Spoiler-Free Review: Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (plus a Spoilerific section)

Contrast with other recent spoiler-free review: Spoiler-Free Review: Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.

In part one of this review, the true spoiler-free section, I seek to answer the question “Should I Play This Game?” while giving the absolute minimum of information.

In part two, I provide some minimally-spoilerific advice on how to best enjoy the game.

In part three, I comment on a few things, some of which require major late-game spoilers.

Part 1 is Spoiler-Free: Should I Play This Game?

If you’re going to play any such games, this is a good choice. Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is widely considered one of the best games of all time. It is not hard to see why everyone loves it. It is ambitious as hell. It tells a huge set of varied stories, large and small, and concludes one big story, very well. It offers real choices with real consequences large and small. It drips with flavor. First rate stuff.

Witcher 3, like Assassin’s Creed Odssey, is a mostly excellent implementation of a gigantic long-lasting open-world action RPG with real time tempo-based combat set in a faux-medieval magical world. You’ll go on tons of main quests and side quests, gather gold, level up,

If you ask me in a Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maitenence style Quality sense whether Witcher 3 (92 metacritic rating) is superior to Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (83 metacritic rating) I would have to agree that this isn’t a contest. Witcher 3 wins.

But when I ask which game was a better experience, when I ask which game was more net fun, I think it went the other way. I had a better time in Ancient Greece than I did with Geralt of Rivia. The ending left a bad taste in my mouth, and the world just wasn’t as much fun to inhabit.

I therefore ended up giving both games the same rating of Tier 2: They are both definitely games that are Worth It, but not games one Must Play.

The best things about Witcher 3 are:

  1. The game is truly massive. There’s tons of quests and tons of stuff to explore. If you ride off towards question marks or any interesting-looking structures on your map, there will be something to find. When they say the game has 200+ hours of content, that’s a real number.
  2. The quests are highly varied. A lot of different things happen. Many quests have twists and end up being much bigger and stranger stories than they appear to be.
  3. The story is well-written, voiced and acted, with lots of interesting characters. Can’t complain here, first rate stuff.
  4. Your choices matter. They matter in small things, and also they matter in large things. Different endings, both to the game and to various quests along the way, are quite different.
  5. Romance options are real and integrated. Many similar games I’ve played offer romance options or ways to get lucky, but such pursuits feel like checking off a box. In this game, it feels like something that matters. They also aren’t afraid to be an R-rated game, which all of us here appreciated.
  6. Conclusion of a trilogy. If you’ve played the first two games, this pays off a bunch of that. If you haven’t, you’ll still be fine.
  7. Gwent isn’t bad. The game has a collectible card game built inside of it. As its own animal, I’m rather skeptical of the game. It has a very large amount of ‘larger numbers win’ to it. But you can’t be pay to win when there’s no option to pay. As part of your journey, you’ll get gradually better cards, and it all plays quite well. You can also ignore the game if you wish.
  8. Game is beautiful. It can’t hold a candle on this to Odyssey, both because it’s a few years older and because Ancient Greece is full of amazing sights while being generally bright and beautiful, while this world is darker in all senses. That doesn’t stop Witcher 3 from being rather great to look at.
  9. No guardrails or auto-leveling. If you go the wrong way or do the wrong thing, it’s too high level. Tough. If you come back to something later, it’s easier. Makes sense. This wouldn’t have worked for Odyssey but it works here.
  10. Lot of complexity available if you want it. You can get into alchemy and make a bunch of potions and oils, assemble the schematics for special gear and go on treasure hunts, and so on.

