With a current-gen console for the first time in almost a decade, I decided to pick up a game. I wanted it to be old enough that it was cheap to get it with all expansions etc. thrown in and good enough that it would hold up. The Witcher III: Wild Hunt met both of those criteria, considering how utterly revered it had been when it came out. I must admit, I'm an avid Skyrim/Bethesda fan, so I went in a little sceptical.
The opening cut scenes were enjoyable – albeit a bit weirdly risque, but sure, I know the franchise is known for "adult" motifs – and laid out an intriguing plot. I also found the tutorial missions around Kaer Morhen eased me into the control scheme, which largely made sense. And off I went. The very first thing that happens is an attack by ghouls and OH MY GOD what is that. *shudders* Yeah, the ghouls were a little too freaky looking for me. Still, they were dead, a griffon had been spotted, and so on we rode to White Orchard. By this point I'd spotted the main world map and noted that White Orchard was only the first of several coats of arms; I also knew that the game was famously giant. As a result, when the cut scene was finally over and I was free to explore, I was really impressed by the size of the first region. Okay, Witcher, this is starting to shape up.
As I began to explore around the main town I started piecing the world together. So the Nilfgaardians were a militaristic, capitalist and fairly advanced society that have been slowly marching north, including through this area. In general, the people of the north aren't exactly happy about that state of affairs, but they're largely fractured. A new king had arisen and managed to strike alliances with the remaining free regions, who were now holding the armies of Nilfgaard at bay in an uneasy stalemate. At the same time, some events in the past meant that Nilfgaard deeply distrusted magic and yet, for some reason, this Yennefer I was seeking – clearly a sorceress – was somehow involved. As plots go, it felt like a good excuse for side quests and little else.
More importantly, having blundered into the midst of a wraith-haunted graveyard just north of the main town of White Orchard, I came to two conclusions. The first was that body horror was clearly going to be a trend in the game (those tongues... eurgh!) and that I was woefully unprepared for actual combat. Instead, I turned to a few side quests I'd already picked up, but determined to avoid the main griffon plot until I'd got the hang of combat a bit better and levelled up a few times. Oh, and it turns out that the crossbow I'd just been given wasn't going to be as useful as I had hoped. Far from being an impressive ranged weapon, it barely did any damage and took forever to reload. Right, no stealth archer here then, I'm going to have to get used to sword-based combat.
Then I found an axe. I'm not too sure why, but Geralt just felt more believable swinging an axe around as his non-silver weapon. I ended up sticking with that character trait for the rest of the game. Ah yes, and it helped me learn why he carried two swords. Not sure if that bit had been explicitly mentioned before, but the whole "silver for monsters, axe (or just steel, for most people) for everything else" mechanism was one I enjoyed. So I trudged around the countryside, invariably getting licked to death by wraiths, eaten by wolves, ripped apart by water hags, or drowned by, well, drowners. I died quite a lot, couldn't work out how to blow up monster nests, and kept losing my horse. Honestly, I started to think that the whole game was going to be a bit of a chore.
On the non-monstrous side, though, I started having quite a bit of fun killing bandits. I also began to experiment with the various Signs that Geralt can use – simple magic spells – and ultimately began to slowly level up. Largely through trial and error I began to piece together some cool little interactions, like the ability to influence people's minds during dialogue (when permitted) or knock wolves over with Aard so I could finish them off. I even began feeling confident enough to go back and kill those wraiths; it took a bit of running away and eating every now and then, but I eventually succeeded. And then I found a questline which had me investigating a stolen frying pan, that led to murder and spies. It was a small, meaningless quest but it was also pretty unique. I started exploring the map even more.
With that exploration came discoveries of places of power and Witcher contracts, as well as a number of other small but memorable sidequests. Notably, at this point I managed to fail my first quest. Instead of chasing after a potential bandit that I had found, I instead managed to fail to mount my horse, get stuck on a fence, and lose him. I'm glad to say that – with only one other exception – I finished the game with a 100% completion rate after that point. Still, by the time I began running out of areas to explore, White Orchard had gone from daunting to a great deal of fun and The Witcher had firmly sunk its teeth into me. Off I went to kill a griffon, investigate Yennefer, and then on to the next region: Velen.
Well, sort of. First, there was a bunch of cut scenes in which the Wild Hunt were formally introduced, we went to Nilfgaard to chat to the Emperor in Vizima, and I found out that I now needed to track down another sorceress called Ciri. Yen would be helping out. Okay, interesting, I guess I'm already making good progress on the story then if mystery one is solved and we're no to mystery two.
And so I arrived in Velen, popped open the map, and... thunk. That's the sound of my jaw hitting the floor. I thought White Orchard had been pretty sizeable and then look at this map. That had been a town and some scattered villages, but here... Here there were multiple cities, dozens of towns, hundreds of villages. It was huge! Now I must admit that I did believe – for quite some time – that the map I was looking at was just Velen. Based on the world map, I therefore expected Novigrad and Skellige to both be equally sized, probably Toussaint too, and even began to wonder if Kaer Morhen and Vizima would be larger as well. In reality, that gigantic map is (as I now know) both Velen and Novigrad, as well as an area unlocked by the expansion Heart of Stone. No wonder it was massive.
