The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Written by Sean Colleli on 11/14/2019 for SWI  
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When I was asked to review The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt for Switch, I admit to being pretty intimidated. Not because of the game’s depth and breadth; I thoroughly tromped through The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Skyrim and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 on Switch, and dozens of other hefty RPGs on a variety of other consoles, so it wasn’t The Witcher 3’s size that was daunting. Rather, it was because I was so new to the series. The Witcher 3 is the first game in the Witcher franchise that I’ve actually played. I’ve had the entire trilogy sitting on both my Steam and GOG backlogs for years, staring me down with disapproval and scorn, but I’ve never carved out the time to tackle these masterpieces.

So jumping in at the third game on Switch was a trial by fire. I wasn’t just comparing how the 2015 insta-classic held up on Switch—having no prior experience, I can’t really compare it to how the game looks and plays on other platforms—but I was also entering Geralt’s world at what amounted to the last season of a long-running TV show. All I can really do is convey how the game performs in raw numbers on Nintendo’s console, but I also want to get across how the world of The Witcher came across to a late-comer like me.

In a word, overwhelming. The Witcher 3 does a good job of easing the player into the setting of the Northern Kingdoms, establishing Geralt’s motivations and latest quest. But for me, at least, it was kind of like dropping into The Lord of the Rings halfway through The Two Towers and having no clue what a Hobbit is. As I got acclimated, however, I found the gameplay and the narrative to be both a touch confounding but also intoxicating.

For starters it’s clear that The Witcher franchise began as a PC RPG. Despite three games of refinement and expansion, The Witcher 3 is incredibly dense with mechanics and detail, and the pop-up tutorial text boxes started to grate on my nerves a couple of hours in. The way the map, inventory and various crafting menus are arranged felt a bit disjointed to me, and while they’re perfectly serviceable on the Pro Controller or Joy-Cons, I can tell that ultimately this interface was designed around a keyboard and mouse. What struck me is how comparatively straightforward the combat was.

Two swords, steel for normal enemies, silver for supernatural beasts, and a handful of quick-cooldown spells is what you’re working with here. Swords have a quick attack and a heavy attack, and learning to dodge, block and parry while using your spells to best effect is the core conceit of the combat. Honestly, combat is the weakest element; it always feels a touch floaty, sort of like an MMO. It’s not bad by any stretch, but approaching this like a FromSoftware title or even a Bethesda RPG will leave you wanting more raw combat depth.

The Witcher 3 is not a twitch action game and it took me time to digest this. Geralt is a superpowered human, mutated by spells and honed by endless training, but he’s no superhero; forethought will always be more rewarding than an itchy sword arm. Preparation is key to almost every encounter. This was unusual for me at first, but I quickly came to love this emphasis on slow, deliberate exploration and planned-for combat, and especially how it was tied into the story and setting that author Andrzej Sapkowski created over three decades ago.

As a Witcher, Geralt of Rivia is part of a dying breed; a hated but necessary evil, a caste of arcanely created sterile mutants. What this means in practical terms is Geralt is a troubleshooter of unnatural problems. He’s a specialist monster killer who will rid your village of the nasty thing attacking from the woods, but only if you pay him hard currency up front. He’s basically like those two goofy brothers from Supernatural, except a whole lot better and more professional at what he does, and at least a full degree more mercenary about it. Everyone resents him for this, but it makes him no less necessary. Just how ruthless he is about this is up to the player, and this factors into every aspect of the story and gameplay.

My favorite example of this gameplay/story depth is one of the early side quests. You come across a farmer sobbing in his home. His daughter is wasting away from a sickness, and desperately needs clean water. The nearby river is polluted with corpses from the war, and the only other source is a well at an abandoned, haunted hamlet. You ride out to said hamlet and investigate. Now, if you show up during the day when the ghost is awake you can fighter her, but no matter how many times you strike her down, she just keeps coming back. Geralt needs to crack the binding on his bestiary and research this specific type of ghost, and then pull out his handy dandy notebook and sleuth out just why she’s haunting this well.

First you poke around the dilapidated houses, read the villagers’ diaries and discover what made them abandon their land. It turns out a sadistic warlord attacked the hamlet, brutally murdered this ghost’s husband, and when she mouthed off to him, he turned her into, well, a ghost, by hanging her down the well. You drag her moldering skeleton out, but notice she’s missing an arm. Her diary mentioned a bracelet, a gift from her husband, that she cherished dearly. You head down into the well to retrieve it.

