Backlog: The Witcher is a great show, but The Witcher 3 is still better

No one has played every video game. Not even the experts. In Backlog, Digital Trends’ gaming team goes back to important games they’ve never played to see what makes them so special. Or not.

Netflix’s The Witcher was my surprise streaming hit of 2019. I’d (mostly) missed The Witcher game franchise, and I’d never opened the books. I wasn’t sure I’d tune in. But I did, and I loved it. I wanted more.

I turned to The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt on Nintendo Switch for my fix. CD Projekt Red’s beloved 2015 release never lured me in, for whatever reason, leaving me on the wrong side of countless Witcher memes. It’s not a perfect game by modern standards but, five years later, it still holds up next to today’s best RPGs.

A slow start

I bought The Witcher 3 on release in May of 2015. My Steam account claims I logged 14 hours, though I may’ve left the game’s title screen running at some point. I barely made it out of White Orchard, the game’s starting area, before I ditched Geralt. I just wasn’t that into it.

There are parallels between the show’s rocky start and The Witcher 3’s mediocre introduction. Both throw you right into the action with little background on how the world works. Both include a time jump (although the show’s is far more confusing). Both introduce key characters seemingly mid-arc, making motivations hard to discern at first.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The old cliché claims great writers “show, don’t tell.” The Witcher, as a franchise, toys with that rule’s limitations. Consider Vesemir. The Witcher 3 introduces him as a life-long friend, and he’s certainly likable. The game seems to set him up as the affable foil to grumpy, dead-pan Geralt. Not so. The game drops him for a long span of time after its introduction. Yennefer faces a similar fate. You strive to find her but after doing so have only a brief exchange before parting ways for a large chunk of the game.

Netflix’s The Witcher contains a similar folly, choosing to focus on Geralt’s relationship with Renfri without offering much time to develop it. Then, she’s hardly heard from again. The Witcher 3 does eventually return to Vesemir and Yennefer, among others, but their long absences are jarring. The game establishes its core cast of characters twice.

Lack of excitement isn’t the issue. The Witcher 3 serves up a bite sized story that puts you in the action with minimal delay. You’ll slay your first major monster within a couple hours, at most. The problem is attachment. It’s unclear who you are, what you’re doing, and why any of it matters. Find Yennifer to find Ciri? Ok. But why? Who are these people, and why do they matter?

Urban renaissance

Geralt moves on from White Orchard to Velen. It’s disappointing, at first. I found myself looking around and thinking “haven’t I already been here?”

I stuck with it. And then it happened. The game clicked. I clung to my Switch like a man clinging to the side of a cliff. I couldn’t, wouldn’t let go.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
CD Projekt Red

Credit the city of Novigrad. Entering The Witcher 3’s largest city knocked me out of what felt like a familiar pattern. Before, I thought the game was about finding Ciri. After, I realized the game weaves a dense, intricate web of characters. Even side characters become important parts of a larger picture. They appear repeatedly, vying to achieve their personal goals amid the chaos of everyday life in Novigrad. Geralt will love some, hate others, and his emotions will test the limits of the Witcher code he’s supposedly meant to follow.

Novigrad itself becomes Geralt’s foil, taking the role of antagonist from The Wild Hunt as long as you’re in the city’s walls. The city’s king is in the middle of an authoritarian crackdown. That includes outsiders like Geralt and his friends. His mission (find Ciri) seems simple, but the city seems pleased to torture Geralt, and his friends, for no other reason than, well, because it can.

It’s messy. Like Novigrad is messy. Like the quests are messy. Even obtaining new armor or weapons can be messy. The Witcher 3 becomes a game about people forced into action whether they like it or not. It’s morally gray and sometimes gory, but not in a self-conscious effort to seem edgy. It’s an authentic representation of a city in strife, something even the much-loved Game of Thrones never got right.

Geralt becomes deeply invested in both the people he loves and the world he travels. He wants to help, but also must pursue his original and most pressing goal – to find Ciri. That’s the keystone of the story. Geralt isn’t the chosen one. He’s an outsider trying to make the most of difficult circumstances.

The combat remains iffy

Similarities between Netflix’s The Witcher and The Witcher 3 are easy to find and, given how clearly the show takes inspiration from the look and feel of the games, unsurprising. Still, there’s one place the comparison completely falls apart. Combat.

The show is a tour-de-force of visceral, tight choreography. Geralt’s fights with men and monsters aren’t realistic, but they feel brutal and raw. Henry Cavill perfectly embodies the unnatural strength and speed of an experienced Witcher. It’s amazing.

The Witcher 3-Wild Hunt

Swordplay in The Witcher 3 doesn’t live up to that standard. It’s a simple matter of dodging and striking. Signs and potions add only a hint of depth. I don’t know it’d be a good combat system even if everything worked well. And, well, it doesn’t.

The camera is a constant hassle, forcing you into awkward positions with regularity. Monster AI is often bad to the point of being nearly unresponsive. And Geralt’s dodge-attack-dodge tactics get old fast.

Swordplay in The Witcher 3 doesn’t live up to the show.

The White Wolf also has a serious weakness to corners and obstacles. If there’s a chair in a room, you can bet he’ll run into it.

Players recognized the problem when The Witcher 3 came out. CD Projekt Red even patched in an “alternative movement mode” to address player concerns about Geralt’s truck-like movement.

Today, after five years of progress in a post-Dark Souls world, fights can be truly annoying. The precision I’ve come to expect in every third-person game is nowhere to be found.

That’s a shame. Monster slaying should be a cornerstone of The Witcher 3. Instead, it’s often an anti-climax. The investigations Geralt conducts to track down his prey are more fun than the fights that follow.

