Disclaimer: if you are a really devoted fan of this game, just don’t read this article. You won’t like it.
I admit I use this blog to vent a bit, or to put it more mildly, to express some of my less popular opinions on geek culture. It’s not intended to be contrarian per se, because there are times when I agree with the majority. Rather, from time to time I want to write what I feel isn’t being written or said enough. There will be articles where I just gush all over a movie or a game that doesn’t get the respect it deserves, but there will also be times that are the opposite of that: when I want to knock something down from its undeserved pedestal. This is one of those times.
Last year there was a lot of talk about a certain video game involving a white-haired protagonist with a gruff voice. “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” has received mountains of praise and awards. Many say it’s the greatest video game RPG of all time. One of my best friends is a massive fan of the Witcher franchise and he shares this opinion.
For a long time, I was very resistant to the game, but I finally did succumb and decided to give it a fair shot. I played the first Witcher game back in 2008, although I never finished it. I found it a very frustrating experience, beautiful to look at but horrible to play. I tried a demo of the second Witcher game and decided it was a continuation of those same trends.
Now in 2016, a year after the original release, I have finally played The Witcher 3 (partially).
Do I think it’s a good game? Well, objectively, it has enough good qualities to give it a passing grade. Calling The Witcher 3 just plain bad across the board is unfair. It has too much to offer and it was clearly made with too much love and effort to simply bash it like that. Nevertheless, I really don’t think it is at all the masterpiece so many people have made it out to be. I would say it’s a rather mediocre game that gets some extra points for effort and good customer relations on the part of developer CD Projekt Red.
Here are some quotes I pulled from Metacritic:
“Witcher 3 is a masterpiece”
“the best fantasy RPG I have played to date”
“one of the best games I have ever played in my entire gaming experience”
Those first two quotes are from official reviewers, by the way.
Call me stupid, low-brow or, heaven forbid, “casual”, but I really don’t see it. The Witcher 3 just barely makes it to “adequate” in my book, and it definitely won’t enter my top 10 list. It’s not exciting enough for me to finish playing, not because it’s a completely horrible playing experience, but because it’s not good enough to justify the enormous amounts of time that it demands.
First of all, you should know that a late medieval, heavily European dark fantasy setting with grim fairy tale-like aspects sounds exactly like my kind of thing. It’s actually a description that applies to a good deal of my own work as a writer. This is partly why I’m so conflicted about The Witcher 3. I probably would have just shrugged and moved on if there had been nothing about it to appeal to me. As it is, the environments, the clothing, the creatures, even the colour palette, are all so finely tuned to my personal tastes it’s almost weird. And I’m the kind of player who is primarily into gaming for the chance to be immersed in another world. It’s certainly not the aesthetics of The Witcher 3 that put me off. If anything, they were what drew me in and kept me playing for as long as I did.
The character of Geralt is growing on me, but I feel extremely confined playing as him. Geralt is an established character I don’t particularly like. It feels weird playing a roleplaying game and not having any say over your character’s personality. The dialogue system is great and allows players to showcase different sides of Geralt’s personality, but he is still Geralt, the taciturn, sarcastic, womanizing witcher. He is a well written version of that type, I suppose, but it’s just not a type I want to embody.
The setting is great, but the whole thing is brought down by how it is handled. The creators of this game have tried to combine mysterious tales of the grim and supernatural (orphaned children in the forest playing with a ghostly friend who lives in a cave and has lost his voice to evil magic) with realistic politics (a war with no clear good or bad side) and even a good dash of the kind of bleak social realism that reminds me of Belgian movies (drunken deadbeat father tries one last time to gain the respect of his family). I suppose to many people this cocktail is precisely what makes it work. Me, I adore the dark fairy tale stuff, I don’t care very much for the politics and I actively despise the “social realism”. I play video games precisely because I don’t want to see that kind of “Belgian movie” material in them. This opinion of mine extends to the entire fantasy genre itself. If you’re going to paint a somber, naturalistic picture, make a movie set in the slums of Dublin or something. This is not what the fantasy genre is for, as far as I’m concerned. Much like award-winning movies, this kind of grit tends to manipulate the audience by tricking it into perceiving an aura of quality and respectability that isn’t really there. It’s just bleakness and social issues, which in themselves have no actual artistic value.
To illustrate this point: The Witcher 3’s most praised questline was the one involving the Bloody Baron (the aforementioned deadbeat father). Almost every single review and comment I have read about this questline says that it is the narrative peak of the game and the most emotionally powerful quest ever put in a game. For that reason alone, I felt I should at least persevere through this questline, and so I did. After finishing it, I decided to put down the game. I concluded that if this was the best part, I don’t see the point of continuing for another 70 or 80 hours. It wasn’t bad or anything, but it just left me stone cold. By general video game standards, it was a decent, well-structured quest but I didn’t think it was very emotionally engaging and I certainly don’t think it set some kind of new benchmark for in-game storytelling. It’s often over-the-top gloomy while simultanously treating a huge tragedy in a bizarrely careless fashion (I won’t spoil which one) which reeks of amateurish storytelling to me. This tone of extreme gloom mixed with laconic cynicism runs throughout the game and – pessimistic as I am about modern society – I fear this is probably a big part of why the game is so beloved.