The worst things about Witcher 3 are:

  1. The game is truly massive. If you’re looking to experience something quickly, this is not the game for you. Once you try the game out, you need to make a decision on whether it’s worth 100+ hours of your time. There’s no half measures here.
  2. The quests still run together mechanically. While the stories involved vary as much as one could hope for given the format, there’s only so many things the game can really ask you to do mechanically, and you play this game for a very long time.
  3. Your choices sometimes matter, but other times the choice I wanted to make wasn’t available. Either you aren’t given a choice at all, or neither option is the one I’d want. Choices made in Witcher 1 or 2 don’t matter much. Can all be frustrating.
  4. Your choices matter a lot, but that includes some small choices that have counter-intuitively large impacts, or mandatory orderings of quests that can lock you out of key opportunities. You thus have to choose between spoilers or risking messing these up.
  5. Decent amount of ‘hot spot gaming’ where the quest will wait for you to click in the right place or go the right route and even in hindsight it seems rather arbitrary. Similar amount of this to Odyssey.
  6. World is dreary. It’s beautiful in its own way, I can’t argue with that, but looking at all the rain and dreariness, and the generally miserable people, is not where I’d ideally spend a ton of time.
  7. Witcher combat is very feast or famine. If you find a pattern that works in a given fight, you’ll (eventually) win even if severely under-powered. If you don’t figure one out, you’ll have a very hard time. If you mess up, you take massive damage and often die. And while I won’t say what my build was, there does seem mostly to be a clearly correct one. So while it’s fun,
  8. This is not a stealth or climbing game, while trying to play either or both on TV every so often. The segments involving faux-stealth are generally feel arbitrary and are pretty bad and frustrating. When Witcher tries to be Assassin’s Creed, it does not go well.
  9. The path finding doesn’t realize fast travel spots are a thing unless you’re going to an entire different map, and you have to go to the fast travel spot to use fast travel. It’s cool for a while that it makes you figure things out, but after a while it’s not cool anymore.
  10. A lot of the things you can do don’t end up having enough impact to be worth doing. Because of the nature of combat, the small edges one could get from going deep in various places end up not mattering much. And it’s basically impossible for the game to not get easier rather than harder over time in terms of its combat, even if you don’t do many side quests, so doing more work to get even stronger can seem counter-productive.

I chose for now not to do the expansions, Blood and Wine and Hearts of Stone. Feels like I’ve played a lot of this game. For those who have played those expansions, I’d appreciate your advice, based on this review, on whether I should play them.

Part 2 is Minimally Spoilorific: Good Advice for Aspiring Witchers

You can safely ignore oils and potions entirely. They don’t do very much and are annoying. This also means you don’t need to collect herbs. There are a small number of quests that explicitly require a potion and thus are exceptions, but that’s it.

Money doesn’t matter either. All you need is enough to repair your gear. There is nothing that costs real money that you ever need to buy. You’ll want a good saddlebag, and every Gwent card you can find if you want to play Gwent, and that’s about it. Gear upgrades can come entirely from chests and quests. I think I ended up buying two weapons and zero pieces of armor the whole way through.

This means you don’t need to worry about haggling on job prices, or collecting a bunch of junk to sell to merchants. Selling the swords off people you kill is already enough.

Your gear decays continuously, and every bit impacts your stats, so repair it whenever you get a chance.

The signpost is faster.

There is a moment when you understand how combat works, and a few moments when you get various aspects of timing in combat. If you’re behind on these moments combat is hard. If not it’s easy.

The basic principle of combat is to do a lot of light attacks, and dodge whenever you might get hit. Parries are basically useless because dodges are better. Meanwhile you use signs periodically. You attack, you roll so you’re dodging and not surrounded, you hit things until they’re dead. Each monster has a simple pattern, learn it, beat it. It’s fine, it can be satisfying, but overall I’m not a fan. It’s way too feast or famine, very much you either have it handled or you don’t, and difficult means having to go really slow more than anything else.

Default sign use is the shield.

Use the mind control sign against anyone who blocks your attacks enough to be annoying.

Doing the main quest line can cut off side quests, some of which can be a big deal. Do side quests first and put off your main quests as long as possible, whenever you are in doubt. Spend some time exploring the map as well. Talking to Triss in a way that starts her main quest line cuts various things off. Postpone this as well until you’re ready.

The game really, really should warn you about these more than it does – there’s one time that it does warn you that you’re passing a point of no return, but there are several others where it just doesn’t.

Make a decision now on whether to look up which decisions matter to the ending. Even if you don’t look them up explicitly, there’s one I’m going to give you now in as safe a way as I can: Bargain to take her out of there by offering information. It’s important, I screwed it up and I’m still mad about it.

