Content of the article: "Ramblings and thoughts after finishing The Witcher trilogy for the first time."
Tl;dr – The games are great overall; first is janky as fuck; third is too long with a little bit of jank & good DLC, definitely not as good as it's made out to be; read the books first.
This won't be a proper review or anything, more just a long ramble of thoughts. Oh, and there absolutely will be spoilers for the games, and some very minor book spoilers. It
might does (sorry) make this write-up look like a redacted CIA document.
One of my favourite things about the series (books and games) is how it deals with a lot of the common high-fantasy tropes. In the Witcher, there is no big doom army which the protagonists must defeat by running all around the known world/country to unite all the people and create a super strong alliance to defeat them>! – this is sort of done near the end, but in a more elegant way than other fantasy stories have done it!<. Rather than having the evil army from the depths of hell, the stories tend to be smaller in scope. Sure, the country is getting invaded for the nth time by the Nilfgaardians – an authoritarian empire that's totally not loosely based on Germany – but it doesn't have a whole lot to do with your quest, so it all largely happens in the background. Your focus is a lot smaller than the rise and fall of empires, and that's something I really wish more fantasy did. I don't want to be the saviour of the world, I just want to be one of the little people with an interesting life.
Despite the wars being in the background, though, The Witcher 3 does a very good job at showing just how badly the people living in the smaller villages have been affected – bandits have grown bolder, monsters, wolves, and rabid dogs have taken over the spaces between towns and villages, some larger roads are lined with the hanged bodies of deserters and other criminals, and, if you pay attention to some of the incidental dialogue between NPCs in the small villages, you hear just how tough it is, including some women intentionally sending kids out to die so they have one less mouth to feed. The atmosphere of the world, especially in the third game, is pretty much spot on.
I did really enjoy the stories of the first two games. The first one starts out with a fairly simple task, but gets increasingly complicated as the game goes on. You start out just trying to find the group of bandits that stole the Witcher mutagens, but by the end, you've become heavily involved in the conflict between a religious military order (the Order of the Flaming Rose) and a group of non-human guerrillas (the Scoia'tael), which eventually culminates in a civil war.
The second game follows directly on from the first, and has a similarly deceptively simple plot. At first, you're framed for killing the king you were sworn to protect, and in your quest to clear your name, you end up discovering a plot to establish a new ruling body of mages, as well as a Nilfgaardian plot to destabilise the region prior to invasion.
The story of The Witcher 3, by comparison, is actually somewhat boring. In the prologue, your aim is to find Yennefer – your lover, who has been weirdly absent throughout the first two games. Once you achieve this, the story is to find Ciri – your 'adopted' daughter. And that's it. There's no real twist or anything, you just have to find Ciri before the bad guys, and then fight said bad guys at the end. That's not to say that the story is badly written, by any means. The writing in TW3 is actually some of my favourite, and it's one of the handful of games that actually made me start to tear up a bit (specifically, when you first find Ciri and see she might be dead – might have impacted me more than other people because she was by far my favourite character in the books), and there are times where you can genuinely empathise with some of the characters. However, I felt it dragged on for too long. The main story actually ended about six or so hours after I thought it logically would. That said, the ending does feel like the final conclusion to a big fantasy saga,>! though perhaps not the conclusion that one might be hoping for,!< and it did go back and resolve a couple of plot threads that I'd almost totally forgotten about, which I do appreciate.
Additionally, the game does have quite a few nods to the books, which I really enjoyed – one of my favourites was when I encountered the showman with the caged Wyvern he was trying to pass off as a Basilisk, which eventually got loose. This occurs in the books, except with Ciri, in a circus tent type thing, and it eats everyone as I recall. Another good one are the constant references to the stuffed unicorn – as well as characters that Geralt knows quite well, but which the player might not. These are frequent enough that I'd actually recommend reading the books before playing just for the added context and references. You'll also get an idea of how they totally sidelines Yennefer in favour of Triss, causing another disconnect between Geralt and and players who haven't read the books – most players lacking context would romance Triss, because she's the only one who was present throughout all three games. Geralt, however, would consistently romance Yennefer, and an argument can be made that Geralt was abused by Triss
The core gameplay loop for all three is the same, but the games all did improve on the one that came before, with the first one being proper Euro-jank. The most egregiously bad aspects of the first were polished up in the second, and again in the third. I only have a handful of complaints regarding the gameplay mechanics in TW3:
- Combat feels too easy after level 25, even with enemy upscaling on. By this point you will have unlocked most ability slots, and worked out exactly what sort of playstyle you're going for, what abilities you want to use, etc. This problem gets compounded further in the Blood and Wine DLC, which is structured like a second ending for the game (I'll discuss this further below). I was sort of able to fix this by using the FCR3 mod and upping the difficulty, which does add some of the challenge that's lacking in the later game.
