When I recently discussed Skyrim, I drew attention to the fact that it sets itself apart by making the open world RPG experience feel like a personal journey. The Witcher 3 goes to the opposite extreme – this is Geralt of Rivia’s epic story and you are along for the ride. Being at either end of the spectrum is not a good or bad thing, but the experience comes with different expectations. There are tons of preposterously long RPGs trying to tell an epic story, but few maintain such high consistency throughout every hour like The Witcher 3.
Despite falling into the open world RPG category, the closer comparison is less Elder Scrolls and more Red Dead Redemption. The Witcher 3 has all the structure of a Rockstar game but with a levelling and magic system. The Witcher 3 captures the best of both, full of lively cities and endless nature to explore. With Geralt being such a strong character, there’s an actual push toward following the main path; yet there are limitless distractions along the way.
An original setting is key, and while The Witcher features plenty of familiar tropes, there’s also a lot of wild direction. The moment which really made me grasp how unique this story would be involved a family being haunted by a botchling – a creature arising from improperly buried stillborn infants which preys on the pregnant. This game is dark, but rarely in an edgy way. Where a company like Rockstar sometimes views a ‘mature’ experience as loading their games with a lot of immature jokes, The Witcher 3 actually feels like a meaningful mature narrative.
While Witcher 3 is massive, there are rarely moments which feel like a waste of time. Compare how it handles potion brewing to other games with crafting. Each potion requires a certain set of ingredients, yes, but this is a one-time event. These potions are then replenished with a bit of alcohol. Thus, using potions does not devolve into running through fields and picking every flower you see just to make sure you have enough. It avoids one of the medium’s biggest faults – there’s a constant fear of ever using this sort of item because one might need them later. Instead of the mundane picking of flowers, obtaining a lot of these potions are a side quest themselves.
Witcher 3 is loaded with customization options. There is a skill tree which gives boosts to your stats, but the game also limits the player to twelve of these being active at any given time. There are also mutagens which can be equipped to modify certain stats. The refillable nature of the potions and oils make them a central part of Geralt’s abilities. None of these account for too much strength on their own, but finding the right combination and making sure to actually use them all is important.
All open world games tend to emphasize the size of their maps. While The Witcher 3 is big, the true appeal is how varied each location feels. From the open plains of the beginning to the massive city of Novigrad to the snowy Isles of Skellige, each region has its own distinct atmosphere. With the dense political conflict of the central plot, this distinction is key in establishing the conflicting factions. There are also just loads of minor quests, and many of these really emphasize the dense lore which has no place in the main narrative.
Though open world games are the current craze, there are plenty which feel hollow. The Witcher 3 makes every inch feel necessary, whether to simply establish a realistic atmosphere or to hide away hundreds of secrets. Add in a particularly complex narrative with political intrigue and oozing with fantastic lore all situated around an outstanding protagonist, and The Witcher 3 is simply an unbeatable RPG experience.