The Witcher 3 ends with a thrilling battle – and a confusing mess of cutscenes. The last minute twists may rankle, but there’s a great deal of satisfaction in there for those willing to look at the broader context.
The Witcher 3 is the end of a trilogy and likely the end of CD Projekt RED’s adventures with Geralt of Rivia, a figure famous throughout Eastern Europe and increasingly the English-speaking world for a series of rip-roaring fantasy stories by Andrzej Sapkowski.
The books are justifiably celebrated for their subtle but intriguingly unusual take on high fantasy, and the setting is as well known among Polish fantasy readers as Middle-Earth is to their English-speaking equivalents.
Even the most wandering player is aware of who the Big Bad is, and finally getting to meet these foes in person and cut them down is very satisfying. But then it all goes a bit mental, with not one but two plot switcheroos breaking in the cutscenes and dialogue leading up to and closing the final mission.
That the games remix a story and universe already well-known to core fans, that The Witcher 3 closes off a three-game story, and that the vast majority of players never finish video games are all important facts to bear in mind when considering the ending of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which is a bit of a mess, to be brutally frank.
Gameplay-wise, the final few missions pay off. Difficulty escalates rapidly and those who haven’t been side questing and upgrading with dedication may need to fall back on older saves to meet the ramping challenge. The last couple of boss fights are especially fine, calling for a careful blend of cautious swordplay and thoughtful equipment and skill stacking.
Although it’s easy for the inattentive to forget what’s going on in The Witcher 3’s politics and fantasy-heavy plot (despite multiple admirably executed exposition recaps), even the most wandering player is aware of who the Big Bad is, and finally getting to meet these foes in person and cut them down is very satisfying. Any attachment you’ve developed for Geralt and Ciri drives you to put down these relentless enemies once and for all.
But then it all goes a bit mental, with not one but two plot switcheroos breaking in the cutscenes and dialogue leading up to and closing the final mission.
Throughout the whole game, the player has been battling the Wild Hunt. From the opening dream sequence to the final boss, the player knows Eredin and company are trying to hurt Ciri, and they want to stop that.
Having put Eredin down though, we’re suddenly told that actually, it was Avallac’h all along. This switch feels weird, not the least because of some clumsy handling of that whole situation in earlier missions. Throughout the game Geralt is mostly mistrustful of Avallac’h, while Yennefer and Ciri assure him the elf sage is trustworthy. In one of the very last missions before the final boss, Yennefer and Ciri suddenly declare they don’t trust Avallac’h, while Geralt seems reluctant to believe them. It’s all a bit odd and feels like a last minute inclusion to make the sudden painting of Avallac’h as a villain as less predictable and silly than it is.
It doesn’t end there, though: having had at most ten minutes of gameplay time with Avallac’h as the villain, Ciri appears and says no, he’s not, and she’s off to battle the real threat – the White Frost. Who? What?
Regardless of which epilogue mission and ending sequence you view, these last minute twists rob the final missions of their impact and drama. First there’s a “surprise” betrayal from an untrusted ally, which is bad enough, but then there’s the substitution of a new, unknown villain right at the last moment. Your battle against what you thought were the baddies turns out to have been largely meaningless.
This is an unfortunately common trope in RPG’s. Final Fantasy 9 and 10 both did it, as did 8, to a lesser degree. Mass Effect 3 and to a lesser degree the original Mass Effect did it. You spend the whole game (or series) fighting a charismatic bad guy and then you get to the end and they’re not really the bad guy after all; there was another power behind the scenes all along – one you’ve never heard of, and have no reason to care about. All tension dissipates instantly.
Sometimes this is done really well, and feels like a mind blowing pay off to careful seeding throughout the game experience so far. Most of the time, it just feels like a betrayal. Spending a whole game, especially one with the length of an RPG, pursuing a charismatic villain and facing them down at the end may be a little dull (although Final Fantasy 7 begs to differ), but trying to enliven this age old story with last minute twists isn’t an effective answer to the problem. It tends to leave players feeling cheated.
One other significantly disappointing aspect of the overall plot is that for all the talk of consequential choices and 36 endings, there are really only three of them, and only seven decision points that effect what ending you see. That would probably be fine if it were not for the fact that the decision points all rush together in the final two acts, which are pretty short.
Moreover, one of the most important decision points rests on your completion of a chain of side quests. There’s nothing wrong with that on its own, but the quests in question are very much at odds with what we know of Geralt’s character; what we know of the lore of The Witcher; and with what we’ve been told all along is the goal of the game. If you don’t suddenly decide that Geralt will break all his codes about being neutral and assassinate a monarch because a man who hates him asks him to, you can’t unlock one of the three endings.
Bit odd, that. It doesn’t feel satisfying from a narrative standpoint, because you have to diverge from your set goals and character to achieve them, and it’s unpleasant from a game structure standpoint, because it feels like you’ve been tricked into missing what may be the “best” or “true” ending, if you like to make judgments of that sort.
These two problems – the last minute switcheroo and the ending’s dependence on a few late game moments and easily missed sidequests – are particularly disappointing when, elsewhere in the game, there are some really excellent examples of writing, story telling and character. From laugh-out-loud comments from the dry but very funny Geralt, to the touchingly warm and human interactions between Ciri and her adopted father, to the surprisingly nuanced handling of female characters (and a discussion of that, in contrast to some of the more egregious moments of pandering to the teenage boy presumed to live inside of all of us, is something we’ll have to have at some stage), it’s clear CD Projekt RED has some real narrative chops. To have the team drop the ball at the ending is puzzling, and is especially irritating when you’ve sunk what may be hundreds of hours in.
Next: Actually, it’s not all that bad.