- Horse movement isn't great. Sure, Red Dead Redemption 2 has effectively ruined every video game horse for me, but Roach is still quite janky. Roach will try to follow roads as best as she can, but that can sometimes result in you fighting the controls, because the pathing isn't as good as it needs to be for this sort of system to work really well. I lost more than one horse race because I was fighting the controls and got stuck on a fence near the end. There are also some points where Roach might get stuck on invisible walls that aren't there if you walk or if you turn around and go in the other direction for a few metres before turning back.
- This is more of a UI thing, but I found that I was looking at the minimap way too much when going from one quest objective to the other. Some quests are quite good, in that they'll say something like 'walk along this road, turn left at the fork until you get to the boulder, turn right and follow that road,' but the majority of quests are like Skyrim, wherein you're following the quest marker. Again, I found a mod that sort of alleviates this problem – Friendly HUD, which gives you way more control over HUD elements, and lets you see quest objectives when using the Witcher senses.
Perhaps one of the biggest changes from TW1 and 2 to 3 is that TW3 is a fully open world game, and has seemingly become a benchmark (or in some cases, template) for other developers cough*Ubisoft*cough*.* While going open world does definitely have its advantages – primarily it definitely does do a better job at emphasising the point that you are in a country that has been absolutely ravaged by war – it also does have some significant shortcomings. Primarily, the question marks. There are way too many, and there are only a handful of different types, which means you do get bored of chasing every single one quite fast.
I also don't think the open world is utilised to its fullest amount – the whole northern area of the main map is only really used in one of the DLCs, otherwise it has no purpose. Most story quests also take place in specific areas – for example, you'll have the Act 1 quests in the countryside, Act 1.5 in the city, Act 2 in a different country, entirely etc. I think nothing really would've been lost by keeping the same world structure as TW2, and having a series of smaller but more detailed maps in which each chapter takes place.
The story DLC for TW3 is great, but as I said above, I feel the experience is definitely better after reading the books you meet some major book characters and encounter references to events in the books which aren't really explained a whole lot in the game at all, other in the glossary.
Hearts of Stone is probably my favourite of the two, as it has the best music by far, and has a sort of dark and creepy tone just short of horror which I absolutely love and wish more games did. It's also the shorter of the two, only about 10 hours long, and should ideally be played while working your way through the main quest.
Blood and Wine benefits the most from reading the books. Some of the most prominent characters in this story do appear in the books and nowhere else, and one has very a well established relationship with Geralt. This should be completed after the main quest – while that concluded Ciri's story, this concludes Geralt's. This also does refresh the gameplay in some areas – you'll now fight sime much tougher new enemies, and it does change the level-up system, as, by this point, you should have nothing else worthwhile to spend skill points on. This is made more for NG+, because you probably won't be able to unlock everything. Like the combat, I find this does make the game easier than it should be, as it's giving you even more skills to unlock, while enemies don't get much tougher.
The best thing about B&W has to be the setting, though. It's silly yet serious at the same time. An almost comical parody of France (or Italy?), and yet it has a vampire serial killer on the loose.
My main issue with B&W is the ending – the city was attacked by vampires, heaps of innocent people died. And yet, the next day it's like nothing happened – streets are still pristine, shops are open, and everyone's going about their business. Despite it's other faults, Skyrim does a decent job at this – some of the civil war missions will totally wreck some cities, and structures and rubble will remain in place for a week or so in-game before it all gets fixed. That's what should've happened here.
Overall, all the games are great and worth playing, but they are all janky in their own ways, and TW2 is definitely not as perfect as it often gets made out to be.
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