The Witcher 3 follows the story of Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher or monster slayer in search of his adoptive daugter Cirllia. (well it’s not his story but we see the story through his eyes!). Set in a medieval world - after an event called the conjunction of spheres - magic and monsters (werewolves, spectres, vampire and the like.) roam the world. Witchers are magically and genetically enhanced humans that were created intentionally by sorcerers to help fight off these monsters. Cirilla (or Ciri) is a woman with special magical abilities and is prophesied to play a part in the fate of Geralt’s (and others) world(s) which are facing doom from a world ending White Frost.
I purchased the game almost a year ago in December 2017 after getting strong recommendations from my friends. I’ll admit that I was a little intimidated at first. It was the third game in the series and it appeared as though I had a lot of catching up to do. I needn’t have worried too much though. One of the main features of the game are the huge number of random books lying around the world. You pick them up and they often contain bits and pieces of the story of the Witcher universe. However, one thing that was definitely intimidating was the combat mechanics. There were swords (two of them!), spells (signs), potions, decoctions, oils, bombs and crossbows all bound to correspondingly wide array of keys. Although the combat mechanics tutorial at the start of the game explained most things, it’s a lot to remember. I took a short break from playing the game for a few months in between and when I came back, I’d forgotten all the keybindings and had to play through the initial combat mechanics tutorial again to get used to things. Funnily enough although I preferred playing video games with a keyboard and mouse for the increased maneuverability, I think using a controller might be slightly easier for the Witcher 3 since you don’t have to keep track of random alphabets on the keyboard.
The high level of immersion is what I enjoyed the most about the game. As a person that likes a bit of realism in games, I like it when the game mechanics do not break immersion. This is something I felt while playing To the Moon (brilliant game!). A lot of the progress in the game was made through solving what felt like very artificial puzzles (tile flipping jigsaws?). So it felt like alternating between experiencing the story and playing minigames. The Witcher has a ton of game mechanics but they’re all integrated into the story in a very natural way. Progress in the game is made through talking, interacting with objects and fighting. The fighting is quite realistic too. If I’m fighting a group of people they all come at me at once and I have dodge and roll between them to make sure that I don’t get hit from behind while fighting one person. Additionally, there’s no Pokemon like battle animation that signals the start of a battle. One second you’re walking along, minding your own stuff and the next second a drowner’s taking a swipe at you.
The incredibly open world nature of the game is the second factor that adds to the realism and immersiveness. You can go almost anywhere on the absolutely huge map. There are practically no invisible walls that you can run into and obstacles that cannot be jumped over are at a realistic height most of the time. If you step off a cliff, you fall and if the fall is too great, you lose health and possibly die. The only invisible walls I’ve ever encountered are when you wander off to the edge of the map.
The third factor that adds to the immersiveness of the game is the map itself. The world of Witcher 3 is incredibly detailed. The cities like Oxenfurt and Novigrad feel like real full scale big cities. Although they are scaled down versions of the cities mentioned in the books, they’re still the biggest I’ve encountered in a video game. It was not like Pokemon where a “city” can be 4 buildings of which one is a Pokemon Center and another a Pokemart. I loved roaming around Novigrad (despite the nutjobs that are trying to burn witches alive). My favorite part of the city is probably the market square. I like how I can hear the chaotic sounds of a marketplace start up as you walk towards it. Outside the cities there are forests, snowy mountains, small villages, beaches and swamps all beatifully built and rendered in a very non-repetitive and organic way. The scenery never felt boring. It felt like nearly everything was placed and adjusted by hand. I was amazed in particular by the fantastical environments I encountered while traveling through the many parallel universes. The use of parallel universes in the game itself was quite a novel idea! I never thought that a game set in the medieval era would involve parallel universes and time travel. I saw worlds that were just deserts, worlds covered in frost, worlds with toxic gases and colorful plants. Even the modern day world (ours!) and possibly the world of Cyberpunk 2077 (another upcoming game by them) was mentioned in passing.
Despite logging over 100 hours in the game over the past year, I have yet to finish all the quests in the game. I’ve completed the main story of the game but I’ve still got dozens of Witcher contracts and a few secondary quests left to finish off. On top of all that I have yet to start on the Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine expansions of the game - which I hear are basically like two new games; adding 10 and 20 hours of playtime respectively. Looking at the scale of the game, I was quite surprised to learn that the game only took 3.5 years and 81 million USD to make (I was expecting a lot more!). The Witcher 3 is an RPG. So as expected the choices you make during quests play a part in the outcome of the game. Some decisions are clearly good/bad but in some quests all the choices are bad but you still have to choose.
My only big criticism of the game is related to the combat difficulty near the start of the game. I’m not a gamer that plays games in hard mode. I play video games mainly to experience the story. So I tend to choose the lowest difficulty setting the game has. But even at the lowest difficulty, I had some trouble staying alive during some of the quests at the start of the game. I also had trouble with getting enough gold to buy things as I was spending most of my money keeping my equipment repaired (weapons and armor degrade as you use them). The problem was not too bad though and vanished as soon as I got out of White Orchard; character leveling happened much faster and I started getting gold quite a bit faster.
I really enjoy playing story rich games like the Witcher 3. I feel like that is a very natural next step in the very human tradition of storytelling. We had spoken stories, then written, then acted out (movies). Interactive stories where the person experiences the story through his own actions is a very natural next step. In this regard, The Witcher stands out as the best game I’ve ever played. It manages to immerse me in the universe of Witcher 3 and feel like I’m really there. Every time I played the game, for a brief period of time I really was Geralt of Rivia. I felt what he felt, I did what he did. And in the end I felt like it had just as much (if not more) emotional impact as watching the story unfold in a movie or a book with the added advantage of being able to drive the story on my own rather than passively watch a film.