It’s been a long road since the first Witcher, but CD Projekt RED closes Geralt’s arc in the third and final installment of his story. Each new chapter seemed to act as mile markers not only in the development of the technology behind the series, but the growth of the studio as a whole thanks to the phenomenal world created by the Polish studio based on author Andrzej Sapkowski’s original books.
It’s also probably not too much of a surprise that this game is also an inaugural title to GOG Galaxy, CD Projekt’s own answer to Steam extending Good Old Games’ platform to anyone that wants it. My retail copy came on four DVDs and at the end of the installation, prompted me to install the client. The nice thing is that it also gave me the option to manually pull whatever patches it needed as opposed to installing another piece of software to handhold me. But since I’ve been a fan of Good Old Games, I installed the client anyway and it’s been smooth sailing so far.
Prior experience with the Witcher series isn’t required – my physical copy of the game came with a small compendium reciting some of the history behind the world and leading up to present events, though even that isn’t necessarily required reading. GOG Galaxy, if you choose to install it, will even provide access to downloadable versions of those materials (you don’t even need to install GOG Galaxy to play the game, or even need to have it).
The game tosses the player enough to get started with and point them in the right direction both in introducing who Geralt is, how he works, and some of what to expect from his world. An in-game encyclopedia detailing most of the important NPCs and monsters fleshes out things even further as you move through the game providing plenty of entertaining reference material.
For a veteran like me who did play through the first two games, when familiar faces such as Zoltan Chivay, Dandelion, or Triss Merigold show up later, the emotional impact on seeing Geralt’s “old friends” will obviously feel different. At the same time, there’s enough character development for non-veterans to quickly get a grasp on who to trust, who to be wary of, and even who to guide Geralt in developing feelings for determining what kind of personal choices you may want to guide him down.
Fantastic work by the voice actors, along with a lot of solid writing and a stirring score, also add much to the characterizations shared with every wrinkled furrow, haughty tilt of the head, smile, and wide-eyed look of wonder many NPCs will pull from their bag of tricks. It’s not quite the uncanny valley, yet at the same time, I couldn’t help but find myself smiling when Geralt’s face gives a straight-faced NPC the skeptical eyebrow to a tale too good to be true. Or feel the smarmy arrogance as another leans forward, half lidded eyes peering back at Geralt, while honeyed words continue to praise their speaker’s supposed wit while testing the grizzled witcher’s patience.
Geralt’s world is choked with the smoke of burning morality where the downtrodden are trodden even deeper into the muck by powerful forces whether they be king, emperor, or monster.
The series has never shied from playing the field when it comes to topics including racism, terrorism, religious intolerance, and simple hate. Geralt moves through this shifting morass following whatever moral compass the player wants him to have to often choose ‘the lesser evil’ when it comes to certain decisions. Prejudice, power, sexism, and all the other qualities that can make terrors out of both the powerful and meek are found in equal measure among all of those that live in Geralt’s world where the real monsters can often be other people.
The story starts out as Geralt discovers the trail of Yennefer, a sorceress to whom he was romantically involved with many years before he had lost his memory (which he has gradually restored) and who had saved his life as outlined in a flashback during the Witcher 2. The problem is that the North is engulfed in war as the empire of Nilfgaard has marched forth to take advantage of the land’s weakness following the events of the second game that left a number of its kings dead. It’s against this tenuous backdrop, with the Kingdom of Redania in the North galvanizing resistance against the empire and Nilfgaard waiting for its moment to strike, that Geralt quests.
The North is broken up into different areas – Velen, the vast city of Novigrad, the palace at Vizima, White Orchard, the Skellige Isles, and the witchers’ fortress of Kaer Morhen. Most of the game will take place in Velen and the Skellige Isles, both titanic areas that are almost like miniature Skyrims replete with mountains, forests, swamps, caves, hidden ruins, and sunken treasures not to mention monsters aplenty. The other areas are smaller – the adventure begins in White Orchard with the area acting as a sort of tutorial while Vizima only includes the palace as a meeting place. Kaer Morhen opens up only much later in the game.
Areas also contain a vast number of ‘points of interest” that may hide hidden treasures, monster lairs to clean out, or a variety of other surprises. They’re often revealed as question marks on your map after visiting the local bulletin board. Unlike extras like feathers or pigeons in other open world games, however, each one of these actually has some kind of tangible benefit for journeying to them. Geralt, being a professional monster-hunting witcher, will also pick up contracts for particularly powerful beasts at those same bulletin boards found in many of the villages and towns found throughout the game.
