I didn’t get around to “The Witcher III” when it originally came out in 2015 because it was simply too intimidating. It was a massive game that could absorb my life if I wasn’t too careful. It was also the third game in a series I had never played, so I was worried I might not be able to follow the supposedly great narrative.
That one ranks pretty high up on the list of mistakes I’ve made in my life. Having bought it on sale earlier this year and finally devoting lots of time to it over the past month, I can confidently say it’s an achievement like few other games. If you like great storytelling, I can’t recommend it enough.
Here are the main reasons why:
You play as a defined character instead of one you created, and he’s fantastic
- CD Projekt RED
“The Witcher III” is a role-playing game (or RPG) along the same lines as something like “Dragon Age” or “Mass Effect.” Its main deviation from that formula is that you don’t create a character; instead, you play as Geralt of Rivia, star of the previous games and the focus of the Polish novels upon which the games are based.
Geralt is a Witcher, meaning he was given a bunch of mutations as a kid that gave him unnatural strength and heightened senses at the expense of his ability to procreate. Witchers are traveling monster slayers-for-hire, so Geralt either finds work or waits for work to find him.
While I immensely enjoy and respect the ability to create my own hero and craft my own story, I found playing as a more defined character to be really compelling. Geralt is wisened, cynical and has a fantastically dry sense of humor. He isn’t totally amoral, but he understands the way the world has to work sometimes and acts accordingly.
You still make huge choices that impact the story, but every available choice is something Geralt would do. Whether you choose to spare or kill a bad guy, Geralt will find a way to justify his decision according to his characterization.
By lowering the stakes, its story is far more compelling than others
- CD Projekt RED
Most video games (and a good chunk of fiction in general) frame their stories as a hero trying to save the world from destruction of some manner. That’s fine! It’s a good impetus for characters to find their flaws and develop in order to fulfill their roles.
“The Witcher III” (almost) completely eschews this in favor of something more personal. Here, all Geralt is trying to do is find his long-lost adopted daughter Ciri, who has been on the run from a group of bad dudes called the Wild Hunt.
You actually get to play as Ciri a couple of times, and her journey is enthralling enough to be a game of its own. But since you play as Geralt, you largely see people and places in the aftermath of encountering Ciri, so you’re really seeing the aftermath of the traditional video game story instead of controlling it.
The interplay between Geralt and Ciri is fantastic, as it is between Geralt and all his other friends you meet along the way. “The Witcher III” shows that not every story needs to be an end-of-the-world scenario to be compelling; in fact, getting away from that makes your story even better.
The ways in which your choices impact the story are more subtle than other games
- CD Projekt RED
Without spoiling too much (I expect you to buy the game right after reading this), I want to talk about the way the game handles its ending, which I found particularly great.
There are basically three possible outcomes on a grand scale, with small permutations between them. Which outcome you get is not based on a simple choice at the end, but on several seemingly-innocuous interactions peppered throughout the story.
It feels natural. The fate of a character was partially influenced by whether or not I chose to stay up late and have a beer with them, rather than me choosing the blue (good) or red (bad) option.
It also helps that the choices never come down to purely good or bad. There is no perfect ending to any scenario, or necessarily even an ideal one because that’s not how the world works. All you can do is be the best Geralt you can be and hope things work out.
The game’s side quests are better than the main quests in other games
- CD Projekt RED
Let me tell you about the best questline in “The Witcher III.”
Geralt’s friend wants to start a cabaret theater in Novigrad, the game’s biggest city. I had to help him out by tracking down his flaky investors to get money, getting some placards for advertisements and finding a choreographer.
Once all of that was done, it was opening night. There was just one problem: the star of the show was nowhere to be found. It turned out she had been brutally attacked in the street by a serial killer who wasn’t able to finish the job.
At that point, it turned into Law & Order: Novigrad, as I had to investigate different crime scenes, interview eccentric eyewitnesses and perform detailed autopsies. In the end, the killer turned out to be someone I met with at the beginning, in true police procedural fashion.
All of that is optional. That is not part of the main story and you could miss it if you wanted to.
Don’t worry, the part where you play it is great, too
Remember when I said Geralt is a monster slayer? That means you, as the player, occasionally need to slay monsters in “The Witcher III.” That part is pretty good!
The combat and upgrade systems are fairly deep, but the good news is you can avoid that stuff if you don’t want to engage with it. I played through the entire game on the easiest difficulty, which meant my stats hardly mattered in the game’s action-based combat.
It’s still fun to play that way, mind you. I still needed to dodge, block, parry and cast the correct spells in order to survive. It just means the combat was never a barrier between me and the part of the game I loved the most, the story.
Oh yeah, it’s beautiful, too
- CD Projekt RED
“The Witcher III” is a real looker. Its fantasy world is a sight to behold at pretty much every location, from the swamps of Velen to the Nordic-inspired shores of Skellige.
When you get up close, things hold up. The subtle facial animations of each character (Geralt in particular) really sell the things they’re saying in a way lots of other games don’t.
When you eventually play “The Witcher III,” I recommend saddling up on your horse and riding somewhere instead of fast-traveling. Just take it all in. It’s worth it.
“The Witcher III” is available on PS4, Xbox One and PC. A complete edition of the game that features both of its expansion packs is now available for $50.