An honest game’s gear

Gear is an element The Witcher TV show makes no attempt to address. That’s not a surprise. The gamification of equipment is essentially unique to games. Attempts to represent it in film haven’t gone well. Just consider how the Doom films managed to screw up presenting the iconic BFG.

Had it tried, though, The Witcher show would’ve had its hands full. The Witcher 3’s treatment of gear, and inventory management, is strange by the standards of 2020.

The Witcher 3-Wild Hunt

You’ll use all manner of swords and armor in the game. These items have stats, and those stats get better with level. You craft gear sets that offer special bonuses if you collect and upgrade them. So far, so familiar, right?

Here’s what’s odd. The stats aren’t that important. Most RPGs present new gear as truly god-like objects that can decide a fight. Letting equipment slip even a few levels behind will hamstring you.

I came to understand the hidden virtue of The Witcher 3’s approach. It’s not sleazy.

I didn’t find that true in The Witcher 3. A nice sword can be viable for a very, very long time. Once I made a full set of Witcher gear in the school of my choice (Cat school, if you’re curious), I never felt an urge to use anything else.

As a fan of Diablo 3 and other action-RPGs, I’m a greedy loot goblin. I love finding sweet new gear. Still, I came to understand the hidden virtue of The Witcher 3’s approach. It’s not sleazy.

CD Projekt Red never added paid cosmetic DLC for The Witcher 3. In-game paid currency? It’s not a thing. The game is free to ditch the gear treadmill that’s all too common in today’s popular games. Shiny new loot exists, but it doesn’t define your character. Given how strongly The Witcher 3 is guided by its narrative, I think that’s the right call.

Size matters

The Witcher 3 was a huge game at release, with between 40 and 80 hours of gameplay depending on your pace. Two expansions have extended that to between 100 and 200 hours. The biggest monster here is the game itself which, at times, threatens to crush you with a quest list that inevitably balloons to 20 or 30 possibilities at any given time.

Games often use their sheer volume of content to make up for a lack of depth. The Witcher 3 vaults past them, and into the league of true classics, by supporting its long playtime with an embarrassment of exquisite detail.

The Witcher 3-Wild Hunt

Most quests, even those that at first seem inconsequential, have multiple steps. They often veer away from the story you expected going in. Even the most routine monster hunt can suddenly force you into a moral quagmire. These moments are supported by excellent in-game cinematics that include full voice-acting and effective use of motion capture to bring characters to life.

At their best, the game’s side-quests fooled me into thinking I was playing the main story. My decision to chase a monster contract in Skellige lead me to an elaborate side story about a haunted Jarl. I only remembered it was a side quest when, having completed it, the game’s quest tracker defaulted back to the main story.

The Witcher 3 vaults into the league of true classics.

This detail extends to the game’s locations, gear, and side characters. Yes, some monster nests are just monster nests. Some caves are just caves. But most aren’t. Geralt constantly runs into unusual or interesting stories. You’ll find yourself checking out a bandit camp only to uncover part of a rare and cool alchemical formula. Finishing up a side-quest might lead you to run across some rare Witcher diagrams. There’s not just a ton to do, but a ton of consequence. Nothing feels wasted.

It can be overwhelming, to be sure, but the quality, depth, and scope of each quest helps take the edge off. The repetition that often comes with larger role-playing games is absent because the quest themselves have more variety. They aren’t boxes to tick, but stories to enjoy.

Toss 60 bucks to your Switcher

Though I own The Witcher 3 on PC, my recent playthrough was on the newer Switch release. The Switch version includes all the game’s content. That’s good, because it’s expensive. This five-year-old game is a full $60 when it’s not on sale. Full disclosure: I received a review code for the Switch edition.

The Switch port is massively impressive, and a letdown. Functionally, the game has all the content and depth of the original version. Even Novigrad is no smaller and doesn’t lack in wandering NPCs. All dialogue, music, and gear can be found in the Switch version. It’s the whole enchilada.

The Witcher 3 on Nintendo Switch

Visual quality does take a hit. The game retains distinctive visual features, like light shafts and dynamic time of day, but the look is softer and muddier than on PlayStation, Xbox, or PC. I also noticed that dialogue is more heavily compressed.

Still, I love having the game on handheld. The Witcher 3 is an easy game to play in bite-sized sessions thanks to a generous save system and buffet of in-game information on character histories, monsters, and quests. I never had trouble picking up where I’d left off.

I don’t recommend buying The Witcher 3 for Switch if you already own the game. If you’re a dedicated Switch fan, though, it’s a great RPG. Just wait for a sale. It’s often discounted to about $40, which is more reasonable.

The Witcher 3 is even better than the show

The Witcher 3 has aged over the years. Its graphics don’t quite hold up to today’s most attractive titles (even on PS4 Pro or Xbox One), and the combat is from a sloppier era of third-person action games that were more about wanton button-mashing than technique.

Even so, it’s a classic that holds its own against newer RPGs. The game’s massive world is full of intriguing quests and characters that easily stand up against the best RPGs of 2019, except perhaps Disco Elysium. Compare The Witcher 3 to The Outer Worlds or Greedfall, and you might think the genre has taken a step back in the past five years.

It helps that The Witcher 3 represents a high-water mark for RPG storytelling. Early stumbles aside, the game’s voice-acting, writing, and presentation are top-notch. This is sure to please fans of The Witcher show, as it did me. The game has over 100 hours of added Geralt, and it matches (perhaps even exceeds) the show’s quality for that entire duration. The Netflix show will have to maintain its success for several seasons if it hopes to be remembered as fondly as the game that came before it.

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