/SP/ | The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt | "Na pohybel skurwysynom"

I suppose the game that’s impressed me the most over the past year is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. I’ve no reservations in saying that it deserved all the accolades it received. Were someone to take a cursory glance at my impressions of it since release, their first assumption might be that I hate the damn game. For a while I actually thought that was true myself, but in the end it wound up swinging the other way, hard.

I will admit that a good chunk of my time with the game, its predecessors, and the novels they’re based on was frequently accompanied by frustration, with me vehemently decrying its bugginess, insipid writing (particularly in the case of the novels), and lack of polish; eventually however, the updates slowed and the game that existed in November turned out to be the game I was expecting to play in May (which is more or less what I expected going in, which is why I wasn’t too pissed about it). The game I’d begrudgingly stuck with had actually solidified into an engrossing world, with characters and scenarios that while not exactly rare to this particular branch of fantasy---were still extremely well-done. It allowed me to engage in a type of RPG that works better for me than what the likes of Bioware or Bethesda have ever offered me. So well-done in fact that I’d argue it easily outclasses its peers in the genre. Everything from Dragon Age and Mass Effect to Fallouts and Skyrim have always failed to grab me for any extended period of time and when they have, it’s been on an extremely limited and conditional basis[1].

Earlier last year, I finally sat down and played through the entire series leading up to the launch of The Wild Hunt. I even climbed through five of the seven books (I’ve recently gone back and finished both The Swallow's Tower and Lady of the Lake).

I was not blown away by any of it.

There's definitely a lot there to love, but I was consistently met with those aforementioned bugs and game-breaking glitches that constantly hampered my way through the game. I’d come to associate this with CDPR specifically, but the underlying adventure and premise of the game(s) had always piqued my interest so I kept chipping away at it---having heard how your choices affect Geralt’s place in the world. The problem is this was always running hand-in-hand with a personal pet peeve of mine among Western RPGs: buggy design, weird marketing that seeps into the tone of the game[2], and the worst offender in my eyes---questionable combat. Every time they re-released and re-balanced the first and second game I was always reminded how hectic my time with them was and as a result I was driven further away from playing through them. 

Looking back on all of it after the completing The Wild Hunt however---the successes that CDPR made between the first and third game are damn impressive. They went from a sort of low-budget-Bioware experience and ended up as something Bioware should sit the fuck down and take some lessons from (where other developers have simply gotten worse with their most well-known series).

The world and narrative itself was not without its own drawbacks however. Ultimately, the entire trilogy could be reductively derided as a grand fan-fiction, but that does two things which I just can’t agree with.

1 - It belittles all the good that CD Projekt RED accomplished.
2 - It would grant far more credit than is due to novels which are only just above average in terms of being a captivating fantasy experience.

I constantly found myself wrestling with that second point. On one hand we have yet another old and out of touch craftsman convinced video games can only aspire to be tripe[3]. On the other, for every two steps the trilogy overall makes forward it takes one pointed step backwards, often proving his point.

Both the Witcher games and books excel at small-scale narratives that deal with the way of its world, often on a more personal and intimate level, typically following Geralt chasing monsters and figures around forgotten places in time. When it ventures into grand conflicts and schemes it tends to falter. The Wild Hunt in particular carried over the major beats of Ithlinne's Prophecy from the novels, which created all manner of problems. In fact a lot of its most prominent plot points really only come off at worst as fan service to appease lovers of the novels, despite creating weird schisms with the The Wild Hunt's predecessors. The Wild Hunt as an antagonist are probably the leading example of this in the game, as they take a mythical figure and give it a face of flesh and blood, it then proceeds to tie that to a rather human lust for power which is nonsensically wrapped around the ego of the always-haughty Elven disdain (which may be the point but it doesn’t read so much as subtlety as much as it does an inconsistent mess). The harshest thing I can say about it is to call it ordinary and very much expected.

The three games are also pretty distinct from one another, both in terms of tone and continuity of what gets carried over from the books. The first two games make a big point of disregarding the narrative baggage while at the same time lampshading the problem entirely via the tried-and-tested (i.e. tacky-as-fuck) fallback of game writing, amnesia. Geralt wanders around like an idiot in the first game as bland as an empty chalkboard. Assassins of Kings has him take a somewhat more active role, but the entire game is also more or less a huge-ass sidequest and he spends more time simply caught up in shit than anything else (the irony of my crankiness mirroring many characters’ in-universe exasperation with Geralt’s long-touted neutrality is not lost on me). It’s only in The Wild Hunt where they no longer hide behind his memory that he’s allowed some manner of characterization beyond being a sullen walking penis for witches to tug on at their leisure[4].

