The Witcher 3 – a review

I’ve played The Witcher 3 probably for over 60 hours now, and just finished my first play-through. Some thoughts…

From a systems/mechanics perspective, I found The Witcher 3 to not really hold any surprises:

  • Large open-world layout, supporting immense amounts of open exploration. Even with 60 hours in it, my map holds more “?” marks than explored areas. However I rarely felt the desire to explore
  • A deep questing system with a simple “mechanical” setup: explore 3 large areas of the world (with lots of optional quests per area) sequentially to uncover the next major set of main quests. The later main quests would at times take me back through these 3 areas and revisit earlier acquaintances
  • Real-time combat that’s mostly swords-based, with some defense/offense spells. The base versions of the spells (“signs”) are already learnt at game-start, as thematically you are a traveled witcher. To me the combat was the least interesting aspect of the game
  • A leveling system that mostly provides passive benefits to your character’s stats / abilities, with some limited additional active spells unlocked (twists on existing spells). Interestingly leveling is primarily through questing, as combat/exploration provides very little experience rewards
  • A crafting system that supports hunting/gathering component resources. The alchemy part of the crafting system plays a strong role in supporting the thematics, however in practice I rarely felt the need to hunt for components – I had the habit of looting pretty much everything in sight, so when I did need to craft a potion/piece of gear I usually had the ingredients (or could salvage them from dismantling items)
  • A few mini-games: a very thematic card game, horse-racing

The execution of most of the above areas are mostly just so-so (with one notable exception), and what’s worse is that there are quite a few glitches / bugs… For example in my PS4 copy, the Gwent card game tutorial repeatedly crashed for me, which made me give up on this entire mini-game altogether.

I’ve also seen quite a few reviews comment that “the combat is not Dark Souls / Bloodborne“, undoubtably with Bloodborne fresh on players’ minds – this was my impression as well. It is an unfair but relevant comparison, and to me shows the importance of focus – a game cannot be the perfect game to all players, it must choose what it focuses on excelling at.

For The Witcher 3, that focus is the storytelling (the exception I mentioned earlier). The questing system itself is wholly generic (and even cuts some corners with designs such as a notice board where you can conveniently pick up side missions). And the mechanics of the quests are not ground-breaking in any way – it’s the standard fare of “go there” / “get that item for me” / “kill someone”. But the writing quality, the sheer amount of writing, and the related production values in presenting those writing (voice-acting etc.) is simply astounding. Quests, even the smallest side-quests, will often have (surprising) consequences later on; there are always interesting plot twists, supported by a memorable ensemble cast of NPCs; and the game’s grim world-view will repeatedly show the player that the best intentions can have objectively bad results (such is the tragedy of life).

In one sense this is basic storytelling – create numerous interesting characters; plant some seeds and come back to them later (preferably in unexpected ways); have multiple narratives in parallel, creating pace and tension, etc. – but the finesse and ease at which this game ties its quests together are remarkable.

Lastly, The Witcher 3 mostly succeeds by having about a dozen characters that the player cares about, and having the player make numerous narrative decisions per character throughout the long playthrough. Some of the consequences of these choices are not apparent until the ending; in other cases, they require the player to make immediate life/death choices (forced under a timer) between characters. As the credits roll, it’s hard not to reflect on these choices and wonder what could have been (although with the power of youtube and community wikis, exhaustively exploring all the other choices is a trivial task).

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