“Begone, Witcher”: In Which I Play and Love and Am Still a Little Annoyed by the Last Game in the Witcher Trilogy

WTF is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt?

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the direct sequel to Witcher 2, and follows the titular Witcher as he: 1) tries to find his estranged on-again-off-again partner, Yennefer; 2) tries to find his adult daughter, Ciri; and 3) tries to stop some evil elves from destroying the whole goddamn world.

The Witcher games are based on a series of books that have built up a long backstory about Witcher, Yennefer, Ciri and most of the other characters, and even more backstory was built in the previous games. That said, the salient points are that Witcher has recently recovered his memory after a long bout of amnesia, and knows that he and Yennefer were taken prisoner by the Wild Hunt – a band of super cool elves (ha ha) – shortly after they last saw their daughter, Ciri.

The story is broken into roughly four chunks, with most of the action taking place in the second chunk, where players can wander the huge world Wild Hunt takes place in, pick up a staggering number of side quests, and make choices that draw major story lines in the Witcher franchise to a close. Gameplay is focussed on combat, but the most meaningful choices come from things that you do or don’t say, sometimes with four or five seconds to think.

The best part of Witcher 3 is that it makes its characters the centre of the story.

Witcher 3 is full of cool, interesting people doing cool, interesting things. Witcher is a much more human character in this game – partly because it’s the first time he remembers who he is, and partly because the animation is extremely detailed and expressive. A lot of Witcher 3 is about drawing his personal journey to a close, and the designers accomplish that by creating a story that organically invites him to reflect on his past as he looks to the future.

The A-plot of Witcher 3 is about Witcher’s surrogate daughter, Ciri, and how his choices as a parent have helped to shape the person she’s become and the destiny that lies before her. Ciri, who’s a playable character during brief segments of the game, has powers that allow her to travel between realities and, as the story goes on, it starts to become clear that she’s on a journey of her own. Witcher is worried about protecting her from the Wild Hunt, but Ciri has seen much more terrifying things in her travels and is, literally, trying to figure out how to save the world. It’s something Witcher can’t do for her, and something he can’t even really help her to do – his only contribution to her story is to be a good dad – to make sure she knows that she’s loved and has confidence in her abilities.

Other characters are living their own stories, too. There’s a lengthy and satisfying B-plot about Witcher’s ex-girlfriend, Triss, who’s become so fucking awesome I could cry. There’s another lengthy and satisfying side story about my new favourite character, Cerys an Craite, and her dark horse bid for the throne of the Skillige Isles. There’s even a side quest that ties up an outstanding question left over from the Witcher books I have not read, about whether Witcher and Yennefer are only in love in the first place because they’re under a spell.

Overall, there’s a strong sense that Witcher is passing in and out of real people’s lives – that they have goals, histories, and relationships of their own that don’t involve him. The world doesn’t revolve around Witcher – he’s the hero of his story, and others are the heroes of theirs.

The worst part of Witcher 3 is that it’s still kind of sexist and homophobic – just not as much as the previous game.

Witcher 3 makes a Very Special Effort to not be offensive to gay people by having a tertiary character explain that he is gay and that that’s why he was driven out of the village and has to fight monsters in the woods. But then it goes on to be casually homophobic at random moments – the most off-putting of which is a scene where Witcher thinks for a minute that his male friend, Dandelion, might have had sex with a cross-dressing dude, only to be reassured right away that the cross-dressing dude is straight and Dandelion is straight and – I swear to god, for real – the only thing they talked about the one time they had a conversation was how they were both straight. Like, we have to be reassured of their heterosexuality emphatically, as soon as the idea comes up. That’s a far fucking cry from cutting off someone’s balls, but it’s still kind of annoying.

Also annoying – even though the game is filled to the brim with super cool female characters, an awful lot of them take off their clothes at some point, and that isn’t true for the men. They’re also wearing anachronistic underwear which – again, doesn’t seem to be true for the men, though I don’t have a lot to compare with. The moment that really brought me up short was when Ciri, out of clear blue nowhere, suddenly has to go hang out in a sauna with a bunch of topless women to “restore her health.” And you have an awkward choice about whether or not she wears a towel for that. It’s really weird.

Ves and Roche also make a cameo appearance, during which Roche tells Ves not to charge into battle with her shirt hanging open… which just raises the question of why she was drawn that way in the first place, since it’s a stupid fucking way for her to be dressed. I would say she’s still the worst female character, but I’m not even sure she’s a character anymore. She’s a whole lot more like Blue Stripes Barbie.

Speaking of a stupid fucking way for people to be dressed – Ciri’s shirt just gapes open the whole game because she doesn’t have any buttons. Yennefer and Triss are (usually) dressed more practically, but you can install official DLC to make them look sexier.