Still, I was a little daunted looking at it all. And then I got killed by some wild dogs 🤦♂️ Seriously, minutes into reaching Velen I died by the first "monsters" that attacked. Having just spent a week or so in White Orchard where I could happily slaughter whole packs of wolves, I completely underestimated the wild dogs as a threat and paid for it. Once more through the cut scenes and I made it past them to the ominously named Inn at the Crossroads. Following a brief fight, I ended up completely sidetracked by a plot involving a the burning of dead bodies – so very many dead bodies – and constant attacks from more ghouls. Honestly, I don't remember much about what was going on or why, but I do remember feeling like the NPCs involved were far more interesting than they had any right to be and I found the fact that I was being given moral choices deeply interesting.
From here, I ended up spending a couple of weeks simply exploring the north-western corner of Velen (here referring to Velen properly), tracking Ciri to some degree but largely just stumbling around. Mainly, I wound up back in Blackbough a lot, and in doing so stumbled onto Keira Metz, another sorceress in hiding from the war and the fanatics on both sides. Keira was the first "romance" plotline I discovered and I really enjoyed her story, particularly the introduction to portals and learning more about the world of magic. Through her I wound up also discovering my first insectoid monster... and died. Fearing I'd hit my level limit, I ended up switching back to the main quest and finally going on to the Bloody Baron.
You've probably guessed but, by this stage, I had totally fallen for the game. I still found the creature design a little pointlessly grotesque – something highlighted best by the Bloody Baron questline, given the whole botchling plot thread – and it took me forever to really feel comfortable with the combat, but the world it was creating fascinated me and the storyline had me hooked. I'd discovered several side quests already – such as the obese sylvan pretending to be a god – that just felt incredibly unique, so I was having great fun exploring in general. Factors which I had initially worried would irritate me, such as the weapon degradation system, had just ended up adding to the immersion of the game without taking any of the fun away (as similar mods in Skyrim tended to do in my experience).
Yet I still didn't fully understand the genius of the game. The first inkling I got at the depth and complexity of storytelling on offer was with the Bloody Baron, even if I completed that quest in fits and starts. The crones of Crookback Bog were a masterclass in creepiness and fictitious folklore, and the murderous tree that turned out to be a caged sorceror was a brilliant moment of moral dilemma. Not for the last time I would make a snap decision and then regret it immediately, ultimately choosing to reload an earlier save and replay part of the game just in case. In fact, with the crones I was so torn I ended up Googling the possible outcomes and still struggled with the decision (I chose to free the spirit, defeat the crones, and allow the Baron to commit suicide). Whilst these branching plots are a huge strength of the game and the fact that there is no clear right/wrong, good/evil path a very positive decision, nevertheless there were moments (such as this) where I wished that you didn't feel like a decision now might spoil parts of the game later. In some ways, I would prefer to play a linear story with predefined decisions, but then I think I'd complain the for the opposite if presented with that choice. Instead, it forced me to create a clearly defined personality for Geralt and use that to make my decisions.
Not that Geralt is lacking personality to begin with. Another brilliant way the game differs from Skyrim is in having a non-mute protagonist, brimming with character. I hadn't realised how much more interesting the storyline can be with that in place and it made the narrative elements of the game have so much more impact as you got to know this person and their relationships more deeply. The same could be said for the surrounding cast. Whilst I consistently found Yen arrogant and a little irritating, others such as Ciri, Dandelion, Zoltan and more became strong friends. I won't deny also falling for Triss, whose compassionate nature and underworld plotline in Novigrad was immensely good fun to play through; no surprises, then, as to who I chose within the romance plot 😂
Better yet, the game wove these characters together in ways that made them much more than cameos or NPCs. Here, the decision engine underlying player choices really came into its own. My actions in Novigrad and the surrounds would ultimately decide those who fought at Kaer Morhen in the first battle against the Wild Hunt, but would also ripple out. The plot to kill the mad Rhovanion king would lead me to ultimately choose to kill Dijkstra, a decision which I genuinely felt guilty about, having come to like him. Similarly, my interest in Djikstra as a character and my own personal feelings about Geralt would ultimately result in that second failed quest, when I chose to honour my word with Djikstra and not go to see Cleaver. I'm sure, had I chosen otherwise, little would have changed throughout the rest of the game, but that it might was a strong reason for my decision. In other words, the characters and story interactions are very clever and give a huge amount of weight to player choices.
Those subtle interactions also occasionally paid off in unexpected ways. A late sidequest that saw Geralt trapped by a loose coalition of sentient monsters – a godling, werewolf, doppler, and a troll, if I remember correctly – is a great example. Not only is the quest just a lot of fun, involving nekker-feet boots and several near-death encounters within a central mystery, but at the end the monsters weigh up killing you or not. If you had previously spared other sentients – as I almost always chose to do – then you could persuade all but the werewolf to stand down. It was a great moment that was not only a lot of fun but also validated my playthrough choices.