After that unpleasantly moist diversion, you gather the woman’s corpse and bracelet in one place to burn it and free the ghost from the town. This makes her unhappy, and if you want a much easier fight, it pays to craft some health potions and some specter oil to apply to your silver sword, so it has extra bite against the ghost. Once vanquished, the sorrowful spirit moves on to be with her husband in the afterlife, freed from the grief holding her to the village. You return to the farmer and he offers his daughter’s freaking dowry as a reward, but you have the choice to be a stand-up guy and refuse this. If you then revisit the local herbalist from a completely different side quest, she’ll reward you too, because she’s friends with the farmer and appreciates that you give a damn about her community.

Nearly every side quest is like this and The Witcher 3 is packed with them, to the point where they distract from the main story. Incidentally the main quest is compelling on its own—Geralt is tracking his estranged lover in hopes of finding their missing adopted daughter—but it’s been ages since I’ve played a game where the side content is just as well developed as the main story. After choking down a dozen of Ubisoft’s so-called open world games and the mind-melting tedium of their samey side quests, The Witcher 3 is a feast of narrative and gameplay variety.

And it’s not just the attention to detail and quality of the writing and plotting, but how it’s written too. Where so many fantasy worlds shamelessly crib from Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, and mimic their fairly straightforward good vs. evil dynamics, Geralt’s world is painted in endless shades of gray. Skyrim’s radiant quests routinely disappointed me; some peasant would task me with tracking down his missing loved ones, and big surprise, they’d always be dead. The Witcher 3 is not so lacking in imagination. There are no easy answers in this game, something I’m told is strongly reflected in Sapkowski’s novels.

The writing always adds some twist or caveat that makes even the most incidental side quest just that much more poignant. Remember that herbalist? She’s trying to heal a peasant who was wounded by a monster in the woods, but it’s clear this poor woman is on the way out. You can choose to not interfere and allow the herbalist to ease this woman’s passing, or you can apply one of your Witcher-strength health potions, unsure of the results. The peasant pulls through with the help of your high-octane medicine, but it melts her brain in the process, wiping all memory of the lover she was trying to sneak out and meet in those dangerous woods in the first place. Early on these choices don’t seem to be more than story flavor, but as you get closer and closer to the end of the game, it becomes clear that your actions in the world, small and great alike, carry more weight than you can imagine, and have shaped not only Geralt but his reputation as well.

I’ve always been drawn to fantasy worlds that eschew the classic sword and sorcery moral duality for something more complex or weird. This is why I love the Zelda series so much; it takes the King Arthur, Peter Pan trappings of traditional European folklore and applies them to the ethics and myths of Japanese culture in general and Shinto philosophy in particular. The Witcher series does something similar, but with the disturbing, foreign monsters and laws of Polish myth, and a generous helping of Slavic irony, cynicism and darkly resigned wit. The fact that the lesser-of-two-evils decision-making has a tangible impact on the overall plot was immensely satisfying; I haven’t felt this way about a game’s story since Mass Effect 2. This much narrative gravity is an acquired taste, kind of like black licorice, but now I can’t get enough of it.

That’s a good thing because The Witcher 3 is positively massive. The main quest alone will take north of 80 hours to complete, without even touching a fraction of the side quests, and that’s not considering the sizable DLC expansions, all of which are included in the Switch version. Porting the game to Switch must have been no easy task, but the developers at Feral Interactive were up to the challenge. The game is sadly not too impressive in docked mode; the adaptive resolution scales to around 540p most of the time, and the frame rate, while never nausea-inducing, regularly dips below 30fps. If you want The Witcher 3 for the home console experience, I would buy it for PS4 or, better yet, get it on GOG if you have a decent rig.

However, The Witcher 3 really shines in portable mode. With the locked specs of the undocked Switch, the game runs a bit better and the resolution looks much sharper on the Switch’s six-inch, 720p display. Like Skyrim and Breath of the Wild before it, the truly impressive thing about this port is that you can take it anywhere and enjoy such an enormous RPG at relatively fluid performance. It makes me wish that the whole series was on Switch, and while that might be feasible for The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, the original game is still so purpose-built for PC controls and sensibilities, I sadly don’t anticipate a Witcher Switch Collection anytime soon.

While that might be a pipe dream, what we have here and now is an eminently playable, portable version of one of the best RPGs in recent memory. Feral Interactive have faithfully translated CD Projekt Red’s masterpiece to a format you can take anywhere, and in the process have made an enthusiastic new fan out of me. Taken on its own, The Witcher 3 is a master class in gameplay and narrative design that no Switch owner should be without.

The Witcher 3 today is just as much a master class in game and story design as it was four years ago. Feral Interactive did an impressive job porting this gigantic RPG to Switch.

Rating: 9.5 Exquisite

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.

I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Columbus, Ohio with my fiancee and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do.

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