On top of that, there’s the normal stuff where women are used as decoration in various scenes, as well as two weird narrative moments that really threw me off. The first is when Witcher tracks down a bad guy named Whoreson Jr. He’s looking for Junior for other reasons, but it turns out – just kind of incidentally – that Junior also tortures and murders women. And you stand in a room full of their corpses while you’re talking to him. And then you can choose whether to kill him or let him live. And, if you choose to kill him, Witcher makes a speech about why, and the speech doesn’t even acknowledge the pile of bodies or how they got there or that Junior will probably go on torturing and murdering women if he isn’t stopped. That’s, like, graphically depicted on screen, but not a consideration in whether or not he should live.

The other weird moment is when an otherwise well-dramatised story about domestic violence takes a sudden awkward turn. Spoilers, but Witcher ends up contracted to help a Barron find his missing wife and daughter, in exchange for information about Ciri. He quickly discovers that the Barron is lying and covering up the fact that his wife and daughter left of their own volition because he was violent and abusive. Witcher refuses to bring them back or lead him to them against their will, but he agrees to find them and make sure they’re okay. At one point, though, the Barron asks you to listen to his side of the story and, if you do, he complains about how his wife cheated on him when he was away at war and planned to leave him for the guy she was cheating with when he came home. The Barron killed the other guy and, ever since then, his wife has been an asshole to him, and – he says – purposely provokes him, which is why he hits her. After he’s finished his story, you can tell him you see his point or you can tell him, nope, it’s still his fault. If you tell him nope, it’s still his fault, Witcher makes a speech about why, and the speech says that it’s because the Barron should not have gone away to war and given his wife the opportunity to cheat on him at all. You know, not because it’s still not okay to hit someone, even if they cheat on you. Because it’s his fault somehow that she cheated on him. WTF.

Also, now that Witcher has his memory back, the world has amnesia for anything that happened in the second game.

Witcher 3 lets you load a save from Witcher 2, or do a simulated save by answering questions about what you chose at key moments. Almost none of those choices have any effect on the game.

Mostly, the developers bail themselves out with the war. Witcher 2 was all about the internal politics of the Northern Realms, but it ended with the revelation that all of the infighting had been spurred by their common enemy, Nilfgaard, in preparation for an invasion. By the time Witcher 3 begins, the invasion has largely been successful, wiping out all of the Northern monarchs except for Radovid. In that sense, it really doesn’t matter where the chips fell at the end of Witcher 2 – Radovid is fighting Nilfgaard for the north, and everyone else is dead.

I get that as a strategy to bring the story back to a common point. The more annoying thing for me was that, even if your choices in Witcher 2 prevented a brutal massacre of mages at the peace summit in Loc Muinne, not only are mages still being persecuted, but several characters mention the massacre in passing as both a thing that happened and an explanation for how the anti-magic sentiment got started.

Another thing that bugged me was the characters’ insistence that the sorceress Philippa Eilhart, who was one of the major villains in Witcher 2, is an innocent victim in all of this. Like, yes, I think it was wrong for Radovid to cut out her eyes, but she singlehandedly destroyed the north’s best hope for a free and equal society for her own selfish ends. She enslaved a benevolent magical creature and forced me to kill it so that it wouldn’t be her puppet anymore. She was also kind of mean to Radovid when he was a kid – there are lots of reasons why she sucks. But, in Witcher 3, they’re all like, “Poor Philippa. Persecuted by Radovid. She’d make a staunch ally and friend.”

Oh, the places you’ll go, and try to go, and fail to go, and have to go back to again.

Every single part of the interface for Witcher 3, from combat to crafting to alchemy to character upgrades to secondary weapons to navigation is simultaneously more complex and more user-friendly than it was in Witcher 2. Little things that bugged me in the last game (in every sense of the word “bug”) have been repaired in Witcher 3, and it’s largely a much more intuitive system to work with. The exception is anything involving either water or jumping.

Water and jumping are both new things in Witcher 3. and they’re clumsy and tetchy and aggravating at all the wrong times. Jumping is just kind of buggy. It’s hard to tell what you can and can’t jump onto, and hard to get Witcher to jump the right distance. There were several instances where I accidentally picked my way up a hill it turned out I should not have been able to climb by jumping really hard at pointy surfaces. The jump function also gets disabled during combat, because that button is used for a new kind of dodging instead – but that means that you can get stuck on scenery during combat with no way to hop back off.

Along with jumping, Witcher 3 also introduces the concept of falling and taking damage when you fall. I read one blog that said “Whether or not [Witcher] dies from a fall is literally random,” and that seems to be accurate. Hopping down off something that didn’t look that high killed me lots of times, except when it didn’t do any damage at all.

Swimming is an entirely new world of nightmares that made me literally afraid to approach any water. The game is purposely designed so that it’s really hard to see underwater – there’s a potion you can scrounge for later in the game that will improve your water vision – but it’s also really hard to steer, really hard to pick things up, and really hard to climb out of the water again. Enemies can also attack you under water, and your only way to fight them is with your crossbow. The game never tells you that that’s how to fight enemies under water and, if you forget to arm your crossbow before you dive – or fall into the water by surprise – fuck you.