As is almost always true, everyone saying time is of the essence means nothing. If you want the best outcome, never hesitate to pause and do a side quest. In fact doing so is necessary at one point if you want what I’d consider the best outcomes.

Don’t feel the need to do all the side quests, but do most of them. In general they’re worth doing because they’re fun. If you want to know which ones matter to the ending, you can look it up.

If you’re not enjoying the side quests, you should probably find a game you like better.

Grab all three levels of the mind control sign’s level-1 enhancement early in the game, it’s useful in a lot of dialogues.

If there is a reason not to put most of your ability points into the close combat and battle trance parts of the red ability tree, I don’t know what it is.

In particular, the Battle Trance ability that revives you on death is bonkers good.

Don’t try to play Gwent games right away, only shop for cards until you can get the truly awful ones out of your deck. Then you can turn the corner. Or ignore the game entirely.

Part 3 is Full Spoilers Ahoy

Again, warning, I’m about to spoil things.

This could have been a Tier 1 game, or at least left a much better taste in my mouth.

The ending was the big problem.

The game makes the fate of the world depend on your choices. That’s good. The problem is that the choices that matter are stupidly easy to miss or mess up, after a hundred hours plus of game play. They don’t seem like they should matter, and many seem like arbitrary decisions by the game designers, including which direction they go.

And the most important thing that happens in the game is something that happens regardless of your input, against your will, with very little foreshadowing or explanation. Everyone mostly don’t even seem to notice.

The Choices That Determine The Ending

Here’s a guide to all the possible endings. Let’s look at the choices.

Romances

Getting this out of the way first.

I mostly won’t argue with this. You have the real choice of Triss versus Yennifer, except that at the key moment they stack the deck against Triss. Triss has her life at risk and is fleeing along with her fellow mages in a last-ditch plan to escape before everyone is rounded up and killed. In order to romance her, you need to allow this plan to work, and then afterwards ask her to stay behind. Which seems like it puts everyone’s life in great danger, including hers and the other mages. I didn’t feel like I had a real choice there, but I did realize what the game was likely doing.

In any case, I chose Yennifer, and I’m mostly fine with that. I think that’s what Gerald actually wanted. If it was actually me, of course, and I had the choice to make, I would go with Triss hands down.

And if you don’t romance either of them, or try for both, you get what you deserve. I approve of this.

What I do want to complain about here is that if you choose Triss, you don’t get to watch Yennifer act completely pissy and full of seething rage about it for the rest of the game afterwards. Which she totally, totally would do and would have been a lot of fun to watch.

The Fate of Velen

Early on you make a choice as to whether to free a creature that’s been trapped by clearly super evil forces, in exchange for it promising to free a bunch of kidnapped children. If you free it, after that the game explains that the thing you freed was super evil, and that’s why it kept giving you this “kill it” option, and that freeing it was really bad. It turns out the evil thing it promises to help with getting dealt with in another way anyway. This all felt super unfair and arbitrary. In turned out they were going for some sort of stupid-liberal or DC-universe “release the great evil to save the children” thing rather than a “free the trapped thing so it can defeat the greater evil” thing that it seemed like the game was doing.

Still reasonably frustrated on this.

The Fate of Skellige

The game is pretty heavy handed on this. You want Cerys on the throne. That’s completely obvious the whole way. What other choices do you even have?

I suppose you could do nothing and let some miserable scoundrel take the throne. Or you could back her brother who is obviously a hotheaded idiot who just attacks things for no reason all the time. That always ends well.

So sure, they pay off the obviously right decision, but it’s not remotely interesting, and just rewards the standard modern liberal response that of course the reasonable woman will lead the idiot Vikings peace and thereby into economic prosperity.

The way you get there is even dumber. You get her on the throne by taking her side in the investigation. Her proposal for the investigation is to investigate. The alternative proposal is to already know who did it with no proof, and I guess beat a lot of people up. Kind of heavy handed, if you ask me.

The Fate of the North and the War

You have three choices.

By default, Radovid lives.

thought I had taken care of that. There’s an explicit quest line, where you set up an assassin to kill him, and are told that Dijkstra will take care of the rest. Turns out that if that’s all you do it silently fails.

