(This review was written for www.cgtantra.com and is published here :http://cgtantra.com/forums/showthread.php?t=36656 . I am posting here just for personal non-commercial archiving purposes.)
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Rights, wrongs …… and all the fun in between !
This review of the ps4 version of the game is 100% story-wise and gameplay-wise spoiler-free to keep your gaming goodness intact while playing this masterpiece.
“I am Geralt of Rivia”, this statement outlines the world of The Witcher 3 very appropriately. How, you may ask? Well, because this statement is true, yet false. Yes, you play as Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher, a monster hunter by trade but Geralt, as he proudly introduces himself, is not from Rivia and even his slight Rivian accent is a fake, a fact not well known among even his friends, and this same theme of dubiousness runs throughout the whole game. Nothing here is what it seems like! No character you meet here is what the world or first impressions would make you believe. Every place, person, incident, decision or its subsequent result has another layer of motive, doubt, apprehension or misunderstanding! ………and this makes for an enchanting, exhilarating ride through a game world so well made that it is difficult to find an equal in our recent times !
In a world co-inhabited by sorcerers, dwarves, elves, beasts, witches, werewolves and humans CD Projekt Red kicks off the adventure with a high quality CGI cut-scene that gets the ball rolling from the get-go. You, as Geralt , are introduced to being a Witcher, in exceptionally beautiful graphics to boot, and are set on the main quest immediately to go find Cirilla, a young girl tied to Geralt by destiny, a child-surprise as they say, if we go by the detailed mythos of the Novels set in the Witcher universe. Let’s just say she is a daughter to Geralt. What ensues is a series of quests to track some important returning characters from previous games (and novels) which takes you through a highly detailed hand crafted world full of side quests so good that they can put some full games to shame !
I am not exaggerating here, as these short stories from the side-quests evoke empathy towards the side-characters in simple but such effective ways that a lot of major full releases lack. Also, true to the game’s theme, every quest you undertake can end up in you doing exactly the opposite of what you intended while starting the quest. Heroes turn out to be equally villainous while tormentors turn out to be victims of the actions of the preachers of good or simple plain survival instincts of others. This makes the open world come alive with a magic which even the best games of the genre (Skyrim included) fall severely short of !
You develop an attachment towards the detailed world as you progress through the game. Anticipation runs high as you explore each area, as you find insignificant items and seemingly mundane treasure hunts bring forth highly emotive stories in the wake of their discovery. I will not mention any story detail here to not spoil the surprise one feels while playing the game, but it suffices to say that even some optional treasure hunts paint tragic tales of deceit, misunderstood morals and lonely penances. Seemingly violent Witcher contracts, quests to kill monsters for cash, evolve into quests of re-uniting timeless lovers and other times turn into moral arguments about the right to live, of survival instinct of other species v/s seemingly irrefutable piousness in human acts of indiscriminate expansion and the desire to usurp the whole world.
The opposing perceptions of right and wrong, when viewed from opposing perspectives, is a theme that runs through everything in this game. Characters, quests, hunts and even banter among NPCs question the right of the righteous and the wrongs in the wrongdoings. This is not a world you will forget upon shutting down the game. Instead, you will find yourself narrating these dilemmas to friends and family and thinking about your actions in your waking and sleeping hours. In time, you will start living as Geralt, the ultimate goal of any RPG !
This rich, lush world and quest system is ably supported by a robust combat system, which frankly brings a breath of fresh air and immediacy to a world full of RPGs with slow, clunky or repetitive combat. Combat in the Witcher requires you to think on the feet and juggle between its three arms of Swordplay, Signs (ala magic) and Alchemy. Oh, and bombs, never forget the ever useful bombs! This brings enough variety to fights to not feel repetitive and enough possibilities to win a fight your way. This caters to the very core concept of being a Witcher, of slaying monsters and sharing those stories with your friends. The fact that there are 5 signs, with equal number of alternate modes, two sword attacks which upgrade to 4 (along with 3 passive abilities), multiple potions which you learn along the way and bombs which you upgrade to better versions and a mutagen system to add boosts to your style of play builds up into a system which lets you add your personality to each fight, lets you build your own fighting style and lets you have encounters which you can live to tell tales of. Add to that a very well explained and the incredibly useful bestiary in the game which details out the origins and the weaknesses of each monster type, (which must be exploited in order to win a fight, otherwise you might find yourself at a loss in the fight) you have a well-built combat system which holds the test of time and lasts you through the 100 hours you may very well spend in this game.