On the whole, the storytelling in The Witcher 3 (so far) ranges from adequate to good with frequent dips into the boring and the silly. It certainly feels needlessly stretched, which became obvious to me pretty quickly even though I never even got that far into the game. Point and case: in order to find someone dear to me I need to talk to a character who will tell me where she went if I first find his wife for him. He then sends me to another guy who has seen his wife. That NPC will tell me where the the previous NPC’s wife went, if I first find… his goat! The quest-in-a-quest structure, with each additional layer becoming more banal than the last, borders on self-parody.
In addition, there is a big problem with the pacing and the structure of the storyline. The writers seem to forget that what might work in a Christopher Nolan movie doesn’t necessarily work in a game. The narrative jumps around in time and place in ways that just don’t fit the medium. For example: the game opens with a pre-rendered cinematic that shows a flashback of Yennefer (whom you do not know if this is your first experience with the franchise) on the run from a battle. The scene is intercut with Geralt looking for her the next day (very reminiscent of Aragorn tracking the hobbits in The Two Towers). The game then opens with an in-game cinematic of Geralt sleeping, followed by … another flashback? No, apparently, it’s a tutorial in the form of a dream, involving Geralt in the Witcher stronghold with his true love Yennefer, Geralt’s friend Vesimir and a child, Ciri, in there. You later find out that this doesn’t make sense because Yennefer was never in the Witcher stronghold and Ciri is actually an adult now. The dream turns bad, Geralt wakes up, and then we find out that he’s actually looking for Yennefer, not Ciri (ah yes, that opening cinematic!) but now he’s also worried about Ciri because of the dream. But first he has to find Yennefer. Getting a headache yet?
Okay, so the actual game begins with a long sidequest involving a griffon that has nothing to do with Yennefer or Ciri. Then you meet Yennefer… And you have to go look for Ciri. It’s a very clunky structure for a story by any standards, but especially for a game. Players with no knowledge of the backstory will be particularly confused.
As you are playing, Geralt’s adventures are often intercut with flashbacks where you get to play as Ciri. A terrible idea if ever there was one, for a variety of reasons. First of all, Ciri shows herself to be infinitely more powerful than Geralt ever was. Playing her feels like cheating. This makes the whole idea of rescuing her feel completely unnecessary. Secondly, the sequences involving Ciri really amount to nothing more than glorified cutscenes, where the playable parts are actually quite annoying because they are pointlessly easy and – what’s worse – the cause of more lengthy loading screens. Finally, these sequences take away the feeling of roleplaying and dampen the urgency of the narrative. You’re yanked out of your experience of “being Geralt” and given insight he shouldn’t have. It would have been better if Geralt had simply heard about Ciri’s whereabouts and that’s it (even though the game is already far too verbose).
That brings me to the next issue: the dialogue. I suppose it is well-written, but it feels too much like the writers are patting themselves on the back for how smart and snappy their writing is. I personally prefer the silly faux-Arthurian language of older RPG’s, which is much more charming to my ears. This feels a bit too much like HBO for my tastes. For the record: I adore Tolkien and I don’t give half a crap about Game of Thrones. That should say something about my preferences in style.
Anyway, despite these qualms, the story was still enjoyable enough, albeit far from amazing. I would probably have continued playing if the game had been, you know… fun.
And this is my biggest gripe with The Witcher 3. It’s simply not fun to play. Granted, the awards and the praise this game has received probably tell a different story, but as far as I’m concerned, they should have just made it into a movie or a TV series and it would have been much better (still not quite my cup of tea, but at least something that could have worked). As a game, to me it was actually a dry, joyless experience that demands to be taken seriously while simultaneously holding your hand like you’re a toddler.
Yes, this game, which had so many fans exclaim “finally, a true RPG!”, stifles and restricts the player in ways no other RPG in my memory has ever done… which kind of defeats the point of it being an RPG if you ask me. Not only are you restricted to playing as Geralt, but Geralt’s abilities are also very narrow and predetermined. He’s a swordfighter who uses alchemy and a staggering repertoire of no less than FIVE magic spells! Sure, you also get a crossbow at one point, but that’s more of a fun little accessory than anything else since it’s so weak. Everyone in the world who plays The Witcher 3 is playing the same character and probably with a very similar build, not only because the amount of abilities and weapon choices is so limited, but also because some abilities are clearly overpowered compared to others. For example: Quen is a magic ability that makes Geralt completely invulnerable for a while. Obviously, upgrading this ability is going to pay off much more than investing all your points in Aard, which is simply a telekinetic blast.
