The Mild Hunt
HIGH Snowball fight!
LOW A character I liked showed up in the final showdown to immediately die.
WTF Wait, so the Wild Hunt has been chasing Ciri the whole game but now we need to find a magic thingmabob to get them to show up?
Western RPGs, especially contemporary ones in the open-world style, are built on the supremacy of player choice. While developers will enforce a story in these games, the player typically gets to control almost every aspect of who the main character is.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt fits into this mold structurally, but it differs in that its main character is pre-defined. Geralt of Rivia is a witcher, a man mutated to have sharpened senses and heightened reflexes so he can defend his fellow men (who hate him for his mutations) from monsters. This changes the game's core question. Where most Western RPGs ask "what is it like to live in this world?", Wild Hunt asks "what is it like to be this person?".
So what is it like to be Geralt of Rivia? What is it like to have his abilities? Wild Hunt offers up its own version of Assassin's Creed's "Eagle Vision", where pulling a trigger allows the player to use enhanced senses to track footprints, smells, and the sounds of distant allies and foes. This gets the job done well enough, but only when Geralt has a specific quest to perform. One never gets the impression that Geralt could pick some random fellow and track him across the world.
Geralt of Rivia is also one of the finest swordsmen in the world, and Wild Hunt tries to substantiate this with a combat style that relies heavily on dodging, evasion, and timely parries for maximum effect. This system evidently aims for an elegant dance of battle, but the practical effect is more like the hokey-pokey, primarily because the game is too stingy about allowing Geralt to break an opponent's guard.
Any drunken thug in underpants wielding a stick can perfectly parry, so battle becomes a pattern of inching forward and back, left and right, until the enemy opens himself up. Geralt's array of magic powers ameliorate the tedium but never entirely eliminate it. The problem only gets worse on higher difficulties, which are foolishly defined by making Geralt even weaker with respect to his enemies.
If we can't understand what it's like to have this fellow's body, maybe we can at least appreciate what it's like to have his job. Wild Hunt is more creditable here, ensuring that the player has access to Geralt's encyclopedic knowledge of wicked creatures and ways to slay them. At the same time, by (rightly) making monsters significantly more dangerous than normal people, the game requires the player to use that knowledge. Swallowing the right potions and using the right blade oil makes battles significantly easier at low difficulty, and becomes essential on the higher ones. Against monsters, too, the occasional sense of whittling away at a life bar feels less odious. They're monsters; Geralt has been extensively mutated precisely because they're so hard to kill.
This speaks to an unresolved tension in the design. On the one hand, Wild Hunt wants its fights to require the same kind of tactical thinking and preparation as a Souls game. On the other, it wants Geralt to fight two dozen bandits on a beach. The game's systems satisfy the first demand, even if it occasionally looks silly, but they fall apart in the face of the second.
Wild Hunt is also strong when it comes to depicting the mundane stresses of Geralt's job. The people who employ him regularly omit or distort facts to suit their needs or hide their misdeeds. The constant sense that Geralt doesn't know enough or that he's being manipulated plays to the paranoia of the game's politics and the core mystery that's intended to drive the story for half its length. This is important because Wild Hunt is exceptionally good, especially early on, at letting the player in on Geralt's anxieties.
In the vast regions of Novigrad and Velen, atmosphere and quests come together to outline the interior life of the character. His uncertainty about the consequences of reuniting with his erstwhile "daughter" Ciri and his longtime lover Yennefer are drawn out by the events of Velen, especially in the "Bloody Baron" quest chain. His fear of the political state of the world and the danger it poses to his friends is articulated by the violent phobias in Novigrad.
Were these the game's only main areas it might have been a singular triumph. Unfortunately, in its third area, Skellige, Wild Hunt loses its way. The pointless vastness of the region makes exploring and traversing a thankless bore of a task. Here the game also wastes much of the tension it previously develops by making Yennefer seem too unpleasant to worry about losing. The complicated relationship with Yennefer is one of Geralt's core motivations, but the game fails at establishing either his passion or the romance's complexity, in part because it denies Yennefer the opportunity to be, as she is in the source books, as unfaithful as Geralt.
Wild Hunt does better with outlining Geralt's feelings towards Ciri, when she finally shows up. The way the game assembles seemingly-small decisions in his dealings with her into major changes in her character and the world is one of its best aspects, giving a sense of real weight and consequence to actions without tumbling into silly dichotomies. The game also creates sympathy for Ciri by giving the player chances to act as her. Even better, these moments of play make it clear that Geralt's desire is not so much to defend Ciri as to assist in her self-defense.
The goal, ultimately, is to save Ciri from the game's titular antagonists, the Wild Hunt themselves. Alas, they're a bust.
When the Wild Hunt shows up, they provide a stiff challenge and they get a powerful villain moment in the middle of the game. Still, their appearances are sparse and even on the critical path, the game is dozens of hours long. These teleporting skull-helmeted riders should feel like an omnipresent threat, something constantly pushing Geralt to find and protect Ciri. Instead, I ended up entirely forgetting about them for vast swaths of the game.
In part that's a consequence of the design: pressure is antithetical to the spirit of open-world games. However, that doesn't mean it's impossible to give the impression that the screws are being turned. If the Wild Hunt started boiling out of portals in the wilderness to attack Geralt every once in a while, the pressure would be on, but Wild Hunt takes the opposite approach—instead of worrying that they'll show up, Geralt spends a lot of time working hard to get them to do just that.
In many ways, the scope of Wild Hunt defeats its purpose. In Velen and Novigrad, the scale seems bracing, but by the time the game hits Skellige, the size feels oppressive. The vast ocean of content that fills that world saps the core narrative of needed urgency and direction, and without an effective antagonist to endanger Ciri, or a compelling romance to draw Geralt towards Yennefer, Wild Hunt ultimately fails to establish the core of the character. Nonetheless, Wild Hunt features sharp choices that use its world and secondary quests to illuminate the inner life of its main character. For a while, at least, we see Geralt from the inside, and know what it's like to be the mutant who's almost always the most human person in the room.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail purchase and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately a bazillion hours of play was devoted to single-player modes and the game was completed.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: An addendum here: since its release, The Wild Hunt has been updated with a mode to assist colorblind individuals trying to use Geralt's enhanced senses.
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Fantastic review, I particularly liked that you bothered to try different difficulty settings & point out the difference.
These days I often play on easy & sometimes that will change the way a games feels & can remove problems.