Past entries in “The Witcher” always had a few brush strokes of epic cast upon them, yet never fully realized. With “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” Polish developer CD Projekt Red (also known as CDP/CDPR) have realized that canvas into a full blown tapestry. A tale woven through tens of hours of engaging dialogue, interesting characters, and a cruel, yet fascinating world.
“Wild Hunt” crafts a legend that feels less like a game, and more like just that, a true tale. A fantasy fit for Grimm or Aesop, rife with magic, beasts, and deception in the way that the great tales passed down through our own history.
When in Nilfgaard…
“The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” continues the story of the great White Wolf, the Witcher named Geralt. Geralt is tasked by none other than the emperor himself (voiced excellently by Game of Thrones alum Charles Dance) to bring back his daughter, Ciri. Geralt with his gravel-tone and near-emotionless facial expressions could easily come across as another lifeless protagonist, but CD Projekt Red has taken great care to not only make their hero personable, but deserving of the title. Geralt is in pursuit of his protégé, a young, defiant, Ciri – whom is being pursued through the land by the titular Hunt. The Wild Hunt itself being a unit not unlike the Horsemen of the Apocalypse – massive and quite intimidating foes whom each have their own personality, and Geralt once joined their ranks. The Hunt serve as an omen of disaster and pursue Ciri at all costs.
We find Geralt traveling through towns and the countryside, performing small quests and favors for locals in exchange for information leading to Ciri’s whereabouts. These storyline quests and missions take shape throughout the core loop of “Wild Hunt” and quickly stack up into a meaty journal on Geralt’s to-do list. “Wild Hunt” does an impressive job of not making each quests feel repetitive, and even if some in reality are fetch quests, the world, setting, and events within each story told feel independent and interesting – not ever venturing into boring or tedious. Instead, most quests within the world of “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” draw the player in more and more, exposing new options, or even turning your opinion on a character from the beginning of the quest. These smaller interactions feed into the larger objective without feeling as though the characters are wasting time, it truly feels as though most characters wish to help, or at least wish to have their own motives served before returning the favor.
One notable quest has Geralt chasing down the miscarried child of a local Baron. At the outset of the storyline held within the string of quests, the Baron is quite despicable. A brash, fat, and gluttonous man whom comes immediately to mind when thinking of a stereotypical medieval lord known for abusing his power. Through the tale of his wife and daughter leaving, we find a broken man, who is still despicable, but has slight tints of understanding his motives, even if his actions are entirely deplorable. Of notable tone, the maturity in “Wild Hunt” isn’t joked with or toyed about, never out of place or gratuitous, CD Projekt has taken great care to maintain a tone of a dire world with characters always in straits. Even with the serious tone found in most quests or conversation, there are times of levity found in chatting with old friends, or the humor in humiliating a former foe.
Easy to note from promotional screenshots is the beauty of the world created in “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt”. Not only do static items, armor, characters, and weapons look fantastic, but dynamic weather and lighting prove to amplify the beauty of the realm. Sunsets and sunrise are stunning to behold, storms bend and bow trees to their will, and distant storms flash with the warning of their impending approach. Simply put, “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” is one of the most spectacular looking games currently available.
Travel in the world of “The Witcher” is handled via our trusty steed, Roach, whom is called by double clicking down on the left stick, and has a handy knack for staying glued to the roads when galloping thanks to some good design. Also available are signposts and docks which, once found, can be used for fast travel throughout the world. With the beauty held in the environments of “Wild Hunt” however, one can be forgiven for slowly trotting across every inch of the landscape.
“I give you my heart, but I shall take your head.”
Perhaps the greatest strength in “Wild Hunt” is the characters, and of those the strongest are the females. Ciri is a fiery young idealist, while Triss is a thorned ex-lover of Geralt’s, and Yennefer delivers some chilled yet even-keeled interactions to Geralt. This is only to speak of the few main and centric women, while a particular quest has Geralt speaking to an incredibly fierce she-warrior in the Nordic-styled region of Skellige. Assisting her rise to the top of her clan was an entirely satisfying journey, and one Geralt was happy to see through. Throughout the play female characters are much more than mere set dressing or objects for men to abuse and use as a carrot to dangle.
