A reliable sign you’re playing an absorbing game is how it makes the time fly. I was constantly interrupted by my TV’s two-hour auto-shutdown notification throughout my time with The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. Geralt’s adventures will cut through the days and nights so fast it’ll shock you.
The Witcher III marks the series’ debut on PlayStation and as such will be played by many gamers unfamiliar with the past games. There’s no getting around the fact that you’re going to be at a loss just diving in, I’d seriously advise reading a few wiki summaries of past events and brushing up on some of the main characters so you won’t feel too left out.
A few hours into the game, you can replicate the important decisions Geralt may have made in The Witcher II via a series of questions. Again, I’d read a guide on what these choices actually mean, as the in-game conversation will mean nothing to new players. Here’s the guide I used.
As you play through the game, character bios unlock and are updated throughout the adventure, which does help alleviate the crushing amounts of lore you’re trying to catch up on. Don’t be put off though; The Witcher III is all about new adventures, or more specifically, the ones you find naturally by exploring. There are extensive main quest missions, but the main meat of the game will be spent taking on hunting contracts or performing secondary quests for extra EXP or money.
The main plot is a drawn out affair, with incredibly slow progress throughout. Geralt is trying to track down his surrogate daughter, Ciri, who he believes to be in danger due to her unique powers. Her story is neatly told by putting the player in her shoes for some stages as we hear a secondary account of what happened when she was last seen by whoever Geralt is talking too.
Geralt has also been looking for Yennefer, an old flame, for the last few years. He finds her early on in what must be the most anti-climactic reunion in the history of everything. If the game was set in modern times, she may as well have just looked up at Geralt and said “s’up?”. And then she sods off and you won’t see her for another ten hours. Things do get better, though, mainly thanks to other quests that form mini campaigns of their own.
A particularly memorable one involves helping out a local Baron before he’ll tell you what he knows about Ciri. What follows is a multi-tiered quest that lasts for hours as you help him track down his missing wife and daughter. It’s a haunting tale about a troubled family, with the Baron forced to face some disturbing truths. It threatens to take a turn for the gross, but it manages to reel itself in enough and provide some incredibly emotional moments.
Quests will often cross paths and your choices of who to help or who to kill can have drastic results, making for some excellent replay value (oh oh, who knew that demon I let go would murder an entire village?). While it can be argued that these mini standalone campaigns may not affect the overall story, they’re certainly the driving force behind playing the game and will provide the most lasting memories.
It’s a good thing the story elements are so strong, because the gameplay side of many quests boil down to the most basic of RPG tropes. Despite CD Projekt Red promising innovation, I’m struggling to see how most of their fetch quests or ‘go there and kill that’ assignments differ from the genre at all. Fallout and Mass Effect have given the player huge freedom of choice already, so The Witcher III is hardly breaking new ground in that department.
Some of the quests are irritably repetitive too. Take the mission where you must run around a large city questioning a missing friend’s girlfriends to find out where he might be; a goose chase if ever there was one. But in that very same mission, a moment of brilliance sweeps you off your feet via a scene in a bar where a female minstrel performs a beautiful balled that made it all worthwhile. Just as it soothes the pains of the rough crowd, it smoothes over so many of the game’s rough edges (more on those later).
Anyway, back to the killing. Another large part of the game sees Geralt take on contracts to hunt down all manner of wild creatures -usually ones that have been eating the locals. These are also surprisingly formulaic as you investigate a murder scene with Geralt’s Witcher senses (think Batman’s detective vision), follow some tracks back to the creature’s den and kill it.
Of course, tougher monsters require a bit more strategy or a bit of back and forth questioning villagers (especially for hauntings) or preparing the correct alchemy buffer potions to ensure you can actually damage some of the more unique contracts.
The hacking and slashing side of the combat feels remarkably dated. A basic two button setup for strong or fast attacks works in tandem with an indifferent lock-on system that’s often best ignored for facing towards your target and hacking away. There is a satisfying degree of physical brutality though as Geralt’s fiendishly sharp blades hack limbs and heads off, or cut straight through torsos.
