The Witcher series by Andrjez Sapkowski is one of the seminal works of grimdark literature in Europe. The video game adaptations of the series have since gone on to popularize the series globally. The premise of both the books and the games is a mutated monster-hunter named Geralt of Rivia exists in a low fantasy world of extra-dimensional creatures menacing an un-idealized medieval world. The monarchs are cruel and selfish, the peasantry superstitious and racist; nonhumans are brutally discriminated against but respond with terrorism against civilians; and our hero is never more than a few coins ahead of bankruptcy.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a direct sequel to The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings, and culminates a trilogy which purports to wrap up not only Geralt’s story from the video games but his lingering threads from the novel series. Although not all of Sapkowski’s works have been translated into English at the time of this article’s writing, I strongly recommend readers check out the ones that have. Not only are they excellent grimdark fiction but they also serve as a good introduction to the nuanced relationships in the game. Newcomers to the game series won’t be completely lost, however, as the game generally gives you a decent enough introduction to all of the characters.
The gameplay starts as Geralt of Rivia has received a mysterious letter from his former lover, Yennefer of Vengerburg, a sorceress who has been missing for years. Geralt, travelling with his old friend Vesemir, sets out to reunite with her. Their journey is complicated by the brutal and authoritarian Nilfgaard Empire, who have invaded the kingdoms of the North.
Geralt, unlike virtually every other vanilla fantasy hero in fiction, knows the “Empire” isn’t necessarily worse than the local tyrants, and the majority of people who will suffer during the war are those caught between the two sides. The issue of Yennefer is resolved fairly early but only leads to a wider adventure with the discovery that Geralt’s long-lost adopted daughter, Ciri of Cintra, is still alive and in danger of being killed by the terrifying otherworldly Wild Hunt.
If this sounds complex, well, it is.
The developers at CD Projekt Red have done a magnificent job at realizing the world from Sapkowski’s novels and adding their own spin to things. This is quite possibly the most vividly realized fantasy world in gaming history, rivalled only by Dragon Age’s Thedas and the Elder Scrolls universe.
The world is also a great deal more “realistic” than any of these others: full of sex, lies, human weakness, betrayal, and sadness. It is an RPG, so the player can select Geralt’s reactions to almost every situation, but the game frames it so anything is potentially “in-character” for Geralt. There’s no “Good”, “Evil”, or “Indifferent” choices. Instead, they’re more like “Lesser Evil”, “Self-Interested”, and “Not my problem.”
One of the early side-quests in the game illustrates the kind of grey morality that pervades The Witcher. When a local blacksmith asks Geralt to investigate who burned down his forge. Geralt swiftly finds out that it was a nearby teenager who, while drunk, did so because the blacksmith is being forced to shoe horses for the invading Nilfgaard. The penalty for the young man’s “resistance” would be hanging, but he also thinks the largely-innocent blacksmith should die for his “collaboration.” There’s no magical third option that leaves everyone happy and alive.
My favorite plotline in the game is an extended storyline in the Second Act that deals with a local nobleman who has chosen to fully collaborate with the Nilfgaardian invasion and whose men are, by and large, complete scum. The nobleman, obviously inspired by Mark Addy’s portrayal of Robert Baratheon in the Game of Thrones TV series, is an alcoholic spouse-abuser, who also suffers severe mental scars from the horrors he witnessed in the king’s army as well as remorse for his actions while drunk. He’s one of the most nuanced, pathetic, and affecting characters in gaming.
This is when the game is at its best.
Sometimes the game isn’t so well developed: as the final third is rushed, lacking in side-quests, and contains rather generic, one-dimensional villains who lack the complexity of the ambiguous, three-dimensional antagonists Geralt faces in the first two-thirds of the game. There’s nothing, for example, quite as interesting in the main plot as in one of the later side-quests where you must decide whether to let three friends die in order to guarantee the North a victory against Nilfgaard.
But how does it play?
The combat is, generally, fast and fun. Geralt fights with a steel sword for humans and a silver sword for monsters, which he switches between as the circumstances dictate. He can also use a combination of minor magic spells, bombs, and potions to supplement his battle against a wide variety of creatures. The gore is visceral: Geralt possesses far greater strength than a normal man and is thus able to decapitate or maim his opponents with ease.
Travel is something of a pain in the ass as the wide-open sandbox world requires extensive travelling on horseback or foot to get anywhere of interest. While it’s the largest open world in the history of gaming, I’d much rather they reduce the size of the map so I could get everywhere without minutes of event-less travel.
The inventory system could use some tweaking: Geralt accumulates large amounts of junk like books, which, really, just clutter up the things he could be focusing on. I’ve heard this is going to be fixed in patches, but it was troublesome during my playthrough. You can spec Geralt to specialize in swordsmanship, sorcery, potions, or magic, each giving different options for completing the game.
One area where The Witcher both shines and falls flat is the handling of its romances. In previous games, Geralt was able to have nearly unlimited amounts of casual sex with virtually every female character in the game. This time, there are only a couple of romance options available (as well as prostitutes). These are far more meaningful and interesting to me than previous versions, although some gamers may miss the option to play Geralt as a kind of chivalric James Bond. There is nudity in the game, but it is tastefully animated and avoids showing genitalia (as if that would scar the 18+ Mature audience this game is meant for—oh, the horror!).
One very interesting character is the grown-up Ciri of Cintra, who the player takes control of during several sections of the game. While the Targaryen-looking, bisexual Witcheress could have easily been a fanboy’s wet dream, she’s actually a nuanced character I swiftly bonded with. Idealistic but scarred, Ciri is a woman who reacts to the world around her in a fundamentally different way than Geralt and provides an interesting contrast when you step into her boots.
Finally, a comment on the game’s graphics: The Witcher 3 is a beautiful game; its various game areas are artistically designed and rendered. White Orchard is a stereotypically pastoral fantasy farmland which is punctuated by burned villages and weeping women; Velen is a hellish No Man’s Land where hundreds of bodies hang from trees next to empty battlefields; Novigrad is a rich but decadent city kept in line by the tyranny of a corrupt church: and while Skellige is a primitive Viking-ruled Ireland analogue that hangs a couple of centuries behind the rest of the continent. The characters are gorgeous, too, including some truly breathtaking ladies (my wife comments that the men aren’t too shabby either).
I heartily recommend The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. It is not a perfect game, but there is a massive-massive amount of content available, most of which is very good. It’s really like purchasing three, previous generation RPGs merged together. I got almost 120 hours of gaming out of my first playthrough, and I may go back for more. It’s also some of the grimmest, grittiest, and most maturely-written fantasy gaming I’ve seen which bodes well for grimdark in gaming.
Originally published in Grimdark Magazine #5.