This is Skeezix’s Brain on Gaming
Is The Witcher 3 Still Worth Playing?
The Witcher 3. If you move in certain circles, you might believe that CD Projekt Red’s action-RPG is the best game ever made. If you don’t, and I don’t, then you might be vaguely suspicious of the game, turned off by rumors of sexism and by the fact that medieval fantasy games seem to attract the worst scrapings off the bottom of the Internet. I know that I was in this boat.
Well, suspicion aside, when I saw that I could get the game for $8 on a Steam sale, I knew that I couldn’t pass it up. If nothing else, it was supposed to be a hundred hours long — it’s not every day you see that kind of value for money! I’d also always wanted to review the game, and presented with such a chance, I had no choice but to bite. So what did I think? Here were my top five takeaways:
The presentation is top-notch.
I had seen The Witcher 3 on YouTube and Twitch, of course, but successful content creators typically have great PCs and top-of-the-line gear to really make the games they play shine. I may be a content creator, but a successful one I am not, and my PC is solidly low-mid-range. However, it was able to play the game on nearly maxed settings, with a framerate that dipped only in the rain (although, as with all open world games, it always seemed to be raining or after dark for some reason).
And, despite the fact that The Witcher 3 came out in 2015, which is somehow six years ago, I think it can easily compare with the modern big boys in terms of graphical power. Sure, it’s not photorealistic, but I think photorealism is a waste of effort when it comes to video games; CDPR’s creation is colorful, crisp, and not at all muddy, and that’s the most important part.
Also, the music, to use a technical term, slaps. The medieval-folk-song vibe of the soundtrack was unexpected, but surprisingly great. The Gwent song was, of course, as much a highlight for me as it was for many other players, but there was no track that I actively disliked or even felt was anything less than perfectly fitting. With production values this high, I certainly felt that CDPR had the ambition necessary to make their massive project a reality.
The best story beats are tucked into the sidequests.
This could be a good or a bad thing, depending on your perspective, but I think it was a very intentional decision by The Witcher 3’s developers to beef up the sidequests. Most of the main quests are fun, but packed with a lot of spectacle rather than story — major events like battles and dungeon expeditions take center stage. If you want to get to know the game’s characters, you have to do the sidequests.
Fortunately, unlike in many other RPGs, I found the sidequests very enjoyable. There are a few fetch quests, of course, but they usually take you to interesting locations or reveal the game’s lore while you search for the macguffin. But other quests really dive deep into the game’s characters. You can explore the relationship between Geralt and his various sidepieces, help side characters solve their problems, and even (rarely) get insight into Geralt himself.
That last function of sidequests is especially important. The game’s hero can feel a little bit like a cardboard cutout at times. He kills all the monsters, gets all the girls, wins all his battles against other humans — there’s nothing he can’t do. The game’s villain, Eredin, is revealed in its opening dream sequence, but it’s not initially clear what Geralt thinks about having to fight him. If you didn’t do any sidequests, that ambiguity would remain, and when (spoiler alert) they do meet in battle, it would feel a bit like a small child smashing action figures together; plenty of shouting and noise, but little emotional weight. However, and this really is a mild spoiler, there is a quest in Skellige where it is revealed that Geralt is actually terrified of Eredin, even as he seeks to destroy him. When you have that background, the clash between the two seems more significant.
But sidequests aren’t just good because they flesh out the main story; many aren’t even related to your pursuit of Ciri. Instead, they form coherent experiences on their own, and there are some very weighty and significant events that rely on your choices in these entirely optional missions. You’re presented with decisions that are almost never no-brainers, and it feels good to fret over some of them, which is certainly not the typical sidequest experience.
The game is ambitious with its open world, which is only sometimes successful.
I know I sound like a broken record talking about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but it really is my very most favorite video game of all time, so I feel that I can speak from a position of some authority on it. My firm belief is that no game has so thoroughly realized the potential of an open world as Nintendo’s masterpiece has. Despite The Witcher 3' sambition and innovativeness, I found that it just missed the mark.
Some things are great about the game’s world, don’t get me wrong. The simple design innovation of allowing you to summon Roach whenever you feel like it makes riding your trusty steed much less of a pain than riding horses is in most open-world games. Fast-travel points are liberal, but not so liberal that you never have to experience the open road or go trekking off into the wilderness. And exploration has its benefits; I got embarrassingly deep into the Gwent minigame, for example, so every time I found a new village, I’d be rushing to the smiths and the inn to go see what new cards I could score. It made wandering around a real joy.
