Witcher 3 has been a fantastic journey. At last check, I had clocked in roughly 340 hours. It certainly doesn’t have to take that long to finish the game, but if you take the time to savor every bit of it, 300+ is what you can expect. I’ve completed every quest and failed none. I’ve explored about 90% of the marked locations, with most of the ones I skipped in Skellige, where getting to them by sea is rather monotonous. I fought, I cried, I loved, and I laughed. In the end, all was well, and now Yennefer and I have retired from the world, sleeping until noon, taking midnight strolls, hot baths, and riding the unicorn.
Witcher 3 is the story of Geralt, a Witcher as you may have guessed, and his very special adopted daughter Ciri. It is a strongly story driven, open world rpg, with a rich backstory and full cast of memorable characters. It isn’t perfect, but it gets far more right than wrong, and offers a huge amount of content that never falls into the trap of lazy, samey same missions.
Visually, the game looks great, though not markedly better than the best of last gen. What stands out the most is the lighting. The sunsets, the shadows, the light filtering through a canopy of leaves, it is magnificent. If it were possible, I’d nominate the Sun for the best supporting actor award. The world itself is typical of high fantasy, temperate to cool woodlands and mountainous regions, with a wonderful dynamic weather system. Villages and cities look authentic, and in that regard, perhaps a bit boring, much like the architecture of medieval Europe was a bit boring. Cut scenes and character closeups are generally very good, though never jaw dropping (read Metal Gear esque).
Gameplay I would consider better than simply adequate, but not great. Combat does require skill, particularly on Death March difficulty level, where a few hits will do you in. Dodging, rolling, parrying, being aware of archers and knowing when and when not to use signs all come into play. Using signs and sword oils to take advantage of your enemies’ weaknesses brings a modest element of strategy into the mix, but I found that Quen, Igni and judicious dodging would see me through nearly any monster battle, where Quen and Axii would do the same versus human enemies. Mounted combat, while effective, I found enormously frustrating and I quickly abandoned it in favor of two feet on the ground.
Movement in general was adequate, if a bit clunky, though horse riding was a pleasure, making the horse races particularly fun side missions. Most interactions with the environment and other people were intuitive. The menu system on the other hand is an abomination, not because of complexity, but speed. Scrolling through your inventory takes entirely too long as loading hundreds of thumbnail images bogs things down.
The story and missions are phenomenal, and where the game really begins to shine. The main story is compelling, particularly due to interactions with the other main characters, but the side missions are on another level. Some are as you’d expect for a Witcher, track down a monster and slay it, but those are hardly the best. Getting stuck in a love triangle involving a werewolf and sororicide, solving murder mysteries, negotiating with trolls, throwing babies in ovens, determining the future monarch of Skellige, using a special bell to lead Princess the goat back to her master’s hut, acting in a play, defending the ritual site on Forefather’s Eve, uncovering tragic tales through ghostly visions, protecting Keira from mice, and even helping an old woman get her favorite pan back. What I’ve listed is but a taste, and the chief reason why simply blowing through the main story is doing yourself a huge disservice.
The main story is great, but what makes it triumphant is the characters, and this is where CD Projekt Red hits it out of the park. Geralt is surrounded by a superb cast of well written, beautifully acted, colorful, unique, interesting characters that have depth and feeling. Geralt, with his monotone, bad impression of Clint Eastwood voice, is definitely not the star of the show. The characters range from dumb and simple, to conniving, manipulative geniuses with complex motivations. Most of the cast, like much of the Witcher, does not fit neatly into the good or evil column, but straddles a morally gray middle ground that lends to their realism. Two of my absolute favorites are Philip Strenger, aka The Bloody Baron, and Cerys An Craite. Those two win my best supporting actor and actress awards. As you become more and more attached to the characters of Witcher 3, the events take on greater and greater meaning. It is the writing and acting that elevate Witcher 3 from great game, to Game of the Year.
A few other positive points I’ll mention are Ciri, the Battle of Kaer Morhen, one of only two times I used alchemy, was one of the most thrilling and chaotic battles I’ve ever virtually taken part in. Choices abound and will impact the game in both small and large ways, positive and negative. Gwent, the collectible card game within the game, is fantastic, like Ciri. In fact, the High Stakes mission was one of my favorites, not just because of the interactions and events surrounding the Gwent tournament, but because of the intense Gwent matches themselves. The Crones of Crookback Bog, Yennefer, Triss, Keira, fist-fighting tournaments, and of course, Ciri.
On the negative side, loading times are atrocious, particularly when you die and the game takes as long to reload as when you initially boot up. The crafting system is meh, I found it more tedious than anything else. The way it was implemented didn’t seem to add anything to the game. Weight limits early on and no merchant with enough cash on hand to buy your shit. Roach’s (your horse) horrible AI. The end game sets you back to before the events of the final chapter, but the world is now devoid of most of the characters that made it so wonderful. An end game set after the events of the epilogue would have been much more worthwhile. Piles and piles of useless gear, because the Witcher gear sets are the only thing worth using.
There you have it. Witcher 3 is a fantastic game, worthy of the praise it has received. The highlights are the incredible writing and cast as well as an abundance of meaningful and interesting side quests. The backdrop and lore are also second to none. It has a few warts that are easily outweighed by the piles of glorious awesome on offer.