Button mashing your sword can get you only so far and very early-on the game makes it clear that a Witcher needs his kaboom-a-shazaam to jazz up his combat or pack his bags and leave. You are free to upgrade any aspect as you level up, but a very clever slot-system for your skill-tree makes it clear that you can focus on maxing out only one of the three disciplines over the course of the game while keeping a second discipline leveled up for support. To put in numbers, you have around 70 skills you can level up but you can slot only 12 at a time pushing you to make hard choices about your play-style and hone your Witcher towards a particular specialisation. During my playthrough, I focused on leveling up my Magic signs (because magic is the coolest form of self-expression in this world :^)) in such a way to make them almost always ready-to-fire and maxed out my light sword attack for some knuckle-to-the-bone interludes between all the fireworks ! My combat style was further boosted by the Griffin armour set which boosted my sign intensity even further making sure when I spewed fire from my fingers, I had roasted monster meat for dinner ! There are three such sets, with very specific bonuses and handicaps and multitudes of other armours which provide various boosts.
In my time with The Witcher 3, which is north of a 100 hours, I was always excited for the next big fight, and not wary of it, and was still trying to think up new cross ability combos, which speaks volumes for the combat system when usually combat in most RPGs end up feeling repetitive and random. Popping a magic shield, then freezing the enemies only to light them up with my fire-streaming souped-up Igni sign and then letting them hack you to their fill, as you laugh maniacally, because every hit they strike regenerates your health : Priceless !
The Devil is in the details:
…….and in letting the player be! I cannot explain to you the joys of stealing treasures from right under the noses of high levelled monsters, one who can kill you with one hit, and running off with the loot on your sturdy horse …….and the fact that the game lets you have it without penalties if you can pull it off ! There are no “magical game barriers’ which stop you from doing what you want to, it’s a living breathing open world, for real this time. I sneaked into Novigrad, a major metropolis in the game, long before the story wanted me to and add to that I sneaked in without a mandatory pass required to enter the city…..and the game just let me be and responded properly by opening up the connected story quests for me.
Usually such freedom of gameplay comes at the cost of a lackluster or barren world, but there are no compromises in the Witcher3. The world is unanimously the most beautiful open world you will set your eyes on (which you can travel by foot, steed or boats) and each area is lovingly handcrafted to pertain a sense of place.
The devilish detailing extends beyond just graphics, though. Each NPC you find in the little villages located around the map has a name, a profession and usually a side quest he/she stars in. Each NPC you pass usually has something to say about you, the current political situation, some quest located in that area or on war and its wake ! If you check out the Notice board at each village or town, which lets you pick up side quests, you will notice little stories for almost each of these NPCs in that village.
The detailing spills over into dialogue options and the decisions you make too. Even seemingly disconnected quests have repercussions which affect your options in other quests or story quests. Friends or foes you make over time can suddenly make events pop-in out of nowhere affecting your story and gameplay in some other part of the game. It is difficult to tell how deep this rabbit hole goes, but I was pleasantly surprised multiple times in my game when thugs or help poured in from long forgotten characters and conversations.
Talking of conversations, you have multiple choices which you can make while talking to other NPCs, but contrary to other RPGs who offer black and white choices, Witcher 3 differs again. Not only are the choices more like real life, ie. ambiguous and unsure, but the dialogue also let you back out and change directions cleverly if the response from the NPC makes you change your mind ! Even during romances, I was able to commit, half-commit and then even back out of a relationship within a conversation scene making it feel…..surreal !
In no other games have I felt so compelled to think well before committing to a dialogue choice because in The Witcher 3, every decision you make has tangible repercussions which the game clearly feeds back to you making every decision or dialogue choice important and dear to your heart. I have found myself discussing my available choices with friends before taking decisions as many a times a seemingly just decision can later leave you with a terrible feeling of guilt. As I said before, in this world, nothing is what it seems !
Oh, and did I mention the humour ! The game has the same sense of humour that the novels have and this is one game where more than half of my time was spent smiling while playing the game. The amount of love put into crafting this game is simply staggering!
To put it simply: This is RPG open-world gaming at its finest! Un-missable, un-skippable and one where your time spent in the game isn’t a pastime, it’s a purposeful adventure into your own conscience, your own sense of right and wrong and your ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. You might well never be a hero in The Witcher 3, but you can be the one who cares ! Whether what you do resonates with others or makes you a monster in their eyes is debatable and unpredictable, just like in real life.
If you are an Action RPG fan you will be ably satiated with this game and if, like me, you crave the tales of wonder, you will be in heaven ! Just don’t rush with the main story, do every side quest that pops up, find hidden areas and take time with the Witcher contracts as those side activities are where the meat of the game is. The main storyline is the thread that binds the world together but doing a Witcher’s deeds in this wind swept world is where all the magic happens! For this is one lush garden of little wide eyed tales, pick the ones that feel ripe to you and play them as you live the life of a Witcher !
+Best Side quests in a game, ever.
+Amazing Fan service. Novels and previous games are constantly referred to in meaningful ways.
+The best living breathing open world, sense of adventure is un-paralleled
+Humour and the branching dialogue
+ Combat and leveling up systems
+Decisions have surprising effects
-Main story can feel aimless in the beginning.
Verdict: “Reviewer’s Choice: A Must buy! Do not miss this game if adventure runs in your blood “
(*all screenshots taken with the Share button on a PS4 system)