Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales (2018)

Gwent is one of the best “game within a game” examples ever. In The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, the player can take a break from monster slaying to sit down and play the card game known as Gwent. I probably spent more time in taverns playing this addicting minigame than I spent actually adventuring. I was elated to hear that there was a fully-fledged roleplaying game that utilized Gwent as its main mechanic. Yet my actual experience with Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales was more of a rollercoaster than the fun revisit to Gwent that I was expecting.

My first moment of confusion was during the tutorial, when I realized that this version of Gwent was monumentally different than what I played in The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. In the original version of Gwent, each game would have three rounds, and the player to win two rounds won the match. The interesting facet was that you only had ten cards for the entirety of the match. You may win a round, but if you played too many cards doing it, you were in a poor position to win the match. It was interesting as the players had to come up with powerful combos that only required a few cards, or use cards that allowed them to gain tempo on their opponent. You had to know which round to intentionally lose and how to bait your opponent to playing their good cards too early. It was a game of strategy and momentum.

The Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales version of Gwent is substantially different for the most part. Most battles do not even retain the standard 3-round format. The majority of matches in this game are single round affairs, which to me is missing such a crucial aspect of the original game. When the game is only a single round, it just becomes an arms race of who can play the most powerful cards and combos. Previously, you had to play your powerful cards at optimal times such that you wouldn’t waste them on an already won round, now it doesn’t matter.

Truthfully, the original version of Gwent had its own fair share of balance problems, but I would’ve liked to see the design team work on fixing those problems rather than just changing the entire format. The three round battles do still exist, but they aren’t plentiful. Eventually, the new version of Gwent did grow on me, but it was incredibly off-putting the first time I played Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales. The original version needed changes to rebalance it and keep it fresh, but it didn’t need an entire overhaul.

Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales follows the story of Queen Meve and her campaign against Nilfgaardian invaders. This war precedes the events in the mainline trilogy of The Witcher. You play as Queen Meve, the ruler of Lyria and Rivia, during an invasion of her homeland. The warrior queen is conspired against and forced from her throne, and the game follows her adventure to rebuild her army and retake her kingdoms. In typical fashion of the series, there is an abundance of decisions to make, often with no obvious answer. The game plays as a top-down point-and-click adventure game, and the battles are represented by the card game Gwent. As you travel across the various areas you will have to make many moral and strategic decisions regarding your army and subjects.

The presentation of the game is top notch. The artwork, voice acting, story, and interactions with the various characters in the game was the absolute highpoint of the experience. The story itself was fairly intriguing, but the characters and decision making carried the game. You meet various important figures throughout the game who you can recruit to advise Queen Meve and join her army. But every decision has potential for backfiring completely. You may want to recruit an elf who was being attacked by humans, but maybe that elf is a spy and will betray you and sabotage your army.

Each decision not only has ramifications not only in the story, but in regards to your army as well. Recruiting new characters lets you use their special card during battles. But be careful, as a bad decision may lead to you losing resources like gold or soldiers. The universe of The Witcher is a tumultuous one, there are many factions vying for power. Subterfuge is a common tactic to weaken opposing forces. Be aware that whoever you decide to recruit and rely on may at some point betray you.

As previously mentioned, the core “action” in the game is represented through the card game Gwent. You can modify your army by swapping out cards and building a deck that fits your needs. To craft or upgrade cards, you gather three resources as you explore: gold, recruits, and wood. You use these resources to supply the war machine, which of course is represented by your deck of cards. The deck building aspect of the game is pretty fun, as cards have various effects that you can find synergy between. There are many different strategies that can be played around with. You can make a deck that spams the board with tons of cards, or focus on just powering up a few specific cards, or you can use cards that deal damage to your opponent’s cards. There are a lot of different options to try out, and the game is not shy about introducing new sets of cards to experiment with.

Despite feeling a bit frustrated at the differences between the original Gwent and this new version, the card game variation of Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales eventually did grow on me. The cards in this game are much more complex than its predecessor. Each card has a unique effect, which you can often chain together for some synergistic combos. Finding out which cards worked well together was a lot of fun. Perhaps the most interesting encounters were the frequent “puzzle battles”. In these battles the player is given a preset hand and a special objective. Usually there would be a specific order of operations in how to play the hand to complete the battle. These were nice detours from all of the standard Gwent encounters, as those could grow repetitive very quickly.

Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales is a fairly long game; it takes about 30-35 hours to complete. For the amount of content in the game, that is too long. Gwent can be a lot of fun, and I was invested in the story and characters, yet I was burnt out entirely by the time I reached the end of the game. I think the problem stems from the fact that once you build a sufficiently powerful deck, you can just steamroll every single encounter the same exact way. By the second or third chapter in the game I had created a deck that easily dealt with nearly every battle, and I didn’t really have to think much outside of the more unique puzzle battles. This led to many of the encounters feeling very same-y and repetitive. This was exacerbated by the fact that the 4th and 5th chapters of the game are filled to the brim with repetitive battles that have absolutely no impact or relationship to the story.

The repetitive nature of the game could have been at least somewhat avoided if the game encouraged the player to craft multiple decks or to at least switch it up from time to time. While you do unlock plenty of cards during a playthrough, you still need to use resources to craft them. This disincentivizes the player from trying out new decks unless they absolutely need to. If you have a deck that works well, there’s no need to waste resources that you may need later. The odd thing is that the game forces the player to switch up their deck in the transition from chapter one to chapter 2, then never does this again. I understand not wanting to force players to stop using decks that they may enjoy using, but they could have at least encouraged rebuilding your deck from time to time.

My last complaint with the game may be a petty one, but I absolutely despise the design of the final boss. I played on the highest difficulty available, and for the most part the game was never too challenging. But the final boss was an absolutely insane difficulty spike that felt blatantly unfair. He has multiple abilities that are individually so overpowered that just having one would be plenty challenging.

His first ability makes it so any card that you destroy will automatically be replaced by a card in his deck, so it becomes detrimental to destroy any of his cards. His next ability allows one of his cards to get a 10-point strength boost every turn, which is a fairly large amount. For reference, one of Queen Meve’s possible abilities boosts a card by only 4 points, and it has a 4-turn cooldown. Finally, he has numerous cards that are so absurd they feel like a joke. One in particular allows him to draw 3 extra cards and also boosts every one of his cards by 2 points. In a game where you can’t draw cards outside of special circumstance, having a card that allows you to draw just one extra card would be valuable, let alone three extras and a power boost to go along with in.

I pretty much steamrolled the entirety of Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales up until this final encounter. In fact, this was initially an unwinnable encounter for me. My deck was tailored to do damage and destroy enemy cards. Yet this tactic is literally unusable against the final boss, since destroying his cards just causes another to spawn in its place. I had to scrap my entire deck and rebuild it from scratch specifically designed to beat this one encounter. Even then it took me numerous tries to finally be successful. It just is not a fair fight under any circumstance.

Overall, my experience with Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales was all over the place. I initially was not happy with the changes to the key formula of Gwent. It eventually grew on me and I had a lot of fun for a few chapters. The worldbuilding, art, story, decision making, and characters were all top-notch. Then the prolonged ending and absolutely aggravating final boss left a poor taste in my mouth. It is for these reasons that I give Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales a 6.5/10. This is a game that could have benefitted from cutting out a bunch of superfluous content and focused on just the key battles instead.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015)

After playing through the entire The Witcher trilogy, I have been thoroughly impressed by the improvement of CD Projekt Red over the years. The step up from the first Witcher game to its sequel and then from the sequel to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is simply astounding. Not only was the game vastly improved on a technical level, but many of its predecessors’ issues were fixed. It is no surprise that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is being regarded as a modern masterpiece, and it certainly deserves that distinction.

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What the series is known for is its fantasy story-telling and grim setting. Like the games that came before it, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is filled with difficult decisions. Most story related choices have consequences, and you have to think about what is the correct moral decision. Being the “nice guy” will backfire if you are too trusting. There is a plethora of “secondary” quests apart from the main storyline that are extremely high quality. Most importantly, the main questline of the game succinctly finishes the trilogy. Geralt, the monster hunting witcher searches the world for his apprentice, Ciri. War is being waged between the two main kingdoms of Redania and Nilfgaard, and the world is under threat by the spectral “wild hunt”. Ciri plays a key role in the war as she is the Nilfgaardian princess, and she also has special powers that the wild hunt is looking to harness.

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What impressed me most about The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is its massive and immersive open world. The world is split up in 4 distinct areas: White Orchard, Velen, Novigrad, and Skellige. Each of these areas is vast and awe-inspiring. Dozens of towns pepper the map to find quests and jobs to complete. Or you can just relax and play a few rounds of Gwent, a phenomenal card game designed just for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The landscapes and wilderness are genuinely entertaining to roam as the world is crammed full of secrets and rewards for those willing to explore. I really was stricken by just how many tiny villages and towns were included. These hamlets served really no purpose other than to immerse the player and make the world feel real, and I was thoroughly impressed by just how believable the world really was. Job boards, wandering characters, bandit camps, monster nests, hidden treasures, caves, and abandoned towns are scattered across the land. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a masterclass in open-world games and gives the player immense freedom to just have a genuine adventure.