What you actually have to do is more than that. You have to do the quest line surrounding the throne. Which means you have to unlock it by bargaining with Dijkstra, when Dijkstra doesn’t have a leg to stand on. He’s just ordering you to let him keep a sorceress prisoner that is needed to save the world. He’s already refused to help me save the world, after I among other things arranged for him to get to assassinate a king. And he’s a horrible prick all around, and my option was to stop to give him information on the emperor, while racing against time to save the world from the Wild Hunt. That information doesn’t seem like it should matter in the battle to kill a king in the north. I’m giving it to him in exchange for… not shoving him aside? Huh? That determines the fate of the whole world? Just like that?

My lord what a load of utter bullshit.

But that’s what the game decides. No warning unless you’re arming yourself with spoilers. By the time I realized I’d messed this up, I didn’t have any desire to go that far back. Besides, whatever I do on the first play through is what happened. Period. That’s how it works.

If you do go through with the quest line, you then make a reasonable choice about who gets to rule, with reasonable consequences either way.

Ciri’s Fate

Ciri can either die, live as a Witcher or live as the Empress.

Making her Empress versus Witcher seems almost fair.

You need to win the war for the North, so her father retains power. That makes sense. Except that the way you do that is, again, stupidly easy to close off by making what is otherwise an obviously super correct decision to not give world-level information away in exchange for not having to shove a world-class prick who wants revenge on a woman more than he wants the world saved.

You also need to take Ciri to the Emperor first, before killing a general of the Wild Hunt that you are told is going to be at a particular place in a few days, and which Ciri seems determined to do. So you basically need to kidnapper her and cause us to not get the opportunity to kill a key enemy and also to kill another set of key enemies as well who are a huge danger to all of Velen, letting that opportunity slip away. Then after that, it’s too late to see the Emperor. There’s no, as expected, ‘let’s go see your father now’ after that, it’s automatically on to Novigrod (and also, seriously, what is up with taking a bunch of sorceresses back into Novigrod? Where Triss is literally on the city’s most wanted posters? Seriously?) All in all, doesn’t seem great.

Then there’s the ‘positive’ versus ‘negative’ decisions along the way. To get the good endings, you need enough positive decisions. You need two of four to keep her alive, then three of five to get the crown.

The “I Know What Might Lift Your Spirits” one is corny, but I’ll accept it. Yes, doing cool father-daughter thing is cool. Quest was bugged, though, I couldn’t hit Ciri no matter what I did.

Say “Yeah, I’ll go with you” when Ciri asks to visit Skjall’s grave at the end of The Child of the Elder Blood. I mean, honestly, if you don’t do this one you’re basically a monster, so all right, sure.

“Encourage Ciri to speak to the Lodge of Sorceresses on her own during Final Preparations.” That one seemed straightforward to me as well. Yes, of course you should talk to them. But it’s not clear to me why this is how one should be punished for not doing so, certainly not in terms of staying alive. I also have no idea why the game was laying out all these complex and cool possibilities and threats and Xantos Gambits within and for the Lodge, and then not cashing them in or paying them off.

Say “Go for it” when Ciri loses her temper in The Child of the Elder Blood. That’s actively the wrong thing to do! The man who has saved her life numerous times, you spy on his lab, then encourage her to destroy his lab and his work? For what? This man directly allows her to save the world and then save the multiverse, for entirely unselfish ends. In exchange he basically puts up with endless racist crap from everyone, entirely undeserved. Why does the game reward encouraging this? Mindless destruction cause she’s pissed he ran some experiments that obviously needed to be run?

Then there’s the fifth for the Empire, which is to choose to visit the Emperor during Blood on the Battlefield, and say “Didn’t do it for coin”, refusing payment. I hate this kind of hogwash. Emperor has infinite money. You took the job to help Ciri, so that means you should give a donation to the crown rather than have more money to fund your whole ‘save the world’ campaign?

Essentially the game is saying that Ciri is a petulent child, and the way to keep her alive or put her on the throne is to indulge her whims. She means well, but on reflection I don’t want her anywhere near the throne. Not for her sake. For everyone else’s. Yes, she saved the world and multiverse. That does not make her a good queen.