The spell-casting is simple to perform thanks to the radial menu that slows down time to let you choose from fire, force-blasts, confuse, shield or magic traps. The shield and confuse spells prove to be vital ones early on and you’ll have to put some serious hours in to unlock alternate versions of the spells or upgraded forms.
The alchemy side of the game where you conjure up potions for enemy-specific defences or offensive buffs has been made simpler than past entries in the series. Once you have gathered the obscure ingredients to make a few bottles you won’t need to gather them again to create more. Geralt simply uses any strong alcohol in his possession to fill up his supplies. Put simply, don’t hold back on potions, it’s now dirt cheap to replenish your stock, as long as you’re keen to do a bit of looting.
And where would an RPG be without the need to steal absolutely everything, pilfer the pockets of the dead or skin any nature that looks at you funny? It’s worth looting anything glowing yellow in Witcher vision, including bookshelves and barrels, for money, weapons, alchemy ingredients or even junk that an armourer can deconstruct for parts.
This brings us to one of the game’s many rough edges. The X button prompt is very fussy as to when it’ll appear when trying to pick up items and will even disappear completely or just be ignored when trying to interact with many doors or NPCs you need to talk too.
We’re a few weeks since launch now, so the game is in a better state thanks to numerous patches, but there’s still a lot to do. When riding your horse, Roach, he’ll often slam to a halt when your path reaches a bridge and the collision detection in general when moving around is very ropey. I frequently get off my horse only to land in an invisible pool of water (complete with splash effects), swim in the air for a second and eventually float back down. The text size is ridiculously small, despite a patch to fix it. I’ve explained why this is such a damaging aspect to the game world in this article. Loading times after death are incredibly long too, although ones for fast-travelling to the other side of the world are not.
You’ll endure it all though, because exploring the world of The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is so much fun. Graphically, the game is superb, even with the occasional frame-rate drop (which is worse in larger cities with lots of buildings). Cities can be dull but everything outside them is a picturesque fantasy playground.
You’ll pass through dense forests, murky swamps, idyllic farming villages, body-strewn battlefields, rocky mountains and so many more different landscapes. The day/night cycles give each their own flavour and the sunsets will stop you in your tracks every time. The shifting weather effects are also impressive with the wind bending every tree all the way to the horizon; it’s an impressive technical feat. Does it really have to rain as much as it does though? It’s started to really bum me out.
It’s amazing how many quests you’ll stumble upon naturally in the game just by wondering into an interesting looking building, so don’t solely rely on the notice boards in villages. Just explore and you’ll happen across all sorts of adventures for the Ronin-like Geralt.
You can form a connection to the locals so quickly with some missions. Maybe you’re looking for a missing son and it turns out he was executed for desertion, but you have the option to tell a white lie to his mother and say he was bravely killed in battle. Another had me discover a group of orphans had been stealing a widow’s chickens (not a wolf), so I recommended she find them and take them in. That was the end of the quest, no need to return. But I did go back to her house a few days later, only to see the children playing outside her home while she minded them. These subtle changes to the world are much more impressive than slaying any monster in a cave and are why you’ll lose yourself in The Witcher III’s world despite some oddly unpolished areas.
- Huge and beautiful world to explore
- Some very well-written quests
- Exploration is highly encouraged
- Combat is average
- Lots of little bugs and glitches (but no crashes at least)
- Underwater swimming controls. Just…why?
The Short Version: While the decidedly average combat and alarming number of technical gremlins are disappointing for a title that’s been in development for so long, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is still a must-buy title for genre fans. The Northern Kingdoms is vast and beautiful setting, packed with unique adventures and touching tales that you’ll find away from the beats of the main story. A title to truly lose yourself in.
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed) | Xbox One | PC
Developers: CD Projekt Red
Publishers: Bandai Namco