Republished on Tuesday, 30th August, 2016: To coincide with the release of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - Game of the Year Edition, we're bringing this rather large review back from the Push Square archives. We've also included links to our reviews of the game's two expansions - which are included in the Game of the Year Edition - below. The original text follows after.
Originally published on Tuesday, 19th May 2015: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt draws you in with its attractive art direction, its array of brilliant colours, and its staggeringly detailed world. Just when you think that you can walk away, it then keeps you glued to the screen with its gripping storytelling, addictive role-playing game mechanics, and intense combat. As far as open world RPGs go, Geralt's first PlayStation adventure is an absolute triumph, and a labour of love from developer CD Projekt Red.
The Polish studio was on the brink of something special with its last entry in the franchise, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. A critical darling, the previous game was held in high regard because of its engaging narrative and player choice-driven scenarios. However, its gameplay was rough in that combat was clunky, and environments were somewhat limiting. With that in mind, the developer has stepped into the already swamped open world market with Wild Hunt – and it's probably one of the best decisions that the firm could have made.
The title's world is immense. Split into several separate regions that are all huge to begin with, the land's as varied as it is disturbing. Make no mistake – this is a fantasy game, but it's dark fantasy with a capital D. The world seems to be perpetually bathed in war, and when peasants aren't being murdered and raped by invading armies, they're being eaten alive by unspeakable horrors. The land's atmosphere is consistently heavy and threatening. Danger appears to lurk around every corner – but there are lighter moments, and the brutality that's found out in the wilderness makes you appreciate them all the more. Serene little villages yet to be touched by the wars remain idyllic and cosy, while the bustling streets of one of the title's big cities actually instil a sense of safety – even if there happens to be a group of thugs waiting ahead in a dark alleyway, preparing to beat Geralt senseless.
A gorgeous day and night cycle surrounds the already brilliantly crafted world, and brings it to life. It's become a PS4 cliché to share screenshots of a game's sprawling open world from on top of a hill or mountain – but that still won't stop you from doing it here. Sunsets are glorious – probably the best that we've seen since Red Dead Redemption – and a whole host of dynamic weather effects make everything that much more impressive. Speaking of Rockstar's Wild West romp, the similarities don't end there, as you'll be making use of a trusty steed here, too. Roach, Geralt's horse, is your constant companion, and you'll be thankful for her when you've got to travel halfway across the colossal map to turn in a bounty.
Even when you're riding at breakneck speeds, it's hard not to notice just how much detail has been hammered into the release. We don't even want to think of how much time it took to hand place every shrub, tree, and rocky pathway, but the often staggering attention detail is the icing on the cake – a cake that already looks every bit as good as it tastes. The Witcher 3 has suffered a hefty graphical downgrade since its initial trailers, that much is certain – but what's on offer is still more than impressive enough. The best part, though, is the wind. If the title can lay claim to anything, it's that it has the best wind effects that we've ever seen in a game. From slight breezes to full-on gales, greenery sways appropriately. Standing in the middle of a forest while the wind's howling, you can see trees bending, hear branches snapping, and listen to leaves clapping together. Again, the atmosphere is often breathtaking.
The landscape itself doesn't offer the same romanticised grandeur of something like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Instead of putting an emphasis on gigantic mountains and flamboyant expanses of land that look like they belong in an art gallery, Wild Hunt's environments are far more subtle, and appear more natural as a result. From decrepit swamps to vast farming fields, the world feels practical, but that arguably makes it all the more intriguing. You can relate to imperfect stony outcrops and battered wooden bridges in a way that makes their normality seem interesting, and then the fantastical element kicks in when you have to fight a grotesque monster near them.
Which brings us neatly to the intense combat. Peasants and clueless guardsmen might fear the creatures that supposedly come from the mountains and take away their children, but Geralt of Rivia certainly doesn't. Mutated by ritualistic inductions and forged with magical powers, Witchers employ an array of skills to take down their prey. Geralt's an expert swordsman, a magic wielding warrior, and a wise alchemist, all rolled into one. On the harder difficulties, you'll need to make use of all of Geralt's tools to get the better of the title's more troubling enemies, and this means preparing yourself for battle as well as fighting tooth and nail during.
At the core of combat is swordplay. Geralt makes use of two blades, but only wields one at a time. One is steel, which is meant for cutting down men and aggressive wildlife, while the other is silver, and is used in the more mythical encounters. The protagonist will automatically draw the most suitable of the two at the beginning of a battle, so you won't have to worry about switching, but both weapons are wielded in the exact same way. Making use of parries, blocks, counter attacks, light strikes, and heavy blows, swordplay is fast and visceral whether you're holding off man or beast – but you can't just jog into combat, mash a few buttons, and expect to come out of it in one piece. The aforementioned evasive and offensive techniques in Geralt's arsenal may sound complex, but the controls during combat are spot on. Each button has a use – with X acting as a leaping dodge roll, circle being a sort of side-hop, and triangle and square operating heavy and light attacks, respectively.
