By the time I finished playing The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt some three weeks after release, I’d spent over 130 hours toiling away in its virtual world. That’s five and a half full days of questing, hunting, exploring, dying and killing. In that time I surveyed a land mass larger than any game I’d ever played before; saw some of the most beautiful sights I’d ever seen my Xbox produce and experienced the highs and lows of long-form storytelling. Perhaps what’s most marvellous about CD Projekt Red’s latest offering, however, is that despite how long I played it to reach completion, I yearn to keep exploring.
Following on from the events of the previous game, players find Geralt dreaming of his old Witcher training school, Kaer Morhen, and his adopted Witcher daughter, Ciri. The Wild Hunt, an other-worldly army of warriors that signal the beginning of the end times, are pursuing Ciri across the Continent. Geralt’s fears for Ciri are confirmed later upon discovering Geralt’s partner, Yennefer the sorceress, who tasks Geralt with discovering Ciri’s whereabouts and saving her from The Wild Hunt. Geralt is given a number of potential leads to follow, then set upon the world and left to his own devices.
Following these few simple leads pushes Geralt into the positively massive world. Littered with small townships, dank caves and nests of fearsome monsters, there is always something over the next ridge for the player to explore. Each of the dozens of smaller towns has noticeboards full of quests and favours to perform for the local townsfolk, as well as a litany of notes about the world in the surrounding area. There’s a true sense that each location is there for a purpose; not just because a level designer determined it should be. The small town upon a rocky hill laments on the lack of food and the extortion of local merchants; whilst the village on the side of a forest complains of monster attacks at night, when the town guard cannot adequately see all adversaries. When Geralt is set loose to explore the land at his own speed, it truly feels as though there is an entire world to be explored.
There’s no two ways about it: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt sets a new industry standard for RPG’s. Almost every aspect of its gameplay is master crafted, with a fine focus on ensuring the player has a tough, but fair time adventuring in the open world. In combat, monsters each have strengths and weaknesses that can be read about in a detailed bestiary, detailing which spell signs and sword oils will provide damage buffs and aid in defeating the foe. An early quest tasks Geralt with hunting a Noonwraith, a monster who is almost impervious to sword damage unless a particular spell has been cast. The combat has been simplified a little from the previous title (you no longer have to unlock a perk to be able to block), but it is far from being easy. Approaching a gang of lowly Nekkers when unprepared can still spell your doom quite easily.
Like any good RPG, The Witcher 3 is bursting at the seams with quality loot and special items. The swords and armour equipped by Geralt are all exquisite and uniquely detailed, with a real sense of progression as the game goes on. Loot can be broken down into materials, which can be used to reforge new items and armour if the player has found the requisite blueprints. A series of quests pushes Geralt towards finding special Witcher gear across the continent that not only provides fantastic stat bonuses, but also encourages exploration to the far outer reaches of the map. Though encumbrance is constantly an issue and there is nowhere to store items out of your inventory, the bountiful loot and crafting in The Witcher 3 will drive players to keep exploring for days on end.
With a reported voice cast of nearly 900 people, it is extremely rare to hear the same voiced character twice, especially amongst quest-givers. Though there are some decidedly boring fetch-quests to endure through, the Witcher Contracts are almost all fantastic. Geralt is tasked with hunting and killing some unique foe that has proven bothersome by using his Witcher senses to locate the monster. Holding the left trigger makes Geralt see the world through Batman’s Detective Vision and highlights tracks and scents that ordinary men could never hope to follow. These lead to a unique monster which requires the very best of the player to tame – failing to prepare properly will lead to almost certain doom. They are unmistakeably awesome, and all are well worth completing – The Lord of The Wood is one of my favourite pieces of monster design I’ve ever come across.
The central plot to The Witcher 3 may be somewhat tame compared to its predecessor’s story of regicide and corruption, but there is a beauty in its simplicity: a father’s quest to find his daughter. Of course, just like the most successful works of fiction, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Something as straightforward as the relationship between Geralt, Yennefer and Ciri should be easily summarised, but their complex past’s means that you’d need a couple paragraphs to fully explain it.
Newer players will be undoubtedly confused about the nuances of the characters, and unfortunately the journal entries on each character have been written in the second person from another character with a very distinct tone and artistic flair. Without outside research, the density of the world can be a tad too much to bear, and will leave certain players cold. I implore you: if you feel as confused as I was, read this excellent summary from Kotaku that answers many of the questions the game leaves ambiguous. I respect the developers for not wanting to retread their own story, but a simple “the story so far” option on the main menu wouldn’t go astray.
Once you have a handle on the past, the story beats are almost uniformly fantastic. Troubled times have come to the people of Redania, with large-scale war threatening to break out at any time. Strangely, despite the threats of widespread war encroaching on their lives, the populace don’t really seem to mind – rather, most folk are more worried about the famine and interpersonal strife that threaten their daily lives. The peril of future invasion and death instead becomes this stifling blanket of dread that covers the land and seems to figuratively drain the colour and liveliness out of people. Death will take them all, sooner or later.
130 hours is a long time to play anything, and as a result the quality of the storytelling waxes and wanes at times. I definitely started feeling some frustration over certain story arcs that felt like padding, and certain character beats don’t necessarily ring true. However, moments in quest lines like the Bloody Baron, or the quiet moment in a house eerily reminiscent of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves are filled with such passion and emotion that they will stick with any player for years to come. Though the story can grow a little stale, its emotional highs are much, much higher than most of its contemporaries. It’s an astonishingly well crafted plot.
Combining a well told story with a massive world and excellent gameplay is always a recipe for success. Just as the player grows weary of the quest to find Ciri, there is a litany of Monster Hunts to complete. When the player (somehow) tires of the immensely beautiful world, there’s a small, deep card game to lose another dozen hours into. There’s always something else to do just across the horizon, another challenge to best. The Witcher 3 is spectacularly well crafted, polished to near-perfection and presented almost without fault. It is the standard bearer for what an RPG can be, and how an engaging narrative can be created out of sheer simplicity: The love of a father for his daughter.