Review: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
We return to the world of folklore and monsters with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, a more expansive take on the open world format than previous titles in the series. As usual we view this mythic yet lived-in place through the eyes of Geralt of Rivia, monster hunter extraordinaire!
Pragmatic, to-the-point but not lacking a sense of humour, Geralt has always been the perfect foil to the more fantastical elements of the series. That’s not to say it can’t be still eerie and awe inspiring in equal measure – being a monster hunter, you encounter your fair share of horrible and magnificent beasties. But Geralt the Witcher grounds things in a practical reality.
Geralt does have some useful magic powers of his own though. Using your Witcher senses is always a good idea. They help identify enemies, loot and collectable ingredients. They can also help identify clues that lead to a boss lair.
It’s here that the game comes into its own. After accepting a contract to take down a monster, it’s never a good idea to wade in unprepared. You’ll probably end up loading that last save file again (the game advises you to save often, this is a good idea). You’ll need to take note of your enemies weaknesses and find out how to exploit them.
For example, using the game’s alchemy system, you can brew various poisons to coat your blade with. Get the right ingredients, create the right noxious brew and you can turn an unwinnable fight into a one where you have a chance. You have to engage in combat properly of course. Enemies will sidestep, lunge and block your attacks. The game expects you to do the same. The only way to prevail is to have a good defense and a varied attack. The fights play out differently depending on which man or beast you face, but you’ll always need to time your strikes and take your opportunities when they arise. This is as true with minor skirmishes as it is with boss battles.
Add to that the various Witcher signs Geralt can use (everything from pyro attacks to mind control) and you’ve got a deep and satisfying combat system. The Witcher 3 makes a decent fist of explaining combat in the tutorial and gradually introduces other new concepts in an easy to understand manner. It even lets you refer back to them in an in-game glossary.
Exploration in The Witcher 3 is much more open ended due to its larger maps. Now areas are made up of several little villages (and more significant townships) with a surrounding wilderness. All are well rendered with forests looking particularly intimidating at night. Gloomy bogs and sunny, open plains also hit the right stylistic notes, to help give the game a distinctive, dark fairytale-like tone.
While not exactly GTA massive, the maps are densely populated with plenty of things for completists to discover. You’ll probably find yourself using the game’s handy fast travel system to whiz about quite a bit. This time you can also travel by boat, which is suitably perilous. Your first trip between islands with beasties swooping overhead is a memorable moment. As is the first time you wreck your craft upon the rocks!
Bandit camps, places of power to draw from and side quests are all dotted throughout the game world. In fact, it is not only advisable but necessary to go exploring, as completing side quests is often the only way to gain enough experience for main story quests (the game helpfully recommends a safe entry level for each quest, though you are welcome to take them anytime you like).
Levelling up is an interesting process. You might find yourself with more abilities than you have slots for. The game encourages you to swap out your abilities to find the right approach for the situation at hand. It’s a clever approach that nudges the player towards being pragmatic.
The game has introduced snap dialogue decisions that you have to quickly make while in conversation. These add a nice element of interactivity to a lot of cut scenes, but they aren’t really necessary; even minor conversations are engaging and reveal information about the world of The Witcher 3. Geralt being an outsider makes things more interesting and helps us gain a deeper understanding of The Witcher universe, but he’s self aware enough to avoid being a humourless loner. He’s a badass without being a bore.
The plot isn’t anything particularly startling (Geralt must look for his old pupil amidst a backdrop of war) but the world in which it takes place certainly is. The game has a down to earth, everyday sense of what life must have been like in an olde worlde environment. It’s similar to the Michael York Musketeers movies from the 1970s in that respect, but with a more serious tone. And the occasional werewolf thrown in.
The only gripes I have are minor, but do take the shine off The Witcher 3 a bit. The swimming mechanics aren’t particularly well suited to traversing tight underwater caverns and this lead to me drowning more than necessary. Sometimes the game makes you feel unfairly out of your depth in other ways. I was riding into an area on my trusty steed when I came upon an elf (yes there are Elves) being set upon by a gang of thugs. I took the cut scene choice to leap in and help, only to discover the five enemies were all about seven levels higher than me! These remain minor gripes though.
The Witcher 3 offers multiple solutions to quests while cleverly molding you into the kind of player it wants you to be: patient, streetwise and knowledgeable. The game will knock you down mercilessly if you take a lazy approach to monster slaying, just as it will reward you for being prepared and mastering the combat system. You have to learn the hard lessons. You have to think WWGD (what would Geralt do?). The lifespan of this thing is potentially massive if you want to explore all The Witcher 3 has to offer.
To sum up
Those prepared to invest will find an expansive world with quests that are miles above the standard fetch and carry/eliminate a certain number of enemies schlock. They’ll also find a game universe peopled with genuinely interesting characters, a fun card game (Gwent) and a dynamic orchestral soundtrack that changes perfectly as the situation requires. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is demanding and rewarding in equal measure. It’s tough in Geralt’s world, but it’s a lot of fun too.
Version reviewed: PS4
The Witcher 3 is out now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.