RPG mechanics may have been purloined by practically every game under the sun in recent years, but there’s a lot more to the genre than simply loot, experience points and the slow grind to god-like abilities. Destiny and Bloodborne are both RPGs of a sort, but while they both have appropriate mechanics, they lack the other half of the equation – a fully fleshed out character to play rather than just a faceless combatant.
The Witcher 3 has no character creation system. No millions of nose, hair and eye-colour combinations. You are simply Geralt of Rivia, a hulking great slab of machismo and dry wit. Generating a hero of your own making in the typical pen-and-paper model, as with Skyrim or Dragon Age, can also leave your character lacking a place in the world they inhabit. Even allowing for the usual connivances of prophecies and amnesia, you start as a nobody who knows no one.
Geralt is the very opposite.
A figure of renown throughout the Northern Kingdoms, he has a rich backstory and complex relationships with the other major players you encounter. You might want to read the plot synopsis of the first two games but it’s not strictly necessary to enjoy this epic tale.
^ Geralt may be a mercenary but he has a moral code of sorts and motivations that most will understand
It may be story- and character-driven, but there’s a huge amount of freedom available to you outside of the main storyline. The Northern Kingdoms of ‘The Continent’ make up a huge explorable area, strewn liberally with castles, villages, ruins and more. Thankfully Geralt can always call upon his horse Roach, who comes running at a whistle. The horse is fast and can gallop to outrun most enemies, but you can fight from horseback if you choose. Hold down a button and he’ll even follow a path or road without further guidance.
The world has a good share of content too, with horse racing, a complex card game-within-the-game to master, treasure hunts and some huge battles with epic beasts. Geralt has enhanced Witcher senses, which let him see clues when searching for items and footprints when tracking animals. This possibly makes things too easy, as we’d have liked a little more detective work at times, rather than simply following glowing footprints.
Most hunts result in a fight but Geralt is more than able to handle himself from the off, with a steel sword for fighting humans and a silver one for monsters. The combat system is pretty simple, with light and heavy attacks plus parries. So-called Signs also let you use defensive and offensive magic, letting you throw down temporary defensive bubbles, traps that inflict area-specific damage on enemies and bombs. An encounter with a Noonwraith forced a strategic combat approach, employing traps to give her corporeal form that let us land physical attacks: CD Projekt Red has clearly striven to avoid identikit combat encounters.
The fighting isn’t exceptional stuff, but it flows nicely and there are some brutal finishers. You can die quickly if you’re not concentrating, and taking out bigger groups requires some thought. You can upgrade your skills of course, including some neat tricks such as deflecting arrows by parrying with your sword.
^ Geralt is an accomplished fighter, becoming practically superhuman if properly prepared
Geralt may mainly be a fighter, but he’s also a bit of a lover. With only a single male lead, and one that’s undoubtedly an attractive man to many women in his world, it’s not all that easy to level the playing field – as in say Mass Effect, which has led to the series coming under scrutiny in the past for its depiction of women. That being said, there are numerous powerful and active female protagonists, so Geralt certainly doesn’t always get things his way.
It’s not just the big players that get great treatment here though, as even the smaller quest givers often have a twist in their tale, with voice acting of a quality to make you care. It plays with your expectations too: one character obviously has a dark secret but when Geralt offers to help cure his lycanthropy it turns out to be something far more everyday, awkward and painful.
^ The other characters, both big and small, are well scripted and well acted
Quests and monster contracts earn you experience, and you can quickly level up your skills, allowing you to put your own minor spin on Geralt’s capabilities. The major quests each come with their own recommended levels for tackling them, so you know how many sidequests you need to take on in order to make progress without hitting a wall.
Although you’ll become gradually more powerful, to be truly kick-ass you’ll need to prepare Geralt properly before a big fight. There are lots of temporary buffs you can set up, with grindstones giving bonus weapon damage and standing stones doing the same for your magical abilities. Potions can be mixed from alchemical ingredients, and your blades can be coated in poison. This preparation really adds to the sense of anticipation for a big fight.
^ It may be beautifully rendered but the game’s grim tone often matches that found in Game of Thrones
The game looks fantastic, with a world that’s packed with small details and which looks and feels inhabited. The day-night cycle and dynamic weather make for some dramatic vistas, from bleak rain-swept battlefields to sunlight dappling through cherry blossom.
Our only real complaints are that Geralt’s movement feels a little too weighty, and yet twitchy at the same time. In combat it all feels fine, but when simply exploring it’s easy to overshoot your intended destination unless you’re very easy on the controls. There were some frame rate issues, particularly in the bigger fights and during some of the cutscenes, and then there’s the usual headache of having to search and loot everything you find, forcing you to manage your bloated inventory at regular intervals.
This are minor issues though. Geralt is a likeable protagonist who bows to no one, but his actions are motivated by worthy ideals. It’s important as he sits at the core of this game, the world around him is connected to him and he feels at home within it. We think you will too.