Most of the experience you’ll earn won’t be from killing everything that moves. It’ll be from contracts and other quests that you complete, especially if you follow the main story which begins dumping a lot of points into your lap as you get closer to the climax. Prior to that, however, I did the sandbox thing and ran wild all over Velen and did a few story quests to open up Skellige which unleashed even more for me to do and provided a nice leg up for when I went back to doing story stuff.
The monster contracts and minor quests throughout the game are hugely entertaining as Geralt’s monster hunting skills are put to the test investigating leads like a medieval detective. Using his particular abilities such as his witcher’s sight, he can find tracks, analyze bloodstains, and on occasion, even perform autopsies to determine just what he’s after.
It’s a far greater extension of his character from what we were given in the previous games beefed up with clever dialogue, fun mechanics, and plenty of action. Some of the side quests feel particularly detailed enough that it sometimes begged the question on whether they could have been broken out as separate RPGs.
Well Oiled Crossbow
The combat system has come a long way since the first game and like anything that changes, has had its share of ups and downs from those that preferred its more hardcore approach to certain things and others that wanted the elements to flow together like a well oiled crossbow.
Combat using the mouse and keyboard for its third-person action took a bit of getting used to all over again. With enough practice (and there are opportunities aplenty), however, switching between “fast” and “powerful” attacks, using magical “signs” in battle, and dodging out of the way of danger soon became second nature.
Geralt’s arsenal includes a crossbow (with an infinite supply of default bolts), special potions he can use to give him a benefit during combat, oils that can empower his blades with a limited bonus to damaging certain enemies, and even explosive bombs he can toss at foes. All of these can be activated during battle.
The fighting itself is pure action – left click to swing and let loose Geralt’s array of fancy moves in a killing combo of fast attacks. It doesn’t matter if you mash it. Geralt will still look good doing what he does best. Holding down the shift button has Geralt do a stronger attack for greater damage. It’s come a long way from the first game where you had to switch between stances and needed to more carefully time your strikes.
In addition to a health bar (vitality), players also need to manage their stamina which also underwent a change. Instead of being divided into segments as before, it’s now one, continuous, bar that regenerates as quickly as your armor will allow. The more “heavy” pieces of armor you wear, for example, the slower the regeneration. Stamina is what fuels Geralt’s magic ‘signs’, witcher magic that he can use in combat to do things ranging from burning enemies to temporarily charming them into an ally. He’s no sorceror so the magic he uses are more like “special moves” that can give him an edge in battle — not scorch entire groups of monsters with fire and lightning.
Weapons and armor have also undergone changes, though armor mostly as it’s now divided into different classes – light, medium, and heavy – whereas in the previous games, only the weight of the armor really mattered. Class has more of a bearing on how quickly stamina regenerates, though it’s also an easy indicator of just how much protection it lends. Heavy armor, for example, tends to offer the most protection at the cost of stamina regeneration. The good news is that you can mix and match whatever armor types you want for find that perfect balance.
A lot of the “overhead” that the previous games emphasized prior to combat is gone at this point which may or may not appeal to longtime fans of the game who appreciated being made to more carefully consider what potions to use and oils to administer to their weapons.
As it is, Geralt can drink whatever potions he wants (while keeping an eye on his toxicity levels to avoid poisoning himself from imbibing too much) or apply how many oils he needs during the fight as opposed to having to do so beforehand. It’s one of the things I actually miss from the previous games if only because it made sense. It’s just hard to imagine a professional monster slayer like Geralt splashing oil all over his weapon of choice in the midst of a fight, or kicking back a potion in the same way after two games’ worth of insistence on how important those choices were prior to throwing down.
At the same time, the combat can be incredibly challenging in other ways, especially when facing off against some of the particularly brutal beasts in the game several levels above you. I’m not saying they’re Dark Souls hard, but at the same time, the game doesn’t hold your hand when it comes to exploration.
On the default HUD settings, an approximate level label is displayed over monsters along with their health and name estimating your survival rate. A white level number and name means they should be easy (expect not to die from one or two hits) whereas a red skull and question marks where a level indicator should be means certain death (expect to die from one or two hits). On the down side, don’t expect a titanic windfall of experience points when you do manage to take down something in the certain death range although you might find some really nice loot as compensation.
