NOW PLAYING: THE WITCHER 3
Despite the massive popularity of The
Witcher 3, I’ve only just got around to playing it. As a fan of RPGs, with quite a few demanding my time, I was a little afraid to dive into such a huge game. But now, spurred on by news of its Polish devs’ forthcoming RPG, Cyberpunk 2077, I finally decided to enter Geralt of Rivia’s fantasy world.
You join OXM’s belated playthrough early-ish in the story as I track down Geralt’s ward Ciri to a Temerian Baron, who has hosted her at his castle. There’s a catch to finding out where she went next—I must find his missing wife and daughter. I learn the wife had a miscarriage, and he’s buried the baby’s body in an unmarked grave. Uhoh. Consulting with a hermit, I discover the dead baby’s become a malignant spirit. The hermit will help me use this Botchling’s blood ties to find Missus Baron, if I find his goat. Off I go into the woods, ringing a little bell so ‘Princess’ will follow me home.
The Botchling is a red, angry baby, crawling around its own grave. Shiver. I can calm the Botchling, and turn it into a benevolent spirit, or kill it again. I opt for the former. I’m not sure what I did wrong, but it transforms into a big demon that I have to kill. So while I’m immersed and invested in the drama and horror of the story, my choice appears to have meant nothing.
Are you Ciri-ous?
This brings me to my slight niggle with
The Witcher 3: Specifically, calling it an RPG. ‘Role-playing game’ is a term that’s thrown at so many games, it’s almost lost its meaning. And if you’re going to say that playing as a character with such a deep and established back story, beloved of an already rabid fan base, is ‘roleplaying’, then you might just as well call Halo an RPG. Or Mario Kart.
An RPG should be about more than just leveling up, changing clothes, and ‘romancing’ an NPC on the back of a stuffed unicorn [spoiler]. Even short of the extensive customization of, say, Skyrim, at the very least you need to be able to define your character by class, with a unique skill-set—a choice in how you play, thus defining
who you are, at an early stage. But Geralt is Geralt. He’s had two previous games to his name and a bunch of novels. In fact, so rich and complete is the game’s story, I could probably watch every beautiful looking and wonderfully voice-acted and scripted cutscene back-to-back (you can on YouTube, if you’ve got 13 hours) and not even pick up a controller.
In a true RPG you’d have freedom of choice in what you do. But you can have all the choices you can shake a dialogue-branch at, if ultimately your decisions don’t make much difference to how the game plays out, it’s not a proper RPG either. TheWitcher3 has plenty of RPG elements like XP and crafting, but they really only affect combat. So let’s not call this an RPG. It’s an open-world adventure. With ‘romance’ on a stuffed unicorn.
Anyhow, back to the game. My search takes me to Oxenfurt. At the main gate, jobsworth soldiers inform me the city is on lockdown, and I need some sort of pass to get in. I don’t have one, and I’ve got no idea what city official I need to ‘romance’ to get one. So, I nick a boat and sail round to the other side of the city, and walk right in. Yeah! Sticking it to the man!
This is the first time in the game
that I’ve seen a city; so far I’ve only experienced one-horse villages (and that horse has been Roach), where all I’ve done is visit taverns for a drink, a fight, and a game of Gwent. The city feels really… real. Oxenfurt is how I imagine a medieval Thamesside London might have felt; wisps of smoke float on the air, there’s an early morning foggy light and the atmosphere is tangible, its streets alive. So, forgetting my quest, I decide that since, in RPGs, cities reasonably tend to present the most things to do, I’m going to push this RPG thing as far as it will stretch, and head for the biggest city on the map—Novigrad.
Upon entering Novigrad, the first thing I see is a barbers. Ahh, an RPG-like chance to alter my look! But again, I’m Geralt. I mean, I’m never going to be able to give myself corn-rows like in GTA’s hairdressers, am I? Or am I? There’s an option for an ‘Elven Rebel cut’, but I come out looking… exactly the same. I’m low on coin, and I spend almost my last money on trying again; for long, loose hair. I get a boy-band cut that frankly looks soooo wrong on the White Wolf. The barber’s drunk— whatever I choose, he does what he wants. I try instead to customize my beard. The very last of my gold goes on this, and, oh dear, now I’m stuck with a soulpatch… Novigrad is even more busily beautiful and alive than Oxenfurt. People have conversations, crowds dance and shout, and drunks stagger into me. Strumpets proposition me for ‘romance’, and random folk call me an ‘arsemunch’. At least one of those must be down to the soul patch. In need of a job, I check out a noticeboard. There is tons to do, and quests keep popping as I walk around. But most are way too high level, I think I’ve got ahead of myself by coming here. I agree to track down an imp that’s been stealing from a merchant. This turns out to be a shape-changer; he turns into Geralt, and I have to beat myself, as it were. I decide to spare his life, provided he leaves town, and return to the merchant for my reward. Since I have no proof of the imp’s death, he pays me only half. Once again, I run into ‘RPG’ difficulties. Every fibre of my evil being wants to unleash violence upon this arsemunch, but, since Geralt is a better man than I, I have to walk away.
So, thwarted in my ‘role-playing’, I go back to enjoying Geralt’s adventure. And I’m still playing the game seven hours later, well into the night. It’s not the monster-fighting that’s keeping me hooked, or any need for RPG grinding. The Witcher 3’ s story is intensely rich and its environments stunningly realized; and more than anything right now, I need to know what happened to the Baron’s family. This is a detective story as much as it’s an RPG, and Geralt’s a detective, who uses his Witcher senses to gain insight and peel away the onion-layers of a deep, engaging tale. It’s one of the many reasons the game is rightly lauded, and why I’m now hooked. Bring on Cyberpunk 2077— because if CD Projekt Red can pour all the Witcher
3’ s genius into a full, proper RPG, it’s going to be amazing. ■
“I could probably just watch all the cutscenes back-to-back and not even pick up the controller”
Ab ove Geralt’s horse Roach. Mind of its own, and doesn’t even like sugarlumps.