But other things feel a little hollow. Geralt is hardly nimble, and his jump is nothing worth mentioning, so crossing uneven terrain can be a chore. There’s no ridiculous cliff climbing like there is in Skyrim, but you also have to find staircases or switchbacks to climb even moderate inclines. Worse still is the railroaded sliding animation when you step onto too steep a slope; the resulting “snowboarding” is surprisingly fun if you find a high enough hill to go down, but it’s absurdly awkward when you’re just trying to pick your way over some rocks. In The Witcher 3, you almost always have to stay on the paths.
Similarly, some areas seem wider than they are deep. Novigrad, the game’s largest city, is amazing and intricately realized, but other than quests, there’s really nothing to do there. There are inns, but only four, a bank, a couple of smiths who are never there when you want them to be, generic merchants, a barber shop, and a few collectibles — that’s it. Combine that with the fact that Roach moves at a snail’s pace within the city walls, and that everywhere you go you’re harassed by the same beggar who toothlessly yells at you to save him because he’s “dyin’…of poverty,” Novigrad becomes a bit of a chore to explore once the novelty wears off. To be clear, the quests that take place in the city are great — it’s just that the time between doing them pales a little bit in comparison.
Some characters and plot points feel ill-considered.
It’s very clear that The Witcher 3 wants to be edgy; the grizzled protagonist, the laughably emo villains, and the story filled with foul-mouthed assholes all make that clear enough. In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing. I’ve recently been playing and enjoying Wolfenstein: The New Order, which also has a grimdark storyline, and that game ends up being entertainingly over-the-top without losing the dramatic edge it gets from its portrayal of robot Nazis.
But “being edgy” on its own is no justification for the choices a game makes. I know that the Bloody Baron questline is a dead horse that’s been beaten into the ground by now, but I feel it’s still worth discussing here. In the questline (one that players will encounter in their first 20ish hours, but watch for spoilers ahead anyway), Philip Strenger, aka The Bloody Baron, is a bandit leader who manages to take over Velen with the help of the Nilfgaardians. He asks you for help in finding his wife and daughter, but it soon becomes clear that his drinking and physical abuse are what drove them away. Later on, he argues that his wife was cheating on him while he was away at war and would scream at him until he hit her. This is all presented as a morally gray situation.
Well, the thing is, it is, but not in the way CD Projekt Red probably intended. In my book, and this might just be me, there is no excuse for domestic abuse. It’s something that’s destroyed countless lives over the years and left innocent people damaged and with nowhere to turn. Alcoholism is also something that people in my family have experience with, and I just don’t have that much sympathy for those who mistreat their loved ones when under the influence. Oh, certainly the situation isn’t clear cut, and the actions of Strenger’s wife are hardly exemplary either, but the situation made me question who at CDPR thought that I could be swayed to sympathize with an abuser simply by his argument that “she started it.” We don’t even get to hear from Anna herself, just her daughter, who was a witness but not a direct victim. I found myself wondering whether the real moral grayness was me giving $8 of my money to these people.
The other thing I objected to was the game’s portrayal of female characters, which verged on the ridiculous. Keira Metz’s shirt, for example, is so revealing as to be laughable, and she’s not even wearing that when the player first encounters her. Yennefer’s clothing is bizarrely skintight, and Triss, while otherwise more normal-looking, still wears the high-heeled boots that every woman in the Northern Realms seems to don habitually. It’s very clear that no one who designed the characters has ever actually had to run around in heels; believe me, it’s not comfortable. Also, there wasn’t a single female character who wasn’t at least vaguely implied to want to sleep with Geralt, even Ciri, which was especially gross because he’s known her since she was a small child. It’s fine if some of them have the hots for him, of course, because it is a power fantasy, but come on! CDPR didn’t seem to account for the fact that some of their game’s playerbase may not be particularly interested in whether Geralt gets to see yet another sorceress naked or not.
The balance was way off.