The character himself being more realized meshes well with the playstyle and overall structure finally coming together in the third game, questionable combat and all. This presents itself mostly as flavor dialouge from Geralt himself and the type of dialouge options given to the player. Anything from minor offhand comments to the sacrastic musings of Geralt while wandering in the wilderness. The reactive stoic from the first two games doesn't exist in The Wild Hunt. He's an actual character with thoughts and feelings towards the world around him. I've stated before that I much prefer this to the same type of experience punctuated by something I spent a few hours cooking up in a character creator, so I certainly feel compelled praise it when it's done well.

It all feeds into how expansive the third game is too. All three titles are fairly open, but the first and second game are often leaning on their main story progression, limiting the player to a handful of sidequests, like twigs on the large branch of a tree. The Wild Hunt gives you an entire tree instead of just one polished branch, with most sidequests and contracts consisting of rich enough context to keep you completely distracted/invested compared to the actual trunk of the tree. 

It’s a completely viable playstyle to just wander in The Wild Hunt and become lost for hours on end. The game often rewards and incentivizes this even. In an age of open-world games becoming completely over-saturated and routine, this is a simple thing that’s easy for most games to miss (which most often do). When you’re not coming across loose story threads in The Wild Hunt that lead into their own self-contained sidequests, you’ll often find yourself barging back into the main story from an entirely different angle. Combine this with the often gray nature the game presents the player in terms of choice and this creates something fantastic. The first two games did well with latter feature too, presenting options and scenarios that go well beyond the simple bad, good, and neutral choices most games still rely on to this day. The endings and consequences of your choices are also disruptive to the binary outcomes and endings most games have often used as a crutch, and I’m grateful to it for that. This game supplements that already-present strength by blending it with a more mechanical counterpart not only in its narrative but stat-build and combat styling. 

The combat has always been the series' most prominent weakness. I have to give CDPR the benefit of the doubt here and say that certain parts of how the player is meant to control Geralt in The Witcher 3 are completely intentional. I never really had a problem with the movement inherently, but when it came to its relationship with swinging the sword around I often found myself annoyed. Even once I had a handle on the animations, they still often felt weightless and imprecise (with the way the momentum works exacerbating the matter). This was the case in the Witcher 2 as well, except it was FAR more pronounced. I honestly think I preferred the stability of the first game’s combat overall (which most people detest), which for a few awkward reasons reminded me of older isometric RPGs[5], made somewhat unique by a fucked up rhythm-like engagement system and stances. Though I’m glad they stuck with fixing the second game’s combat in the end, I still don’t think I ended up in a place where I could say was greatly enjoying it by the end of The Wild Hunt---just that I knew how to deal with it by that point.

Luckily this is somewhat mitigated by how streamlined and simple they made building your character via your signs and attribute points this time around. While it’s fairly simple to just min-max and break the game (pretty much how my first playthrough went since I wasn’t in the mood to experiment), it’s also pretty rewarding to find a playstyle amidst the tools you’re given and bolster multiple abilities to supplement that playstyle. This includes things like oils, bombs, and the famous potions. The Wild Hunt is the first game I ever bothered to use these things in (though I do recall going around spamming Blizzard in the first game). I found that making use of this type of play was far more effective than just cranking the difficulty up and skating around “roughing it” which is what a lot of people tout as the best way to play. Death March wasn’t anything other than annoying to me at very specific points and the combat is never good enough to support a hiked up difficulty. It didn’t offer nearly as much of an enriching experience as turning off the minimap did[6]. In short, taking advantage of the fact that The Wild Hunt gave me a better-designed toolset of options as opposed to just a laundry list of abilities and buffs goes miles to help out having to put up with its goofy combat. Alone it’s almost as offensive as the series’ combat has always been, but the final game benefits immensely from a synergistic effect of the world around it and the various tools that more effectively support it now.

