A few years back – more than few actually, now that I really get to thinking about it – a buddy of mine recommended to me a video game that he deeply enjoyed. The game was called The Witcher and he sung the praises of how great of an RPG the game was, particularly in the story department. I filed it away onto my “look into eventually” list and the time came where the game was on sale for an absolute steal on Steam – I purchased the enhanced edition of the game for a whopping $2. Once it was purchased and downloaded I jumped into this roleplaying game which my friend had so vigorously recommended and immediately encountered a host of problems.
For context it’s important to understand that during this time I was attending a private Christian college, and I came from a Christian fundamentalist (specifically southern baptist) upbringing. To say that The Witcher was shocking to me would be an understatement. I honestly couldn’t comprehend why my friend had recommended the game to me. There was foul language! Geralt had sex with people! He wasn’t in a committed relationship with the woman who appeared to be his partner at the beginning of the game! (also there was gore or whatever.) The game made me uncomfortable both because it challenged my beliefs about what was appropriate in entertainment media but also because despite that, I was enjoying the game. Eventually some twisted up combination of frustration and guilt led me to drop The Witcher.
Fast forward to present day, when a Witcher Netflix show has the whole internet enthralled with a little ditty called “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher.” I’m seeing people do covers, people playing the song on loop for hours, multiple memes referencing the song, streamers changing their Twitter handles – obviously I had to see what this song was all about. So I start watching the Witcher just to hear Jaskier throw together a couple of verses about Geralt’s exploits and end up watching the entire show. Religiously and philosophically I am not the same man who grimaced his way through the first Witcher, and I was able to appreciate the very grey setting known simply as the Continent. Geralt is a complex guy who makes good and bad choices. Yennifer too falls into that category. Seeing the natural consequences that arose from those choices was a fun ride, and it helped to pique my interest in a game that many bloggers I know deeply enjoyed – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
If like me your history with the Witcher is limited almost exclusively to the show, you’ll be glad to know that the third game in the series focuses on many familiar characters. A mighty empire called Nilfgaard invades the northern kingdoms of the continent. Geralt and Yennifer are caught in the middle of the conflict as their homeland is invaded, yet that very invader offers them a job: to locate a young Witcher named Ciri who Geralt raised during her childhood years. While these characters certainly have differences from how they are portrayed in the show, the show gave me enough of a background to be familiar with the characters on a first-name basis and even to recognize various aspects of the game world. When someone offhandedly mentions King Foltest of Temeria, I’m not staring at the screen in confusion.
Now while the story of the game may not be too confusing to someone who has only watched the show, the gameplay is another thing entirely. Witcher 3 gives you a standard fantasy RPG tutorial by having you flash back to Ciri’s training underneath Geralt and the witcher mentor Vessimir. What’s not standard is that in the span of a couple minutes, the game quickly introduces you to concepts that had time to build over the course of the preceding games. Strong attacks, fast attacks, parries, step dodges, rolling dodges, counterattacks, the yrden sign, the quen sign, how to use bombs – the game teaches you every skill you would’ve learned more slowly by playing through previous titles all at one time, and it’s a lot of information to handle.
The tutorials don’t stop when the prologue is over, either. You may have mastered (?) combat but you still have to learn how to do things like ride a horse, open your map, track quests, use the glossary, manage your inventory, level up, have conversations with NPCs, investigate with your witcher senses, and play a strategy card game more detailed than some mobile titles that don’t have an 80-100 hour western RPG attached to them. So much of the early game is spent teaching you to do stuff that it feels like you don’t get a single moment to do what you want to do. Just when you think you are free, you navigate to a part of the menu you haven’t visited before and suddenly you’re sitting through a two minute instructional reading about how combining alchemy ingredients works. What’s particularly frustrating is that some of these tutorials teach by having you go through the motions mechanically, so you may end up having to do something completely different than what you navigated to the screen for in the first place. I understand that a mechanically rich game like this needs to take opportunities to teach the players how to use all the tools available to them, but pacing out those teaching opportunities more effectively would have gone a long way.