However, while it's not quite Bloodborne, you can and likely will be punished for making mistakes. Go in for a quick hit when the enemy's winding up a powerful strike and you'll realise that you've timed it all wrong when a quarter of your health suddenly disappears. Going on the offensive is all well and good, as most blows will stagger your opponents or send them reeling, but it's all about finding the right moment to strike. Unsurprisingly, this comes with practice as you memorise an enemy type's attack patterns and consult your always handy bestiary to double check your foe's weaknesses. As such, as your adventure progresses, you'll begin to realise that a rewarding learning curve is in effect. You'll soon be carving up creatures that once gave you trouble with ease, purely because you now know how to react to their horrid ways.
But, as hinted, you can be the best swordsman in the land and still come across foes who refuse to die from a series of slashes and stabs, and this is where Geralt's secondary abilities come into play. If you know what sort of monsters you're going to be tackling, it may be in your best interest to make use of the alchemy system, which allows you to brew potions, oils, and tinctures through a relatively simple crafting menu. You can make use of it at any time outside of combat, and in a world that's packed with raw ingredients like flowers, fruit, and monster guts, you'll probably never be left wanting for components. You come across new recipes in treasure chests or purchase them from merchants, and each little bottle of goodness has its own use. Some potions may heighten your health regeneration, while another may increase the intensity of your magical powers. Meanwhile, specialised oils allow you to do more damage to specific opponents, giving you an advantage in fights that may have otherwise proven much more difficult.
Many enemies are also weak to different types of magic – or signs, in Geralt's case. Not quite full-blown sorcery, signs are quick, flexible spells that are incredibly important during combat. Right from the off, you're given control over Geralt's five varied signs, which include the ability to roast your foes with a blast of fire, protect yourself with a temporary shield that absorbs damage, or control your opponent's mind. Each has its uses, but you'll no doubt end up developing your favourites, or those that you find yourself using most often. Most beasts, for example, are susceptible to fire, as their fur or hair will prove to be flammable. Meanwhile, if you like to play more as a straightforward swordsman, you'll probably enjoy using quen, the sign that envelops Geralt in a magical shield so that you can afford to take a few more hits as you keep your aggressors at close range.
There are no magic points here; instead, Geralt has just one stamina bar, which refills quickly when you're not doing anything too strenuous. Casting a sign depletes it, and rolling around slows its regeneration momentarily, while your currently equipped outfit determines the effectiveness of said regeneration. Heavy suits of armour slow it down, medium equipment keeps its speed neutral, and light gear makes it regenerate faster. Again, it all comes down to your individual playstyle, since it goes without saying that weighty armour will better protect you from incoming attacks.
All of these factors bind together to create a rock solid combat system that not only rewards caution, but encourages you to take maximum advantage of your opponent's weaknesses. Getting into a brawl, whether it's against lowly bandits or hulking fiends, is always gripping, and since enemies don't scale to your level as they would in various other open world RPGs, you may find yourself stumbling across foes that appear to be currently insurmountable. While this does mean that you'll find yourself revisiting older areas in order to best the foes that proved too powerful the first time around, it can still be exhilarating to take on a challenge at a lower level, and eventually come out on top through patience and skill alone. These self-made situations are easily some of the most memorable points of your adventure, and finally bringing down a beast that's supposed to be far beyond your capabilities is glorious to say the least.
When it comes to determining how powerful any opponent is, you'll mainly be looking at their level, which is displayed next to their health bar and name when you get close enough to them. If you've been busy equipping the best loot that you can find and pumping skill points into abilities that benefit your playstyle, chances are that you'll be able to hold your own against those that are slightly above your own level. However, if their on-screen information is adorned with a red skull, then you're likely in for a long and gruelling battle. That is, unless a single blow doesn't kill you outright.
Moving on to Geralt's progression, levelling up the protagonist is handled perfectly. Completing quests and killing monsters nets you experience points, and with enough, you'll level up. With each level gained, you'll acquire a skill point, which can be used to unlock or upgrade individual techniques, which range from general combat abilities, to improved signs and more effective alchemy. That said, you're given a limited amount of skill points since there's a level cap, and as such, you'll want to try and specialise in certain areas. For example, if you find yourself adept at hacking things to pieces with your blade, it'd make sense to focus on sword related skills – but you may also want to supplement your close quarters prowess with an upgraded telekinetic blast that knocks foes down, leaving you free to move in for a finishing blow. The genius here is that because combat can be so unforgiving on everything but the easiest difficulty, every spent skill point results in a noticeable improvement in battle. In turn, the whole system feels very, very rewarding.
And so we've got a fantastic world that plays host to brilliant battles, but that's not all that The Witcher 3 gets absolutely right. Putting most other open world RPGs, and, indeed, most other open world games in general to shame, is the writing, the storytelling, and the dialogue. Geralt's journey revolves around our grizzled Witcher's search for Ciri – a young woman who's essentially his surrogate daughter. The tale begins with a prologue that gives context to the plot while also acting as a tutorial, and then you're cast into the open world to chase leads and trade favours to find out what you need to know. The story itself isn't particularly special – there's evil afoot, and of course, political intrigue only adds fuel to the fire – but it's told especially well through a cast of great characters and plenty of superb dialogue.