When you take into account how that all worked together the game accomplished something for me that I didn’t expect it to. It evoked a very specific sort of emotion towards action/adventure I’d really only come to associate with Zelda games. Beyond the general third person action game parallels (not to mention spending 20+ hours chasing a princess who is by all purposes far more powerful and important than you are), the sense of scope and progression often run tantamount to Nintendo’s flagship action series (i.e. I never want to hear someone ask for a “realistic” or "mature" Zelda ever again while this game still exists). What differentiates the Witcher though is your titular vocation. Running around as a witcher in third game feels damn-near sublime. You’ll spend just as much time if not more simply investigating the "monsters" you’re hunting rather than actually fighting them. The series never really managed to nail that feeling in the first or second game, but they knocked it out of the park here. Geralt’s approach to hunting down monsters even outclasses the method of investigation seen in something like the Arkham trilogy (which it almost feels lifted from at times, doing it much better). This is a big part of why it’s so rewarding to just turn off the minimap, ignore any big quests you’re currently undertaking and just wander around the world taking monster hunting contracts from whatever town you happen to be near. Not only does the writing work for the most mundane shit in the game it also makes even the smallest sidequests interesting little adventures that can suck up hours of your time.

Speaking of interesting little adventures...

Hearts of fucking Stone.

This is what really exalted the game for me. A tight and focused ten-hour side story that exemplifies everything The Witcher as a property does best; a small-scale personal narrative in which Geralt has to navigate morally colorblind scenarios. The interesting thing is that last year around the window of release, I was content that I wouldn’t find anything other than Bloodborne that I really loved as much and that held true until the end of the year when the DLC for both games were released. Bloodborne’s DLC severely disappointed me outside the narrative ramifications of a single character while the Witcher’s embodied everything that made it great, the potency of it was unexpected and fantastic. The swap was so damn violent with its irony, I had no problem disregarding my second favorite Soulsborne game on this matter. Hearts of Stone weaves a tale that takes the player through three narrative sequences, none of which are focused on a great deal of combat or epic conflict. You go to a party, you participate in a heist, and you play audience to the tragic tale of a character’s relationship with the antagonist and how it ruined the lives of those closest to him[7]. Hell, the final boss is a fucking riddle. It presents you with choices that lead to some pretty hefty consequences and features an original antagonist that’s actually kind of frightening, all while maintaining that humanistic through line that keeps Geralt his own engaging character in line with the choices you make as a player.

Blood and Wine on the other hand---while still very enjoyable, it’s more reminiscent of what the main game constantly fumbles with than what Hearts of Stone did so well. Blood and Wine brings back an area and characters not seen since the novels and places them situations that are larger in scale by comparison. Detlaff as a villain is extremely weak (though I was very pleased to see them bring back Geralt’s friend Regis). The second DLC also presents this very strange point of no return where the two largest plotlines diverge, locking the player out of the other when it really didn’t seem necessary. Where Hearts of Stone plays out like one of the Witcher short stories, Blood and Wine comes across like a chapter out of the Ciri saga. Blood and Wine does however feature an area towards the end that cleverly plays on the way Witcher has always alluded to various fairy tales (i.e. in a very “Grimm” fashion). With that said, I think I much prefer the world of The Wild Hunt’s two DLCs rather than its main story. While the latter is still a very well-done adventure with far more hits than misses, the misses are just pronounced enough to annoy me out of holding them in the same regard that I do Blood and Wine and Hearts of Stone.

I’d guess the best way to sum this up is by saying that I think everything The Wild Hunt did to acknowledge the books ends up working against it in ways it didn’t have to. The largest and most important part of this carryover is Ciri, who I actually like as a character. The game however, has an inherent problem in how it deals with her as a force, where they wind up writing everything around it in such a way that serves as a detriment to what the game builds in its first half. It’s only a gradual erosion mind you, but once I had finished the game and looked back on the tale, I realized how much this hurt it (the books tend to do this as well, but they have more to hide behind)[8]. The pacing is probably the biggest manifestation of this problem. Even in a game this large where you can take as long as you want getting to it, it’s noticeable how the jarring the flow changes between the game’s three acts: Looking for Ciri, finding Ciri, and protecting/fighting alongside Ciri. The first half of the game is probably it’s meatiest, with Yennefer and Duny giving you three specific leads to track down in regards of her location. Once you find out where she is, there’s a phase of the game where you’re more or less incentivized to seek out companions in helping her ward off the Wild Hunt, this includes wrapping up a large amount of sidestories and quests to gain the respect and friendship of various characters. After that’s accomplished, the final leg of the game features a sort of haphazard rush to prepare and execute a plan in a conclusive final battle with the Wild Hunt.

