3 games in, and I couldn’t tell you why they’re called “witchers”. They’re not witches. Though they do do magic, they don’t call it magic and it’s nothing compared to the pan-dimensional shit actual witches pull. What they do do is murder magical animals. They’re actively working to remove magic from the world. That’s the opposite of what a witch is, but they don’t even try to murder witches. If Geralt, the titular witcher, is an example, they spend more time getting friendly with witches than killing them. The only guys in the game trying to kill witches, imaginatively called “witch hunters”, are both villainously evil and hilariously under-skilled for fighting witches. And when you consider that witch is typically a feminine term, but witchers seem to be mostly men, you weave to wonder why they didn’t call them “warlockers”. If that seemed too dumb, why not “warcocks”? If they were a guild called Warcocks, they sure as shit wouldn’t be having any problems getting new recruits.
Though what do I know? If I were a monster hunter, I’d train in fighting multiple opponents at once, and Geralt certainly fucking didn’t. Open world RPGs have often asked us to accept terrible combat as part of the price of a varied, open world, and thankfully the Witcher 3 seems to think that’s plowing stupid. It’s still not great, but it’s head and shoulders above its competitors. (”Plowing” is a Witcher universe swear, sort of a pg-13 version of “fucking”, except now the characters sometimes say fuck too, making you wonder why they plowing bother).
The sword fighting feels impactful and fraught, at least on blood and broken bones difficulty, which I recommend. While there’s definitely no shame in the easier modes, fighting a werewolf in a basement at midnight feels fraught and risky, something Geralt is certainly able to do, but that is one mistimed dodge away from giant funnyhanded dismemberment. This is partially down to aesthetic design. Even non-lethal blows can be answered with a heavy flow of blood, which stains your clothes and does a hell of a lot to make the combat feel meaningful. On the higher difficulties there is a definite risk of death with every encounter but thanks to this even the lower ones feel meaningful.
And you’ll be doing a lot of it. Seemingly every mission and side-quest ends up going in a totally different direction than you’d assume, with early monster-hunting gigs requiring you to turn detective in order to work out how a woman died, follow a flying ghost foetus through a swamp and negotiate with terrorists. It’s an impressive amount of invention and complexity, and it’s only more impressive when you consider how easy it would’ve been to just give a collection of “go-there-kill-that” missions without any subtlety. He’s a monster hunter after all, so a collection of tedious monster hunts would’ve been excusable. What they’ve done is replaced this with a rousing game of “find the bastard” that’ll keep you guessing until everyone’s dead.
Because everyone is some sort of bastard. Some are cowardly bastards, some are homophobic bastards, most are just selfish bastards, but if you’re playing as heroic character, you’ll quickly realise your mission isn’t to identify who the bastard is, but who’s the bastard this time, because almost everyone’s a bastard sometimes, yourself included.
Thanks to this the plot is fun and unpredictable, and Ciri is a great addition. Simultaneously the main focus of Geralt’s campaign and the star of a couple of missions from her own point of view, she’s somehow both one of the most powerful beings alive and constantly in danger, and the game treads that line perfectly, handing her situations Geralt would consider “impossible” and letting you kick arse, while also portraying the things she’s running from as fearsome. It all makes for a good, sensible plot and the powering up of the enemies leads our scowly protagonist to take on allies. This is probably the writing’s greatest strength, because no matter what, you never really feel like the sole focus of the world. Everyone, friends and enemies alike, have their own goals, motivation and plans and none of them, friends included, take your meddling lightly. One of my favorite moments happened after I rushed in to save a friend of mine who’d recently told me not to get involved, only for the friend to turn around and call me a dick for doing so.
This isn’t a game where you’re rewarded for acting like the hero of a video-game, but rather one where you’re rewarded for trusting and being trusted by your friends, even when they don’t take the time to explain that they’re planning on faking their own death. Geralt’s powerful, sure, but he’s not the only person capable of getting shit done, and that’s something video-games don’t show enough of. In the Witcher, you never need to ask “why am I doing this?” You’re either getting paid, in which case it’s almost always optional or something Geralt cares about (and, generally speaking, his field is barren of fucks) or, at its best moments, because you, as a player, want to see this through to the end.
There are problems, of course, but they’re mostly fixable glitches and random crashes, but for me they’ve both been uncommon and easily avoidable. Together they represent what is only a small dent in what is otherwise as close to perfection as these things get. It’s not perfect, but it’s close enough that it could throw its trash into perfect’s front yard if it wanted. It does have real-time beard growth, which I suspect blew in from perfection’s property during a storm.
THE WITCHER 3
Developer: CD Projekt RED
Released: May 19th, 2015
Score: 9/9 Hammers