The Fate of the World

And now, the choices you don’t make at all. Which was also the only choices that matter.

First, you stop the Wild Hunt.

The entire time, the motivation given is that we need to protect Ciri. She’s our daughter, everyone loves her, and so on. Regular hotheaded Mary Sue with the Elder Blood needs all the help she can get. Nothing wrong with that motivation.

Occasionally it is pointed out in passing that there’s a little more at stake than that. You know, the whole thing where the reason the Wild Hunt wants Ciri is so they can invade and conquer the world and kill everyone, because they come from a world that is falling to the White Frost into eternal blizzard. Which makes me understand the whole world-invasion plan.

It’s a good thing they all wear skulls, or we might have a little moral ambiguity or something. Gotta make sure and mark the baddies.

You could, of course, stop that by killing Ciri. Which would shut off any threat of invasion and save the world until the time of the White Frost. Not once does anyone seem to even think about this possibility.

Nor does anyone invoke “oh yeah and in addition to that girl being in danger the whole world is going to end and everyone will die.” When, for example, asking for help. Thus, a scrappy handful of Witchers, sorcerers and misfits ends up being all that stands between the world and its end at Khar Morden.

For the second battle you do get some help from the Emperor, clearly again because of Ciri. I still don’t understand why he was invading Skellige at the time. It’s essentially nothing but crazed warriors with no economic value, and he’s in the middle of another war, and this isn’t discussed at all. It’s kind of Athenian expedition to Syracuse level insane. Then they seem to turn back without explanation afterwards, which likely saved it from getting far worse. Can’t say I’m sad he got deposed at the end.

Then we get to the end of the battle. We’re informed that we’ve been betrayed. I still have no idea what caused Eredin to say that. Not important, I guess. It creates a little drama where we think we have a different final boss, before finding out Ciri has made the only meaningful choice without us.

You know, to save the multiverse from the White Frost.

The Fate of the Multiverse

It is mentioned a few times during the game that all realms are doomed to the White Frost. It will consume all worlds, one by one. When the dust covers the sun, and all you hope for is undone, heat death of the universe, that sort of thing.

Except that Ciri has Elder Blood, so she alone can stop it.

I’ll pause here to note that Ciri has Elder Blood that creates the unique possibility of saving the world, the Sorceress’ Lodge wants to turn her into a Sorceress, and sorceresses are infertile.

Yeah. That’s good thinking right there.

Anyway.

She decides to stop it. She does this without telling Gerald. As a result, we think we’ve been betrayed. Those saving the world predictably almost come to blows and kill each other, after risking death to get to the tower where she is. This is grade-A stupid stuff.

I also don’t understand why the middle of this battle is the right time to do this. Can’t this be done later? Is the Wild Hunt’s travelling here opening up the opportunity? Or are we doing it now because it’s a chance to have everyone else distracted for a few minutes as opposed to any time pretty much whenever when those two have been alone and could have done it.

You are told what she is going to do. She is going to go save the multiverse from the doom of the White Frost.

You have four choices in how to respond. I Googled and couldn’t find them, but paraphrasing they are “No”, “Hell No”, “Not Going to Happen” and “You Don’t Have to Do This.” That’s right. Four choices on responding to Noble Sacrifice Of One Person That Saves Actual Everyone Everywhere, that might not even kill her, and won’t if you were a reasonable human being along the way. And none of those four choices are “you are doing the right thing and I’m actually not a selfish scope insensitive douche.”

Of course, she decides she’s going anyway. At that point, you can say nothing, be mean or wish her good luck. I wished her good luck. Not that it matters, as much as it seems like it should at least a little. But I can think of 10 other choices that seem like better decision points for Ciri’s fate than some of the ones they chose.

The game then glosses over the whole saving of the multiverse. What you see are images of the warm father-daughter moments that cause Ciri to have good feelings and thus survive. The fact that the multiverse is saved is barely even mentioned.

The rest of the ending tells you what happened to Ciri and various nations, and you, and that’s it.

