Looking back over my last 60 hours with The Witcher 3, I feel a bit like its wandering protagonist: A very attractive man standing alone on a hilltop, looking out over a vast kingdom, unsure where to begin.
Just kidding; I look like garbage right now. I’ve spent the last week and a half mostly shut in my apartment, blinds drawn, headphones on, eating potato chips and staring at my television. Over something like five dozen hours, I’ve killed countless monsters, saved scores of villagers, shagged a sorceress or two, and finally watched the credits roll. I’ve seen a fair chunk of The Witcher 3, but I’ve also left a substantial amount of it unexplored.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an open-world role-playing game that casts you as a legendary and sexy monster hunter named Geralt of Rivia. You spend most of the game guiding Geralt as he explores a collection of massive open outdoor areas, taking on quests, slaying monsters, talking with people, making difficult moral choices, and gradually leveling up his gear and abilities. Basically, doing the whole RPG thing.
Let’s start by getting my recommendation out of the way. Should you play this game?
he Witcher 3 is a wholesale improvement over the already-good Witcher 2, combining the free-roaming exploration of Red Dead Redemption with the complex branching storytelling of a Dragon Age and the tightly designed melee combat of a Monster Hunter or a Dark Souls. It doesn’t always execute those things as well as the games from which it draws inspiration, but thanks to some sharp writing, smart design, and marvelous technical wizardry, Wild Hunt is engrossing despite—and even occasionally thanks to—its many familiar elements.
Wild Hunt was developed by Polish video game studio CD Projekt Red. Like the first two Witcher games, it’s based on the works of Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski, though it uses his books as a springboard for its own tale, rather than directly adapting them. Think of it as fairly standard dark fantasy mixed with a healthy dose of grim Eastern European fairy tale. There are dragons and mages and elves and dwarves, right along with witches who lure children into the wilds and mischievous grubkins who haunt houses and torment people’s dreams.
The resulting milieu has a dash more personality than your average fantasy video game—there’s a reason the Polish Prime Minister gave President Obama a copy of the second Witcher game as a gift. If gaming’s fantasy genre at times resembles a collection of chain restaurants, The Witcher is an unexpected serving of local cuisine.
Geralt is a Witcher, one of a now-defunct line of genetically-mutated warriors originally created to hunt and kill the beasts that infest the world. (The world, in this case, is known simply as “The Continent.”) At the start of the game, a great southern empire called Nilfgaard is steamrolling its way northward, conquering or killing everyone in their path. The conflict mostly serves as the backdrop for a more personal story, as the Nilfgaardian emperor summons Geralt and charges him with tracking down a young woman named Ciri—née Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon—the emperor’s daughter and heir. Ciri was last seen somewhere beyond the Nilfgaardian lines, in the Northern Kingdoms that continue to fight for independence.
Geralt’s task is immediately complicated by several factors: 1) That Ciri possesses some immense but little-understood cosmic power; 2) that for reasons unknown, Ciri is being pursued by an unstoppable interdimensional attack squad known as The Wild Hunt; 3) that the sorceress the emperor has enlisted to aid Geralt in his quest is Geralt’s own lost love Yennefer; and most of all 4) that Geralt raised and trained Ciri himself, and thinks of her as his own adopted daughter.
From there, Wild Hunt races outward toward all points of the compass. The resulting tale is remarkably dense and far-reaching, sweeping up dozens of characters across several warring nations, all while straining admirably to resolve numerous lingering plot threads from the first two Witcher games while maintaining focus on the father and daughter at its emotional core. No story could accomplish so much with perfect grace, but I was surprised by how close Wild Hunt came, and how often.
Despite its grand scope and substantial cast of characters, Wild Hunt is a lonesome game. Geralt is an aging member of a dying race; he’s an outcast from society and a warrior without a master. In this, he embodies the complementary and familiar archetypes of the wandering ronin of Japanese fiction and the lone gunslinger of wild west cinema
Wild Hunt’s geographical size is impressive on its own—this game is much larger than previous bragging-rights-holders like Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto V, and it feels it. That immense size doesn’t just exist for its own sake; it serves an important function in the game’s overall design and effect. Wild Hunt conjures the illusion of an actual kingdom full of actual villages populated by actual people, and through sheer size effectively conveys the feeling of wandering an endless wilderness.
Each of the game’s many small villages offers something new; a man will flag you down, asking for help dealing with a beast that’s been killing his livestock. Or maybe a merchant’s wagon will have gone missing and she’ll offer Geralt some coin to track it down. Perhaps one village will have a message board covered with notes left by the villagers: Please stop stealing milk from my cows; has anyone seen my lost hat; can someone help out with the bog wraith that keeps killing people? The villages all start to blend together, effectively conveying the feeling of a war-torn kingdom full of shitty little villages populated with desperate people.
Through all of that, Geralt rides alone. He enters each new village or encampment atop his horse, and every time, the moment feels iconic. Here is the lone swordfighter, the mysterious stranger, coming to bring justice. Witchers are reviled by most common folk, viewed as mutated abominations. Passersby will spit on you as you pass or call you names once your back is turned. Over time, those you have helped will call out to you as well—you may pass through a village and hear someone thanking you again for your help—but by and large, the message is clear: These people do not love you. They may need your help, but they do not want it. You will never belong.