Message from an Old Friend: A Look Back at The Witcher 3

…Are they gone?

Phew, sorry for up and disappearing on you all, I know I pushed some major buttons (literally and figuratively) with my last article. Because how dare someone go against the grain and besmirch The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, on its fourth anniversary no less, to serve a larger point about how loving videogames can be dangerous.

It has occurred to me, however, in my isolation (for fear of physical assault), I neglected what exactly about The Witcher 3 struck such a chord with people. After all, Polish developer CD Projekt Red never invented Western open-world role-playing games, and the first two games were a modest success at best. But the fan base would have you believe otherwise, that not only did Witcher 3 perfect the formula, but serve as a bastion of artistic integrity in an age of loot boxes, battle royales and exploitative DLC practices. Flattering though it may be, this narrative not only sterilizes the experience, but undermines how the studio took Andrzej Sapkowski’s fantasy novels and crafted one of the most engrossing and engaging adventures in recent memory.

So with a technically ambitious Switch port coming this year, and Netflix’s own take on the novels expected in 2020, I feel an obligation to expand on what made Witcher 3, despite its freakish imperfections, a heartfelt masterpiece.

Whatsoever a Man Soweth

Despite being the third entry in a series based on fantasy lore dating back to the late 1980s, you need not read the books or play the first two games to understand the story. It may clarify things and make certain beats hit harder, but the plot is refreshingly straightforward for a medieval fantasy adventure of this scale.

To wit: A monster-hunting, mutated swordsman named Geralt of Rivia finds himself working alongside his estranged sorceress lover, Yennefer of Vengerberg. The two journey across the continent in search of their surrogate daughter Ciri as she flees The Wild Hunt, a supernatural armed force seeking her powers for conquest. While deceptively simple, this journey finds Geralt not only coming to terms with his past (especially if you simulate a save file from the second game), but navigating a dense sociopolitical quagmire of an open world.

What makes this narrative so impactful is a strong sense of choice and consequence, where even the most banal quests take unexpected directions. These consequences may not even manifest immediately, and combined with the fact that Witcher 3 deletes auto-saves, every choice has tangible weight from a gameplay and narrative perspective. You might anger the local guards, for example, only to encounter resistance entering a crucial location and be forced to find an alternate point of entry, emphasizing the point that not every situation be solved with violence.

A Matter of Life and Death, for the Advancement of Learning

That being said, violence does have its place, especially in combat. Battles are comparable to Couch Bandits recommendation Dark Souls in that slashing away with reckless abandon, on anything but “Just the Story” difficulty, will lead to a quick and merciless slaughter. Geralt relies just as much on preparation as dexterity, and by the same token, victory emphasizes knowledge and planning. With bombs, magic Signs, and stat-boosting potions, a solid strategy can turn even the most harrowing fights trivial in the best way possible.

Signs also have additional, alternative uses that change the flow of combat. The Axii sign, for example, stuns enemies for a short time, but with upgrades and leveling, can also possess them and even unlock additional conversation options with the Delusion perk. Between these tools, leveling, perks, alchemy and crafting, The Witcher 3 has no shortage of systems and enemies, but the learning process is one of the most rewarding of any recent role-playing games.

An Avid Collector of Precious Cargo

Such empowerment carries over into navigating the world itself. Eschewing the linear, chapter-based progression of prior games, The Witcher 3 expands to the entire Continent (yes, that’s what it’s called) and takes the series open-world with large and varied terrain. Most impressive is how the world and side quests, particularly monster-hunting Witcher Contracts, make geographic sense and tie into the lore. One humorous example early on involves helping an old woman find her missing frying pan with Witcher Senses. Similar to Detective Mode in Batman: Arkham Asylum, this X-ray vision instills a sense of discovery while reinforcing the idea of Geralt being a superhuman individual.

Even exploration for its own sake can be immensely rewarding. By reading notice boards in the center of towns, you reveal a series of additional locations nearby, indicated with simple question marks that instill a sense of mystery. Horse races, fist fights and a collectible card game named Gwent provide diversions that infuse every region with distinct character. Almost all of these excursions prove worthwhile, having self-contained stories and loot that delivers meaningful reward. The one exception is the aforementioned Gwent, being ubiquitous to the point of immersion-breaking; why would an entire Continent treat a card game as a surrogate religion, never mind not recognize crucial characters in real life from their card game counterparts?

On Thin Ice

Yes, I did indeed point out a flaw in The Witcher 3, but that comes with the territory. As the first open-world game from a fairly small team, it stands to reason the massive increase in scale comes with frayed edges and growing pains, and indeed it has. Picturesque and scenic as it is, horse-riding does become increasingly tedious, especially before unlocking fast-travel points (which you need to stand to first in order to use the system). Heavy attacks feel more sluggish than a sloth drenched in molasses, and the money earned from side quests amounts to little more than pocket change.

More disappointing are the constant technical problems, even after a commendable amount of patches and bug fixes. The Xbox One X version played for review suffers from disappearing and reappearing bodies, quest notifications not working, characters glitching through one another during major cutscenes, missing sound effects, and in my experience, no less than three hard crashes. A Performance Mode offers an unlocked framerate, but it also suffers from framerate dips and additional glitches.

A Wild Heart

These issues detract from the experience, and dispel the false notion of this game being an objective masterpiece. But no game is perfect, nor is a game perfect for everyone. That misconception is unfortunate, because The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt provides an amazing adventure, provided you meet Geralt on his own terms.

With an expansive world, deliberate pacing and need for constant micromanagement, the experience requires a major investment, one that gets callously dismissed with sarcastic “this game is not meant for you” arguments by diehard fans. Which is a shame, and betrays what really made The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt so beloved, and one worth trying despite the vitriolic fanbase surrounding it.

For all its scrappiness, The Witcher 3 has nerves of pure steel, and a heart of lustrous silver. Those are every bit as precious as the swords on Geralt’s back, and the controller in your hands. The Wild Hunt is always on.

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