Perhaps some of you are tempted to say (or type) something like "You're empty," or even "Your mom." I will, however, stick to my guns, because you don't even have to look very closely at The Witcher 3 to see how little it has to offer – especially as a video game. It sure has a good story, a stunning atmosphere, and an interesting world, but everything else is a sham.
Story and atmosphere are paramount
The sentence you see above ranks very high in my personal list of most hated sets of words – at least when it comes to gaming. First and foremost, because it seems to reflect the trends that have been prevalent for a good decade, which absolutely do not appeal to me. The gameplay seems to be of secondary (or even tertiary) importance, and as a result, it's very often doomed to neglect. All that in the name of unnecessary (not on such a scale at least) realism, pragmatism, and everything that's supposed to reinforce the generally understood immersion. And as a fan of various action games, I quite strongly lament this state of things. Especially when it's such Witchers that land on the pedestal and rest there for many years.
I enjoy Sapkowski's prose and I like the way it was adopted by CD Proejkt RED – in terms of world building, music, all its cool moments and characters. I wouldn't particularly fuss about those things, and there were times when the game delighted me, even if just for a moment. However be they what they might, they do not concern the gameplay proper. Good music, good presentation, catchy dialogues – all of these mean nothing to me if I struggle to find any positives in terms of the mechanics. The third Witcher is simply no fun to "click."
The utterly bland combat system is the biggest problem for me, which is suboptimal to say the least in a game about a monster slayer. I almost never wanted combat, treating it as an unpleasant duty. I've seen many snide remarks directed at Souls, criticizing the game's extensive use of rolling dodges (which you can avoid with a bit of skill in the game) – it's even worse in The Witcher, but it's somewhat masked by the signs (such as Quen) or lower difficulty (if you opt for it). There's nothing engaging about it at all – no mechanics, no challenge (even on higher difficulty levels, which just make all the fights longer), there's nothing to marvel, because the animations may be kinda sleek, but there aren't too many of them to create a spectacle. I could have kept quiet about all this, but since the silent majority does that for me, I decided to lay it on you.
As for other key elements of gameplay, exploration seems a bit annoying, due to the manic 40-second rule, whose task is, in theory, to constantly maintain your interest, but the way to achieve that is simply by dotting the map with insignificant and uninspired activities. I don't know about you, but for me, the effect is opposite from desired, according to the principle of saturation – the more of something I get, the less impression it makes.
So yeah, the quality of side activities in The Witcher 3 is unremarkable at best. There's nothing to ponder over. There is also nothing to discover, because everything is shown to you (unless you consider question-marked locations secrets). A structure like this encourages one thing: the infamous clearing of markers and ticking off duties. To make matters worse, traversing the world is pretty cumbersome. Mainly due to horse riding mechanics, which are terrible – especially in areas where there's no roads (such as swamps). Naturally, one is therefore disinclined to investigate every nook and cranny of this world. Design-wise, I definitely enjoyed Skyrim or Red Dead Redemption more.
Playing this role ain't fun
In settling scores with The Witcher 3, it is also worth considering how much RPG there is in this RPG. Of course, I won't argue that the work of CDPR is not a role-play. It is, but rather one of its more underwhelming representatives, especially if you are really into these elements. I didn't feel that the decisions I made in terms of developing Geralt had a great impact. I also didn't feel this in relation to gear. The developers can talk about inspiration with Souls, but the masterpiece by FromSoftware offers an order of magnitude more depth when it comes to system dependencies, as well as the number of combinations and possibilities in terms of functional mechanics (that's why it is such a fascinating series).
However, I realize that this is a game about a witcher, which in itself presents a set of limitations. In the meantime, though, the authors didn't mind giving Geralt a crossbow, which he was never known to use if we're talking lore. So this desire to expand on the existing framework was there, albeit mostly visible in such timid attempts. One can apply dog grease on swords, use a series of signs in each fight, and prepare various potions, but these are just sleight of hand.
They don't change much, but it takes time (partially due to a somewhat clunky interface) – and again, I emphasize, this applies even to high difficulty levels. This element had more significance in earlier parts, which required making the most of our resources. There's none of that in part three, just as there are no appealing ways to diversify the gameplay. And in this form, the gameplay is hardly impressive.