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Not only is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt a strong standalone experience, but it also offers 2 high-value downloadable content (DLC) packages. The first is called “Hearts of Stone” which includes a gripping storyline and about a dozen hours of quality content. The second pack, “Blood and Wine”, is possibly one of the best DLC experiences offered in all of gaming. It introduces an entirely new and vibrant area that was based on Southern France and Tuscany. Not only is it gorgeous, but there are a ton of new side quests and a phenomenal main questline. As if The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt didn’t have enough content, these 2 DLCs are definitely worth it and extend the length of the game even further.

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While The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is obviously known for its open-world, engaging quests, and riveting storytelling, it is also technologically impressive. The character models and animations add authenticity to the storytelling. The already lovable characters become more genuine as crisp animations bring them to life. Not to mention that the stunning backdrops enhance the world building. The level of technological prowess makes the world of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt even more immersive.

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Even though I regard The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt incredibly highly, it does have some flaws. The most apparent issue is the games combat. Do not get me wrong, it is not nearly as bad as the first Witcher game, and it is a marked improvement over the previous games. The combat is fairly mediocre as a whole, but it is not so bad that it hampers the experience. Even on the higher difficulties you can make it through the game by rapidly swinging your sword at enemies. Sure, occasionally casting some magic and parrying or dodging enemy attacks is all well and good, but combat feels more like a spectacle rather than a genuine thrill. It did not really dampen the rest of the game, but I would not play The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt solely for its combat. And that’s fine, because the rest of the game is just so damn well made.

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Other than the combat, there are few nitpicky issues that I feel obligated to point out. These really are not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but they were minor annoyances. For starters, not being able to pause during cutscenes or dialogue is fairly frustrating, especially in such a story heavy game. Another small thing is when calling your horse, sometimes he will spawn in a bizarre location making it a hassle to get in the saddle. Also, even though the world has a ton of quests and things to do, many of those things are repetitive filler. Most primary and secondary quests are enjoyable, but witcher contracts, treasure hunts, and places of interest quickly get monotonous. Even a few secondary quests are blatant filer. None of these things are required however, so if you do not want to do them there is no obligation to do so.

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The last issue is the overuse of a core mechanic of the game: witcher senses. This ability allows the player to tune into Geralt’s acute senses to track things. Pretty much every quest in the game has you activate the witcher senses to track a monster or person from traces they left behind. What this equates to in gameplay terms is hitting a button and some clues will glow red and you interact with them. It is a fine idea that allows the player to harness their witcher abilities, but it does not need to be used in every single quest. It starts to grow a little tiresome when you get super involved in the story or a side-quest and all of a sudden you have to tediously track something for 10 minutes. The reliance on this mechanic is a little odd, its really not anything special so I am not sure why it is infused into every aspect of the game. Its not particularly bad, its just used way too much.

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I think that the fact the all of the issues that I mentioned are prefaced with “it’s really not that bad, just a little annoying” is indicative that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a special kind of game. When I have to mention the little things and nitpicks, it is evident that there a very few, if any, major flaws to be found. As a whole, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a masterpiece that should be immortalized. It is a quintessential fantasy game and its magnificent world could easily stand alongside the greats such as: The Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, and The Elder Scrolls. I’d recommend playing The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings first to get some background information to fully enjoy the experience. The first The Witcher game is fairly dated and is not necessary to understanding the rest of the trilogy, so I would recommend skipping it unless you really want to. Either way, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an absolute achievement in many different ways such as storytelling, world building, and animation. It is for these reasons I give The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt a 10/10. This is an absolute must play game, especially if you enjoy fantasy RPGs or story heavy games.

The Witcher (2007)

One of the most popular series of the past few years is The Witcher. With the release of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, this adaptation of a Polish novel series has skyrocketed in popularity. While it is possible to play the games non-sequentially, I decided to start from the beginning with The Witcher. It is evident that this was CD Projekt Red’s first title, as The Witcher is incredibly rough around the edges. Mechanically, The Witcher is clunky and lacks a level of polish. Narratively, The Witcher is fairly interesting, but it starts slow and seems to be setting up a story for the future.