On top of that, leveling up is a gruelingly slow process, even early on. If it’s anything like other games, the pace will only get more glacial as you play longer.
The game also really holds your hand in the bread and butter of the gameplay. It’s like one big tutorial. You’re always following on-screen instructions. Most quests require you to go look for something or someone. This is when you get to activate your Witcher Senses, which amounts to pushing a button that lights up important clues in red. Simply follow the clues and click on them. Geralt will then mumble something to himself like “Blood’s still warm… Can’t have gone too far…” or “Hmm, small print… Must have been a child” or something like that. It’s a fun little gimmick at first but it quickly becomes mind-numbingly boring.
Gameplay is constantly interrupted by cutscenes. Sure, they look great, but they take me out of the game the whole time. See someone waving at you in the distance? Approach them and there will be a cutscene, I promise you. There’s a good chance Geralt will also be saying a bunch of dialogue you never chose to have him say, but don’t forget, this is a “true RPG”!
The “open world” is to be taken with a planet-sized grain of salt, by the way. Everything in the game is locked to a specific level, so it actually plays out more like an MMO where you move from one zone to the next. Sure, the zones are relatively big and there is “much to do” in each zone, but in practice this really amounts to little more than a few bandit camps and monster nests spread out over an otherwise featureless, boring map. Look, I love forests. I really do. And at first I liked walking around in The Witcher 3’s pretty woodlands, but they became extremely dull and repetitive very quickly. There’s just no real sense of discovery in this game, especially when compared to Skyrim but frankly, even Guild Wars 2 does it better. Don’t expect to get sidetracked by spontaneous adventures in multi-layered dungeons or discovering unique fortresses, statues, strongholds, hideouts, shrines, lakes, waterfalls or anything actually interesting like that. Don’t think for a moment that you will be rewarded for venturing into the wild by finding an awesome ancient treasure. Don’t think you will meet lonely travellers who can teach you a skill or sell you a unique trinket. The Witcher 3 offers only a pale shadow of the sense of freedom you get in Bethesda games.
Now, the worst part of The Witcher 3 is the combat and the movement. Others have remarked this, but Geralt is kind of hard to handle and his horse is even worse. Unfortunately, moving around and fighting are the two most important and common things you’ll be doing in the game (well, after watching cutscenes, that is). Fighting is simply a very poor version of the kind of combat you see in action games like the Batman Arkham series, Dark Souls or Kingdoms of Amalur. It’s actually reminiscent of older European RPG’s like Gothic. Geralt dances around like a ballerina, swishing his sword in ways that stop looking cool after the second fight, so you’re really just making a fool of yourself prancing around like the Witcher fairy princess. With every attack, the guy just has to make a twirl. He must get really dizzy and disoriented during these fights, which is one thing the controls emulate perfectly.
There are lots of other little annoyances and bits of criticism I could add, like the absolutely horrible “item degradation” mechanic, by which I mean the fact that your weapons and armour break down after a while and become useless until you repair them. This mechanic was in Oblivion (a game I still love and play) and I hated it there. In The Witcher 3, it bothers me even more because everything involving repairing and crafting is such a chore here. But the truth is I probably would have shrugged at this and other complaints and just enjoyed the game anyway if, at its core, it had been a fun game. The big problem is, there are times when it barely feels like a game at all. To me it’s like the developers are so sure of their artistic vision and storytelling skills that they expect the player to just go along and let them take over the controller. I really, really miss some real player agency. “What do you mean, player agency? No other RPG gives you so many choices with such real consequences!”
See, I don’t really care about those “choose-your-own-adventure” type consequences that everyone’s always talking about. Sure, we get to make choices in the quests which lead to different outcomes, but I honestly don’t care all that much about that. Besides, what does it matter if you cannot predict the outcome anyway and quests end in some form of tragedy no matter what you do? That kind of “choice” is not what I mean by player agency in an RPG. What I want is the ability to have some input into what the experience is to begin with. I don’t want to just make reactive decisions based on situations that are forced upon me. I want to be able to use my imagination. I know very few games outside of The Elder Scrolls series really give you that option, but at least Bioware’s games allow you to craft your character’s personality and abilities according to your own preference. CD Projekt seems to be proud of taking away your ability to make the game your own. The Witcher 3 feels like going to a restaurant where there’s no menu because the chef is so amazing he’ll make what he wants and you’re going to like it! Except I don’t like The Witcher 3’s food all that much. The whole thing feels shoved down my throat. And that, more than anything, is what makes it ultimately a rather dull and oppressive experience, in my opinion.