Continuing from where I left off, I managed to find Yennefer (sorceress and Geralt's lover), but our reunion just means that I have to find someone else. Namely, a girl named Ciri, who Geralt helped teach at Witcher school when she was a child. Now she's grown to be a warrior. She also happens to be the emperor's daughter, and he's offering a lot of incentive for me to help find her. Geralt has his own reasons for wanting to locate the girl, the least of which being that the Wild Hunt appears to be after her too. So, I agree without any fuss.
Out in the emperor's courtyard, there's a hustler who teaches people how to play the card game, Gwent. From what I can gather, it's a strategy game where each player lays down cards on the table to form an army. If played well, the combined might of the army and abilities should be enough to overwhelm the opponent's. Despite how straightforward the rules are, I lost every match I had with the guy, practically guaranteeing that I wouldn't be interested in gambling with cards again.
Moving on from cards, I set off to meet with the emperor's informant, who could lead me to Ciri. The griffin head is tied to the side of my horse, and it looks fantastic. I really want to make a bigger show if it to intimidate anyone who wants to mess with me. However, it doesn't work that way. It also looks like the Wild Hunt got to the informant first, and I have to analyze the clues he left behind. I'm getting the sense that The Witcher 3 is actually an open world detective game, since you always come across crime scenes and dead bodies, and the only way to figure out what happened is to use your Witcher senses and keen observational skills. You also conduct more than a few interrogations.
I also get the feeling that the lengthy tutorial left me woefully unprepared for real world combat. Although the game teaches you how to fight a single opponent, but single enemies are extremely rare. More often you have to fight two drowners at a time, or a pack of wolves, or a whole bunch of heavily armed bandits. The game throws you a bone with a couple bar room brawls, but they don't adequately prepare you for what's out there, especially when bandits carry heavy axes, fire crossbows, and sometimes have a red skull icon over their heads denoting that they shouldn't be messed with. My characters in the peculiar position where he could go toe-to-toe with a giant bear, but has trouble with a camp full of axe-swinging bandits. I wish the game had more stealth elements so that I can thin out the herd before going into battle.
Areas also unevenly distribute different enemy levels. At one point, you could slaughter a huge mob of corpse eaters (ill-named because they eat the living, too), then ride down the road a few yards and you'll come across a group of "don't mess with me" bandits. There are a number of confrontations and moral choices I had to walk away from because there was no way for me to win. Furthermore, experience isn't necessarily tied to killing. I don't gain experience by running up and down the shore, killing every monster I see. The only way to gain experience is to complete quests and contracts. In other words, I actually have to do the job of a Witcher to be a better Witcher.
This is a more realistic approach to leveling up a character in role-playing game, but players should be prepared to spend a lot of time doing odd jobs while looking for your main objective. The informant's clues lead me to the Bloody Baron, who resides in a nearby keep. There's a nice story about how he got the title, and how he and his men are actually deserters from the local army. There are a number of moral decisions to be made, depending on how I think Geralt should react to the ongoing war. It's clear that the emperor's attack, although unprovoked, will succeed. Plus, he doesn't live here, and he's currently in the employ of the emperor, so I don't see any profit in being judgmental. But I do have to wonder if my ambivalence will come back to bite me.
Anyway, back to the quest. The Baron tells the story of how he met Ciri, and for the sake of the take, I get to play as her. She's much faster than Geralt, and carries only one sword instead of two. She also has showy dash to dodge attacks, but doesn't have access to Witcher powers. I guess she didn't graduate from Witcher academy after all. It seems her speed and dodge were exactly what I've been missing, because I make short work of the local wolves and their werewolf leader. It almost makes me wish I was playing this game entirely from Ciri's point of view, since I'm terrible as Geralt.
But the Baron is only willing to tell me half the story. As expected, nothing in the world of The Witcher comes free. An ongoing theme of this game is that I often have to find people to find people, and this situation is no different. I do have the option to turn down jobs, but somehow I don't think that tactic will get me very far. The Baron's wife and daughter have disappeared, whisked away in the night, with no witnesses with a clue to where they went. After I use some Witcher investigative prowess, I determine that there was a struggle and that one of the women left behind a charm of protection.
I seek out the charm maker, who might have information about who or what has the two women, but he is being threatened by a group of unhappy customers as I ride up. Given how I'm not very good at group combat, I decide to solve the situation with diplomacy instead of whipping out my sword. I listen to their problem, tell the men the proper way of helping their friend get better, and they leave, giving me some experience in doing so.
Again, nothing is free. In order for this guy to tell me where the two women might be, I first have to locate Princess... his pet goat. More finding things for Witcher Investigations. Going into the woods, killing wolves, locating the goat, and leading it back with a bell (seriously, nobody uses a leash?) is a bit of a pain, but it pays off. The man contacts the spirits, who inform him that the Baron is actually a wife beater and that he pretty much forced his family to flee the Keep.
I return to the Keep to find that the stables are fire, and the men are apparently too scared to help put it out. No wonder they deserted the frontline. I rescue the man trapped inside along with the horses, and the Baron comes out to congratulate me. Instead of accepting his compliments, I issue a beatdown. After a good pummeling, the Baron admits to everything. How he flew into drunken rages and is directly responsible for his wife's miscarriage. I'm not exactly inclined to help this guy find his family, but I need information on Ciri, so what choice to I have? There's no option to beat it out of him.
Anyway, the violent miscarriage might have been a good thing... well, as good as terrible things can be. The Baron's mishandling of the fetus caused it to become a monster called a botchling. This angry little beasty feeds off fetuses from expecting mothers, then attacks its parents when it grows strong enough. I could either kill the abomination, or the Baron and I could rehabilitate it so that it becomes a household guardian spirit. I'm not in the practice of killing babies unless they attack first, so I tell dear old dad to give the botchling a big old hug so we can save it.
It turns out, transporting a botchling across the keep is a lot of trouble because its presence lures in malignant spirits. Out of all the monsters I've faced so far, spirits have got to be the worst. They teleport all over the place, and the camera doesn't always swivel around to track them. Now I need to fight two groups of four, each teleporting in to take cheap swipes at me. Eventually, I make it through the fights, get the Baron to accept the baby as part of the family, and give it a proper burial. A day later, I have a nice little guardian spirit leading me across the countryside.
The mother is still missing somewhere, but I get a location on the daughter. Although the Bloody Baron is willing to give me some more information, he won't tell the whole story until I actually speak to his daughter and find out where in the world his wife is. He seems reformed now that he's taken responsibility for being an awful human being. Still not sure how far I'm willing to go to help him find his family, but I have a mission, and I could really use the money and experience. So, off I go to meet to the runaway lady on behalf of her sucky dad.