Atop my horse, I trotted into the city of Novigrad, working towards a quest. I was greeted by the gruesome scene of two elves, tied to stakes in the city’s central square. Witch hunters approached, and began to light the kindling beneath the elves, ignoring the pleas of one who insisted he was innocent. My stomach turned as I watched the scene: the screams rising, then slowing fading to moans, and later on to silence. Around me, the citizens of Novigrad watched, engrossed by the entire spectacle, apparently desensitized.
War is a terrible, destructive force. In The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, CD Projekt Red has captured this truth by showing us the small, intimate, everyday injustices left in the wake of an ongoing conflict. In doing so, the studio reminded me why they are such master storytellers, and why I love the series.
Gooseberries and Griffins
Setting off a mere 6 months after the events of the The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings, the empire of Nilffgaard has invaded the north, wiping out Temeria and Aerdin as they pillage and plunder their way further into the Northern Realms. The story with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt isn’t nearly as simple as it was in the previous games, however, as Geralt quickly learns his adopted-daughter, Ciri, has returned. The bad news is that she’s currently being pursued by the Wild Hunt, a group of specters looking to seize her power for themselves.
The first part of the story is used to introduce players to the expanded world of the Northern Realms. Though the game isn’t truly open world, it features massive open areas for players to wander, slay monsters, and explore. I found myself trapped within the first area for a few good hours, as I worked to complete the nearby Witcher Contract, and even to pull off some side quests. Once I was happy I’d explored the land enough, I headed back into town and met up with Vesemir, the oldest witcher still alive, and set off to slay my first boss, a Griffin.
The task wasn’t easy, but thanks to the armor I received after solving an armorer’s arson problem, I was more than well-equipped to defend myself from the giant eagle-wildcat hybrid of a beast. As you travel the land you’re going to find yourself up against some pretty tough choices. Many times the decisions you make will hold fast, affecting how the next quest you pick up plays out. Sometimes, you won’t even be able to pick up certain side quests, depending on your choice. The Witcher Series first introduced this mechanic in a large-scale during Assassin of Kings, which featured two separate storylines dependent on your choice of ally at the end of Act I. However, even with all the freedom available, the massive weight of your choices, and the ever looming consequences, the story didn’t really pick up until I ran into Yennefer at the end of the prologue.
Unlike the tales told in the second and first games, Wild Hunt takes a little time to build up. This isn’t a bad thing though, especially when you consider that this game is geared more towards newcomers of the series on a much larger scale than Assassins of Kings. Wild Hunt is also the first game where players get to experience Geralt’s work as a full-on witcher, as both of the previous games have been journeys to unlock memories that were lost. Since they don’t have the amnesia card to play anymore, CD Projekt Red has had to completely revamp their tutorial system. For those who remember Assassins of Kings tutorial section, it felt disconnected from the rest of the story. However, Wild Hunt’s prologue tutorial works out a lot better, and still manages to engrain the underlying story into the player’s mind as they struggle to take down the Royal Griffin that is terrorizing White Orchard.
There and Back Again
As with any RPG, I found myself running quite a bit throughout my time with the game. There are fast travel markers placed throughout the land, but I found more often than not, I could simply ride my horse to my destination faster than I could load back into the game. The long loading times on PS4 made it a bit annoying to have to travel between the different areas of the game, which you’ll probably find yourself doing quite a bit as you complete quests. It isn’t a game-breaker by any means, and I wouldn’t take off anything from the score for it, but it is something to keep in mind when heading off to blaze your own trail through the wilderness.
If It Isn't Broke...
As with many sequels, the studio has grown since its previous games were released. This means that gameplay mechanics and options have changed quite a bit. I can’t rightfully express in words just how happy I was to be able to jump whenever I felt like it. Previously the jump key had been bound to certain areas, and ledges. This had been one of my biggest issues with the prior games, as the inability to jump greatly reduced my mobility in combat.
