The Witcher 3 plonks you down in an unforgiving world and arms you with a slew of incomprehensible systems. Luckily, it’s worth the effort.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The culmination of a hardcore RPG series with roots in traditional PC gaming.
Developed by Polish team CD Projekt RED, based on a world and characters created by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, but with an original, remixed storyline.
Available on PC, PS4 and Xbox One on May 19.
PS4 code supplied by Bandai Namco on request.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is not the slick, console-friendly, streamlined experience longtime series fans might have feared it would become. This is both a good thing and a bit of a worry when it comes to new players.
In my mind I am dividing The Witcher 3’s potential audience into two camps, and I want to rush off and reassure both of them. Longtime series and PC RPG fans in general: set your mind at rest, The Witcher 3 has not been ratcheted downwards for a mainstream audience.
Everyone else: stick with it, there’s a ton of fun in there if you can just get to it.
The Witcher 3 is amazingly inaccessible for a triple-A video game released in 2015. It is the absolute antithesis of the minimal UIs and easily grokked systems we’ve come to expect from mainstream releases. Every aspect of the game demands you sit down and try to figure it out, rather than making itself easy to understand.
Even the tutorials are deeply unforgiving: they are too easily dismissed by accident, too painfully retrieved, and often too verbose. They introduce concepts rapidly, discretely and in a higgeldy-piggeldy fashion, granting the player little time to absorb their meaning, and relatively few chances to see them in context. For example, in the first mission you are introduced to the concept of Adrenaline Points, but at that stage, you have no abilities that require Adrenaline Points, and have to go ploughing through other menus to find out why on Earth you should care.
The menus and user interface are super daunting. On PC this isn’t such an issue; a mouse would be a definite advantage, and if CDP hasn’t included options for resizing and sorting, the mod community soon will. On consoles, even with a big HD TV, you’ll always be peering at tiny spidery text and rows and rows of endless icons you have no chance of remembering the uses of.
The first time your inventory fills up and you have to offload at a merchant is a heck of a chore, even assuming you find one with enough cash or goods to absorb all your rubbish. Although I have become an expert in this specific task, I deeply regret the lack of a “mark as junk” feature and custom inventory filters.
As for the parts of the game that happen outside menus, the learning curve is steep. Mastering swordplay involves knowing when to use and combine two different strikes, a parry, a riposte, a dodge and a roll – with magical signs, ranged weapons, bombs and potions thrown in for good measure. This would be fine were it not for the fact that every enemy hits like a ton of bricks, and dodging their attacks requires a split-second timing that I, a player who had a very jolly time with Bloodborne, found extremely challenging.
The Witcher 3 isn’t above trapping you in mistakes. This isn’t just a matter of skill; if you get in over your head, you’re very unlikely to get out of it again even if you have the reflexes of a mongoose. You absolutely must maintain multiple saves.
Quests are usually a matter of following your GPS (“HorsePS” from here on in, thanks in advance) and mission prompts (really hardcore players may want to look into mods for turning these off, so they have to listen to character dialogue and read in-game text) but they’re not necessarily easy despite that. Geralt may prompt you, for example suggesting you prepare an oil to buff your sword against a specific enemy type, but you still have to work out what kind of enemy it is, which oil is appropriate, and find the ingredients, usually completely on your own. As another example, the quest Family Matters cannot be completed without also completing Hunting a Witch and the subsequent mission sequence, but The Witcher 3 doesn’t tell you this, merely suggesting you “investigate all leads”. There’s nothing to suggest this lead may be found in what seems to be an unrelated mission.
Moreover, The Witcher 3 isn’t above trapping you in mistakes. At time of writing, I am yet to find any sort of “get out of dungeon free” item, and have been in situations where I’ve been unable to complete the mission I was trapped in due to lack of levels, equipment or appropriate resources. And this isn’t just a matter of skill; if you get in over your head in The Witcher 3, you’re very unlikely to get out of it again even if you have the reflexes of a mongoose. You absolutely must maintain multiple saves to avoid this situation.
All this adds up to quite good news for gamers with lean pockets; The Witcher 3 is going to generate a lot of trade-ins from those who lose their temper or just give up in despair.
This very nearly happened to me, likely resulting in an awkward conversation with the boss regarding a number of deadlines with my name on them and the total absence of copy to meet them. I galloped through the game, dying and reloading several times during each encounter, getting more and more frustrated, and finding it harder and harder. My mind was full of complaints. Why couldn’t I find any decent loot? Why was there nothing decent to buy? Why were the few decent things so damned expensive? Why did Geralt die after one hit from a dog? Why did it take me 20 hits to kill a dog?
The straw that very nearly broke the camel’s back was when I hit a boss battle in a mission and just could not finish it. I couldn’t even figure out how to finish it. I rifled through my inventory and dashed back and forth through the dungeon looking for anything that might help, but with no luck. After six hours over two days, fruitless Googling, a desperate email to Namco Bandai Australia and the application of everything in my inventory, I gave up. I decided to leave and go grinding.