Witcher 3’s skill system is divided into several different categories covering everything from his martial abilities with sword and crossbow to special passive abilities such as regenerating chips of health in sunlight. Developing specific ones requires a point of investment and many skills can be leveled more than once. By investing more points into a particular category, it can also open up deeper tiers of more powerful choices regardless of which skills in that category you are focusing on.
As with the previous games, Geralt won’t become a walking god by the end of your journey by learning everything possible forcing players to carefully gauge where they should invest those upgrade points. Though this time around, there’s a potion that you can actually purchase to re-pool those points. Only one point is awarded at every level up and extras can be earned by discovering ‘places of power’ scattered throughout the land and having Geralt draw from them for the first time.
Learned skills also have to be slotted this time around instead of being passively effective and as Geralt levels up, more of these slots become available in a big change from the previous two games. While the system does its job and adds a layer of responsibility on deciding what to use, I did miss the skill trees from before where things simply worked instead of plugging things in and out like Geralt was a computer. Mutagens can also be slotted to add effects depending on what skills are grouped together in one of four sections to improve Geralt’s sign intensity (how powerful his magic can be) to how hard he can skewer foes (combat damage).
Blemishes on the Blade
As incredible as the overall experience is, Witcher 3 isn’t without its flaws. Other than the gripes I had with the combat system, the game can be wonky in other ways.
After playing the game for some time, the celebratory feeling that should follow a harrowing battle against a fearsome archgriffin or in cleaning out an underground lair filled with monsters was often muted by worrying more about how much space I had left in my saddlebags. Everything in the game has weight attached to it, which makes sense, though you’re not limited by whatever your maximum load is (as determined by how big your saddlebags are).
If you carry stuff over that limit, Geralt just walks a lot slower which can be bad news if you’ve picked up some juicy armor and want to sell it as opposed to just chucking it by the side of the road where it will eventually disappear forever. This is also one of those sandbox RPGs where you can only take from containers and not stick things back into them. The oddball thing is that Geralt isn’t the one carrying the actual saddlebags – his horse, Roach, is, though you’re the one burdened.
A lot of things begin piling up over the course of the game from trophies (usually the head of whatever contracted beast you’ve killed) to a variety of swords and armor that I kept around as situational choices (yes, Geralt can swap armor in the midst of combat). The trophies actually have a purpose as they can provide passive bonuses such as a 10% chance of dismembering an enemy, similar to passives that you can enchant your gear with using runestones.
It would have been nice to have had some kind of storage chest as was in the case of the Witcher 2, or have some means of storing your loot via a service, but instead, you’re stuck with magic saddlebags. It can be argued that this adds a degree of responsibility on the players’ part on chucking what they don’t need and so forth. At the same time, would it hurt Vivaldi or his bank to run a storage service of some kind in Novigrad?
I’m also not sure how the game gauges leveled equipment. I’ve never been a huge fan of the concept in general but understand why some developers opt to use it. In the best cases, it can even feel fairly transparent. That’s somewhat the case in Witcher 3 – most of the gear I stumbled across was usable by my Geralt. Only a few pieces, and crafting recipes, were leveled to obnoxiously high levels some of which I still can’t use even after getting to the ending (along with finishing all of the monster contracts, most side quests, etc..). At the same time, high level mobs often generously dropped gear that was usually at or below my level at the time.
And strangely enough, the further into the game I went, the buggier things would get such as crashing out to desktop or loads just hanging. Nothing too major such as a corrupted save file, however.
As for the ending to the story, while most of it felt strong, there were a few things towards the end that I was still a bit unclear on and felt could have used a bit more explanation especially with a key moment. It’s not a deal breaker, the ending I received was still satisfying, just wish there was a bit more ‘meat’ to a few of the reasons why some things happened as they did.
Geralt’s journey has been a remarkable feat for CD Projekt and it’s been a real adventure experiencing his story develop with one release after another. Despite a few rough edges, it feels as if the series has finally come of age in a remarkable sendoff, an old school heart beating beneath the polish of a vast world filled with quests that do more than say “kill this”, decisions that can echo hours later as someone pokes a verbal finger into Geralt’s chest for something that you might have made him do, lost loot, and nigh endless opportunities for leave the campaign just to see what’s out there. A grand adventure in every sense.