CD Projekt Red knows how to write a character-based story. For what is essentially a visual novel broken up by relatively brief card game battles, Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales spins a seriously impressive yarn, and it's this gripping narrative that keeps you glued to your controller.
Thronebreaker tells the story of Queen Meve, a stern and courageous warrior-monarch who returns to her homeland to find that things have gone a bit pear-shaped in her absence. The game's methodical opening hours essentially act as a tutorial and because of this the plot starts out slow, but stick with it and you'll be handsomely rewarded with intrigue, twists, fantastic characters, and brutally difficult moral decisions.
Indeed, player choice is a driving force behind the narrative, and as royalty, your choices often carry a significant amount of weight. A lot of the time, these decisions won't even have an immediate impact -- you'll only see your ripples become waves much further down the line, and it's these moments that make the story feel so rich and expansive, despite the fact that much of it is told through the simplistic combination of text and (exquisitely drawn) portraits.
As hinted, though, it's the title's many characters that seal the deal. CD Projekt Red has an undeniable knack for writing grounded, believable personalities, be they uneducated farmers, sneering nobles, or flawed protagonists. The writing in Thronebreaker is of a quality that puts most 'AAA' games to shame. It's packed with no-nonsense wit and coated with a fine layer of decidedly dark humour, resulting in dialogue where almost every line has a purpose, textured and nuanced. It's all helped along by some top notch British voice acting, too.
So the story has you hooked, but what about the gameplay? Thronebreaker is made up of three main parts: events that are told through text and dialogue, exploration that takes place on a neatly designed overworld map, and everything to do with Gwent. When taken as a whole, these three elements combine to form a surprisingly cohesive role-playing title, but separate the game's card-based battles and puzzles from the narrative that strings them all together, and they do feel a little stretched.
Gwent, for the uninitiated, is a card-based game that started out as a side activity in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. It's since evolved into its own free-to-play release in the form of Gwent: The Witcher Card Game, and in Thronebreaker, Gwent is used to fill the gameplay gaps. It's worth noting that if you've only sampled Gwent in what was essentially its larval stage back in The Witcher 3, then you've got some catching up to do. It's changed rather dramatically over the last couple of years, with CD Projekt Red adding a huge amount of additional depth.
Needless to say, there's a bit of a learning curve here. Thronebreaker tries its best to gradually work you into the rules of the game, but unless you've been keeping up with Gwent: The Witcher Card Game, you're probably going to take one look at the battle screen and wonder whether you have the patience to see it through.
Now don't get us wrong, Gwent is a fine card-based game, and somehow, it actually works as a versatile battle system here, but it's always going to be divisive -- it's either your cup of tea or it isn't. And unfortunately for those who have never got on well with Gwent, there's no real way to avoid it in Thronebreaker. The easiest difficulty option does allow you to skip Gwent battles, but only after being beaten, which is bound to take the edge off the rest of the experience.
Again, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with Gwent. Here, it's used as a means to portray actual combat and various other scenarios. Meve and her entourage will stumble across a nest of monsters, for example, but instead of throwing you into any kind of traditional combat, it places you on a Gwent board where you use your own customisable deck to overcome the threat. Granted, it all sounds quite bizarre on paper, but honestly, it's not nearly as jarring as you might think, and we suppose that's to the credit of CD Projekt Red.
Strategic thinking is required as you place your cards -- usually soldiers or siege weapons -- on the board. You and your opponent take turns in adding cards to your side of the battlefield, with the main goal being to rack up the highest power total -- a sum of your cards' individual strength values. Things quickly get more complex when you're forced to take into account special card effects, leader buffs, and numerous other wrinkles, but if you can wrap your head around the fundamentals and work from there, it's predictably addictive.
Likewise, discovering, crafting, and adding new cards to your deck can become a bit of an obsession, particularly when Gwent really opens up later on in the game. Having said that, we did make it through much of Thronebreaker with roughly the same base deck that we started out with, so you don't have to sit down and tinker with the finer details if you're primarily here for the fantastic story -- although it may certainly help at points.
All in all, Gwent gets the job done surprisingly well, but even with the potential depth that's on offer, we're not totally convinced that it's good enough to carry the experience. Some battles do end up feeling samey as you seek to employ familiar tactics, and there are a few scenarios that require a small, but nevertheless unwelcome amount of trial and error. The bottom line is that if Gwent wasn't surrounded by such a compelling narrative then it'd be much easier to be critical of its flaws, but as it stands, it's a more than serviceable system, provided that you can find your footing within it.
Before we hop on over to the conclusion, we have to at least mention Thronebreaker's technical performance on PlayStation 4. Prior to publishing this review, we had heard horror stories about the game crashing on Sony's system, and although the title had been far from unplayable in our own experience, we did run into a fair few crashes ourselves, inconsistently dotted throughout the campaign. Obviously this wasn't good enough, but CD Projekt Red has since issued a patch that reportedly fixes the issue. Talk about cutting it close.
Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales features some of the sharpest writing on PS4, and it's all embedded within a superb story stuffed with brilliant characters. Meanwhile, Gwent makes up most of the gameplay, and although the card-based system does have flaws, it's easy enough to look past them when the surrounding journey is so masterfully told. Ultimately, Thronebreaker is an easy recommendation for Witcher enthusiasts and fans of strategic RPGs -- a surprisingly robust and rich tale that shouldn't be overlooked.