Geralt is the most patient RPG protagonist I have ever had the pleasure of playing. Insults, assaults, discrimination, and tedious tasks — Geralt deals with them all on a regular basis and, aside from a sarcastic comment and a sigh, takes them in his stride. Yet when the fate of his “adopted” daughter Ciri is on the line, he transforms; his patience wears thins, he lashes out more quickly, and he will stop at nothing in the search for the ashen-haired young woman and the ghostly Wild Hunt that pursues her. It’s this attention to detail in each character, spoken word, item, and piece of lore that makes The Witcher 3 such a special game — one that any RPG fan should play.
I should note that my experience with the series was limited before playing The Witcher 3: I played approximately half-way through The Witcher and about one-quarter of The Witcher 2. My inability to finish either was due to technical issues and time constraints, rather than a dislike of either title. Fortunately, I had no such issues with Wild Hunt and, while I have not yet fully experienced all it has to offer (it’s massive!), I have spent dozens of hours with the game. For those of you who may be in a similar position, The Witcher 3 is fully playable without any experience with previous entries in the series. Still, there are a significant number of returning characters and plot allusions you’ll be oblivious to, which would be a bit of a shame. Fortunately, there’s a fairly comprehensive in-game glossary and character bios that will help you out, though the tiny text makes them a migraine-inducing read.
You will undoubtedly need to refer to that encyclopaedia of knowledge on multiple occasions, as the world of The Witcher 3 is staggering in size, scope, and personality. There are countless NPCs that inhabit towns, cities, farms, outlying shacks, and these are just the humans. While most fall into the unimportant peasant category, they breathe life into a staggeringly realistic, albeit dark and depressing, world. As you ride through the countryside, you’ll see all these people living their lives: farmers tilling the soil, couples arguing, guards on patrol, prostitutes calling for clients, and the grisly fates of those who strayed too far into the wilds. While side-quests are mostly found on notice boards in each town, you’ll also find large and small tasks you can take on as you encounter these everyday ordinary people.
The main quest is lengthy, at somewhere over 40-50 hours, though it is exploration and side-quests that will easily take over 100 hours of gameplay. There are dozens and dozens of quests available across the huge world, from tracking murderers to subduing local monsters to horse races to finding missing people, to name just a few. There’s a terrific variety of jobs available, and I always looked forward to what each one would throw at me. Great care has been taken to craft quests that amount to more than “kill 10 of these,” and most feature their own self-contained short stories that are no less thrilling than the main plot. It’s a shame that the progression of most tasks is roughly the same: ask the locals, search for clues using Geralt’s Witcher Senses that highlight relevant objects, follow tracks, and then confront/kill a target. The actual objectives vary enough to remaining interesting, but the process eventually begins to feel rote.
Exploration, however, remains engaging throughout the adventure. The swamps of Velen, streets of Novigrad, and frozen forests of Skellige are filled with hundreds of points worth discovering. Speaking with locals, reading books, and finding maps are just a few ways to discover secret locations filled with treasure, power-ups, or opportunities for experience. Conveniently marked on the world map, you can visit these places at your leisure, and while some are simple monster nests that should be destroyed, others are ruined lighthouses, grand castles, or dwellings of evil demons. It’s important to note, however, that The Witcher 3 is not a true open world, but a handful of incredibly large self-contained areas. Within each area, there are no screen transitions: you can walk in and out of a city or house without a loading screen, but you can’t simply walk or swim from one region to another. A long loading time when you start your game prevents any in-game holdup, though you’re treated to another long load every time you die, which can be a real annoyance, since you’re likely to see it on multiple occasions.
In addition to its size and population, the world of The Witcher 3 is beautiful, too. Well, beautiful in a “no one is ever happy” sort of way. The frost peaks of Skellige are a real adventure to traverse, and the creepy swamps of Velen, complete with human ears impaled on sticks, will keep you on edge. There are sparse pine forests, dense woods, open plains, rocky hills, treacherous coastlines, islands, and more, and they’re all simply beautiful. Filled with vegetation, small animals, stunning scenery and, uh, dead people hung from trees, the technical achievement of Wild Hunt is a true marvel. There’s some occasional frame rate slowdown on PS4, but it’s minor and infrequent. Perhaps the highlight of the visuals is character models, Geralt in particular. Watching facial expressions in conversations give away as much as (sometimes more than) the actual words the characters speak.
When it comes to combat, the visuals are maximised for blood and violence. Geralt can rip into enemies with either his silver or steel blade, and now automatically chooses the appropriate sword depending on his opponent. Battles are a difficult yet simple affair of light attacks, heavy attacks, blocking, and parrying. Fights against human opponents rarely require special tactics or much strategy on the normal level of difficulty, though encounters against specialist monsters can be more challenging. For those, it’s often necessary to make use of Geralt’s witcher arsenal: special oils and potions, bombs, and magic known as Signs to burn foes, shield yourself, or influence minds. Reading up on a monster via the bestiary before fighting it can deliver invaluable insight such as the most useful Signs or potions to use — a necessity on higher difficulty levels. CD Projekt Red encourage you to truly think and act like a witcher.
Unlike other recent open world RPGs, there’s no level scaling in The Witcher 3. As such, you’ll encounter enemies far too difficult to defeat when you’re just starting out. I enjoyed this for a change, as it allowed me to feel the significance that levelling up, crafting or finding new equipment, and improving Geralt’s abilities had. Character customisation is quite in-depth: you gain ability points that can be assigned to increase the power of attacks, modify how Signs work, improve potions, and dozens more. You can craft a massive variety of equipment by finding diagrams, and special runes can also be assigned into empty slots to further specialise. You can step into the role of Geralt even more through a significant number of dialogue options, most of which will strongly affect the outcome of a particular quest or whether a character will help you. NPCs remember what you tell them too; occasionally alerting others to your deeds, affecting whether they might help or hinder you further down the track. There’s no good and evil in the Witcher, just choices and consequences.
The world of The Witcher 3 is pure delight for any RPG and fantasy fan. You should be warned that the game is filled with incredibly dark and sometimes disturbing themes: undead babies, rape, murder, coarse language, and a range of sexual encounters. Sometimes the content feels forced, cheesy, or awkward, but it is mostly treated in a gritty but mature way. If none of those deter you, then The Witcher 3 should be at the top of your purchase list. There are some glitches, though I encountered few myself, and the controls are occasionally unresponsive, but the developers have already released a couple of patches with more on the way. You could easily spend hundreds of hours exploring the world of Wild Hunt, completing quests and meeting memorable characters. And, I suspect, that’s exactly what you will do.