Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Walking The Path – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Writing a review of the phenomenon that is CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a daunting task. How would you judge a film that took five months to watch, or a book you kept reading for hundreds of hours? How do you evaluate the success of a story that changes as you experience it, whose peaks and pitfalls are of your own making? The simple answer is: I don't. There's no question that The Witcher 3 was a wild runaway success, not just in terms of worldwide sales, but for me, personally, as one of the best gaming experiences I've ever had (and one which, thanks to the recently-released expansion, I'm still having). After such a period of time, I find it gratifying – and somewhat relieving – to finally have the chance to reflect on what it is that this game does to earn such dedication from me.

On the surface, there's not much to distinguish the world of The Witcher from any number of high fantasy role-playing games that are flooding the market. The kingdoms and empires of The Witcher's nameless Continent, first established in the novels of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, bear a strong resemblance to our own medieval Europe: kings and queens rise and fall while the unwashed masses scratch out a living in the shadow of their castles. Enlightenment struggles to break through the clouds of disease and poverty. And dotting this fictional landscape, of course, are monsters of every shape and size. This is a world where griffins soar through the skies, spirits haunt the ancient woods, and children are right to fear the boogeyman. This confluence of the magical world and the real one – the result of an ancient cataclysm – is what gave rise to the titular witchers: mercenaries trained in the art of monster slaying, and granted superhuman abilities through painful genetic mutation. Geralt of Rivia is one of these, and features in all of Sapkowski's stories (including their video game adaptations) as the main character.

So, like countless other fantasies, swords and sorcery rule the day. It's much more Game of Thrones than Knights of the Round Table, however; much of the fiction is based in the grim Eastern European folktales and mythology that filled Sapkowski's youth, and Geralt's travels introduce him to places and people that raise probing ethical questions about life in a cruel world. Right away, this separates The Witcher series from its peers, who are usually content to construct their escapist power fantasies without offering more challenging thematic and emotional material. The Witcher 3, in particular, further distinguishes itself by the approach it takes to this well-worn genre. The king's daughter, Ciri – trained by Geralt in the art of combat, who sees himself as her surrogate father – nurses a strange and potentially apocalyptic power called The Elder Blood, which attracts the attention of a band of ethereal warriors wishing to chase her down and claim her strength for their own. Folktales call them The Wild Hunt, and they are the primary antagonists of The Witcher 3. Notice, though, that you mainly play as Geralt – not Ciri. The "chosen one", whose destiny is preordained and who fights for individuality and the right to choose her own fate, is not the main character. Show me any other fantasy RPG, and I'll show you a game where you play as the Ciri equivalent (I’m looking at you, Dragon Age: Inquisition). One of The Witcher 3's greatest storytelling strengths is in its choice to make you the adoptive father of this character, so that you watch this grand adventure play out from the sidelines, with a deep personal investment in how it turns out. This way, the developers can have their cake and eat it too, providing all the thrills of that most cliché of storylines while allowing Geralt the breathing room he needs to become a fully-realized person in a complex world.

The ever-charming Geralt of Rivia.

Part of the responsibility of crafting his story rests with you, of course – The Witcher 3 does present the player with many difficult choices that steer the narrative in new and unexpected directions – but something I came to appreciate was the chance to play as a uniquely (and wonderfully) authored character. No matter how I influence his story, Geralt remains Geralt: gruff and sarcastic, deeply intelligent, intimidating in appearance but sensitive in nature. He’s a fascinating character who has had the luxury of several novels' worth of backstory, and for me this was a welcome change from the norm. In any other RPG, I’d be given the chance to craft my own character, with endless options for aesthetic customization. I’ve loved the opportunity to do this in the past, but I didn’t realize how much I missed the intimate engagement that a strongly authored character can provide. The comparison is unkind, but it’s a bit like the difference between a thousand-page fantasy novel and a choose-your-own-adventure story: there’s only so much the author can do to personalize a story that is designed to be inhabited by anybody’s own specific character. Brought to life (in the series’ English-language versions) by actor Doug Cockle, Geralt is a wonderful person to get to know, who belongs in the company of Beowulf, Tang Sanzang, and Aragorn of Gondor – that is, the great wandering heroes of fantasy literature.

And, it bears mentioning, the world through which Geralt wanders is breathtaking to behold. CD Projekt Red, as an independent Polish game development studio staffed by passionate fans of the Witcher canon, are careful and generous caretakers of Sapkowski’s fantasy setting. The Witcher games have always been known for their superior presentation in terms of graphics, environments, cinematics, and music, but The Witcher 3 sets a bar so lofty that it must be played to be believed. It’s immersive on a level I’ve never seen from a game, with detail so meticulous I can’t help but marvel at the herculean task it must have been to craft and polish every tavern and castle and pond. It’s the first game that has made me feel like I was actually in a forest, where nature runs thick and fast over the ground, and the cacophony of birds, insects, and more dangerous creatures – not to mention the ever-present wind, with a voice all its own – surrounded and enveloped me completely. The swamps and streets and snowy steppes of The Witcher 3, in all their wild beauty and danger, are more than a match for any Skyrim or Warcraft or Bloodborne.

So too is the gameplay system that gives you a way to interact with this exciting setting. Hunting monsters is a difficult process that involves accepting the quest (usually by visiting a village’s notice board, where some poor sap has begged for help to kill the fiend that’s haunting his well, or some elderly widow whose husband never came home from the fields), and then setting out to track and kill the beastie in question. The game gives you tools like Geralt’s heightened senses, which allow him to spot tracks and hear sounds that an ordinary hunter would miss; and his expertise with alchemy, through which he can create powerful concoctions to give you an edge against certain foes. Preparing for a fight by selecting the proper oil for your sword or meditating until a certain time of day can be just as crucial as the way you perform in the heat of combat. While it isn’t as unforgiving as the system in Dark Souls, The Witcher 3’s combat is no less tactical, making you choose your blocks and strikes with care, and varied elements like uneven terrain, adverse weather, and a multitude of different types of adversaries ensure no two fights are exactly alike. Returning for your reward with the severed head of your quarry swinging from your saddle provides a savage, well-earned joy no other game can provide.

Through all of this are the countless people that Geralt will encounter, all with unique voicing and personality, each with their own motives and needs and desires. Geralt is in a unique position as a witcher, as his services are needed by peasant and king alike, meaning there is nobody he has no reason to interact with. He (read: you) can make enemies and friends in equal measure, engage in philosophical debates or exchange threats of violence, and even be spurned by a lover and soothe his woes at a brothel. Although I had the option to, I did not skip a single conversation in The Witcher 3, and for a game of this scope that is a remarkable feat. CD Projekt Red managed to make me just as invested in the plight of a common farmer as the rise and fall of an empire, to the point that finding a new character to speak with is as satisfying as acquiring cool-looking new gear or powerful weaponry. This makes The Witcher 3’s rewards tangible, and progression through its many hours deeply meaningful. No wonder, then, that I’m happy to spend a few hours adventuring with Geralt whenever I can.

I could go on for pages and pages about the continuously engaging elements of this game, from the fully-functional collectible card game called Gwent that simply exists as a totally optional part of the world, to the fascinating narrative details like the reason Geralt carries two swords (a silver one for monsters, a steel one for men). What truly sets The Witcher 3 apart, however, is its inclusion of all of these elements, when most developers can only afford to spend the time and money to elevate maybe one facet of their game to this level, if they’re lucky. It’s not a perfect game – such a massive world is prone to occasional bugs, some recycled voices and animations, and some general repetition – but its imperfections are nothing compared to what it achieves in spite of them. It is, in essence, a perfect fantasy experience: a rich, fascinating, and beautifully-realized world that demands engagement and emotional investment from you, and promises a game you’ll be talking about the rest of your life in return.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the people of Downwarren have been complaining about a dragon, and I hear they’re offering a hefty reward…

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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