Geralt, in his quest to find and track Ciri seems always one step behind, and “Wild Hunt” does a great job of telling Ciri’s story through a series of flashback-like events. These events break up gameplay and mix up the formula in such a small but meaningful tweak that the player is shown to completely different styles. Geralt, the slower but more heavy-handed attacker, while Ciri is quick, precise, and absolutely deadly near end-game. While Ciri never gets the full inventory and level-up mechanics Geralt does, it’s a welcome addition that could have easily gone sideways in development. Ciri and Geralt’s dynamic in the late game is that of father and daughter, as Geralt spent his life raising the girl to be a powerful fighter. This isn’t without her stubborn nature showing through, and Geralt having to realize when it’s time to let his daughter-by-proxy free to literally pick her own battles.
These moments where our emotionless hero shows that emotion, displaying his limited vulnerability, have extreme weight. The engine and design of the game, coupled with some excellent voice acting from about everyone involved, convey serious emotion and gravity when needed. More than a few times while playing it would be more than acceptable to put your controller down, or release the keyboard and mouse while you exhale and think about what just happened.
Combat within “Wild Hunt” strikes the satisfying balance of challenging and rewarding, scratching a familiar itch to the “Bloodborne” dodge, parry, and roll combinations. Varying strikes between fast and heavy, mixing in the use of signs to disorient or turn an enemy to your side, and throwing bombs to damage or blind your enemies pay off in extremely satisfying fights that can easily turn to or from your favor if the player becomes careless. Combat is indeed easier than previous entries, but more fluid as well, being able to use the B button (on Xbox One) to dodge without using stamina, or hitting the A button to quickly roll out of the way, or perhaps in closer for a quick strike add dimension to each fight.
Smart Witchers, or just those that wish to survive at the higher difficulties will take care to learn as many oil and potion recipes as possible, being sure to take the time before a big fight to apply the concoctions that will best suit their next foe. The in-game bestiary is filled out after defeating an enemy type or reading about them in books sprinkled throughout the world, also giving the enemies weaknesses, allowing the player to change their signs and blade oils accordingly. This rock, paper, scissors system with each enemy having strengths but also a weakness to exploit has been done before, but unlike previous attempts, “Wild Hunt” is less about trial and error, and more about exploration and preparation.
Cutscenes play out in-engine, and can be skipped in sections via a button press, but heavily advised to be watched, appreciated, and allowed to play out their grand tale. Hard to remember a game where the scenes play out as cinematically while still allowing gameplay to break in seamlessly, directing the action back into player hands, “Wild Hunt” stands apart in its ability to tell a story, while allowing the player to craft their tale. Between loading screens, which are surprisingly few, we’re treated to comic-styled panels, catching the player up on the story. An appreciated touch that will do wonders to those that take a break from the game.
As if there weren’t enough to do in the world of “Wild Hunt”, what with Witcher contracts for monsters, beast nests, bandit camps, caves to explore, and much more, “Wild Hunt” also includes a fully functional “Hearthstone” rival in Gwent. A card based strategy game with focuses on collecting the best deck throughout the world, Gwent can prove a major distraction, but in the best way that a developer could hope. What could be a minor addition is in actuality a complete and contained separate experience.
“Gotta believe something, that’s what keeps us going”
“The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” is a game of experiences. Stumbling upon the ruins of an old cathedral, the bodies of men strewn about, finding only diamonds and gold in a small overgrown chest, one wonders “what happened here?” Sailing by a rock to which the bones of a woman sentenced to death for her treason which you helped uncover, murdering a man who challenges you following a peaceful and serene song by a minstrel, noticing that the skeleton hung by the neck on the tree above is a bit shorter than the rest, and wondering if it be child or dwarf; these are the experiences left for the player to discover.
The Bottom Line
After some lofty goals, big promises, and a disappointing delay, “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” draws its weapon and reveals the sharpest of edge. Not content with only offering a few stories or characters of interest, it populates the game world with hours upon hours of fascinating tales waiting to be discovered, and provides one of the years greatest games, if not the generation. “Wild Hunt” will go down as one of the truly great Role Playing Games, and with planned content down the road, there is more than enough to say that “Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” will serve as a tent pole title for CD Projekt Red, and their pride in the world, story, and characters of “The Witcher” shows through each frame.
“Good luck on the path, Witcher”
Examiner was provided an Xbox One code for review purposes.