Many of the involved characters return from previous titles in the series, but new players are never left in the dark as to who they are and what they're doing, and that's to the credit of the writing. The dialogue is natural and fluid, with conversations flowing from one point to the next. You'll also have plenty of opportunities to control that flow, too, through thoughtful dialogue options which give rise to moral choices. Geralt himself isn't quite a clean slate: he's a professional monster hunter through and though, and this is reflected in his mannerisms and rough but reasonable demeanour, although you can colour his approach to suit your tastes. While very few of the choices that you're presented are clear-cut good or bad, you can still choose whether to be an emotionless brute or a relatively caring individual, at least to some degree. Geralt isn't a custom built character, but you do feel like you're planted firmly in his shoes.
And this is really where Wild Hunt sets itself apart from the competition. Each conversation, even when you're just chatting to common villagers or merchants, is carried out through a cutscene, complete with engaging camera angles and great facial expressions. The level of effort that's clearly gone into each passing moment, no matter how trivial, is inspiring, and in that sense, The Witcher 3 sets a new bar for storytelling in the genre.
If that doesn't sound impressive, then we'll swiftly move onto the aforementioned moral choices. Many games have boasted about their tough decisions and meaningful consequences in the past, but none have measured up to Wild Hunt's implementation of player choice. In both main storyline quests and less important side tasks, you're often presented with two or three dialogue options which determine the fate of those involved. For instance, when you're accosted by rowdy thugs in a local tavern, you may decide to calm the aggressive atmosphere by buying them all a drink, but you might soon regret that when you overhear them talking and joking about the time that they abused a local farmer's under-age daughter. Suddenly, things aren't quite as black and white any more – your moral stance completely changes in the blink of an eye, and before you know it, you're taking justice into your own hands and covering the inn in human entrails.
We've lost count of the amount times where we've almost immediately changed our stance on a matter because of how the situation's unfolded, and that's the real brilliance of how the game tells each individual story. However, it's worth mentioning, if you haven't realised already, that The Witcher 3 tackles some very mature themes. This certainly isn't the sort of game that you'll want to play in front of children, and it's perhaps also not for those who are easily offended. Although having said that, the release handles many of these controversial themes well and with respect. Wild Hunt rarely backs away from making you, as a player, feel uncomfortable, but in turn, that serves to make you even more invested in what's happening on-screen. As such, it becomes increasingly hard not to get caught up in the emotion and the intrigue of Geralt's numerous escapades.
That's not to say that you can't afford yourself some downtime, though. Much of the title's more light-hearted content is revealed through its optional asides, namely a card game called gwent, and activities such as horse racing and bare knuckle brawling. Gwent is an accessible minigame that's tricky to master, and throughout your time with the release, you'll come across or win increasingly powerful cards to fill your deck with. It's essentially a numbers game, where personalities from The Witcher universe are depicted on the cards, boasting power levels and special abilities. It's not a massively in-depth time sink, but it is a very entertaining and addictive change of pace once you really get the hang of its intricacies.
At this point, you're probably wondering where The Witcher 3 goes wrong, but in truth, it's extremely difficult to pick out any real flaws. Yes, there are strange little bugs here and there, like non-playable characters floating in mid-air and monsters getting caught on scenery, but these occurrences are hardly anything to shout about. Indeed, the one and only thing that we can reasonably pick at is the game's technical performance. Sitting at around 30 frames-per-second, the release maintains a solid frame rate for the majority of the time, but it does have a bad habit of dipping now and then. While our enjoyment of the title was never impacted by such happenings, it's still a little disappointing that the game sometimes falls just short of its target. By and large, though, it's something that most will be willing to look past, given not only how vast the world is, but because there are so very few loading screens to contend with. In some ways, the title's an impressive technical feat, and a lot of the time, it bears the hallmarks of what we'd expect from a truly 'next-gen' release, from the dynamic weather all the way down to the immense amount of detail that permeates the entire world.
Finally, the music and sound design is more than deserving of a mention. Audio across the board is of a very high standard, with great voice acting, fantastic tunes, and an unprecedented amount of background noise adding to an already superbly atmospheric creation. We were happy to see that almost every regional British accent is on show here, while the soundtrack absolutely nails the vibe of the game in general. Battle themes are impactful and rousing, and subtle jingles complement ebbing instrumental harmonies that always seem to kick in at just the right time.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt sets a new standard for open world RPGs. Its shockingly cohesive world is as beautiful as it is demanding, and it's packed full of mature content that throws you from one emotional response to the next. Its storytelling is superb, its combat is grippingly refined, and its often unforgiving nature only lends itself to a brilliantly rewarding experience. In an industry that's flooded with so many by-the-book open world titles, Wild Hunt stands out as a true labour of love from a developer that's uncompromisingly passionate about its creative freedom. Geralt's incredible adventure is nothing short of a masterpiece.