What draws people to Game of Thrones? Is it the brutal medieval world? The complex political maneuvering? The sex and violence? Or maybe it’s how the series turns typical fantasy stories on their head by delving into moral shades of gray. Or how it’s stuffed to the brim with memorable characters and witty dialog.
If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, you should play The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. It has all of that great stuff that makes Game of Thrones so incredible. The crazy part is that there’s very little overlap between the two series.
That probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, seeing as The Witcher springs from a series of very good fantasy books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. In fact, Sapkowski began releasing Witcher books four years before George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones came out.
The Witcher tells the story of a man named Geralt who wanders from town to town, taking contracts to hunt the beasts that lurk nearby. He can do some magic, but he’s better at using a sword. Like all witchers, he’s the product of certain mutations that make him very good at finding and killing beasts.
The games take place after all five books, but you don’t need to have read the books to get a foothold in the game. Nor is it necessary to have played the other Witcher games to enjoy Wild Hunt. The game stands alone very well.
Like any epic fantasy, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt unspools at a leisurely pace. It expects you to spend a significant amount of time in its world, visiting taverns, hunting monsters, riding from village to village, and taking in the beautiful sunsets. If you happen to influence the course of history in the meantime, so be it.
But it’s not all sunsets and cookies. The game wastes no time establishing its dark fantasy setting. Within the first minute, you’ll see a horse decapitated and a raven fly through a man’s skull. Quests deal in spousal abuse, disemboweled villagers, demonic fetuses, and murderous souls stuck between the living and the dead.
Like Game of Thrones, there’s a deep well of fantasy lore rooting the narrative in its own unique reality. Thankfully, the action onscreen rarely dwells in lore. Your conversions in the game are almost always about what’s happening now. The people are much more concerned about a coming thunderstorm or a hungry griffin nested nearby than they are about nations at war or long-dead kings.
The writing is one of the game’s greatest strengths. Almost every character you meet has depth, from barons who are key to the game’s main quest to crazy old women you might encounter as you wander through the woods.
That’s especially impressive considering how many characters populate the game’s staggeringly large world. Even more impressive is that the world is packed full of things to do and side quests to undertake. Quests, side quests, and witcher missions will take you all over the land. Plus, everywhere you go, you can find people itching to play a very fun card game called gwent.
Speaking of side quests, the ones in Witcher 3 are worth highlighting because they’re so good. The ones I played were often multi-tiered missions that featured empathetic, fully realized characters with struggles so painful and real it almost made me want to reject the cash rewards they offered when I completed them. Almost. (Money is tough to come by, and besides, witchers don’t do anything for free).
Like anything made by mortals, the game isn’t perfect. It has a few bugs. The basic movement controls are a little finicky and take some time to get used to. In general, it’s a deep experience that comes with a learning curve. The tutorial is well done, but you won’t feel wholly at ease until you’ve tooled around for a while with the game’s systems and tried out a few combat strategies. Before long you’ll feel right at home.
Simply put, The Witcher 3 is better, more ambitious, and more engrossing than almost anything else out there. Prior to playing it, I would have thought myself greedy to hope for something this dense and intriguing, with such good characters, acting, and writing. But the stars aligned and developer CD Projekt Red has delivered a truly special game. Don’t miss it.