The Witcher 3 is harder than Skyrim but easier than Dark Souls – unless you venture into permadeath territory.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is unusually positioned in the RPG pantheon. It has all the hallmarks of a game with the potential to go blockbuster – gorgeous, bar-setting graphics, a huge, lively world, and more – but it also refuses to shuck off the niche genre conventions so beloved of hardcore RPG fans.
That means, if you’re new to the series, that you will be confronted by pages of confusing statistics and information, and you will die at least a few times while you learn the combat system.
“Dark difficulty is something that many people in the company are very passionate about. If you die five minutes before the ending, it’s over.”
In an age where many developers and publishers focus on broadening their appeal and accessibility, CD Projekt RED and Namco Bandai (which also publishes Dark Souls, remember) seem happy to embrace the genuine delights of hardcore western RPGs. Yes, some people are going to be put off – but those who persevere will be rewarded, as any WRPG fan will tell you.
If you liked the earlier Witcher games or subscribe to the Dark Souls fandom, you already know how you feel about this, I’m sure. But if you’re not really keen on RPGs with action gameplay you may be on the fence, and with good reason; this is no Skyrim.
Combat in The Witcher 3 requires finesse and precision as well as agility, rapid tactical decisions and a balanced approach to levelling and crafting. There is no enemy scaling – venture too far into end game territory and you’ll be slaughtered.
Even the early encounters can be tough for newcomers, actually, and CD Projekt RED has worked hard to ensure the game always feels challenging – even on normal difficulty.
The developer expects most people to choose normal difficulty – it’s the default. But “Normal should be a challenge,” quest designer Philipp Weber told me.
“Usually normal is easy, and easy is – well, you can be on your phone while playing.”
Not in The Witcher 3, obviously. CD Projekt RED expects its players to be willing to learn and to struggle – as well as to accept the scary menu screens.
“We want it to be easy to learn but hard to master,” Weber said.
“Right in the beginning you will have that big screen [of stats], but you will not have that many options. I think you always know what different things you can do.
“It’s the same with the difficulty – there’s a nice curve. It gets more difficult the more you progress in the game, but also you will learn more and more things.
“I don’t think we actually throw that much different stuff on you at the same time, so you’d have to read about it – it works pretty naturally.”
Paint it Black
For those who really want to be tested, The Witcher 3 offers something not even the Souls series does – Dark difficulty. Not only does this setting turn it up to 11, it introduces permadeath.
Let’s pause briefly and consider that. Permadeath. In a game that may take you hundreds of hours to explore fully, if that’s your bag.
“Dark difficulty is something that many people in the company are very passionate about,” Weber said when I expressed incredulity at this feature.
“Because they want a real challenge. If you die five minutes before the ending, it’s over. There are actually people who have already done it,” he added.
At the end of my time with The Witcher 3 and CD Projekt RED earlier this month, I decided to nail down precisely how hard the RPG is. Pulling out my notebook and a pen, I drew a simple chart and labelled the Y axis with “Skyrim” at the bottom and “Dark Souls” at the top.
“I don’t know what the X axis is,” I apologised, “But let’s say the Y axis is a difficulty scale. Down at the bottom here is the toughest challenge in Skyrim. Up the top here is the hardest thing in Dark Souls – something really life destroying, you know?”
Weber caught on immediately. “First of all, Dark difficulty would be somewhere over here,” he said, indicating a space on the other side of the table from us. We both laughed.
“So where’s normal?” I asked, handing him my pen.
He only hesitated for a moment before drawing a line exactly in the middle of the two extremes. So there you have it.