I’d say the first portion of the game is its strongest, as all the things I described above come into play and serve you as a witcher specifically in your hunt for Ciri. If I had to point to one weak point in this first act it would be the somewhat exhaustive search for Geralt’s best friend Dandelion (an amusing romp but it quickly overstays its welcome). The Bloody Baron and the Ladies of the Wood are probably the high point of act one with the adventures on Skellige falling between the two. Act II is really only a problem if you’re rushing through the game, as the characters you meet and the scenarios they’re involved in are some of the best parts of the story, but there’s quite a bit there to do and a large portion of it is entirely optional. The last act’s biggest weakness pervades the other two, but it really sticks out like a sore thumb in act three and that’s the game’s tendency to fall into the ever-growing dadification subset of video games[9]. While they’re not poorly done, the placement of your interactions with Ciri and the plans you take on to help her in the final leg of the game drag on because the context of the game pushes towards expediency and resolution (though you can of course just ignore it and keep exploring/playing, which isn’t the point). You can also only resolve some of the game’s more political-focused quests here, so it serves to weigh it down even more. This doesn't even take into account how act three deals with very specific actions Geralt takes and how they affect each ending of the game.

Yennefer herself is probably next largest book carryover that works to undermine things. While I’m glad they dialed back on the tacky sex presentation the prior two games often relied upon, they wound up trading one problem for another. By relation, this applies to all the romances towards the series at large or more specifically the largest romance available to you in the other two games, which is Triss Merigold. I won’t pretend I’m not arguing from a certain point of bias here, as I found Yennefer revolting in both the books and The Wild Hunt[10]. However, her presence in the third game is only justified by the weird familial relationship that her, Geralt, and Ciri had in the books. Otherwise she’s dead weight unless one simply has a penchant for something other than Triss (or some specific fealty to the novels). This is also exacerbated by how hard the game tries to get you into her pants as a player, with dialogue options that border on “flirt, flirt hard, or flirt hard as hell you thirsty fuck”. After two entire games with a myriad of other women and one specific mainstay to engage with, shoving her back in with the final game felt inelegant at best relative to the tenacity they wished to convey Geralt’s feeling towards her. The only boon the game throws you is that it actively lets you cancel out the effects of what is arguably The Witcher’s most famous short story, The Last Wish

Thinking back, the shadow of that relationship is felt in the first game as the relationship between Alvin, Triss and Geralt directly mirrors that of Ciri, Yennefer and Geralt (and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a story behind that, creatively), but nothing cool is ever done with it beyond the vague revelation that Alvin is Jacques de Aldersberg, which is finally confirmed in The Wild Hunt but only implied in the first game. Unfortunately the first game didn’t have the benefit of the third game’s writing and technical prowess so by comparison (and hindsight) it’s kind of a vague image of the relationship from the novels, when it could have been a far more unique answer for ties all those characters share.

There’s also the matter of the Wild Hunt and the uninspired choices they made to maintain a certain level of consistency from the novels, keeping them as trans-dimensional elves that conquer planets. This was a point that was never expanded upon in books that much, outside of an oblique conversation that took place between Eredin and Ciri. I liked the Wild Hunt far more when they were little more than mythical specters of death, destruction and chaos, not a bunch of power-hungry colonizing elves[11]. Separating the true Wild Hunt from the Aen Elle/Dearg Ruadhri would have been far more preferable to me and easily more interesting for such figures to take interest in the Lady of Space and Time for reasons beyond “loltakeover”. This kind of stuff riddles The Wild Hunt. Questionable characterization and placement is all over the place. The character shift Sigismund Dijkstra (an extremely clever spy and the Witcher series' more brutish version of A Song of Ice and Fire’s Varys) makes towards the end of the game to suddenly think he can take on Geralt and his friends without a small army is mind-bogglingly nonsensical.

The real tragedy isn’t that they failed to capture so many things from the books. No, in fact they nailed almost all of them. The problem stems from these things presenting more as limitations in areas they didn’t have to. The Wild Hunt features a fantastic attention to detail in its world and characters, but also an obsequious amount of reverence towards its source material, which winds up hurting as much as it helps. I would have been far more impressed and reverent towards them taking more creative license with the series' elements. 

All that being said, it was the only world that I was undeniably sucked into last year. The Wild Hunt finally let me engage in what I always found engrossing and potentially great, but always at a distance. Racial-exclusionism aside[12],The Wild Hunt is more unique to me in that it let me actively destroy the lore that caused me so much exasperation and remake the world to my liking, which is not something I’ve been able to say about an open-world adventure (and they all make vain attempts) until I played it. 