A time will come, though, when you finally have seen it all. You’ll have navigated to every menu screen and engaged every mechanic, and the world will be your oyster. When the world opens up and you’re free to do what you want within it, that’s when you start to see what makes The Witcher work. At the time of writing this first impressions article I have finished the first region of the game, an area called White Orchard that focused around one central village surrounded by woods and a river that leads to swampland. The area has just enough content to introduce you to the core concepts of the game. As a witcher, Geralt’s MO is to blow into town and then check for notices of people asking for a monster to be killed or other similarly dangerous quests. Fulfilling those requests will require Geralt to investigate the kind of monster causing issues for the questgiver and then to make preparations to deal with that monster, gathering herbs and materials to blend potions or forge weapons that give him the greatest advantage.
When I played, I first focused on picking up as many quests in town as I could find and then working my way through them one at a time. The early quests are pretty simple and focus on showing off things you can do with your witcher sense, like following tracks or identifying difficult-to-find details in the environment. Once those were finished, I set about traveling the region to investigate all of the unknown points of interest on the map. These were often bandit camps or monster nests but occasionally yielded something more interesting like a place of power, a location which gives you an ability point for improving Geralt’s various skills. Some of these hidden locations unlock new quests, giving you more opportunities for experience points and rare gear.
In my view, the monster contracts are the area where The Witcher excels the most. These missions seem to be rarer – only two quests I did in White Orchard could really be said to be proper contracts – but these are the quests most strongly connected to the storytelling of the game. The Witcher is about the world of the game just as much as it is about the main characters or the overarching plot, and the townspeople in each region have their own stories and entanglements that manifest in ugly ways. No one puts it better than Geralt himself – whenever anyone points out that he carries a steel sword for humans and a silver sword for monsters, he always corrects them bluntly: “they’re both for monsters.” Human cruelty is explored deeply through the quests in this game and nothing on the Continent is a simple matter of black and white, good and evil. People make choices, and regardless of the motivation behind those choices there is an impact to be felt that may have far-reaching consequences for the people around them.
These are the story ways in which monster contracts stand out, but mechanically these quests are special because they require you to engage all of the different systems in the game. Monsters related to contracts have unique abilities and frustrating resistances that prevent you from just walking up to them and hammering away with one of your blades. You need to understand the origins or motivations of the monster in order to understand how to defeat it. If you’ve watched a monster of the week show like Supernatural you’ll be familiar with the structure here. Learning about a monster’s background will often reveal a specific weakness that is more complicated that simply “hit it with silver instead of steel.” You’ll have to bust out your potions and signs in order to come out victorious in a monster contract.
Geralt has five different magical signs he can bring to bear in combat: aard (for shoving), igni (for burning), quen (for blocking), yrden (for trapping), and a fifth one that I can’t remember the name of (for brainwashing). Different monsters are vulnerable to different signs, but chances are you’ll find the ones you prefer to utilize during combat. I personally like quen, which produces a shield that negates the damage from one attack. It gives me room to make a mistake as I learn the mechanics and the opening created by a foe smashing against you only for nothing to happen is a great opportunity to get some damage in. Geralt can also use ingredients harvested from monsters, gathered from the environment, or purchased at shops in order to brew potions that give beneficial effects like enhanced damage or improved healing. When you learn what sorts of potions a foe is weak to, you can pin that potion so that anytime you’re looking for ingredients you’ll be notified if they are available at your current shopping destination. In this way, contracts aren’t just encounters you rush in to – you investigate, you prepare, and then you engage on your terms.
I’ve enjoyed what I have played of The Witcher 3 so far, and I’m excited to get to a new region and to take on new contracts. I’m also excited for the stories I’ll learn about the people in the community I’m investigating, about the darkness that created the monsters there, and how the choices that I will make as the player will impact the game world. Once I pushed through the game’s seemingly endless tutorials and finally got to play, it didn’t take long for me to get hooked.