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The Witcher is a medieval fantasy game in which you play a Geralt of Rivia, a professional monster hunter who suffers from amnesia and cannot recall any of his past experiences. The story told is based off of “The Witcher” novel series by Andrzej Sapkowski, a Polish author. It is one of mythical monsters, political intrigue, and general mystery. The game simply begins with a criminal organization stealing powerful potions from the witchers, and you must track them down. During this hunt, you unravel a web of secrets and learn the true motivations of the criminals that you have been pursuing. The adventure is filled with morally ambiguous choices, it often feels like you must choose between the lesser of two evils. I quite like the more gritty and difficult story choices that the game forces you into. In other RPGs like the Mass Effect series your options are plainly labeled as good and evil, but I prefer pondering about my actions and their consequences. The tale it tells is grim and gritty, it is filled with death, war, sex, politics, and monsters. As a whole, I felt as if The Witcher was more setting up a world and narrative layout for future titles. It starts off slow and lets the player absorb information about the world and it progressively gets more intriguing. Even the ending obviously is setting up the next title in the series. As a standalone story The Witcher is solid, but it evidently is more concerned for preparing to tell a much larger story.

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The major issue with The Witcher lie within its gameplay, and most notably, its combat. The Witcher feels antiquated even for a game that was released in 2007. The controls are slow and unwieldy and the interfaces are unintuitive. As an open world RPG, it felt like the developers wanted the player to take no shortcuts. There is very limited fast travel, walking from area to area is a slog, and you must grind through hordes of monsters that respawn every time you load into the area. The Witcher puts a lot of emphasis on preparation and the role-playing aspect of the game rather than the combat. You must collect herbs and create potions to give you an edge in combat, because your skill alone will not get you through any encounters. One of the biggest oversights is how you go about creating potions, leveling up, or just waiting. In order to perform these tasks, you must find a campfire to meditate at, which sounds fine on the surface but in reality, there are so few of these campfires scattered throughout the game. This is especially aggravating as many quests require the player to talk to another character at a specific time of day. Often, I found myself talking to a character, realize that I can’t talk to them at night, run to a campfire, rest until day, run back, talk to the character again who gives me a quest that can only be completed at nighttime, run to a campfire, rest until night, and then finally start the quest. All of those steps could have been avoided if you could just rest or wait in place rather than at a campfire. The Witcher is filled with irritants that just blatantly waste the players time, but nothing can compare to its abhorrent combat.

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Every game has its flaws, and I certainly commend CD Projekt Red for being so ambitious with its first title (which I’m sure they learned many lessons from to become the revered studio they are today), but the combat in The Witcher may be one of the single worst experiences I’ve had in a video game. Essentially, you must pick a combat “style” (fast, strong, or group), click on an enemy, and hope for the best. As Geralt goes through the animations, you can click again at a specific timing to increase your damage. It is remarkably simple, and honestly it could have worked in a game like this that focuses on preparation like your skills, potions, and selecting the right combat style. The issue is that there are a ridiculous number of instances where the combat just falls apart. The first issue is with large groups of enemies, you just pop some potions, select group style, and pray that you kill the enemies before they completely surround and annihilate you. The next issue is with enemies with any sort of immobilizing effects like blinds, stuns, or knockdowns. You are immobilized for a ridiculous amount of time, and enemies can even chain these effects together to keep the player permanently immobilized until they die. Moreover, some singular enemies that are just too strong, you can’t use skill to beat them, and I often used cheesy tactics like kiting them around the arena while my health regenerated before going in for a singular hit. On top of all that, the controls are just unwieldy, the game doesn’t always register your commands correctly as you are in the middle of a “combo”. Often, I would try to back off from enemies to regain some health, but Geralt just wouldn’t budge. Furthermore, there is just so much randomness in the combat with dodges, parries, stuns, and inconsistencies with the enemy AI. Some encounters took me 4-5 tries, but there is really no alternative tactics you can use other than to prepare better, so I felt like I was bashing my head against a wall at times. Like I said earlier, this simple, preparation based, point-and-click combat could work, but there were just so many frustrating instances. The developers should have known that their combat mechanics were weak and should have toned down the amount of action that was in the game and how grandiose the battles were. At times it felt like The Witcher was trying to be a hack-and-slash, but as a point-and-click RPG it was just painful.

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After slogging my way through The Witcher, I am excited to play the next game in the series. Partially because it is a universally lauded title, partially to see what this story has been building up to, and partially to see how much CD Projekt Red improved. The story was definitely interesting so I would like to see more, but the gameplay needs drastic improvements. Combat needs an overhaul and the rest of the game just needs a lot of polish. The foundations for a great series are certainly there, the developers just have to refine it. Unless you are a fan of The Witcher series or if you want to start from the beginning, I do not recommend The Witcher, it is just too janky and clunky, I recommend starting with a future title in the series and just reading a summary of the first game.