Honestly, I feel that whatever decisions a game makes or doesn’t make around its characters and story are ultimately not all that relevant to whether it’s an enjoyable experience or not. Just look at The Last of Us Part 2. The game was reviewbombed for killing off Joel, but the effect that had on the actual gameplay was minimal — Ellie can creep around with a silenced pistol just as easily as her adoptive father figure. Instead, I think the most glaring problem with The Witcher 3 is its extremely inconsistent difficulty.
For context, I was playing on Death March, a mode that should theoretically provide nail-biting challenges left and right. In reality, though, all that changed was the amount of damage enemies dealt. While this did mean that Geralt died in three to four hits, it also meant that I could slash and stab my way to victory just as easily as on a lower difficulty, as long as I was careful to avoid attacks. Low-level goons of the kind you fight packs of in Novigrad died in two hits, meaning that they really struggled to present a reasonable challenge. Even large monsters above my level were easy fodder by the late game.
Why was this? First of all, the game provides Geralt with a bevy of tools that are far too easy to abuse. Alchemy, and specifically the game’s powerful decoction system, allows players to combine effects for absolutely broken results. I combined the Ekhidna and Ekimmara decoctions; the former allowed me to heal by casting Signs, the latter gave me the ability to siphon health from enemies I attacked. Combined with my light armor, which allowed me to regain stamina more quickly and thus cast more Signs, and the fact that the Sign I cast was always Quen, I was invincible much of the time and otherwise able to heal much faster than enemies could possibly damage me.
But the equipment I found also contributed to the issue. If you have Witcher Gear, the game’s “trademark” armor and weapons, you’re far better protected and armed than you would be with anything else you can pick up. My Geralt wore the light Cat School set, but even that gave more protection than the majority of the armor (even the heavy armor) that I would find randomly in treasure chests, and the swords did far more damage as well. There was a hilarious moment when Crach an Craite, a ruler in Skellige, gave me his family blade — accompanied by a cutscene with much fanfare — and I immediately sold it because it was far worse than what I had, but worth a lot of money.
In fact, those basic weapons and armor pieces that I picked up were only good for earning money. This ties back into a problem I had with the open world; since exploration usually just netted more useless weapons and armor, what was the point of searching for more treasure in undiscovered locations? If I did need money, usually to pay the eye-watering prices required to upgrade my Witcher Gear, I would just find a dozen or so treasure chests, then sell the loot within and immediately be rolling in upwards of 5,000 gold. Money had been a concern in the early game, but later on the barrier simply became how much cash merchants had on hand to buy my junk. If I didn’t need money, I would often actively avoid picking up loot, just to avoid the hassle of finding merchants who could afford it and of managing my inventory to avoid becoming overencumbered.
These two factors — combat being too easy, even on Death March, and endless amounts of gold from basic treasure chests — led the game to feel like a bit of a chore at times. I liked the story missions, with their weighty plotlines and difficult choices, but if I could just blow through every fight (and I could, very easily), then none of it felt like it mattered very much. That was why I found that Ciri’s sections, which forced you to use a character with a preset level and abilities, were actually just as fun as the rest of the game, even if they were a bit shallow. Because they presented a fixed challenge, they felt much better-balanced and more enjoyable.
So…what did I think? I’ll start by saying that it’s not every game that can keep me engaged for as long as The Witcher 3 did. I was promised 100 hours of gameplay, but I honestly found myself rushing a little bit by the end — enough of a good thing is still enough, after all. In all, I spent 85 hours playing the game, and I mostly enjoyed my experience. The few problems I did have with it didn’t detract from what was, on the whole, a very fun game.
It’s not clear how CDPR moves on from what is unquestionably their magnum opus. After the debacle of Cyberpunk, I would hope that the studio would now be spending more time on bugfixing and playtesting, and also potentially be paring down their ambitions just a bit for whatever comes next in their Witcher series. The Witcher 3 itself is a buggy game that was apparently nearly unplayable on release; it would be a shame if the developers repeated the same mistake a third time.
Whatever happens in the future, though, The Witcher 3 stands as one of the better games of the teens, and maybe even the best thing to emerge from the Eastern European games industry since Tetris. It’s probably not for everyone, but it should please the hardcore action-RPG fans it zeroes in on — as long as they’re not looking for Dark Souls-level difficulty.
I give The Witcher 3 four Gwent spy cards out of five. What can I say? I like to draw my whole deck!
Originally published at http://skeezixblogs.wordpress.com on June 9, 2021.