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The Witcher 3 retrospective: 5 years later and it’s still the best RPG

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt 5th anniversary retrospective
(Image credit: CD Projekt Red)

I stood outside of a GameStop on May 19, 2015 at roughly 9:55AM, just before the store opened up, running on 4 hours of sleep. The night before, I just witnessed the political travesty that was the ending of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, so I was burning with anticipation. Finally, the store opened up to greet me -- the only customer -- with a copy of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

I walked back home in excitement, not realizing that I would put 30 or so hours into this massive open-world role-playing game only to drop it later. I should’ve known, as this bad habit has haunted me with all RPGs. But then, after four years, I finally came back to it, and in the summer of 2019, after 130 hours, I ended the Wild Hunt.

You may have heard (one too many times) that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the best action-RPG of all time. And now, on its five-year anniversary, I’m here to tell you that it isn’t, but also that it is. Confused? I know. 

Queue the Gwent soundtrack.

The Witcher 3’s crafted storytelling

The Witcher 3 opens with Geralt of Rivia, our sometimes brooding, sometimes emotional, sarcastic main character, on the hunt for his long lost love, Yennefer of Vengerberg. In the past two games, Geralt suffered from amnesia, but he would get glimpses and flashes of Yennefer being taken by the Wild Hunt.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt 5th anniversary retrospective

(Image credit: CD Projekt Red)

As it turns out, Yennefer escaped the Wild Hunt and is residing in the city of Vizima, aiding Emperor Emhyr. Emhyr tasks Geralt with finding Ciri, who is the daughter of the emperor and the last heir to an ancient elvish bloodline, but more importantly, Ciri is technically Geralt’s foster child.

As someone who never read the books, these turn of events were incredibly confusing, especially because the past two games don’t have Ciri or Yennefer in them. Yet, many people say you can play The Witcher 3 without playing the other two or even reading the books. That’s a pretty bizarre claim, especially when The Witcher 3 is technically the finale of an incredibly long tale.

However, the best part about The Witcher 3 is that I didn’t need to know about Yennefer or Ciri’s past with Geralt to know how much they meant to him. CD Projekt Red wrote The Witcher 3 in such a way that I became invested in the characters and in the world as soon as I jumped in. This story is about saving the world, like most epic tales are, but it’s really about a man who supposedly has no emotions trying to save his daughter from a seemingly inevitable fate: Death.

When I was on the trail, trying to find Ciri, every choice I made would get me closer or farther away from her. I got so invested in this tale, that at some point, I felt like Ciri was my own daughter. With that in mind, I stood in Whoreson Junior’s hideout, surrounded by his victims (you know the scene), and I had to make a choice. When I did, the Witcher said exactly what I felt in my gut, “Lemme tell you where things stand. I’m looking for this woman, ‘cause she’s like a daughter to me. And that’s why I just can’t let this go.” Junior died that night.

There are not many games that can incite a rage in me for a fictional character’s benefit. It was all thanks to CD Projekt Red’s great writing and storytelling. But how The Witcher 3 got me to that point was its dialogue choices.

You are your own arbiter of fate

Yes, the storytelling is great, but that’s not why The Witcher 3 is as immersive as it is. It’s because each dialogue choice you make can be as significant or insignificant as real life choices.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt 5th anniversary retrospective

(Image credit: CD Projekt Red)

Some games give every decision a consequence while others make all your decisions completely pointless. The Witcher 3 takes a more reasonable approach. Geralt of Rivia can be as nice or as sarcastic as you want him to be without altering significant plotlines. However, when it comes down to significant decisions, your consequences could haunt you for the rest of the game.

The beauty about The Witcher 3 is that there’s no A or B choice. For the most part, there are several ways a quest can unfold and typically there’s no one ending objectively better than the other (apart from that one very bad overall ending). Like the real world, there’s no such thing as black and white, and thus, The Witcher challenges your moral code. Seeing someone make decisions in The Witcher 3 can be very telling about their personality and ethics.