It also strangely does its best to tell you, your story is over, I guess you can do side-quests now if you want, but come on, that would be silly. Really did take the wind out of my sails. Again, if either expansion or a particular side-quest is super awesome and I should do it before moving on to another game, comments are encouraged. Also taking suggestions on next game up. Current strongest candidates are Shadow of Mordor, Horizon Zero Dawn, Fallout 4 and an older Assassin’s Creed. Jacob is welcome to pitch me my bad experience in the first bit of Red Dead Redemption 2 was an anomaly and I should try again.

At World’s End

A little final note on the word of The Witcher.

Did anyone else notice no one is training Witchers any more? What you have is what you get, and they won’t last forever.

It seems like when I wander around the countryside I kill tons of monsters and save multiple people from death every day.

It seems like this world is teeming with deadly monsters. They’re everywhere. You so much as utter the wrong words in anger and whoops, there’s a new cursed beast. The water is full of drowners. The night is dark and full of not only terrors and wolves but nekkers and ghouls and other such things. A substantial portion of all towns have been abandoned to monsters or bandits.

There’s also a huge number of bandits. Not as many as there were in Ancient Greece for Odyssey, but still a lot.

Meanwhile, there’s wars everywhere, because clearly everyone has the spare resources for that. Then everything else seems to be about the nobility showing off.

I have no idea how these people built all these castles and houses. Or how they’re not all very definitely quickly dead multiple times over. Does not seem like anyone has much of a chance. Winter is not coming, it’s been here for a long time.

Not training Witchers seems like the actual worst thing this society can do, and it seems likely to ruin what chances it has at survival. You don’t get any opportunity to address this. Whoops.

I Kid Because I Love

This all must sound quite a bit harsh. It is. That’s a sign that the game did a lot of things very right.

If this wasn’t a world I wanted to spend 100+ hours in, a world worthy of my criticism, a world I wish had been done even better, I wouldn’t have wasted a long post talking about details like those above. Probably I’d say nothing, cause I’d never play or quit. If I stuck with it, I’d be discussing bigger problems.

To have problems like the ones above, first one must be worthy. This isn’t what failure looks like. This is what success looks like. To err, and err, and err again, but with more and more good stuff along the way. I’m definitely looking forward to their next project later this year, which is Cyberpunk 2077.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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6 Responses to Spoiler-Free Review: Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (plus a Spoilerific section)

  1. womble says:

    I’d say play Horizon next, personally I rate it the Tier 1 game to The Witcher / Assassin’s Creed’s Tier 2. Beautiful and varied world, challenging and fun combat, plot is sometimes corny but still very enjoyable in a YA sort of way. Also dinosaur robots.

    • TheZvi says:

      Verdict is in and that’s where we’re starting. Skeptical so far but we’ll see. These games need to be better at teaching people the controls.

  2. scmccarthy says:

    Regarding W3’s expansions:

    Hearts of Stone is a fairly concentrated, good storyline that is probably worth your time at some point.

    Blood and Wine is substantially more Witcher 3, but in a sunnier place. Probably the original game was enough for you.

  3. Pingback: Spoiler-Free Review: Horizon Zero Dawn | Don't Worry About the Vase

  4. Ian Ulman says:

    Do you have any sort of post where you list your Tier 1 games? I poked around this blog a bit but didn’t see one and I’m curious.

    • TheZvi says:

      I don’t have a list – I do have a (private for now) one for TV shows, but never did a compiled list for games. Slay the Spire is the only game in the last few years that I would put on that list. Looking through my steam slash thinking about related things, Civilization IV (and 1 and 2 if you’re adjusting for age, and the old Railroads), Europa Universalis 4 (and 2), Path of Exile, Diablo II, Master of Orion (old 1+2), The Ur-Quan Maters (Star Control 2), XCOM (from the 90s) would all qualify. For RPGs last one by release date was probably Skyrim.

      That’s definitely not a complete list especially of older stuff, but it’s not trying to be, and I’m not going to extend it back then here cause I’d miss stuff. But it’s not like TV where there’s exactly 7 shows that make it, and I don’t think I’m missing that many. There’s lots of ’em.

      Card/board games for 2+ players are a different category of thing entirely.

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