“When the time of the White Frost comes, don’t eat the yellow snow.”
The load screens in The Witcher 3: The Wild Huntdispense all kinds of helpful advice, but this maxim is my favorite. It adds an element of practical levity to the well-worn Game of Thrones refrain “winter is coming.” But frozen, urine-flavored popsicles will be the least of everyone’s worries if the worst comes to pass and Geralt of Rivia fails to stop the forces of darkness from covering the land.
First things first: The politics, history and mythology of the Witcher’s sprawling world will make your head spin. Edward Gibbon’s zombie himself would have trouble keeping track of it all.
Here’s a quick primer:
1. Geralt of Rivia is a “witcher,” card-carrying member of a group genetically engineered to be really, really sweet at killing monsters.
2. Why do monsters exist in the first place? A prehistoric cataclysm known as the “Conjunction of the Spheres” permanently filled the world with murderous beasts. It was decided that monsters were needed to kill monsters, and the witchers were bred to hunt them. In the current age, for whatever reason, no new witchers are being trained. But it’s not for a lack of bloodthirsty necrophages.
3. Witchers are characterized by a few noteworthy traits, including yellow, cat-like eyes, two swords strapped to their back (one steel and one silver), prominent facial scars, otherworldly mutant powers, a penchant for hopping into bed with willing sorceresses at the slightest provocation, and eliciting fear and mistrust among the very people they’re meant to protect.
4. When the game begins, a militaristic regional empire known as Nilfgaard has invaded and largely conquered the northern kingdoms where Geralt resides. This isn’t a huge problem for him, as witchers are apolitical by nature. But we’re to understand that the occupation isn’t an ideal state of affairs for the common folk.
5. Meanwhile, Geralt’s adopted charge, Ciri, is missing. For unclear reasons, she’s being hunted by a group of extra-dimensional warlords known as the Wild Hunt. These guys want to drink her magic blood or some such in order to bring about the end times. Geralt must get to her before they do, and this chase forms the backbone of the game’s main quest.
So as you can see, there’s a lot going on, and this little summary of mine doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. The sheer scope of characters, lands and backstory of Witcher 3 is practically Westerosian. And it’s not just bigness for bigness’ sake. Even the smallest quests have this insane level of detail. I mean, when you get your beard trimmed, it gradually grows back as the days pass!
Aside from your primary mission to track down Ciri, defeating the Wild Hunt, and making sure your face looks well-groomed, these side missions are broken into three categories: secondary, witcher contracts, and treasure hunts. The secondary quests range from becoming the bareknuckle boxing champion of Velen (a fun holdover from Witcher 2), to stories that intersect with and impact the main quest in profound ways. Witcher contracts are just that: money for monster heads. Treasure hunts are a nice way to acquire slick witcher armor. These are all technically optional, and you only really need to do as many as it takes to level up enough to continue. But you kind of have to decide early on which way you want to play.
Will you only do as much as you have to in order to advance the story? Or will you run down every archgriffin and bilge hag, collect every rare Gwent card, and uncover every mystery while exploring the far reaches of this massive world?
I chose something closer to the latter, which maybe wasn’t the prudent choice for reviewing purposes. I haven’t finished the full playthrough yet, but there are just so many distractions. As things stand, I’ve dumped days of my life into wandering alongside Geralt, and often our search for Ciri has taken a back seat to other concerns. Geralt and I, for instance, have battled a frost giant in Skellige, right before we helped elect a woman as king of this grim and frostbitten land. There was also the time Geralt took part in a play meant to lure out a shy doppleganger named Dudu, where Geralt’s monotone, practically Keanuesque acting abilities are on full display. We’ve sailed along a lonely coast under the stars and happened upon a whale graveyard. We’ve stood on the remains of a shipwreck high in the mountains and watched the sunset. We helped a local swordsmith break organized crime’s hold on the city’s iron supply. WE HAVE CHOPPED MEN IN HALF FOR LOOKING AT US WRONG. THAT’S RIGHT. HALVED.
It’s amazing how many of this world’s denizens enjoy taunting this hulking, scarred albino with twin blades strapped to his back. What could possibly possess someone to start a fight with someone like this? Can these flea-bitten racists actually be this stupid?
Wander through any town or city and you’re bound to hear mutterings behind your back. Often, the more brazen among these rednecks will confront you directly, although they usually have a few of their buddies in tow to help encourage them. Geralt is for the most part an easy going sort. He doesn’t take these small-minded insults too personally. But if they push him, he has no trouble lopping off arms, legs and heads to teach the townsfolk about the existential dangers of endemic racial prejudice.
The game’s fighting system is terrific. As you upgrade Geralt’s abilities (both his martial acumen and his “signs,” which give him powers over mind and matter), he gets ever more deadly. Fighting humans is a dance of parrying and counterstriking, and limbs generally end up littering the field. Fighting monsters requires more in the way of dodging and distance attacks, for which Geralt’s crossbow, a new addition to the arsenal, is well-suited. When appropriate, he takes grisly trophies as evidence for claiming monster bounties.
At first, it’s tempting to play The Witcher 3 on an easier setting, if only to help advance a story that can take as much as 200 hours, all told. I would recommend playing that way in the beginning as you learn the game’s controls, and then switching over to a more challenging setting as soon as you’re comfortable. The reason is simple. A great deal of the game is spent in combat, and once you hit a certain level and acquire a high enough quality of gear, the fights just get too easy. Plus, there is a whole arsenal of bombs, oils and potions that are rendered irrelevant if you get too strong, and alchemy is a huge part of the witching game.
But you know what else is crucial to Geralt’s stock in trade? Sex. As the all-knowing load screen informs us, both witchers and sorceresses are infertile. The implication is that they can (and do!) have loads of consequence-free sex, and it’s exactly as goofy as you think it is. The more interesting revelation of Witcher 3 is how, for the most part, women are treated as actual human beings, and not an interchangeable series of masturbatory fantasy sexpots from the mind of someone in junior high. Rather, those are still there, but the majority of the game’s women characters are far more interesting than the men. There’s one moment in particular, which I won’t give away, that is super gratifying, a role-reversal that turns both gender and fantasy race norms on their head.
Witcher 3 is riddled with cutscenes, which string together the dozens (hundreds?) of quests, but rather than bogging down the game and turning the player into a bored spectator, solid writing and a steady deployment of deadpan humor make them feel like a natural and necessary part of the experience.
If I have any complaints about the game, they’re trivial enough that they barely warrant mention. The inventory becomes hard to navigate after a few days of acquiring a continent’s worth of crap, and Geralt’s trusty steed Roach isn’t all that responsive in races. (For that matter, Geralt’s own means of traversal leaves something to be desired.) My beloved load screens take too long to, well, load. For a game of this magnitude, that’s an amazingly short list of nitpicks.
Witcher 2 was a promising but flawed game. The seeds of a truly brilliant experience were there, but too often it turned into a slog. The Wild Hunt fulfills all of that game’s promise and more. Some day, I even hope to finish it.
The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt was developed and published by CD Projekt Red. Our review is based on the Playstation 4 version. It is also available for the Xbox One and PC.
Drew Toal is a writer based in San Francisco. His work has been featured in outlets like NPR, The Daily Beast, Mental_floss, and the A.V. Club. When he’s not busy fighting climate change (his day job), he enjoys watching his terrible baseball team (the Phillies) and drinking beers (cold ones) on the roof of his apartment with his darling wife (Stacey).