“The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” review

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This is it. The game everybody’s been waiting for. I may be exaggerating, but I feel like both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 systems have been waiting for “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” because aside from “Dragon Age: Inquisition” we haven’t had a real fantasy role-playing game since their release. Not to mention the buzz it’s gotten from major outlets. I’ve never seen so many near perfect and perfect scores for a game that wasn’t a yearly release game or from one of the big 3: EA, Sony or Nintendo.

“Wild Hunt” takes place after the events of “The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings,” as Geralt of Rivia has finally gotten his memory back after the events of the first game. He’s now on a quest to find Yennifer, a lover and friend from before his amnesia. Along the way, he finds out that Ciri, his old protege, has become the target for the invading army of Nilfgaard. Don’t worry, at the end of this review there will be a glossary and pronunciation guide for your benefit (I’m lying, there won’t be). Once again caught up in a political drama that threatens to have far-reaching ramifications for both the humans and monster worlds, Geralt must race to find Ciri before the Wild Hunt catches her first.

The first thing you’ll notice, if you’re a long time “Witcher” game fan like myself, is that this is the best looking game out of all of them. I know people are complaining that the graphics look weak on the systems and blah blah blah, but holy cow this game is pretty to look at. Geralt and company have emotion to their faces, non-player characters that look similar are few and far between, and even the lip-syncing of the dialogue is pretty spot-on. While riding on your trusty steed, Roach, you’ll get buffeted by storms, blinded by sunlight and shiver in cold blustery winds. I will say that the trees swaying like there’s a 40 mph wind all the time does get a little comical, but maybe that’s because I live in California and I just don’t see wind working that hard on trees.

The combat style is the same as “Assassin of Kings,” so for those who were worried about a new learning curve, fret not. It’ll be easy to jump back into the thick of it and carve your way through monsters and humans alike without any fumbling. What is different is the leveling system this time around. As you progress, slots are unlocked in the character page where you can slot perks and skills for Geralt to use. You can unlock all of them if you like, but you can only have a certain amount slotted at one time. This adds a little tactical planning to a game that was otherwise just a push-through-and-overpower endeavor. It may be prudent to actually study up on the monsters you’ll face and tailor your skills to appropriately defeat them. Say, for example, you’re going against a noonwraith. You’ll need to ensure that you level up your Yrden sign, and slot all the bonuses to it you can to ensure that you can do as much damage as possible to the spectral baddie. Top off your sword damage and maybe your Quen, too, to ensure that any hits dealt to you don’t actually do damage.

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Yup, you can sail boats if you want to. And you’ll need to if you want to get to some islands.

Crafting and alchemy are back. One thing I’m finding exceedingly helpful is that each time Geralt meditates, and he has some hard alcohol on him, all crafted items you’ve previously created will be replenished. This gets necessary when going against hordes of monsters and men because potions and other items will literally save Geralt’s life in the thick of it.

With so much going on in the stories of the “Witcher” games, there does seem to be little time for actual witcher-ing. Thankfully, “Wild Hunt” has a bounty of witcher contracts to fulfill which are devilishly fun to complete. Remember “Batman: Arkham City” and the cool detective cases? In a similar style, Geralt gets to use his witcher sense to track down clues and hunt down monsters plaguing the local townsfolk. Some of these are pretty straightforward: go here, examine that, walk there. Others can get a little more complicated if you take the time to explore the areas Geralt is hunting in. After a while, you may be able to spot the items yourself without Geralt’s sense, or figure out what monster he’s hunting through the clues alone without his aid. Don’t expect to get a witcher talisman in the mail though.

Dice poker has been replaced by Gwent, a fun and easy to learn card game. Each card has a power number that corresponds to the strength of your army. Some cards cast weather effects that weaken a portion of your army. It’s simple addition, but there’s a strategy hidden among the beautiful card art and catchy music. It gets even more complicated as Geralt plays Gwent masters for rare cards. That’s when strategy really starts to become necessary. I won’t lie, I’ve spent hours just playing the different Gwent masters and not doing the main quest purely because it’s that much fun. While dice poker was exciting because of the gambling aspect, Gwent offers a more satisfying victory through outsmarting your opponent.

You know there’s got to be one and here it is, the thorn on the rose: I’m not fond of the horse. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve been spoiled by Epona’s ability to turn nearly on a dime, or the speed of my stallion in “Red Dead Redemption,” but Roach feels cumbersome and stiff. Admittedly, this is probably much closer to a real horse and I may just be having a jarring moment with reality, but I’ll often times run on foot rather than take my trusty steed. That’s a little disappointing because the world is so beautiful and well-crafted. While fast traveling is helpful, I do feel I’m missing out on some of the great details that are hidden in this world. And there are a lot of them because these maps are enormous.

For those of you unfamiliar with “The Witcher” games, you’ll also encounter frustrating moments a la “Dark Souls.” The game isn’t meant to beat you down repeatedly, but at times it will do just that. For instance, I was fighting a werewolf and I beat it. Then a cutscene triggered and I was thrown into combat with it again. I lost and was put back to the checkpoint before the first fight with it, wherein I could not beat it again. I don’t know what was going on, I was doing the same thing I did the first time, but 15 tries later and I was ready to rage quit. Now, there’s difficult and then there’s broken. A monster that I was equal level to with good gear and abilities was healing itself near the exact amount of damage I was doing to it every second is kind of broken in my opinion. I had to go away, level up twice and get a new sword before I could kill this guy with little difficulty.

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P.S. Buckle up to fight wolves forever because these guys aren’t going away anytime soon.

An example of difficult but rewarding would be the Jenny o’ the Woods fight in the same zone. This is a nightwraith boss that takes little damage outside of a Yrden sign circle. Once inside, it’s hurt just like all the others. Once she takes a sufficient amount of damage, she splits into three wraiths and the longer they’re all up, the more health she regenerates. If you kill all of them quickly, she’ll have recovered very little, and you rinse and repeat until dead. It took me seven tries to understand the strategy for this, but each time I did it, I got more and more information and got closer and closer to beating her. The fight, on the try that I beat her, took maybe five to ten minutes. I yelled triumphantly and threw my fist in the air, shouting obscenities at the screen. That’ s the difference, a monster that has rules and can be beaten through strategy, rather a monster that is just categorically going to reheal itself unless you’re strong enough to inflict damage faster than its constant healing.

Should you get “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt?” Yes. Please, do it for yourself. Do you need to play the other two games first? Kind of, yeah. Though, the game does a pretty good job of letting you know what happened in the previous games without beating you over the head with “GUESS WHAT YOU MISSED LAST TIME!” Hunting down a foglet in a swamp, riding in the dead of night towards a city far in the distance with its lights twinkling against the sky, chasing down a cockatrice into an open field and slaying it, the “Wicher 3” is full of breathtaking moments. It’s fun, it’s easy to pick up but hard to master, and it will keep you playing long past when you tell yourself you’ll stop. It’s not perfect, but damned if it isn’t close.

“The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” is available on Xbox One, PS4 and PC.