The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

It is, ultimately, an extreme attention to detail that transforms The Witcher 3 into a masterclass in world-building; and it is the value brought by all elements that contribute to that aspect of the game that makes it possible to overlook some of its flaws

Among the greatest goals of pretty much any game that has ever been produced, there is the attempt to create an immersive virtual world. Whether to serve as an escape hatch that leads away from the general dullness and harshness of reality or to work as as a background that both contextualizes and enhances gameplay, all developers dedicate a good amount of their time to the building of these alternative realms. It is clear, however, that some titles put more effort in that regard than others. At times, that distinction comes on the heels of matters of genre; after all, certain types of games simply demand a greater amount of dedication to that area. On other occasions, though, notable gaps can arise even amidst products that turn constructing gripping universes into the cornerstone of their existence, a facet that is a central component of the contemporary gaming niche made up of open-world adventures.

More than any other kind of game, these quests strongly rely on world-building, for it takes an obscene degree of attention to details in order to make the immense free-roaming spaces they contain feel not only alive, but also muscular enough to justify so much vastness. As such, besides superficial items like environmental variety and visual splendor, these titles centered around utter freedom need to toil over the definition of more obscure matters such as geography, economy, culture, and folklore; values that need to show consistency within themselves, feature a shared synergy that allows the universe they depict to be supported by a believable web of elements, and be sufficiently interesting to satisfy players that decide to truly jump into the most intimate parts of the world’s fabric.

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On these aspects, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt excels. And regardless of the evolutions the genre is bound to see in the years that are to come, it does so to a point that ought to make it serve as a prime example on how games of the sort should approach these matters. It is worth pointing out that, as a title based on a rich and extensive series of books, The Witcher 3 holds a powerful literary advantage over its peers, for it has at its disposal an established well-written lore from which it is free to draw. Yet, rather than diminishing the achievement of the folks from CD Projekt Red, such nature only serves to enhance the magnitude of the spectacle they have put together, because transitions from books to videogames are far from being uncommon; what is truly rare is a translation that is as comprehensive and smooth as the one pulled off in Wild Hunt.

The world of The Witcher is the product of a cataclysmic phenomenon called the Conjunction of the Spheres. Happening more than one millennium before the events depicted in the game, this occurrence was the alignment of the multiple dimensions that exist in the universe; a unique moment that allowed living beings to jump between realms. As a consequence, humanity, which existed in a parallel reality that was in ruins, landed on the Continent and soon took the control over that world away from the Elder Races: gnomes, dwarves, and elves. At the same time, however, monsters like ghouls and vampires also made the jump from their respective dimensions and arrived on that very same plane, leading from that point onwards a life that often put the other species of the world in danger.

In that context, witchers are humans that have gone through brutal training and violent genetic mutations in order to become professional monster-slayers. Negatively seen by many due to their different biology but quickly sought after whenever a big bad creature is doing some murdering, they travel the world looking for contracts. Protagonist Geralt of Rivia is a famous and powerful member of that clan; however, even if he does take the occasional monster-killing job in exchange for some coin, his eyes are momentarily set on something entirely different: the finding of Ciri, a young woman who he lightly trained in the ways of the witchers as a child and that is, to him, a daughter-like figure.

After having gone missing for quite a while, Ciri has reportedly reappeared out of the blue. Geralt has evidence to believe, though, that the woman is in dire trouble, for as the holder of a legendary power, she is being relentlessly chased by the titular Wild Hunt: a sinister and mysterious group of specter knights that can travel between dimensions at will and that employ such ability to turn folks from other worlds into slaves and use them for unknown purposes.

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Over that plot, The Witcher 3 takes the shape of an action RPG – backed up by excellent graphics and tunes – that happens in an open world. As such, its adventure is supported by simple yet enjoyable combat mechanics; features a hero whose stats rise as experience points are acquired and new levels are achieved; boasts a character-building system that gives plenty of room for customization; and sports a structure based on missions that may have Geralt either following Ciri’s trail or chasing down the hundreds of optional activities and mysteries he is bound to encounter if he chooses to do some exploration. Absolutely none of those major components is a revelation. Still, The Witcher 3 knows how to make them remarkable in their own way: and more often than not, the path they take towards greatness is paved with story.

In fact, the effect that the script of The Witcher 3 has over all of its facets is notable, being a testament not just to the quality of the writing, but mainly to the extent of its development, which reaches a scale that is simply not commonly observable in the gaming industry. Such a trait is, actually, a bit ironic, because – when stripped to its basics – the game’s central plot is not very special. The chase for Ciri sends the witcher after clues and traces of her presence, leading to an investigation that spans three enormous and culturally distinct regions of the world; but, in the end, despite including nice revelations about the nature of her powers and why the Wild Hunt wants to capture his former apprentice, the whole ordeal amounts to a bunch of characters that will unveil what they know as long as Geralt does a specific task, which is a bit formulaic.

