The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is an open world RPG developed and published by CD Projekt Red. It was originally released on the PS4, Xbox One, and PC in May 2015. It was ported to the Nintendo Switch in September 2019, and will be released again for PS5 and Xbox Series X in 2022. MSRB is $60. I played the Nintendo Switch version.
Imagine if the amount of people discussing a game on the internet could somehow be represented in real life. For example, a niche JRPG like Shin Megami Tensei V might resemble a close-knit book club. You could easily fit the audience inside of a living room. A more mainstream game like Stardew Valley may fill up a high school auditorium, and so on.
And then there’s The Witcher III, a game whose discourse is so passionate and so massive that it would sound like a sold-out football stadium. As I booted the game for the first time, I couldn’t help but feel nervous, like I was going to walk out and perform on that football field. I’ve heard nothing but praise about this game ever since I started playing video games again in the mid-2010s. Balancing out that apprehension, though, was genuine curiosity: I wondered if it would top Breath of the Wild as my #1 game.
Long story short, it didn’t beat Breath of the Wild. At least, not overall. It did, however, have its own strengths and merits that I think every video game should learn from. Thanks to The Witcher III, I believe I have a new golden standard when it comes to conventional storytelling in video games.
A Narrative Masterpiece
For those unfamiliar, The Witcher is actually a series of fantasy novels written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. CD Projekt Red has adapted this series into a video game form. You play as Geralt, a monster hunter raised by other Witchers. His body has been physically mutated to have enhanced senses and abilities, including using magic. He carries an iconic pair of swords on his back — one made of steel, for slaying humans; the other made of silver, for slaying monsters.
However, the people of this world don’t exactly see you as a hero. Most call you “freak” as they pass you on the street. They fear your abilities, and yet… guess who they’ll call whenever a werewolf starts stalking the nearby woods? The result is a begrudging relationship between you and the rest of society. But you know what, I didn’t mind remaining distant from the general population — this world is full of power-hungry generals, racist kings, desperate peasants, and depraved crime bosses. One of the first things you see stepping into the world of The Witcher III is a tree full of men hung for the crime of deserting a battlefield. This is a dark and violent place where anyone that’s “different” is an immediate threat.
As a gamer who grew up saving the world as a Chosen Hero in a green tunic, playing The Witcher III was like stepping out into a crisp October evening after spending too much time in a sauna. It’s not exactly pleasant to hear NPCs mumble profanities at me in passing, but it’s also a refreshing change from the smothering adoration that the Zelda games heap onto my back, even after I break all the pots in town.
Geralt’s story in this game begins with him trying to find his adoptive daughter, Ciri. She is being pursued by a band of powerful and mysterious riders called The Wild Hunt, and you are trying to catch up to her before they do. Your quest ends up taking you across the continent, encountering a cast characters that includes royalty, soldiers, priests, bards, and sorceresses. You’ll solve mysteries and uncover clues with Geralt’s Witcher senses, not unlike a fantasy Sherlock Holmes. Geralt’s story becomes a massive and convoluted goose chase, and that’s not even considering all of the side quests that could distract you along the way.
Arguably the most important parts of Geralt’s story, though, are the blank portions that you have a say in. There are countless decisions to make, from joining a spy ring to romancing one of the sorceresses. Every decision, large or small, reflects what kind of person you want Geralt to be. For me, Geralt was quite taciturn at first and rarely went out of his way to help strangers, focusing intensely on finding Ciri. Eventually, though, my Geralt began to open up more and more. He even started going out of his way to save every village he saw, and occasionally he didn’t even charge money for his services. There are 3 major types of endings for this game, and within those are dozens of smaller changes based on how you interact with the minor characters. I’m sure I missed several different plot threads or story possibilities based on my choices. But at the same time, the interactions that I did unlock felt like genuine consequences and rewards.
Almost every side quest in this game has a bit of a story to it. Even if the quest is a straight-forward monster hunt, there’s usually some sort of twist. Perhaps the werewolf was actually the village elder, or perhaps the “god” protecting a town was actually a fiend living underneath its church. I loved getting lost in each side quest, because I never knew how any of them would turn out. And just like in Skyrim, some of these side quests were so involved that they could’ve easily been their own stand-alone campaign in a different video game. And much to my delight, I found that my choices in The Witcher III had more of the nuance and shades of grey that I’d wished Skyrim espoused. In fact, I found The Witcher III a better experience than Skyrim in almost every way.
