Over the years, I’ve button punched my way through a good many video game genres and found that none have the potential for dream invasion like a robust RPG that takes scores, if not hundreds, of hours to complete. That said, I never have I felt so walloped by a game I’ve had to review. Please forgive me. Although I sank more than fifty hours into “The Witcher 3,” I’m still nowhere near the credits. A quick tally of my in-game quest log shows that, as I type this sentence, I’ve completed sixty-three missions on the game’s hard difficulty, cheekily called “Blood and Broken Bones!”
Inspired by the fantasy stories of Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher series retells the life of Geralt of Rivia, a monster slayer with a talent for getting entangled in political intrigue. I never got around to playing the first game but I finished “The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings” last year on the Xbox 360. I can’t think of another game of a similar length that I completed but about which I felt so conflicted.
The developers themselves admitted that the game’s difficulty level was less than perfect. It veered from aneurysm-inducing in the beginning to the equivalent of a walk up a hillock by its second half. Then there was the broken map that would display varying location points depending on where you were standing, and a number of invisible walls not hinted at by the level design. Yet, in spite these nuisances, I was floored by the game’s storyline. “The Witcher 2” allotted a degree of player choice, but the culmination of my chosen adventures and conversational responses yielded one of the best endings I’ve ever seen in a video game.
With apologies to all of my fellow spoiler-phobes out there, at the end of “The Witcher 2,” it’s possible to avoid exchanging blows with your would-be nemesis – another Witcher who is also a regicide – and part ways after a lengthy chat during which it becomes clear that the man who seemed to be your enemy actually bears you no mortal grudge. This ability to abstain from violence and work through a misunderstanding is a nod to the adults in the audience, as is the game’s systemic moral ambiguity that should click with “Game of Thrones” fanatics. (The actor, Charles Dance, who played Tywin Lannister in “Game of Thrones” is one of the many talented voice actors in the game.)
Thankfully, “The Witcher 3” remedies the issues that I had with the previous title. The initial difficulty curve is nowhere near the controller-smashing level of before. And though you can still find yourself wandering an open-ended plain only to be alerted by an on-screen warning that you are approaching the end of the world, at least Geralt is given to making some apposite remark like “Hmm, I wonder if there is a shortcut.” Though less ideal than designing a game around naturalistic borders, it’s better than butting your head against an ungainly seam.
Visually, “The Witcher 3” is one of the most detailed games to date; it shines on PC’s capable of running the game on its high or ultra graphics settings. In terms of game design, however, it feels like something that could have been realized during the previous generational cycle. You’ll still hear the background chatter loop around at tiny intervals. And the character animations don’t appear more expansive than what you might find in an Assassin’s Creed game.
Structurally, there is little to differentiate “The Witcher 3’s” multiple-choice conversational system from BioWare’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age games. And console players have had the opportunity to contend with overwhelming 3D, open-world RPGs at least since Bethesda Softworks released “The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind” back in 2002. (For the record, that is the first game that I can recall regularly dreaming about.)
But, with all due respect to “Dragon Age: Inquisition,” which eschewed the black and white morality of the Mass Effect games, “The Witcher 3” doesn’t merely present a morally ambiguous universe, it hews to the law of unintended consequences. This is a game where I killed my lover because I thought she might give an ignoble ruling power the key to building a devastating weapon of war. It is also a game where I helped a warlord who beat his wife mature. The result? He leaves his seat of power to tend to his (none-too-saintly) wife at her greatest hour of need, thus plunging the region into opportunistic chaos.
What sets “The Witcher 3” apart from most of the competition is its keen sense of humanity, which is calculated to be every bit as gripping as an HBO drama. At their best, the characters with whom you chat don’t seem like they live in a vacuum only to impart useful information. Often, they’re manipulative beings who appear compromised by their own experiences. I think of them as harbingers of insomnia.
Reviewer’s Note: I played “The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt” on an i5-4690K computer with a Nvidia Titan X graphics card on a combination of high and ultra graphics settings. At 3840×2160 resolution, the game ran with an average frame rate close to 30-frames-per-second (fps) in the cities and 40fps in the countryside.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.