll bust out moves and attacks you haven’t seen before. Killing these enemies bags you a lot of experience, some great loot and alchemical bits you can cut out of them, along with a trophy you can display on your horse that grants you some form of buff – like bonus gold, or bonus XP, or a higher chance to dismember enemies.
Outside of combat, you’ll mostly be collecting ingredients to make alchemical creations. The way alchemy works is that you only have to brew each potion, bomb, blade oil or decoction once. After that, your supply of each one is refilled whenever you meditate. You can also find new weapons, armour and horse gear – or collect the components to craft them. You can’t craft your own weapons and armour, but you can find smiths all over the place to do it for you, as long as you supply them with the materials and some gold.
Another important element of the Witcher games is putting the player in the position to make difficult choices – often with pretty heavy consequences later on. I messed up everything in the main quest-line of an area, for example, causing a man’s wife to be punished for something I did, his estranged daughter to not return home, and the poor slob to hang himself from a tree. Well, shit. I didn’t intend it to turn out that way – but those several interwoven quests took hours to do, and so, although it sucks, I’ve got to live with it.
From time to time, you’ll also have to make less impactful choices in side quests, but with a few levels put into your mind-control Sign, it’s quite trivial to get your way in every confrontation by waving your hand and saying “this isn’t the Witcher you’re looking for”. So that could’ve used some work.
I’m actually hard-pressed to come up with criticisms for the game, but I found myself fixated on one gripe in particular: for a game that attempts to be so real in so many areas, it’s depressing that the best they could do to limit player progression is something as fake and artificial as simply increasing enemy levels in certain areas. You can smack around drowners in the first area with ease, but you’ll encounter drowners a bit later that can kill you by flicking your ears. Bad form, CD Projekt RED, bad form.
Anyway, there’s plenty more I could say about this one, but I’ll leave it at that. If you give The Witcher 3 a bit of time, it’ll suck you in and hold you fast with its slick, in-depth combat, cinematic story and maps full of hundeds of things to do. RPG fans, just buy it right now. You won’t regret it.