I couldn’t leave.
With mounting horror I checked my save history, and despite the very generous number of autosaves CD Projekt RED has enabled, I was absolutely, positively, completely and utterly fucked. I had to restart the whole game, with tens of hours under my belt and only a few days between me and deadline.
The sound I made at this point drove my cat out of the house for 18 hours, and if I hadn’t had a bunch of work on the line, I might have snapped the controller in half and gone outside to do literally anything else.
I checked my save history, and despite the very generous number of autosaves I was absolutely, positively, completely and utterly fucked. I had to restart the whole game. The sound I made at this point drove my cat out of the house for 18 hours.
Happily for me, and for The Witcher 3, I took some calming breaths and thought about it. Okay, so I’d have to start again – but had I really achieved that much in my current playthrough? I’d barely touched on side content or going exploring in the open world, just rushed from encounter to encounter. The vast majority of my time had been spent on failed attempts to battle enemies, or the game over reloading screen. If I could just die less, somehow, I’d be back to this mission in no time, right? And I could save outside this time, and then go wandering, looking for a better sword, or something.
Then it struck me: what if I went looking for a better sword right back at the start of the game? What if I, in fact, started playing this like an old-school, stat-driven RPG instead of – foolishly – like a mainstream third-person action game?
As it turns out, The Witcher 3 deeply rewards exploratory, careful gameplay and engagement with its many systems. This should not have been a surprise to me, but I was so caught up in the beauty of the graphics and the stunning combat animations that I kind of forgot what I was dealing with, somehow.
Even on the lowest difficulty settings (no shame in turning it down; the upper reaches are absolutely mental) you can’t just button mash your way through The Witcher 3, and there’s no easy way to grind for levels – but you can make things much, much more manageable just by paying attention to what’s on offer outside the narrow confines of the HorsePS journey.
Spending even the most cursory amount of time on sidequests or out in the open world is immensely rewarding. Every second chest Geralt stumbles across seems to contain a new potion recipe or equipment diagram. Places of Power – standing stones humming with magic – reward discovery with free Ability points. The amount of loot available for the taking in each tiny cluster of houses is astonishing.
Battles that had been boring, one-sided slogs punctuated by constant retreats and potion spamming became not easy but carefully calculated exercises, in which my preparations and leg work allowed me to gamble on my dexterity and go on the offensive.
Moreover, the dauntingly unfriendly systems are actually pretty forgiving once you navigate the horrid menus and figure out what’s going on. Getting a bit of armour or a sword built for you, even in the early levels, will considerably up your powers. You only need to gather the specific ingredients you need for Alchemy products once, after which your supplies are replenished when you meditate from generic ingredients.
Even through I didn’t really level up much more than on my first go-through, my second pass through the first map, White Orchard, left me in a much better state than my first pass. While I would definitely still be punished for any attempts at button mashing, when I got it right, Geralt danced across the battlefield, hacking monsters clean in half and leaving his foes dazed and confused.
Groups of enemies fled before my wide-cast Signs, and bigger, single foes, crumbled in the face of my focused determination and judicious use of oils, potions and bombs. Battles that had been boring, one-sided slogs punctuated by constant retreats and potion spamming became not easy but carefully calculated exercises, in which my preparations and leg work allowed me to gamble on my dexterity and go on the offensive.
There’s a school of thought suggesting any game that isn’t immediately accessible, requiring players to sit down and learn before they start having fun, is “bad design”. I don’t subscribe to it. There are aspects of The Witcher 3 that I consider poorly implemented, like the fact that opening loot containers with a control pad can be a nightmare, and the way the tutorials are structured. But I am more than happy to say that the complex systems, learning curve and escalating challenge of The Witcher 3 are a good thing, even if they aren’t going to go down well among those raised in the new era of focus-tested games minutely tuned to be achievable by anyone and everyone.
The phrase “challenging but rewarding” is a dreadful cliché, but clichés are coined when they efficiently express particular experiences. The Witcher 3 is one of those games that presents enormous challenges, and rewards you with a feeling of great satisfaction when you overcome them. It’s a shame that the difficult interface and accessibility barriers may prevent some players from discovering that.
I have been hammering away at The Witcher 3 in my spare time for over a week now and I can tell I am nowhere near finished; I doubt I’m a full one-third through, and I’m looking forward to sharing more of my thoughts on it in the coming weeks. If I had been given a very tight deadline in which to formulate some thoughts about it, I am absolutely certain I would have produced a very different set of reactions to those you’ve read here today.
I’m really, really glad I was able to give The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt a second chance, and the commitment to playing it properly that it demands, in order to fall so deeply in love with what it has to offer. I hope you’ll get that chance too.