The moon hangs over Novigrad. After a day filled with monster hunting, bandit slaying, exploring, exploding, galloping and card playing, Geralt of Rivia winds down the day by helping one of his many ex-lovers escape persecution from the extremist, witch-hunting Church of the Sacred Flame. After telling her goodbye, Geralt watches as her ship sales away, instantly regretting not asking her to stay after stealing a kiss from her at an ill-conceived visit to a gala a few nights prior. But by the time he can fully process the thought, she’s gone. There’s no going back. And with that, Geralt strides into the shadows of a nearby alleyway, ready to take on his next task.
Lengthy, open and polished, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is by far the most satisfying video game I’ve experienced this generation. Its character-building is second-to-none, its combat system is simple and satisfying, yet challenging and rewarding, its open world is inviting and its side quests are absolutely captivating. From the moment Geralt set out to reunite with his old flame Yennefer, I was completely engaged in the game’s brilliantly realized world, until I saw the credits roll 100 hours later.
Though a narrative revolving around finding a lost person (in this case, Ciri, who is like a daughter to Geralt) may seem tired at this point (particularly after playing through both Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 as most modern RPG fans likely have), I found this take on the trope more satisfying than ever before due to the superb character building, voice acting, and ultra-realistic animation CD Projek RED accomplishes throughout the experience. Players may grow weary of the search after dozens of hours, but the reunion scene is one of the most touching I’ve seen in a video game and the narrative opens up even further following it.
Of course, searching for Ciri is hardly the only objective Geralt undertakes during his time journeying through large expanses of land like the afore-mentioned Novigrand, Velen and The Skellige Isles. A monster hunter by trade, Geralt routinely helps those willing to pay for his services by taking down a number of varied and well-developed beasts that roam the landscape. From haunting noonwraiths born from the untimely death of a woman at her happiest moment to eerie Leshens who stalk their prey through the shadows of Wild Hunt’s many forests, just about every monster in The Witcher 3 has enough lore to make them feel like characters in their own right, and it makes taking them down that much more satisfying and, at times, heart-wrenching. CD Projekt RED has also done a fantastic job of creating a plethora of lengthy and engaging side quests that, while largely independent of the main narrative, do a fantastic job of making their open world feel more realistic and exciting than any other I’ve journeyed through. I never even considered skipping a side quest; in fact, I scoured each countryside in order to avoid missing them. Missing any of them would’ve been a major shame and the fact that Geralt can fail many of them without the chance to reload and try again makes them so much more intense and invigorating.
As engaging as I found the multitude of quests to be, though, I was even more impressed by the character-building that CD Projekt RED accomplishes beautifully throughout the experience. Wild Hunt is constantly throwing new characters into the ever-growing plot as the story progresses, and I found almost every one to be noteworthy and intriguing. The only negative is that there are so many, some of the lesser characters can easily get lost in the shuffle amongst all of the questing and exploring that Geralt undertakes. Thankfully, CD Projekt RED noticed this problem and included journal entries for each character to help remind the player of story developments involving them.
Geralt himself is without a doubt among the strongest protagonists in gaming history. At the outset, traditionalist RPG fans may decry a fully voiced protagonist with very little customization options outside of his outfit (which constantly changes as you acquire better gear), but anyone would be hard-pressed to role play as a better character than The White Wolf. With an all-encompassing personality that finds him at once hard-nosed, badass and ill-tempered yet also compassionate and even gentlemanly, Geralt is a complex character that I loved meeting and defining through constant dialog options and trying situations. I came to look at him as a mix between Qui-Gon Jinn from The Phantom Menace and Master Chief from the Halo series. They don’t really seem like they’d make a great mix, but the juxtaposition works perfectly.
The RPG elements of The Witcher 3 are unique in that, from the outset, Geralt is already a master swordsman with five powerful signs (or spells) at his disposal. CD Projekt RED used Dark Souls as an inspiration for Wild Hunt’s furious third person combat style, and the similarities are instantly obvious. Rather than gaining new skills through leveling up, players instead enhance the abilities that they are most interested in. While other RPGs like Skyrim continue to add new perks that the protagonist can acquire, Wild Hunt instead forces players to choose their perks wisely by only providing a relatively small, finite number of perk slots. While I wasn’t sure how I felt about this on the onset, I later came to appreciate the thought that went into each new perk I acquired and even found myself switching out perks that I thought were incredible at the beginning of the game for even better ones that enhanced Geralt’s abilities even further. I’ve always enjoyed putting lots of thought into my characters in RPGs, and The Witcher has added a new dimension to leveling up your character that I will never forget.
Naturally, no open world game is perfect. There are a number of “treasure hunts” littering the land that most players may not feel the compulsion to complete (though I was not among them). Even worse, much of the gear that players acquire through these quests will be inferior to what they have already obtained. I distinctly remember completing a rather lengthy quest for a blacksmith and was rewarded with a weapon significantly worse than the blade that was already strapped to my back. These unimpressive rewards are disappointing, but I was so engrossed in seeing how Geralt interacted with the characters and the world around him that I often didn’t mind that much. Wild Hunt is also home to Roach, one of the most finicky steeds I’ve ever ridden. CD Projekt RED were attempting to emulate the horse-riding that was pioneered by Rockstar in Red Dead Redemption and while they were largely successful, Roach tends to have a bit of a mind of his own often attempting to run down paths that the player has no interest in traveling and getting caught up in the environment more often that he should. This is particularly true when using the game’s “call” mechanic which operates similarly to The Wanderer calling Aggro in Shadow of the Colossus. In order to hide the fact that Roach simply teleports to the player (if calling him from a long distance), he is often scripted to appear behind fences or trees that he has trouble getting around. This leads to some unintentional hilarity as Roach tries in vain to reach Geralt from the other side of a bevy of obstructions, but it can also be annoying when trying to seamlessly ride off into the sunset after a particularly great quest or, even worse, when trying to pursue an enemy who is already atop of his own steed galloping away.
Despite these minor qualms, I was constantly impressed by how stable The Witcher 3 ran throughout the extended time that I spent in its world. While other open world games like those helmed by Bethesda or Obsidian are often riddled with bugs and glitchiness, I rarely ever encountered anything of the sort in Wild Hunt. The only area where I experienced any glitches at all was when sailing off the coast of the Skellige isles. When undergoing marine exploration, the devs had scripted a humpback whale to surface before diving back down into the depths. When it goes off without a hitch, it’s a majestic sight. But more often than not, the creature would get stuck mid-dive with its tail fins frozen above the water as Geralt sailed past. It did break my immersion briefly, but the incidents were always forced out of my mind instantly as I delved into my next item of interest.
Stable, rewarding, and unforgettable, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt gripped me in a way that almost nothing else has in our beloved medium. Though I was enthralled with the main questline, I still found myself traveling off the beaten path and examining every settlement I met because I wanted to experience it all. Often when I finish a game, I feel a sense of satisfaction. With the Witcher, this was maximized but also mixed in with a feeling of disappointment that Geralt’s journey had come to a close. It’s big. It’s epic. It’s emotional. It’s unforgettable. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is nothing less than one of the greatest video games of all time.