[1] This is despite the fact that the likes of Mass Effect should be far more up my alley, but the Witcher easily trounces it in execution. Oh well, good thing CDPR is handling Cyberpunk 2077 I guess.

[2] The series has also had a huge problem with how it’s marketed. Half the time it’s presented as the edgy video-game equivalent to Game of Thrones, with the other half making a very pointed depiction of Geralt as some sort of stoically sex-crazed badass. You can indeed play through the game and only glean that from it, but that’s not what it is---certainly not for me.  It got much better considering most people barely knew the first game beyond its lame sex-card trophy collectibles. I think the only time this angle actually worked properly is the game’s A Night to Remember trailer. Everything else is just kind of embarrassing (one is even lampshaded by Lambert in the game).

(It also helps that this character also appears in Blood and Wine and the your final interaction with her only alludes to the trailer as an inevitable eventuality that will occur, as opposed to a paired down version of the contract actually appearing in the game itself, which I really loved)

[3] I can only hope something was lost in translation somewhere…somehow---cause dude, your novels aren’t good enough for you to be that pretentious. At best he’s maintaining arms distance from the medium, at worst---he’s another Ebert. 

[4] To be fair, he’s often a single-minded idiot in the books as well. To this day I’m still kind of annoyed that I wound up accidentally sleeping with most of the women in the first game. Sadly it's an accurate representation of the novels where a sizeable chunk of the sorceresses walk around like porn stars with some nonsensical weakness to Geralt and his dogged idiocy.

[5] Keep in mind you’re talking to someone constantly cutting his teeth on the likes Devil May Cry, Souls, and Bayonetta. I’m going to be sensitive as hell to any combat that flows around or below the average in terms of the standard third person action. This is most-likely why I enjoyed the first game’s combat the most. I was able to completely divorce it from those types of games and related it more to something like Baldur’s Gate instead. 

[6] Super Bunnyhop and Game Maker’s Toolkit put out some great videos tracing around this as well.

[7] Seriously, it almost unfolds like a play, climaxing in an encounter reminiscent of something out of Silent Hill.

[8] This is honestly something I don’t know how they could have solved. Ciri is arguably the most powerful individual in the Witcher universe. Off the top of my head, the only thing that would have tonally worked would be bringing Alvin/Jacques de Aldersberg back as some sort of cosmic foil/alternative for her.

[9] It’s alarming how fast this list of games is growing: http://www.mattiebrice.com/the-dadification-of-video-games-is-real/

[10] Yennefer is an abusive, arrogant, and controlling brat. Half the time she’s around in the novels, they increasingly read like a bad romance novel, and were a big part of why I stopped reading them for a year. Any strengths or virtures shown by her across the entire series were seen tenfold in other women (most notably Philippa Eilhart, who might be my favorite character in the entire franchise). Hell, almost almost every woman introduced across the series of games was more interesting than her, which is why I was so disappointed with them bringing her back. Triss may have manipulated me for sex and love across two games but she never went to great lengths to hide it either. She fesses up to it multiple times across the series and even specifically tells you to build your character off the world around you and the choices you make, rather than listening too hard to what people tell you about yourself. It was one of the few things that sought to combat the rather tacky crutch of using amnesia as a jumping off point in the original game.

[11] Even dragging tacky-ass Vilgefortz from the grave would have been far more welcome here compared to the way that the Wild Hunt was handled. Making the Lodge of Sorceresses a husk of mostly beaten broken women was a disappointment as well, when they also could fill the role more effectively. Of all the people that wanted Ciri for their own ends in the novels, they wound up choosing the most boring sect and going the most predictable route with them.

[12] I’m referring to the early observation many made with the lack of “color” in the game. Though I agreed with most of the criticism laid at the feet of the Witcher 3 in this matter, I couldn’t personally bring myself to obsess about it because almost every single Tolkein-based fantasy has this problem. It’s damn-near inherent to it, so my natural sense of apathy kicks in. To solve the Witcher’s issue in this regard specifically, you’d have to solve a much---much bigger problem in modern fantasy. Pointing at the Witcher 3 doesn’t solve anything other than “oh, it does it too!”. You have to destroy the very foundation on which it stands, which is wide-reaching and long-standing. Call me when THAT fight starts. I’m not wasting my time with pointing it out in the Witcher 3 because I shouldn’t have to.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (PC) 2016 Playthrough 
[Flickr Slideshow] 
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