The number one rule is still “Save your game every two minutes.”

I’m not exaggerating about that. As in Witcher 2, the difficulty level is uneven and spikes early in the game. Everything is really fucking hard for the first six hours or so – you’ve got no skills, you’ve got no money, and all your gear keeps getting smashed by rabid dogs.

Witcher 2 taught me to be so afraid of story progression that I avoided completing most of the main quests in Witcher 3 until I’d worked my way through a lot of the side quests instead. That left me way over-levelled for most of the mid-level main quests and made the game too easy. This isn’t obvious at first but, to its credit, Witcher 3 tells you really, really clearly when you’re about to advance one of the main quests past a checkpoint where it’ll mess up your chances of doing the side quests. So, you don’t have to be overly cautious like me.

At the same time, quests have a tendency to go sideways at moments you wouldn’t expect, trapping you in a temporary situation where you don’t have access to some of the characters or resources you might want. You can get trapped somewhere with a monster you’re not equipped to fight and have to reload to a point before you began the quest. There are also really useful characters who can die as result of something you’ve done and a lot of Protect So-and-So from Such-and-Such quests, where So-and-So can die. Also, races, boxing matches, and card games that you only get one shot at unless you reload.

The major, long-term consequences of your choices still take a long time to play out, which is part of a deliberate design that forces you to live with your decisions. By the time you find out what happened, you’d have to replay hours and hours of the game to undo what you did.

The number two rule is still “Trust no bitch.”

Witcher 3 is smart and morally complex. Most of your decisions result in a mix of negative and positive consequences, and it’s up to you to decide which of the available mixes you prefer. One decision that stands out is a very long, complex quest in which some obviously evil witches who probably eat children send you to kill an obviously evil tree that murders any random stranger to approach it. The spirit that’s trapped in the tree tells you a long-ass story about how the witches betrayed it, and how it needs you to set it free so that it can rescue the children they’re planning to eat. Based on this he-said she-said from two obviously evil sources, you have to decide whether to kill or free the tree spirit. No matter what you do, horrible things happen to someone.

There’s a side-quest later on where a monster’s stalking a village, but the more important thing is that the monster has become a focal point for tensions between the villagers. No matter what you do, the villagers eventually turn on each other and someone ends up horribly killed. It’s just a question of who and under what circumstances.

The most hilarious example, though, is a quest where I was trying to figure out why a ghost was haunting an island. The ghost told me her own a long-ass story and, even though I knew beyond doubt that she was the one murdering people who came to the island, I chose to believe her when she said that I could help her find peace by taking her remains back to her boyfriend on mainland. I thought there was a possibility that she would kill him, because it sounded like maybe he had betrayed her to a horrible fate that led her to die in the first place, but, when I brought her remains back, he told me a really sad story about how he had been true to her all along and would be happy to bury her in the traditional way so that her spirit could find peace. I strolled away from his cottage thinking, “That went better than usual” and then I heard a blood-curdling scream. My quest log gave me a notice saying, “Go and see what happened (optional),” so, against my better judgement, I went to see what happened, and it turned out she was a lying sack of shit who murdered him and left to spread disease among the other villages.

The number three rule is “Play Gwent with everyone you meet, even if it’s socially inappropriate.”

Gwent is a made-up card game that Witcher is apparently addicted to. It has complicated rules and involves building up four decks of cards. One of the side quests in the game is to collect every Gwent card available, which you can only do through a combination of shopping, winning cards from other players, entering tournaments, and completing special quests related to Gwent.

Here are some things that happened in my relentless quest for Gwent cards:

  • A merchant told me all about his dead family and depression or whatever, and I immediately asked him to play Gwent.
  • Just before I took the Barron into the swamp to complete an important, urgent quest related to his estranged wife, I asked him to play Gwent with me, just in case anything should happen that would prevent us from playing later.
  • I led a swarm of bees up to a meditating druid so that his friends would think I was funny and give me a Gwent card.
  • I ran down some random guy with my horse because I thought he might play Gwent with me.
  • I accepted a quest from Witcher’s friend, Zoltan, in which Zoltan wanted help collecting three rare cards so that he could sell them and get out of debt. I wondered, “Will we still be friends when I keep all the Gwent cards?” but felt that I had no choice.

In conclusion, this is a really fun game.

I could go on and on about Witcher 3 forever, and nitpick more things than I’ve nitpicked and praise more things than I’ve praised, but it’s a rich, rewarding experience to play. The story is amazing, the characters are great, and, while it doesn’t always live up to its ambitions, it is still a remarkably ambitious game, striving for more than this genre typically offers.

Image: The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt; CD Projekt RED | February 26, 2016