It's slightly better with storyline decisions, but here, again, most of it comes down to slightly modified direction of dialogues, which can hardly be called a real influence on the course of conversations. This again is some kind of illusion of complexity applied at the expense of real directing. I would really prefer well-made cutscenes (such as the opening cinematic), which at least are fun to watch, rather than this eternal show of static graphics and talking heads – clicking dialog choices that offer next to no impact on gameplay and environment. However, several choices do influence the course of the plot, so let's say that the game does offer some replayability. But again, it doesn't compare to the second part, which diverged into two, completely separate second acts depending on your choices – it was bold, it was fresh, it was awesome.
If I were to summarize this whole aspect of RPG-ness of The Witcher 3, I would say it serves the same purpose as in the games it inspired – i.e. prolonging game time. This is evidenced by, among other things, red skulls next to some quests. They show us that some of the tasks are too challenging for our character at its current level. It's most likely just a scarecrow, but it also worked on me once, forcing me to go on a trip. At such a moment, optional content ceases to be optional, and moreover, this solution limits freedom.
"Because you, player, do not want to play"
I can say what I want, but The Witcher 3 didn't gain fame for its gameplay (which is actually quite sad) but primarily for its narrative. And this element of the game is indeed its strongest suit. It's not something I would remember for years, as the story doesn't really leave you with a lot to think about after it's over. It's just a story that's nice to experience, it can be engaging, but not much else. However, I want to delve into the issue of narration, as Pawel Sasko did in an interview published some time ago on our website. One of his remarks, pertaining to the form of cut scenes, caught my attention.
it seems that as an industry, we have largely accustomed our audience to the idea that what you want as a player is to see a movie in the middle of a game. You don't really want to play, you just want to chat and then have a nice cinematic. And it seems to me that we've taught our audience, I especially mean in the AAA segment, that it’s just the standard.
As a person raised on Hideo Kojima's games and therefore paying a lot of attention to cutscenes in games (which in The Witcher are, unfortunately, not that great) I felt somewhat nettled. I have nothing against the form used in the game, but only as long as it serves a specific purpose – for example choices, which in Witcher 3 are, for the most part, cosmetic. I don't see a justification for this decision. And this, in fact, spilled over to other games, such as Ghost of Tsushima or Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, in which you can forget about any interesting directing. And even more so – about significant choices. This is not a good trend because it doesn't bring any value.
I think that if we were served more interesting cut-scenes, stories in games would be way more enjoyable. Just like in the MGS games, the three-dimensional installments of Dragon Quest, or recently in Final Fantasy XVI (but that series has always been known for it). In such interactive form, The Witcher would have overshadowed the Netflix show completely. Especially because it does primarily focus on narration. See, in terms of main and side quest design, it's the same as in other games – we talk, fetch, fight, and additionally, we follow the witcher senses (one of the blandest mechanics in games!). This famed excellent quality of side quests applies only to their content, and not always.
I dislike this kind of game design and I bemoan the fact it's become the standard. As a player, I want valuable interactions most of all. Not some half-hearted attempts, gimmicks that offer merely an illusion of effects. The Witcher 3 is full of similar solutions, just like the titles inspired by it – and it's not about the genre affiliation, but about the relatively low quality of the project as a whole and the huge amounts of smoke and mirrors that are found there.
These games can only be considered good if we don't scrutinize them. It's best to merely glance at this and that, not get into the details and just mindlessly absorb the big picture. It's comforting, however, to know that there are still studios fighting for higher quality beyond just the narrative. This branch of entertainment is based primarily on interaction, general gameplay (which can also serve as a narrative medium), and we should evaluate games mostly by these criteria.
In the end, I consider the third game the worst part of the series, although in some respects it surpasses the middle game, especially if you look at the expansions – they're better than the base game, but they still suffer from the same problems. And here's the real bombshell: for me, the best game in the series was the original release, which not only was more fitting as an interpretation of books, but also was better as a video game. So I really hope it's upcoming remake will not try to recreate it in the style of part three.
What I would want to see instead would be a slight expansion of original mechanics and the world, maybe an overhaul of the combat system (even though it's fine, but seems to bother almost everyone) and maybe some additional storylines. The rest should remain unchanged. Although I don't consider CD Projekt RED studio more tallented than any other, I'm curious about what else they will cook up, especially in this universe. Maybe someday they will create something completely original? It would be a real test for them.
Krzysiek Kalwasinski | Gamepressure.com