The finale of the Witcher trilogy has come and gone. The culmination of years of novels and games, weaving character and plot threads like a spiderweb, yet all approaching their climax in a single moment. To say that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a gargantuan undertaking might be an understatement, and yet in every way, CD Projekt Red has not only delivered a great game, but a masterpiece.
Assuming the role of Geralt of Rivia, a member of the mutated monster-hunting caste known as witchers, you are an outcast on the hunt for your lover Yennefer and surrogate daughter Ciri. Finding Yen, you learn of the threat on Ciri’s life, as she is being chased by the Wild Hunt — a band of otherworldly spectral wraiths who desire her elven blood spilled for their malicious purposes. Geralt sets out to find Ciri and stop the Hunt, and possibly topple a kingdom or two along the way.
The world of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is simply referred to as “The Continent.” The Kings of the North displaced, Novigrad has seized control and risen to power, seating a new ruler on the throne. Witchers, completely uninterested in the politics of the day, tend to steer clear of their power struggles and are incessantly pragmatic, making them appear as cold as the monsters they hunt. Geralt is thrust into the thick of it, though, and the return of Ciri and the Wild Hunt force him into a world that hates him nearly as much as they desperately need him.
The plot of The Witcher 3 is epic, but keeps the lens focused on Geralt and those around him, especially his protege. Geralt is a wandering swordsman, reminiscent of ronin and western gunslingers. He is cold and distant, sarcastic, pragmatic, yet he cares deeply for those important to him, enough to lay down his life at times. Geralt is the unbiased lens through which you see the world. As that world goes to blazes around you, you’ll find that you’ve begun to care for both Geralt and his cause. One minute he may be slaying a monster with his silver sword, another he may be seducing a sorceress with his other qualities, but Geralt is endearing and full of personality, despite his cold front.
While Geralt is a fantastic protagonist, the highlight of the cast is the powerful women that fill out the cast. Yennefer is an enigmatic but enthralling mystery, Triss is the hot-and-cold firebrand she’s always been, and many of the sidequest characters like Keira Metz and Jutta have fantastic, sprawling quest lines where they have agency and an agenda – and often play Geralt for a fool.
And you can’t mention well-written, strong characters without mentioning possibly my favorite character this generation: Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon, or Ciri. Geralt’s protege and adopted daughter, Ciri is as much a protagonist as Geralt, providing a fresh aspect in the early flashback scenes. In conversation she’s witty and charming, not unlike her surrogate father. In combat, she loses the Witcher signs in favor of a quick dash and a teleporting Blink attack, slashing every foe in the area at lightning-speed.
The dynamic between Geralt and Ciri is like father and daughter, and with so much of the games and books leading up to their eventual reunion, CD Projekt Red nails their chemistry and relationship perfectly. Even for newcomers to the series, CDPR creates an attachment to Ciri through repeated flashbacks and sentimental moments between the two protagonists, and the danger of the Wild Hunt is much more real when she is the one threatened. From the minute you step into White Orchard hot on Yen’s trail, you feel that same desire to find Ciri and understand what the Hunt wants with her.
The first thing you’ll notice, after leaving the tutorial town of White Orchard, is the world map. Taking place across the vast lands of Velen and the archipelagic islands of Skellige, the world of The Witcher 3 is vast and filled with side quests, markers and locales to visit. Towns litter the countryside, each with notice boards containing even more requests and content, and there’s also dynamic events that take place only once you’ve reached the right area.
Those tired of open-world games may sigh at this, reflecting on games that feel stuffed to the brim with little activities that never add up. While the world of The Witcher is massive, the true achievement is not how big the bucket is but how full it is. This isn’t a world built for sporadic set pieces and sequestered instances, but a lived-in space filled with NPCs and stories. Every area matters — there is no filler here.
I often found myself retreading old ground and seeing the consequences of my actions; in many cases, my best intentions changed the world permanently, and not always for the better. The world of Wild Hunt is not a backdrop, but as much a character as the White Wolf of Rivia himself. It responds to your actions and resists your changes, until a breaking point is reached and a major plot point turns, altering not just your destiny but the fate of nations.
Combat is carefully brutal, taking the best features of previous installments, polishing them, and then adapting them to the new world. Concessions have been made, like being able to block from level one and making potions without having to meditate, but in exchange enemies are nigh-unforgiving. Human enemies will carefully position themselves, attack in staggered assaults intended to punish mistimed parries and requiring intelligent, careful play to overcome. Monsters are not so thoughtful and tactical, striking in mobs so relentless that you have to answer aggression with aggression, swinging away at every opportunity you can seize, or using your Witcher Signs to even the odds.
Combat is mechanically simple, but becomes complex and demanding in the preparation required for larger foes, as simply charging in headfirst with no plan will often get you killed. Alternating between fast and strong attacks, signs and a litany of potions, bombs and crossbow bolts is key to tackling many of the greater monsters in The Witcher 3. In each town, there is a notice board that details monsters that need slaying. While all optional, these provide some of the game’s greatest challenges. Werewolves, archgriffins and wraiths crawl the land, and taking them down requires preparation and patience. Luckily, Geralt’s bestiary updates automatically with information on all enemies, including their weaknesses; a nice touch that makes the glossary less of a catch-all for lore, and more of a useful primer for taking down nasty beasts.