Nevertheless, The Witcher 3 is a marvel of writing. As players are launched towards these objectives, they will be put face to face with gripping tales of various natures: be them haunting happenings in the swampy region of Velen; brushes with the mob that controls the underbelly of the free city of Novigrad; struggles for power in the Viking archipelago of Skellige; meetings with the second intentions of two kings who are vying for the control of the northern part of the continent; and more. Although not always involving the bread and butter of the life of a witcher (that is, monsters in the literal sense of the word), these trips down the rabbit hole will put Geralt in contact with a lot of figurative monstrosities, sometimes coming from every possible direction, that go on to show that the world of Wild Hunt is tinged with a whole lot of gray.

And The Witcher 3 absolutely revels in that grayness. The game is packed with, literally, more than a handful of hours of excellently voiced and animated dialogues. It is a volume that, during a few stretches when the adventure gets particularly wordy, can make it all feel like an interactive movie. Still, the title never excessively dwells on those segments, usually offering a very good balance between narrative and gameplay. There are a number of compliments that can be directed towards those exchanges: how they do wonders for the world-building, how they develop a cast of characters that contains at least one hundred notable members, and how they add great resonance to the quests and the gameplay that The Witcher 3 possesses. The biggest laurels the dialogues deserve, though, are related to their interactive nature.

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Whenever Geralt is about to speak, players will be invariably greeted with a number of options regarding what the witcher will say. The ones colored in white are usually of little consequence, as all they will do is add extra information about the matter at hand or send players to minor – and occasionally fun – conversation branches; those colored in yellow, meanwhile, indicate that choosing that alternative will advance the exchanges. And taking full advantage of the fact the world in which it unfolds is usually, much like the real one, absolutely abysmal, as it has no shortage of crimes, prejudice, and other horrors, The Witcher 3 will ask players to make tough choices with astounding frequency.

The best aspect of that feature is how there is generally not a clearly right way out of some conundrums. As Geralt himself puts it, sometimes, when the universe is bleak, all there is for one to do is choose what appears to be the lesser of two evils. And gamers will be doing that a whole lot, as they will – on multiple occasions – listen to very different sides of the same story; be put up against the wall by multiple wrongdoers; or be confronted with a situation which simply does not have an alternative in which no good people are harmed. It is thrilling; it is an exercise in morals which makes it impossible for the witcher to move away as a winner; and it turns the world of Wild Hunt into an entity that is organic and alive.

More importantly, the ramifications of those choices are very much real – or at least as real as they can be in a videogame. Based on what Geralt does, missions can take a very different path, the lives of innocents might be affected, the political fate of the continent may change, and characters – both minor and major – can either live or die; and all of those results come to be as a culmination of actions that, in the moment when they are performed, might seem they are not that big of a deal.

On a smaller scale The Witcher 3 employs that mechanic to toy with how its dozens of secondary missions play out; on a larger scope, the game uses the decisions that are made to construct one of thirty-six potential endings: as although Ciri’s story itself only has three outcomes, there are other less important variables involved in the main storyline that give way to all of those combinations.

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In perfect synergy with the world-building, it is that depth in storyline and character development that sustains The Witcher 3 during the course of the fifty hours it takes for one to finish its core adventure and the over one hundred hours of content available to those that will dive deeper into the game’s immersive universe. However, even if – true to the RPG genre – Wild Hunt is always guided by plot, that does not necessarily mean it leaves a lot to be desired in matters of gameplay. Much to the contrary, its mechanics in that regard are actually quite strong.

Like all witchers, Geralt possesses augmented senses and a haunting knowledge about substances, monster behavior, and tracking; consequently, the protagonist of Wild Hunt is one mighty investigator, and a good portion of the game’s running time is spent on solving issues of the sort. With the press of a button, players can activate the character’s so-called Witcher Senses, and other than making distant sounds quite audible, hence allowing the hero to eavesdrop on conversations and detect the presence of dangerous creatures, that skill also highlights points of interest in the surrounding environment with the color red.

Upon interacting with any points displayed as such, gamers will hear Geralt think to himself as he analyses what he sees: whether it is an object of some significance, splatters of blood, a corpse with multiple wounds, or other kinds of evidence. Slowly but surely, the witcher will draw conclusions based on what lies around him; follow footsteps, trails of blood, or even detected scents that lead to a target; and missions will, then, almost invariably progress towards some grand battle against either humans or monsters.

It is a pattern that is pretty much set in stone, and markers on the map always show where Geralt needs to go to or the area that has to be investigated – a pleasant turn considering how gigantic the world is. In spite of that strict mold, though, which can lead to rightful accusations on how the gameplay of The Witcher 3 is repetitive and how it occasionally degenerates into series of fetch quests (a comment that is especially true for one specific portion of the game), Wild Hunt rarely gets boring. After all, sure, the investigations can feel like they are too much on-rails; however, they are undeniably engaging, because players become active agents on the slow clarification of mysteries filled with all sorts of dramatic turns, decisions, and – of course – mean monsters.

