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The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (PlayStation 4) artwork

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (PlayStation 4) review

"I kind of feel I reached some sort of pinnacle in gaming with this one."

The first two Witcher games had this interesting effect where I found myself enthralled by the world occupied by Geralt of Rivia, but occasionally felt that actually controlling the silver-haired swordmaster wasn't all it could be. Maybe the first game started off slowly, making it feel like I had to endure a lot of filler just to get anywhere interesting. Or perhaps the second game annoyed me with its bizarre difficulty curve that ensures players likely will have far more trouble in their first few hours than at any point afterward. But the end result was that I was playing through a rich, vibrant world existing on the premise that shades of (very dark) grey are far more interesting than knights in shining armor valiantly battling against forces of pure evil and I wasn't always as invested as I felt I should be.

With Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I can assure you that I had no such issues. From the moment I started playing, I was captivated -- a feeling that hadn't faded by the time I defeated the final boss and still is going strong as I work my way through its two expansions. If anything, the more I play this game, the more I love it. If anything, I'm glad those two expansions are filled with enough meat that I can justify reviewing both separately in order to gush about this game even more. If anything, it's the first game I've played on my still-fairly-new PS4 that jumped out at me and screamed that THIS is the reason I moved on to the current generation of systems despite having a lot of older games still in my backlog.

To be fair, there is one issue with this game and it's something I've found common to virtually every action-oriented Western RPG I've played. If you fall in love with its world and decide it is your sacred duty to experience everything possible, making an effort to hunt down every side-quest and scouring the land high and low for hidden secrets, it isn't exactly difficult to break Witcher 3 over your knee. Some enemies and bosses might be tough adversaries, but when you've got six levels on them, it's not going to be all that difficult to overcome the challenges they present.

And yet, after putting a couple of hundred hours into this game, the only negative emotion I have is a sort of vague sadness because I'm a good ways into that second expansion and every hour I spend with it means I'm one hour closer to that day when it's time to remove the disc from my system and start up something else. Sorry, Kingdom Hearts III, you might be a game I've worked towards (and looked forward to) playing for much of the past year, but you are not going to be in an enviable position trying to fill these shoes!

What makes Witcher 3 so special to me? Virtually everything. Geralt begins his quest looking for adopted daughter-figure Ciri, both out of personal concern and because the girl's real dad is a powerful emperor looking to prepare her to eventually follow him and he's the sort of ruthless dude whose wishes better not be ignored. One small issue: Ciri has a heaping helping of untrained power within her and the rogue elves that form the Wild Hunt are after her to gain it for themselves. One other small issue: Ciri has allies who've been very proficient at keeping her hidden from the Wild Hunt, as well as anyone else.

Geralt will start his quest along with mentor Vesemir in the region of White Orchard attempting to meet up with mage (and romantic option) Yennifer and this is where I began to be impressed. White Orchard is this tiny little tutorial area that's nothing more than a stepping stone to get to the proper game and yet…it isn't. You'll have a surprisingly vast region containing a couple towns and a military base, a few side-quests, a number of points of interest, the opportunity to get started with the addictive time-sink known as the card game of Gwent and a few more diversions. Sure, your only real objective is to kill a monster for the military leader at that base in order to find out that Yennifer is at the emperor's palace, allowing you to embark on more substantial quests in a much larger place to explore, but what's the hurry? Enjoy the scenery, kill some monsters and solve a few problems. It'll be great preparation for all the scenery, monsters and problems you'll be facing in the lands of Velen and Skellige.

After finishing with White Orchard and meeting with both Yen and Emperor Emhyr, you'll travel to Velen, a war-torn land unfortunately serving as the "no man's land" middle ground between Emperor Emhyr's Nilfgaardian forces and the Redanian army led by sorta, kinda in a really roundabout way ally King Radovid from the first two games. Velen is a swampy location littered with small villages and it is essentially under no leadership other than the apathetic rule of a self-proclaimed baron and his followers -- at least until you reach the area's major cities of Novigrad and Oxenfort, which at least can put on a charade of stability and prosperity, even if it does seem like the entire region is a powder keg about to explode. While you have a couple leads to follow in searching for Ciri, you'll immediately find it easy to simply get sucked into Witcher 3's world. Why?

