About 20 hours into The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I found myself fighting a werewolf. My bestiary warned me that, after taking enough damage, werewolves go into a frenzy and begin recovering lost health. Hitting the beast with a Devil’s Puffball bomb, it suggested, would counteract the healing. I didn’t have any of those, though, so I had to resort to a much more aggressive, unsafe plan: hurt it faster than it could mend itself. With tremendous effort, I was able to kill the beast, but it was a brutal, inelegant fight that I barely survived.
CD Projekt RED’s latest entry in the adventures of Geralt Of Rivia, the monster hunter with the Atacama-dry sense of humor and statuesque physique, is a massive game. Its complex lore builds both on previous games and Andrzej Sapkowski’s original novels. It features dozens of characters with their own histories and lives, an expansive map full to bursting with sights and stories, and plenty of arduous combat. And yet, despite its dizzying scale and innumerable moving parts, it continues to feel intimate and cohesive across dozens of hours. How do you make a game in which slaying savage monsters feels as natural as galloping wordlessly across haunted countrysides, or where the quiet reunion between a father and his daughter is as thrilling as a battle against a supernatural army from another dimension? The answer is in Wild Hunt’s greatest strength: perfectly controlled tone.
Wild Hunt is viciously hostile. Hostility infects every element like a poison and unites them with a common sickness. Most characters you meet, except for Geralt’s small cabal of friends, despise you. Villagers will insult you to your face or spit at you as you pass, even as they plead with you to save them from the horrors that torment them. The villages you see on your map are as likely to be charred ruins as bustling trade hubs where displaced refugees sob uncontrollably. Even the environments are informed by that same inescapable brutality, being mostly wind-blasted heaths and inhospitable swamps that stretch out eternally like Egon Schiele landscapes freed from their canvases. Wild Hunt’s world is often beautiful to behold, but only because it beautifully frames its own ferocious ugliness.
Geralt’s quest is set amid some standard fantasy maneuvering, with the empire of so-and-so invading the kingdom of such-and-such. Geralt and his role in this story prove more interesting. He is one of the last witchers, a group that is widely misunderstood and mistrusted, and it gives him a unique relationship to his world. He is simultaneously a part of it and apart from it, both an active participant and a passive observer. Because of this, Geralt’s ability to shape the world is unpredictable. You are often called upon to make small, seemingly benign decisions that can turn out to have tremendous consequences. Here, Wild Hunt’s pervasive hostility infects even its smallest choices. I constantly felt as if my every decision was wrong, that my trust was constantly being betrayed, and all my errors in judgment were coming back to haunt me.
The game’s hostility is keenly felt in battle, too. Geralt is always outmatched somehow, whether outnumbered, under-leveled, or insufficiently equipped. Progress is made in inches but can be lost by the mile. Most battles require you to slowly erode the health of an enemy that could kill you outright with three or four attacks. Victory is a matter of scraping together as many tiny advantages as possible. During your first major monster hunt, you’re required to harvest ingredients for a potion that gives an incremental bonus to your attack power for a few seconds at a sip. It sounds like an advantage so puny as to hardly be worth the effort, but brewing it could mean the difference between victory and death.
Like the world’s most grizzled Boy Scout, Geralt must always be prepared. Before engaging your mark, you have to research its weaknesses, apply the correct super-effective oils to your sword, concoct useful potions, and craft the appropriate bombs. Preparing for major battles begins to feel ritualistic. It becomes clear that Geralt is less a hired sword than a warrior-monk, and battles are the ceremonies over which he presides. Combat is brutal but orderly; it has a call and a response, like a Mass. If a drowner lunges at you, the correct response is to dodge. Attempt to block instead, and you’ll be in contempt of the ceremony’s unspoken rules and harshly punished with a severe mauling.
I don’t believe that Wild Hunt’s brutality ever goes too far, but it’s not evenly distributed. It’s worth noting that women have a particularly hard lot in the world of The Witcher. The game occasionally seems as if it aspires to make some point about the mistreatment of women in medieval fantasy pastiche, but it never quite moves beyond simply depicting that mistreatment. Women—naked and clothed, living and dead—are frequently used as decorations. One villain’s headquarters is festooned with the corpses of prostitutes—strung up like grisly Christmas ornaments—which felt particularly pointless. Powerful, headstrong women make up a respectable portion of the main cast, but the game treats even its bravest heroines almost fetishistically. We’re supposed to be titillated first, impressed second. As for its much-ballyhooed PG-13 sex scenes, well, the technology for depicting the throes of ecstasy is still not quite there. They might look more expensive, but the Wild Hunt’s sex scenes are still comparable to the naked Barbie dolls being slapped together in Nina Freeman’s How Do You Do It?
After barely defeating that werewolf, I searched its corpse and discovered a key. I traveled to the home of the deceased lycanthrope and invited myself in. The family was already mourning. I ignored them and helped myself to the contents of a now-unlocked trunk. Killing monsters was my job, after all, and since nobody had offered to pay me for this one, the best I could do was sell some valuables that wouldn’t be missed. Outside, I mounted my horse and plotted a path to my next objective. It was already after dawn, but a storm cloud prevented the sunlight from illuminating my path. And so I, Geralt Of Rivia—the most hostile presence in a world defined by hostility—marched toward my next destination, the next villager in need, and my next target.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Developer: CD Projekt RED
Publisher: CD Projekt RED
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4