In battle, Geralt, who carries both a steel and silver sword (the former effective against humans and the latter more suited for beasts) can use them to deliver either fast or strong blows as well as to parry incoming hits, a defensive move that works against standard grunts but that when facing monsters is better replaced by good old physical dodging. Additionally, in order to bring aerial enemies to the ground and deal with underwater creatures, he has – at his disposal – a crossbow that can be equipped with different sorts of bolts.

Finally, as a witcher, Geralt also has access to five spells which – after being selected from a wheel that can be opened seamlessly in the middle of combat and assigned to the magic command – can be triggered to cause a myriad of effects that include burning opponents, creating a protective shield, or stunning foes temporarily.

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Facing off against human beings is relatively straightforward. Contrarily, battles involving major monsters tend to hide some complexities that, although not significant in the game’s easiest configurations, come into play quite heavily in its hardest levels of difficulty. That is because before tracking down a beast, Geralt will usually be able to identify it based on the traces it left behind. As such, after the witcher does so, players can access the available bestiary to read about the creature, figure out their weaknesses, and prepare for the encounter by concocting potions, sword oils, and bombs that will be effective against the boss. And this competitive advantage, in turn, makes it absolutely vital that players spend some time visiting merchants and herbalists, as well as extracting valuable ingredients from defeated beasts or from the environment itself.

In fact, if there is one aspect in which The Witcher 3 absolutely thrives is in giving gamers reasons to step out of the adventure’s main path and explore the more obscure corners of the land. Like most open-world games, Wild Hunt’s map is intensely packed with all sorts of markers, including warp points, monster nests, shops, caves, people in distress, abandoned sites that have been taken over by bandits or beasts, bodies that hold maps or letters indicating the location of lost treasure, among others. And since the world’s spectacular design as well as the rewards yielded by solving problems – which can be extra experience points, gold, weapons, armor, ingredients, and even the unlocking of rare missions or merchants – are irresistible, it is hard not to spend a few hours lost in these minor tasks.

The stars of the show, however, are unquestionably the uncountable optional quests. Generally divided into regular sidequests and monster contracts, these can be obtained from the notice boards of villages, from folks that are in trouble, or as a result of developments that occur in the central storyline.

Whatever the case, the bottom line is that the amount of care that was put into these entirely optional and sometimes neatly hidden away missions is just outstanding, whether they are about peasants that have gone missing in sinister circumstances or the side-missions of key characters. To different degrees, all of them are backed up by strong plot-wise contextualization, revealing people, dialogues, choices, and monsters that are absolutely essential, with at least a dozen of them holding a scope that is so significant they could easily be major parts of the main quest.

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It is, ultimately, that obscene attention to detail that transforms The Witcher 3 into a masterclass in world-building; and it is the value brought by all elements that contribute to that aspect of the game that makes it possible to overlook some of its flaws, such as its occasional repetition of mission structures, its punctual degradation into fetch quests, or a character that – due to the closed-up camera angle – can be a bit tough to control in tight spaces. Nevertheless, Wild Hunt prevails and goes down in history as a title that is brutally focused in the construction of a universe; so much, in fact, that it even goes out of its way to implement, from the ground up, a full-fledged fictional card game that fuels in-game tournaments, friendly matches against willing villagers, and a card-collection craze to those that feel like doing it.

And in the midst of dark matters involving both humans and monsters, Wild Hunt is able to muster touches of sweetness, such as genuine romance, amusingly dry humor, strong friendships, and extravagant situations that border on the cartoonish. The fact of the matter is that The Witcher 3 is so big that it has got it all: adventure, horror, drama, misery, joy, shock, and ambiguous morality. It is a world that parallels the real one in various ways; not just because it often puts players in situations in which a completely happy outcome is just not possible, but also due to how it devotes so much energy to such numerous details that it feels alive and organic to a point that has only ever been met by few other games.

Final Score: 9 – Phenomenal

5 thoughts on “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

  1. Only a 9 Matt?!!! Get out of it !! I’ve lost weeks of my life in this world, played it right through the whole storyline and recently started a brand new game and found loads of stuff I’d missed first time around. I love it and I do play a mean game of Gwent.

    1. My Gwent game is utterly terrible. I think I only won two matches, and one of them had some guy’s life at stake. I was pretty sure he would be dead when I started the game, but the guy survived!

      Anyway, I have also spent countless hours (more than 90, according to my Switch) in this world and it is indeed a beautiful thing. To be fair, if I still handed out decimal scores, this would probably be between 9.5 and 10. =D

      1. My dad, who is a big gaming fan, told me it was worth putting the hours in learning Gwent – so being an obedient son I did.

        I’m working my way through the books now too.

        1. It’s awesome your dad told you that. I did not dive too deeply into Gwent, but the game itself and the whole idea of collecting cards throughout the world is pretty cool.

          I want to read the books as well. I am just waiting to be done with a few others I have purchased so I can get into the saga. Witcher III really got me hooked on the plot, and I just want to learn more about it.

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