Witching is back! After my adoration with The Witcher’s unique role-playing experience as a monster hunter, I was disappointed that The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings focused more on politics and less on wonderful, wonderful monster-hunting. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt brings back that experience and smooths out a lot of kinks resulting in the best title in the trilogy.
You play Geralt, a brooding, jaded mutant known as a Witcher who does one thing and does it well: kill monsters. He occasionally gets embroiled in politics, but tries to stick to making an honest living as a monster hunter and saving his friends from peril. His latest rescue is Ciri, a former student of his who is on the run from The Wild Hunt who wants her blood for some nefarious, world-ending purposes.
The overarching plot is seeped in tropes and cliches, but the game delights in subverting them at every turn. For one, Ciri is far from a helpless damsel in distress. She’s is just as good of a fighter as everyone else, if not better, and anytime people try to sideline and “protect” her she’s quick to throw down some valid indignation at the idea she should stay out of the fight.
The other main subversion is that The Witcher 3 exists in a morally gray landscape that more resembles our own. Sometimes the monsters are just harmless trolls who want shoes like humans. Sometimes the humans are the real monsters. And sometimes you find yourself empathizing with the most detestable characters in the game because they’re human and tragic and flawed. They know they did bad things, they know they deserve punishment, but they also hope for redemption.
The best example of this is The Bloody Baron, a large, jovial fellow who has quite the temper. Geralt only gets involved in his life to find Ciri, but quickly unravels a tragic, intimate story of a marriage gone bad through ridicule, alcoholism, and physical abuse. And the Baron knows he fucked it all up, he knows that he’s a detestable man, and it gnaws at his insides. You want to hate him, but the weight of guilt and shame is damn humanizing. We all have that dark side, we all do monstrous things, but does that mean we deserve to be treated like monsters?
This gets to the heart of what makes The Witcher 3 a satisfying RPG experience. Take away the specific fantasy of being a very particular kind of characters and you’re left in this world where you’re constantly faced with deciding which option is the least shitty choice. Sometimes you make things worse, sometimes things end up better, but there’s no perfect, wonderful fairytale ending. This is a deeply broken and messed up world.
It’s a shame then that the story has to focus so much on world-ending events because almost every beat of the story that works does so because of the characters. It’s the father/daughter relationship of Geralt and Ciri, the comradery with Zoltan and Dandelion and it’s the relational baggage with Triss and the constant power struggle with Yennifer that make for the most memorable moments.
Wild Hunt isn’t about Geralt. He’s your eyes into the story, but it is Ciri’s tale. You spend the game constantly trying to piece together her story and find out what she’s done and who she met. There are even sections where you play as Ciri, which I initially disliked until I thought of the story as being Ciri’s story.
Then why not make Ciri the main character? For one, her story isn’t conducive to a sprawling, open-world RPG. She’s got The Wild Hunt on her tale and her combat sections are basically contained, controlled spaces where you do a lot of running. And while Geralt certainly has an urgency to his quest, it also makes sense that he would do the odd job along the way because Witchers have to make a living and those drowners aren’t going to kill themselves.
And as glowing as I would love to be, the game stumbles into two major flaws. The first is that a lot of the side missions end up becoming repetitive. Granted, these are some of the most well-realized and produced side missions, with individualized, fully voiced cutscenes, but the contracts in particular follow a formula that gets old fast.
It also hurts the game that once you level past a quest, the experience rewarded for it greatly diminishes. This means that unless you truly need the cash or just want to experience that story, a good third of the incentive for playing those missions is taken away. I get that this is a balancing thing so that the player never outstrips the main story mission in power level, but it’s a shame that within ten hours I never touched another Witcher contract.
The other problem is the combat. Granted, this is the best the combat has ever been, but it lacks any true finesse or skill. A lot of it boils down to cast magic, swing in a few hits, dodge, repeat. It doesn’t help that the AI is not particularly good. To be fair, this is something true of almost all open-world RPGs as the greater your scale is, the harder it is to make truly compelling and challenging combat encounters without resorting to trickery or sheer volume to up the difficulty.
Still, in an experience that ran me about 50 hours and took me through an array of wonderful characters and delivered a distinct and unique RPG experience, this was an absolute delight. The maturity of the world-building and storytelling is what makes these games work so well. They stories are dark without being cynical, down to earth without looking grimy, and deeply, deeply human.
© James Blake Ewing 2017