Not everything has improved for the better, however, as CD Projekt Red has completely revamped the potion system. Instead of having to gather the materials each time you wanted to craft a Swallow potion, now you only need to craft it once. After that your potions will be refilled when meditating, so long as you have items like Dwarven Spirits and Alcohest. I understand why they changed it, it certainly makes the Alchemy easier, and even more sensible for new players. That doesn’t change the fact though that it wasn’t broken in the first place. Alchemy was harder to pull off, but that meant you made those precious moments of buffed up stats meaningful. Now everything feels second-hand, and if I find myself low on potions I simply stop, meditate for the shortest amount of time possible, and then continue on my way. Luckily later areas of the game wouldn’t allow me to even select the Meditation window, so I wasn’t able to gain an unfair advantage over the final bosses of the game.
Easy Peasy Beasties
That simplified approach extends to the combat as well. It's more streamlined than in previous games, but it's a double-edged sword, as it’s also been dumbed down a bit. Potions can now be used in battle, whereas before you needed to Meditate beforehand to use them. The difficulty also seems to have been lowered, as even on the Medium Difficulty, I find myself tearing through enemies that are high levels than I am. This means that you may want to turn your difficulty level upif you're an experienced Witcher. It isn’t a huge deal, after all, who doesn’t like decapitating Drowners with the push of a button? But it can be a bit annoying when you go into a boss battle expecting it to be a challenging and well-balanced fight, only to find that you’re under-leveled skills don’t matter, as you still end up beating your enemies to death with a few quick strokes.
The moment that comes to mind first, is a particular point in the game where I chose to make a snide comment and found myself staring down the blades of eight Redanian soldiers. I wasn’t really any match for them, as the quest I was currently working on was two levels above my current stats. My worry proved unnecessary, however, as I made quick work of them using my Igni Sign, and my Steel blade. I’ve had other moments like this, such as a contract Devil in the Well in white Orchard, where a level 2 Noonwraith died to my level 1 witcher in a few sword strokes. Overall this isn’t a huge issue, since the combat still feels exceptionally smooth, and it still feels appropriately satisfying to chop beasts in half. If you think this is a deal breaker, however, just bump your difficulty level up and go about your business.
The Next Generation of Witching
Several things have changed hardware wise since the release of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings in 2011. Now that the modern generation (still sometimes referred to as next-gen) of consoles has arrived, The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt was able to take advantage of more powerful hardware. However, it still wasn’t quite enough to keep up with the developer’s ambitions for the game. Several times I would enter towns and buildings to find them empty. Most times this was quickly resolved by the characters ‘popping’ into view. This only affected me during longer play sessions, but it doesn’t change the fact that it broke the immersion, and pulled me from the game. There were several times I found myself having to wait for characters like Triss, or Yennefer to pop into view so I could speak with them and finish out a quest. This isn’t anything I’d count off for, as the problem is more due to the console’s limitations than the game’s. But it is something that you should be aware of if you plan on playing Wild Hunt on a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One.
Meditation and Reflection
After over 77 hours of game time I’ve finally come to the end of The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. I haven’t completed all of the side quests by any means, and I’m currently gearing myself up to replay the game on PC. But it’s been a heck of a ride, with the story twisting and tearing my heart out every chance I gave it. Most of this heartbreak stems from the choices that I made, which is why I love this series so much. Even so, some of the simplified elements like potion crafting or combat left me wishing it had kept more of its legacy intact.
The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is a masterfully written rollercoaster, and though there is a lot to do in the game, I never felt overwhelmed by the Side Quests and optional tasks. CD Projekt Red has done a great job of bringing this saga to a close. The best part about all of this, however, is the fact that CD Projekt RED stayed true to its word. Every choice you make will determine how the story unfolds, and what the world becomes at the end of it all.
This review is based on a download code provided by the publisher. The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is available in retail stores and digitally for $59.99. The game is rated M.