The Witcher Comeback

Oh, it’s February already? If sheer laziness doesn’t count, I only have two excuses for the silence of the past five weeks. Firstly, there haven’t yet been any new game releases this year that would’ve piqued my interest. Secondly, despite a sizable backlog, I ended up revisiting CD Projekt’s exquisite fantasy epic The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, complete with all the DLC and everything. Although I had already experienced all of that before, the adventures of the Witcher Geralt turned out to be just as enchanting and content-rich the second time around. Even the pivotal main and side quests once again took well over a hundred hours and the world map is still littered with tons of minor locations to explore. In both good and bad sense, the game is just plain massive.

In this entry, I mostly focus on how replay value holds up. Probably the most surprising thing was still the vastness of the game world. Even White Orchard, essentially just a tutorial area, felt delightfully large only to pale in comparison to the desolate quagmires of Velen and the hustle and bustle of the free city of Novigrad. There’s just so much to see and do that it might start to feel excessive even before embarking to the rocky shores of Skellige, let alone the duchy of Toussaint introduced in the Blood and Wine DLC.

The game’s story branching was surprising, too, given how often the player is given a choice to affect the outcome of pretty much every main and side quest, sometimes in minor but often in major ways. One might think that the second time would be perfect for trying out alternative ways of resolving things, yet I constantly found myself making the same choices as the first time around, even the same gross misjudgments included. I guess this is at least partially to do with the player’s own moral compass but also the fact that there are often no easy, predictable outcomes available. Besides, even the most tragic of fates have been written with such care that they feel like a natural, necessary part of the story despite there perhaps having been a chance for things to go better.

I was quite happy how well the game has been patched over the years, getting rid of a large number of minor bugs and improving the user interface. Still, some core problems were never addressed. For example, the most challenging Death March difficulty is absolutely thrilling for the first few hours when even the most basic of foes can pose a lethal threat to an inexperienced Witcher. However, after leveling up Geralt even just to character level 7-10, new skills and constantly improving gear start tipping the scales the other way. After a few dozen hours fighting becomes a routine and by the time of the DLC, Geralt has become so overpowered that nothing feels genuinely threatening anymore.

Also, the game’s economy is still as broken as ever. The street value of a magical sword can equal that of a roasted chicken leg, and if slaying a fierce monster is worth a few hundred crowns, that hardly feels like a reward when you already have tens of thousands in the coin pouch. Merchants practically never have anything worthwhile to buy as the game world is bursting out of its seams with useful and valuable loot of all kinds. The DLC introduce a couple of places where Geralt can squander away all the pointless wealth amassed during the main game but even those only serve to emphasize just how meaningless money in the game is.

In hindsight, the best way to truly enjoy this game is to approach it calmly. During both of my playthroughs, I made the mistake of going from village to village, eagerly picking up any and every side quest available. This caused my mission log and the game world to be so full of stuff that going through them turned into arduous, monotonic work. Sure, even the smallest of side quests are genuinely written but the basic theme always remains the same: go somewhere to find or kill something. I’m quite certain the game would entertain a lot better in small doses over the course of several months (or even years) rather than trying to wolf it all down in quick succession.

Despite all this, I have to admit The Witcher 3 earns all of its acclaim. Its fantasy is as stark as it is beautiful, and everything in it has been produced with such dedication and attention to detail that it’s a blast even when replayed.