Other standout sidequests include the lair of the Cheese Wizard, helping Johnny the godling, defeating the ghost in the Skellige fighting pits, the creepy godling haunting in Novigrad, tracking werewolves in Velen, the first Cyclops I discovered by accident on the hills in the south of the map, the Troll that was drafted into the army, piecing together the history of Kaer Morhen, Morkvarg's curse on Skellige, the investigation into the murders in Novigrad after Priscilla's attack, Letho's appearance, helping out the elven players who have been abused by racists, tracking a vampire with a taste for whisky in Oxenfurt, the twisted Little Red Riding Hood gang, the Cave of Dreams, and of course, playing Gwent. It really surprised me how much I came to enjoy this simple card-based strategy game, but there you go. And yes, it took me three attempts, but I did successfully win the Novigrad championship.
There are, admittedly, some negatives to the game. Whilst I really loved the culture and scenery of Skellige, the sidequests in that region were slightly too repetitive. Sailing around shooting drowners, shaking harpies off the boat, and diving for sunken treasure incorporated three of the worst mechanics in the game: the crossbow, sailing, and the underwater camera. I won't lie that getting 100% completion of questlines on that map caused several weeks of frustration and cursing. The fact you can use the crossbow underwater is also never made clear, so I ended up dying to drowners a lot early on in the game until I Googled how the hell you were meant to kill them. I also found horseback fighting impossible to pull off with any accuracy and frequently lost horse races because the horse would get stuck on a fence. The game does have some legitimate bugs on the PS4, too, including a couple which meant I had to physically restart the console in order to progress certain quest lines or get them to register as "complete", but luckily most of these are well documented by online communities at this point, including what you needed to do to fix them.
I've also finished the game with a bag of quest items that I never found any purpose for. I get that a branching narrative means that some quests get locked off, but I wish that the game had a way of knowing that and letting you get rid of the items. For example, I found a special sword in Skellige that had something to do with the kings there, and have lugged it from one end of the world to the other with no idea what it was ever for. Speaking of which, inventory management is not well designed. In fact, the menus in general could have used some finessing, but it is such a pain having to manually move items to storage boxes one-by-one. Conversely, it's almost too easy to throw things away when in the overworld, causing me to lose a few items for good; ditto when selling stuff, where on at least a few occasions I had to buy things back for more than the entire gold I received for dozens of items because I hit the wrong button. The magic appearance of Roach will also never cease to be amusing, but in general NPC AI in fights could use a slight upgrade. It's not Assassins Creed-level broken, but they inadvertently set themselves on fire or run towards the monster just a few too many times to make guardian quests anything but annoyingly nerve-wracking.
Moving on from gameplay niggles, from a narrative perspective, the main plot was brilliant throughout, with plenty of variety and a final showdown that felt seriously impactful. I still can't quite believe that the Battle of Kaer Morhen was only about the 50% mark; I think I'd completed over 90% of the sidequests, including everything on the Skellige Isles, by that point and was convinced that it was the grand finale. To the game's credit, though, that immense run time never once felt poorly paced or drawn out. If anything, it was a little too quick at times! What I would say is that I ultimately ended up caring for Ciri and the world in which the game was set, but never that much for either the sorceresses (as a group) or the wider magical implications of the Wild Hunt. As villains, they served their purpose very well, but the plot threads that attempted to flesh them out largely fell flat. Similarly, a lot about the elven realm went straight over my head and felt a bit tedious as a result. Personally, I found the mad king and his Eternal Flame religion/cult a far better antagonist and would have relished some more opportunities to cull their numbers a bit. The scene as you enter the main square of Novigrad with a doppler being burnt alive still fills me with rage.
The game is also filled with easter eggs and pop culture references, so many that I know I missed dozens. There are references to things like Monty Python, Lord of the Rings, 300, Star Wars, Tomb Raider, Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, Portal, and even Scrubs, as well as numerous nods or direct parodies of folklore, myth, and legend. That alone should tell you that it can be surprisingly humorous and in numerous ways, but it really can. Plenty of quests had me smirking; probably just as many as had the adrenaline flowing, to be honest.
And then there are all the other little things. Sound design, music, scenery, world-building; these are all top-notch. There are parts of the game which almost baffle me that they exist. I can remember sailing out to the southern-most point in Skellige, landing, and exploring a tiny island. There were no quests there, no reason for anyone to go, but at the top (it was tiny, this took a minute max) some game designer had placed a funeral pyre on which was a bear, staring out towards the edge of the map and covered in flowers. These tiny little details are everywhere in the game and they make an already fantastic experience so much more memorable. The graphics are an interesting bag, with scenery utterly stunning even by 2020 standards, but some facial animations doing some weird things. Voice acting, on the other hand, is top-notch throughout, as is the dialogue in general.
Which is all a very long-winded way to say that this is a nearly perfect game. A few minor UX irritations and some repetitive filler questlines aside, there are certainly no major flaws. The characters and plot will stick with me for many years to come; heck, it took me over a year to complete the game and a further four months to write this review and yet you can see from what I've written how much has stuck with me. I'm immensely pleased to have completed it, but I can definitely see myself running through it again the future. Maybe next time I'll successfully catch that horse in White Orchard...