Maybe it's the utter vastness of the game. The main regions of Velen and Skellige -- a collection of islands inhabited by fierce raiders reminiscent of Vikings -- are both immense, with each reasonably comparable to the entirety of Grand Theft Auto V's map. And we're not talking about an empty vastness, as there are tons of quests, monster-slaying contracts and treasure hunts to occupy your time. Several cities and villages contain contract boards that bestow many of those quests, as well as cause a number of question marks to appear on your map. Each of those points of interest leads to what could be considered a really tiny quest, where Geralt will find himself fighting monsters or bandits in order to find treasure or rescue a kidnapped prisoner. As an added bonus, these places also were really good at getting me to forget how my constant level-gaining was causing me to outpace the opposition. You simply won't know what you're getting into when you near a "?" icon until you're practically on top of the enemies there and the level range of the enemies doesn't necessarily match what you'll usually find in a given area. A short walk from where you start in Velen, there's a kidnapped person held by bandits capable of killing you near-instantly. Meanwhile, the toughest monster in the entire base game is guarding a treasure on a random, insignificant island in the middle of Skellige.

Or perhaps it's the amazingly epic scope of this game. You'll have jaw-dropping cutscenes showing battles between Geralt and allies against Wild Hunt members and, when not fighting those guys, Geralt only has the potential to completely change the fate of pretty much everyone in the world. A casual conversation with a particularly adept schemer in Novigrad might give that guy the means to end Emhyr's grab for worldwide power. The death of Skellige's ruler has left a power vacuum, which his assistance will help fill. You might team up with former allies from the first two games in order to "remove" an insane ruler from the equation. And you also might immediately betray those old friends because an erstwhile ally has big plans that don't involve them. This game delivers powerful characters left and right, ranging from rulers to sorceresses to crime bosses, but none can hold a candle to the force of nature that is Geralt of Rivia.

Then again, it could be the sheer variety in all the stuff you can do. Some quests are very serious, with you taking on powerful monsters, hordes of thugs or serial killers. You'll use a ghost-contacting lamp to find the horrible secrets behind a ruined tower on an island and you'll help mages flee Novigrad before they can be rooted out by hunters looking to purge them and their magic-using ways from society. And then you'll engage in a bit of recreation racing horses, engaging in fistfights and playing many, many hands of Gwent. Which will be followed by more bizarre and whimsical missions, such as trying to scare a mute druid into speaking…only to find that the fellow was taking a vow of silence that you interrupted. Or the time where you explore the domain of a mage who devoted his life to the study of very pungent cheese, leading to one of the more interesting set-ups to having to avoid poisonous gas while navigating a maze.

And I can't forget about how versatile Geralt is. He possesses the standard action hero weak and strong attacks, while also being able to roll away from enemy reprisals, but is capable of so much more. His five magic signs return, with each having multiple uses. Aard can both knock enemies back and also break down weakened doors and walls. Axii can charm enemies in battle and also grant access to new dialogue options that can turn the tide of a conversation in your favor without you having to resort to bribery or fisticuffs. By collecting plants and other alchemical items, you'll be able to make potions, oils and bombs, all of which prove very useful. As you gain levels, you'll receive access to various perks that can improve your use of weapons, signs or alchemy, as well as miscellaneous ones such as extending the duration of food's healing effects or increasing the amount of weight you can carry without being slowed to a walk.

Actually, the correct answer is that it's all of the above and a good bit more that I won't get into because this review is already running long even if feel I've only scratched the surface of all the stuff I love about Witcher 3. I enjoyed the first two games in the series, but felt they were just a little too limited in scope to be truly great. And so, CD Projekt Red delivered an absolutely massive open-world game utterly loaded with quests to perform and interesting locations to explore. It does a great job of standing on its own, while providing nostalgic moments for those of us familiar with the first two games. While flaws might appear here and there, with load times and glitches occasionally being nuisances, the simple truth is that this game utterly captivated me and it's going to take a real mental adjustment when I've finally done everything possible and have to put it up, at least until I inevitably feel the urge to start another journey, sit back and enjoy the ride once again.

overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (January 12, 2020)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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