On top of all that, the writing is phenomenal. The game is actually narrated by a bard called Dandelion, one of Geralt’s closest friends. His asides are usually heard during loading screens when you boot up the game, where he will “catch the player up” or give a reminder of where Geralt is in the story. If you look through the glossary, though, you’ll see more of his quirky narration in a character profile or monster explanation. Considering how important story is in this game, this was a perfect addition. The dialogue is sharp, and the voice acting is executed stunningly. I genuinely wanted to hear what Geralt had to say in every situation he found himself in. There were even good uses of similes and metaphors! In a video game! I’ve yet to read the books this game is based on, but I have a bet that the books helped The Witcher III‘s moment-to-moment writing a lot.
So overall it sounds amazing, right? Breath of the Wild‘s story cannot even begin to approach this kind of complicated storytelling. So why couldn’t The Witcher III beat out Breath of the Wild?
Well, let’s get to my grievances.
The Cost of Realism
The Witcher III is dedicated to its story, its world, and its gritty, realistic tone. This realism, unfortunately, comes at a cost to its gameplay.
For starters, Geralt’s controls are slow and cumbersome. He takes a second to come to a full stop, and he turns more like a car than a person. Even just walking around a village and trying to talk to the right NPC can become a chore. Looting a simple chest is like trying to parallel park in downtown Seattle — I often overcorrect and have to back all the way out and start over again. In combat, the enemy’s moves can be difficult to decipher. Geralt’s dodges and parries are slow, like in Dark Souls, but it lacks that game’s sense of weight. The result is Geralt feeling like a slippery figure skater trying to wield a hockey stick. No wonder I struggled hitting the hockey puck (aka enemy monsters). Eventually, I got used to these controls, and combat began to make a bit more sense. However, even by the time the credits rolled, they still didn’t click with me the same way that Dark Souls eventually had. It was like learning a second language as an adult. I learned how to get by, but I never felt like I got fluent in it. And don’t get me started on the horse.
The world, as beautiful as it is, was surprisingly difficult to navigate. Every 3 minutes or so I had to wade through the game’s slow menus and pull up the map just to make sure I was going in the right direction or tracking the right quest. Even then, I frequently got lost. Occasionally this lead to some serendipitous encounters, but it just as often made me sigh in frustration. Once again the game is devoted to its realism, and in real life you probably wouldn’t see large landmarks in the distance like you would in Zelda or Xenoblade Chronicles. The hills are more subtle, and towns can’t be spotted from far away. But this also gives my brain less visual cues for creating a mental map. The world is full of interesting things to see, with its forests, sunsets, towers, and islands, but I struggled having any sense of direction even after roaming through the same areas for hours.
I guess since we’re talking about visuals, now would be a good time to discuss the quality of the port to Switch. On one hand, this game truly earns its nickname as “The Miracle Port.” There are some sweeping landscapes that made me pause and wonder how in the world these developers got this game working on the Switch at all. On the other hand, you can tell it’s heavily compromised. The studio Saber Interactive helped CD Projekt Red port the game to Switch, and they made some smart decisions with what to compromise. Overall the game is pretty blurry, with some flat-looking foliage and environmental set pieces. However, this smudge effect is so cohesive that you’d think it was part of the game’s original art direction. I paused multiple times just to take in the landscape I was seeing.
That being said, the NPCs in this game are nightmarishly blocky. Geralt looks great, as do the major characters, but conversations with the local quest-givers looked more like Geralt had just begun chatting with a lump of clay made to resemble a villager. Most of the time the framerate remains steady, but in the populated cities you can almost hear the Switch groan under all of the processing weight. In TV mode, all of the setbacks are quite obvious, but on the Switch’s small handheld screen, you can’t really tell there’s much of a compromise at all. Outside of the multiple bugs that required me to reload the game, my immersion was never broken due to the visual changes. I’m overall very happy with how the developers made such a large game work on such limited hardware.
I want to qualify that all of my issues with The Witcher III were, in the end, minor. I adjusted and adapted to all of them. However, when I gather all of my thoughts together, I think The Witcher III excelled at conveying its realism through storytelling and decision-making, but struggled with movement and combat. Breath of the Wild just doesn’t have any of the drag that gets in the way of the moment-to-moment gameplay. Even Death Stranding, a game that literally weighs the player down as they explore, feels like a better way to express realism in character movement than The Witcher III.
If we could stitch together the enchanting story of The Witcher III with the polished gameplay of Breath of the Wild, then we may have The Ultimate Video Game. However, even when that pipe dream of a game releases, I’ll remember The Witcher III as an experience that not only transcended its flawed moment-to-moment gameplay, but became one of the most gripping and immersive interactive stories I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing.