Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt story review


    Warning: This review will contain massive spoilers for the game. Do not read past the points you are in the game.

    I reviewed The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt here for those who want to know my general opinion on the game. This, however, is just a collection of my thoughts on the completed story for the game. I played almost a hundred hours of it and it's easily twice, close to three times the size of many other RPGs I've enjoyed. The Witcher 3 is an amazing piece of work and the developers should be proud of themselves for creating it.

    But what really needs to be reviewed is the story and that's going to take awhile. At heart, the tale is about Geralt of Rivia trying to find both his lost daughter Ciri (after a fake-out with the belief he's going to be looking for Yennefer most of the game). Once he does, Geralt finds he must be willing to sacrifice everything to protect Ciri from the titular Wild Hunt. Along the way he'll become deeply involved in the politics of the setting as well as bear witness to many atrocities occurring because of Nilfgaard's invasion.

    The game has the unusual quality of giving all of the secondary quests and contracts complete voice acting and their own little stories. Many of them are actually quite entertaining and you'd think they're part of the main plot. I, for one, was shocked to discover my old friend/enemy/friendemy Letho during a mission which was otherwise randomly encountered. It adds strongly to the game's realism even if I can't help but wonder if some of the spotty areas in the story wouldn't have benefited from less attention to killing a Drowner and more Ciri/Geralt/Triss/Yennefer time.

Act I: White Orchard


    White Orchard is a wonderfully idllyic set of countryside, giving you a sense of why the North is worth fighting for and the horrors of the invasion. On one hand, you have a lovely little village with its mostly-friendly people then you have a ruined burning hellhole just a little ways down the map. White Orchard contrasts with a lot of the Witcher universe in that we're seeing the people of the setting as fundamentally good in a bad situation. Even the Nilfgaardians are mostly decent people, the Commander being a reasonable man who just happens to be in an unreasonable situation.

    I like the way the Witcher 3 handles a lot of the plotlines as they develop in unexpected directions. Geralt tries to help an innkeeper, only to horrify her with a terrifying act of violence. Geralt discovers that the ghost of a young woman haunting a ruin was callously murdered by a local nobleman but he, perhaps, had problems of his own. There's also the fact the local dwarf and an arsonist plotline ends on a tragic, rather than triumphant, note.

    The characters introduced in this section of the game are well-done and I quickly bonded with the slightly-delusional-in-his idealism Vesemir. I also loved the introduction of Yennefer who, after assuming we're going to come rescue her from Nilfgaard, turns out to be working with them. Even Emhyr, a man I was ready to hate for his role in the books, comes off as formidable but respectable.

Act II: Velen


    Velen, by contrast, is much more like we've come to think of the Witcherverse in that it's a complete pit. The entrance is a longed row of hanged bodies and wild starving dogs fighting over corpses. It is a place with fairy-tale monsters devouring children in the woods, mass starvation, hideous curses, rapist thugs, and hideous oppression.

    Much of the sequences' plotline depends on the Bloody Baron and Ladies of the Wood, characters who manage to show the multifaceted and twisted nature of the Witcher world. The Bloody Baron is perhaps a little too much of a stand-in for Robert Baratheon but he still manages to distinguish himself in interesting ways. The Crones, by contrast, are beautiful realizations of the Baba Yaga myth in a terrifying and mysterious way.

    My first chance to play Ciri made me fall in love with her character. I wasn't a big fan of hers from the books but I've done a complete one-eighty on her. Ciri, to me, really is as great a character and Geralt and arguably more heroic. Seeing her as a Witcher (or pseudo-Witcher) gives me hope that the Continent will someday be something other than a complete ****hole. Something only possible because of people like her and Geralt walking the road doing good. She's funny, sexy, interesting, confident, and good--and who could ask for more? Plus, she somehow pulled off a scene with a child that didn't have either be annoying. That's an amazing accomplishment for any video game.


    If Velen had any serious flaws, I'd say it's that the war is kind of distant given that it's such a terrible place because of it. A lot of gamers I know assumed the Bloody Baron was still loyal to Temeria rather than being a collaborator working with Nilfgaard. Of course, the atrocities of collaborators on their own people are a well-established historical fact so maybe I'm just missing they were making a point.

    It's a depressing, esoteric, and mysterious place which I absolutely loved.

Act III: Novigrad


    Novigrad is probably my favorite part of the game and an amazingly fun part of the game with lots of detailed and intricate plots going on. It's a city ruled by religious fanatics by day and criminal kingpins at night. The witch hunts were beautifully realized and the Witch Hunters disgustingly evil (making them great for stabbing).

    Yet, Novigrad is full of humorous and entertaining stories as well. You can go from helping mages escape from a situation deliberately invoking the Holocaust to a zany comedy where Geralt acts out pseudo-Shakespeare despite possessing no acting talent whatsoever. There's many memorable characters both good and evil ranging from Dijkstra to Priscilla to a man who unironically goes by the name Whoreson Junior.

    Dandelion's new love interest of Priscilla proves to be a decent substitute for the bard and I wouldn't be surprised if some fans, male and female, like her more than Geralt's Man Friday. The fact she's very obviously based on a popular character from "The Sword of Destiny" book also helps her authenticity to the setting. I wouldn't mind seeing her in future games even if I think Dandelion's relationship with her is doomed (Dandelion has TWO pages of lovers' names while he's seeing her).

    A large part of my enjoyment of this section is due to my intense love for the character of Triss Merrigold and how she's evolved from a scheming manipulative femme fatale to the heroic leader of the Mage Underground Railroad. Geralt and she are broken up this time around but there was no hesitation on my part that I wanted to continue their relationship. I only regret we didn't get more of her.

    There's a few areas I would fix in Novigrad if I could. I would have liked to have helped the mages more against the local Inquisition and taken the fight to the Heirarch. Likewise, I think it's a massively missed opportunity not to have you help Dijkstra get his treasure back. If you're going to introduce a massive heist of six tons of gold into a game, then you better damn well be part of either getting it back or stealing it in the first place.

Act IV: Skellige


    Skellige is the part of the game I'm most iffy on, not because it's not extraordinarily enjoyable, but because it's so far removed from the rest of the setting. Whereas the rest of the game feels like it takes place in the century between the Dark Ages and the Renaissance (roughly 13th century) with some areas leaning toward one or the other, this is straight propelling into a weird combination of the Vikings with Highlander-era Scotland. I was suddenly playing Skyrim, basically.

    The game is also at its worst for referencing the past with little explanation as you meet a family of Highlander Vikings who know you from the books in an intimate manner but gamers will have no idea thereof. Eventually, I came to like the Crach family and considered them good friends but it was a trifle unsettling for some gamers to realize the Druid they were robbing wasn't just some random wizard but a close personal friend of not only Geralt's but Ciri's as well. The chief villainess for Skellige also turns out to have been the most obvious one, which is lazy storytelling for a game that usually avoids it.

    The Yennefer romance content is bound to please fans of both Miranda Lawson (Mass Effect) and Morrigan (Dragon Age) since she's portrayed as very similar to both dark-haired beauties. Which is to say she's really-really mean but kind of sweet once you get to know her. She's also portrayed as a good deal darker than Triss, which isn't really consistent with the books. The breakup with Yennefer was particularly heartbreaking and I was rather sad we didn't get to follow up on that.

    Still, as many flaws as Skellige has, it has some great characters as well as truly memorable moments. My jaw dropped at a scene with a baby and an oven, the horrors on the giant's island, and what Yennefer was willing to do to save her daughter.

Act V: Kaer Morhen


    The Kaer Morhen section is the emotional climax of the game and, really, should have been the battle there should have been the finale of the game. Much of the game has been about attempting to find Ciri and following the clues which revealed her adventures without you. During this time, you make friendships and gather allies which will all potentially join you at the Witchers' headquarters for a final confrontation with the Red Riders. I can't help but be reminded of the final mission in Mass Effect 2 where the number of survivors is affected by how much you did to win the loyalty of your crew and the decisions you make in battle. That isn't the way they went with the Witcher 3 but I think it should have been.

    While the actual meeting with Ciri doesn't take place at Kaer Morhen, I will say that it is a great moment where you find her sleeping form surrounded by seven Dwarves. That was a delightful acknowledgement of the silly fractured fairy-tale nature of the original Witcher stories. My Geralt, admittedly, would have just battered down their door to get at Ciri rather than do them any favors at that point.

    The Wild Hunt remains underdeveloped and they don't get much more after the events of this battle. They're basically five or six mini-Saurons answering to one big Sauron. Frankly, I think King Eredin should have been killed in this battle as it would be far more satisfying climax to Geralt's feud with him than the subsequent events in Act VI. Likewise, I'm not a big fan of death of Vesemir, Geralt's adoptive father. It's an event I'm not inherently opposed to but was rather a obvious route to go down.

    I confess to really liking the set piece of Kaer Morhen, either way, and its use in visual storytelling. Kaer Morhen is a massive castle which can probably hundred a few hundred Witchers at the very least but is inhabited by four of them at any given time. It's a sign that the Witchers' time has passed and they are the last of their kind. We also get a lot of good insight into the ups and downs of them from Lambert as well as Eskel. Sadly, we don't get a similar bit with Vesemir, who could have given a "glory days" speech. On the plus side, there's an option for cross-dressing magical drunk-dialing which everyone owes themselves to watch on Youtube.

    Yes, I'm serious.

Act VI: The Hunter Becomes the Hunted



    The finale of the game is something of an abrupt shift which is no less enjoyable for me but is something which is a big change from the previous sections of the game. It ceases to be an open-world game (as you have explored the entirety of the open world) and becomes a series of set-pieces as you move from one area to another in order to complete the plot. In that respect, it's much closer to The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings.

    The story also, fundamentally, shifts from Geralt's own adventures to Ciri's coming of age drama, which is strange because you're still Geralt for the majority of it. In a way, it's the equivalent of playing Obi-Wan Kenobi during A New Hope. There's significantly less focus on Witcher Contracts, Secondary Quests, or the world's going on. It becomes mono-focused on Ciri's ascension to become the Lady of Time and Space who either will become a Witcher, Empress, or sacrifice her life to save the world.


    One thing which has been complained about is that the choices which determine these things aren't very well spelled out. In order to get Ciri to live, some choices are obvious like letting her visit the grave of her dead friend/almost lover if you chose the right dialogue options. Others are strange like whether you went drinking with her or had a childish snowball fight. Other choices still are confusing like you may hate Nilfgaard but still think Ciri should visit the Emperor, if only to get a confronation with that evil psychopath over.

    Ultimately, I liked this section and would very much like to have a Ciri-based game with her walking the Path as she is one of the most interesting characters in gaming. Female or otherwise. However, I do think this section was underdeveloped with a lot of content which could have been handled in its own game. In a real way, I think Act VI should have been its own game, "The Witcher: The Swallow's Path", rather than serving as the part of the game who's emotional climax was the Battle of Kaer Morhen.

Parting Thoughts

    I, honestly, don't think that the Empress Ciri ending makes any damn sense from what we know from the books as well as previous games. Emperor Emryhs destroyed her homeland and has brutally oppressed the Northern realms repeatedly for no reasons than to control her destiny as well as personal glory. It's the equivalent of Princess Leia becoming Emperess due to her heritage as Darth Vader's daughter.

    I think the choices carried over from The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings were poorly handled, personally. I liked both the Letho as well as Sile inclusions in the game. Likewise, Roche plays a great role in the game as well as Ves despite their relatively small roles. I just wish we'd had both Saskia as well as Iorveth content given this is a bit like Han Solo disappearing for Return of the Jedi. I understand they couldn't write around many of the major changes in the war which could happen because of the second game's variable state but they could have done a little better, I think.

    The romances in the game are a bit hit and miss. The game goes the extra length to present Yennefer to Geralt as the love of his life but does so at the neglect of both the Triss as well as Bachelor Geralt options. This is consistent with the book Geralt, who was deeply in love with Yennefer, but the video game Geralt is a slightly different character with a relationship every bit as deep with Triss. Triss has a much smaller role in the game and really needed more to make the game feel "authentic." I also felt that the options for Bachelor Geralt were lacking with only one real option for an affair. Given video game Geralt sold himself as James Bond in the Middle Ages, that's unfortunate. There's a number of female characters who seem to have an attraction to Geralt which aren't optional to explore.

    Another problem is the massive cast of characters is simply too many for the game to juggle. Characters who have been very important to the narrative disappear from the game for long stretches of it or entirely depending on their importance to the role. Others get introduced with no follow-up as cameos like Fringilla Vigo, Geralt's ex-girlfriend, who alludes to the books but otherwise does nothing. The post-game feels particularly lonely as if there's ever been a time when you should be able to meet with everyone after events, it should be now. A big "throne room scene" like Dragon Age: Origins where you get to say goodbye to everyone wouldn't have taken long to do and would have made the game much more satisfying.


   Finally, I think the war between Nilfgaard and the North got short-changed to some degree even if I liked that the former was portrayed as more ambiguous than in the books. Still, the final mission resolving it, "Reasons of State" had a near-nonsensical ending to me and none of the dialogue options I desired. King Radovid was portrayed as a ruthless but surprisingly friendly individual in previous games, so its a shame for him to get retconned into a cackling madman. The fact Emhyr, a man responsible for war crimes which shocked the jaded Witcher and his friends, is treated as an honorable ally is also troubling.

    In any case, I still liked the game very much and would very much love to play a sequel starring Ciri.

10/10

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