The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is one of those games that seems to have such universal acclaim that it can scarcely be believed. And I must admit that I did not believe it. I’d tried the first game on the PC years ago and didn’t warm towards it at all – this is the level of enthusiasm I brought to the third entry. I had friends who recommended it really highly; but equally I had friends who had hopped on to it expecting the next Skyrim and had been hugely disappointed. The Witcher 3 is long. As far as I can tell I’ve yet to complete the first chapter. What do I think so far? That I’m glad I ignored my scepticism and finally made a start. It may not be flawless but the unique tone and compelling narrative that seems to set up almost every minor quest sucked me into the game quickly.
For the wholly unfamiliar The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the third entry in what I would have once called a niche role-playing series. The third game became something of a must-play for the Playstation 4 and Xbox One and seemed to boom in popularity. The Witcher series is based on books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. You can maybe tell that the game is based on a book. The setting feels inventive, the characters are fully-realised and everything takes places in a lore-rich, logically put together setting. Its the type of writing video games should be striving towards. Without knowing Sapkowski’s work, though, its difficult to tell which parts are drawn from the source material and which are invention. At times it may well feel like they’re going through every page in the open-world fantasy game handbook.
The main character is Geralt, the titular witcher – this world’s caste of monster hunter. Wielding two swords (one for monsters, one for men, as Geralt will menacingly remind people) and with a host of alchemical preparations and minor magical signs you understand Geralt’s specialism and experience through gameplay. Geralt is the man you want fighting your monsters. At the time time, something of a mutant and outcast, Geralt isn’t too popular with the peasantry himself – his yellow cat-eyes immediately giving what he is away. While the lack of a self-insert, blank-slate character (like, say, Skyrim) maybe detracts from some of the decisions you have to make as you play (how am I supposed to know how Geralt would react to every situation?) but it certainly makes for a more cohesive narrative. A little bit Highlander and a little bit Wolverine, Geralt’s non-plussed, expressionless crusade to help people and make a little bit of money doing it makes the game feel as much a horror anthology as a fantasy epic.
The Witcher 3, so far, is at its absolute best in its earliest areas. The Velen, the first stop Geralt makes, feels terrible in all the most right ways. Its a wholly separate tone to other fantasy games: everything feels hopeless. The landscape is bleak, barren and unappealing. The region has been ravaged by civil war. People are eking out an existence dirt-farming, if not starving. It shifts the context of the gameplay enough to make it feel different. Lots of games might send you to fight a monster near a well, but you’d be doing it for experience, money – just because its what you do in RPGs. In the Witcher there’s a subtle realisation that you’d be helping people who have nothing – actions feel like they have consequences, even outside of any gameplay mechanics. And, at times, this works the opposite way – you can fight your way across the Velen attempting to help people but you can’t escape the feeling that they’re still trapped in this awful place. It evokes a powerful folk-horror sensibility that all is not right with the world that is lost in later areas. The lit, relatively safe streets of Novigrad, for instance, populated with elves and dwarves, bring you back down to normal epic-fantasy land with a bump. There’s still a tangible feeling of disquiet in the air, though, and its this that makes me want to see more.
That’s what I love about The Witcher‘s early areas. What haven’t I warmed to? Gwent. Gwent is a card game that seemingly everyone in the Witcher plays. You have the option of challenging people to a match reasonably early on but at times it does feel like the narratives throws you towards it. Mechanically the game is probably fine – its certainly proved popular, now being a stand-alone game you can indulge in online. I say probably fine because I found the first few matches I played, with no stakes, pretty pleasant. I didn’t find myself Gwenting again until many hours later, having gained no new cards in-between, against opponents that seemed nigh-unbeatable. Which is when it hit me that Gwent isn’t like poker or blackjack; it’s like the old Pokemon card game or Magic the Gathering. It’s a Trading Card Game. Sure, Geralt doesn’t wander into a newsagent and buy a couple of booster packs, but the basics are there. Sidling up to a poverty stricken merchant who has just offered to sell me a bit of curd, whipping out my Gwent deck and telling him its time to duel seems entirely out of place. As mini-games in RPGs go its certainly a nice inclusion, but its definitely not for me.
My time with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has given me a strange appreciation for not just what it does well, but what other games don’t. I don’t know whether its original tone and compelling story telling will continue throughout – I’m not even sure if I’ll make it to the end if its as long as I’m told – but I aim to find out. Recommending The Witcher 3 is about as far from original as an opinion can get – and doing so after the game has been out for four years is pretty far from useful. But, hey, I ignored people and didn’t play it so maybe you did too. And that’d be a mistake.