Mounted combat has also been added to Geralt’s arsenal, and is easily one of the best systems we’ve seen for it in a game. Riding your trusty steed Roach into battle is made easy, as time slows down as Geralt approaches enemies, giving the player time to set up the strike. Doing so at high speeds also provides a significant boost to damage, and many enemies will literally fall to pieces after a single, well-timed strike. This is tempered by the fact that if your horse gets too scared he panics, tossing Geralt to the floor to be ambushed by enemies.
Mutagens and skill points allow you to skill as you want, pairing colored mutagens with your skills to further enhance the gains from each point you gain. Leveling is slow in the beginning, so early on every point counts; as the side quests pile on, and trust me, you’ll play them as fast as they come, skill points are easier to come by. You can also find places of power across the map offering additional skill points, making it easy to quickly max out useful abilities like your base Quen and Axii signs. Those who wish to specialize have that option as well; “mage” Geralt is just as viable as sword-swinging Geralt, and there’s plenty of options for both, though the visual effects of Geralt’s upgraded Igni appealed to me in that “magical flamethrower” sort of way.
Like the hand-cannon Super Soaker of fire that Geralt wields, every detail of The Witcher 3 is meticulously crafted and molded. Rain causes ripples in the Quen shield sign, Aard causes micro-ripples in the water, dynamic weather effects roll across the countryside, trees and hair sway in the wind and lightning strikes across the sky with little warning besides the ominous grey clouds in the distance.
These effects are further enhanced by the incredible graphical presentation on display. While the console versions look above average, the PC version can be truly stunning at times. Facial animations are extraordinary, especially on the main protagonists. Armor glistens in the sun and the water around Skellige looks salty and fierce. Sunsets frequently stop me in my tracks, just to admire their beauty. With the NVIDIA HairWorks technology enabled, I was able to see hair and monster fur ripple in the wind as I tangled with them during a storm. Granted, there are still some odd interactions with the physics engine, leading to Geralt’s hair doing very strange (and sometimes hilarious) things as he rides in cutscenes, but that’s more bug that beauty.
Even the sound design is lovingly crafted, from the excellent voice cast to the ambient noises and sounds. Every character is well-developed, each with their own dialect and mannerisms. Doug Cockle’s performance as Geralt of Rivia is as growly and nuanced as ever, and Jo Wyatt (you might know her as the female Hawke in Dragon Age II) is smooth and confident as Ciri. Charles Dance is fantastic in his portrayal of the Nilfgaardian king Emhyr var Emreis. James Clyde channels his inner Robert Baratheon as the Bloody Baron, and his character evolution is superb.
You also can’t mention the loving detail put into every inch of The Witcher 3 without mentioning one of the best sidegames ever made, Gwent. The dice rolling games in The Witcher series thus far were pretty solid, but Gwent is a whole new ballgame.
Gwent is a card game with four different and very unique classes. The cards are numbered one through ten in attack power, and can be a close-combat, ranged, or artillery unit. These units are mapped to their three respective regions on each side of the board, and their point values add up to be a total ‘attack value’ for the row. The game is played in three rounds, and the person with the highest cumulative attack across all three wins the round, with the overall victor being whoever takes two rounds.
There are over 199 cards available across four deck types, creating a deck-building game that starts out incredibly simple but requires a great deal of skill and strategy as you acquire new cards and take on smarter opponents. It’s not uncommon to spend hours at a time lost in Gwent, taking on the best of opponents and perfecting your deck to beat the highest level tournaments. It’s an amazing game, with a surprising amount of depth and complexity for something that replaced a simple dice game.
While the world of The Witcher 3 is massive, with that comes the fair share of bugs that exists among all open-world games. While The Witcher 3 runs pretty fantastically all-around on PC, console versions have some technical mishaps that hold the version back a little bit. Characters disappearing and reappearing, long loading times, and framerate stuttering in large fights are just a few of the oddities you’ll see. They’re never persistent enough to be experience ruining, but like most open-world games, you’ll have to go in with an accepting mind.
That being said, Wild Hunt is able to make me forget and forgive so easily just based on the sheer strength and breadth of the game itself. A title that allows me to run across an expansive, massive continent, tackling contracts and quests in my own pace and method and crafting a wonderful cast of characters can have a few technical misfires and still be an amazing title.
It’s hard to not spend all day singing The Witcher 3’s praises, but it really is a special kind of game. One that reminds you of how games can be engrossing experiences, ones you want to share with your friends, filled with moments that make you laugh, cry and sing along to a sweet ballad about the white wolf and the sorceress.
When I wasn’t playing Wild Hunt, I was thinking about Wild Hunt. I was thinking about the time I accidentally freed a malicious ghost thinking I was saving a lost soul, or how best to beat a Monster deck in Gwent, or which side quest I was going to complete first when I got home. I’m already planning out my second playthrough, marking down what decisions I made to see how they play out on the other side of the coin, or even with a third or fourth option that I had never even had in my original playthrough.
In the first novel of The Witcher, Dandelion muses that Geralt might be bitter because he’s one of the last members of a dying breed. Yet by the end of Wild Hunt, while the old ways end and every plot thread wraps up, there’s a new horizon on the distance and a new world to explore. Geralt’s journey might be at its end, but it is bittersweet, befitting the epic tale of the White Wolf in the grandest way possible.