As an indecisive person, it’s difficult for me to make decisions in a video game. I almost always look up the outcomes online because I’m afraid of getting a bad ending. However, I never felt the need to do that while playing The Witcher 3. I always went with my gut, and more often than not, things turned out in a way that left a bittersweet satisfaction. As in real life, I would simply live with the consequences. 

Admittedly, there were only a couple of times where I reloaded to get a different ending because I really messed up. But the only time I ever looked up something was to ensure I got the ending I wanted for the main quest, which required a convoluted number of steps and conditions to be fulfilled.

Geralt of Eargasms

Can I just say that when Geralt of Rivia speaks, I am immediately enthralled. Doug Cockle, the actor who plays the White Wolf, can say literally anything and I will respond with, “Yes, okay, go on, daddy, tell me more, please.” That’s the graph.

The Witcher 3 soundtrack is everything

There are very few video game soundtracks with such an identifiable tone, but you could play any of The Witcher 3’s songs and I’d recognize them immediately.

If you’re walking the streets of Oxenfurt, “Whispers Of Oxenfurt” will lull you into a trance with its melodic violins and charismatic vocals. When you’re itching to play a game of Gwent to win that card you’ve been looking for, “The Nightingale” pumps you up with its punchy violins and drum beats as you rummage through which deck and cards to use. And when you finally come face to face with the king of the Wild Hunt, the decisively named “Eredin, King Of The Hunt” plays and hits you with suspenseful horns, sharp violins and atmospheric percussion.

The soundtrack is attached to the world. It doesn’t feel like the DJ just hit play on a song as we got to a certain point of the game. Instead, the world is intertwined with the soundtrack. I can’t think about an environment or scene without hearing the accompanying song.

A game within a game

It’s called Gwent and it’s one of the best card games I’ve ever played. I’ve put enough hours into Gwent to cover an entire game’s worth of play time.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt 5th anniversary retrospective

(Image credit: CD Projekt Red)

Gwent isn’t very complicated. It’s one of those games that’s easy to learn but hard to master. Your goal is to get enough attack points to beat your opponent’s points, but the tricky part is that there are three rounds in total and you are stuck with a set amount of cards. You might want to lose one round so you have enough cards saved up for the final round. There are ways to get more cards on the field by using summoning cards or cards that let you draw extra. It’s a mixture of strategy and luck -- if you don’t get a good hand to start with, you’re basically screwed. 

Gwent was so well-received that CD Projekt Red adapted it into its very own video game that you can download and play for free on Android, PlayStation 4, iOS, Xbox One and Microsoft Windows. The game is still receiving continuous updates.

And when The Witcher got its own spinoff game, Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales, its entire single-player campaign was based on Gwent. And that game is over 30 hours long.

The Witcher 3 is not a good action game

The Witcher 3 is, without a doubt, one of the best RPGs around, but it’s not the best action game, or even a good action game for that matter. Fighting in The Witcher 3 is something you have to do in order to get to the fun parts -- the exploration and dialogue. In fact, I have more fun crafting gear, potions and oils than I do actually putting them to use.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt 5th anniversary retrospective

(Image credit: CD Projekt Red)

Why? Because The Witcher 3 isn’t mechanically balanced. I played on the hardest difficulty and I never felt the need to turn to the badass oils or super cool combat skills that you get. It’s not that the combat was necessarily easy (I died plenty). The issue is that none of the cool things you can make, or skills that you get, were necessary in turning the tide of a battle. 

You are more than capable of surviving without investing in the cool mechanics that this game offers you. And even if you did invest in the proper crafting and skills, none of those actually helped in battle as much as they should.

There is only one fight in the entire base game that thoroughly challenged me, and that was against Imlerith. I felt like I was in a Dark Souls boss fight, as I was forced to roll around him constantly, use all the bombs at my disposal to blind him, and then use Igni to melt his frost shield away in order to do any real damage to him.

When I look at the DLC, specifically, Hearts of Stone, there’s one fight that thrilled me to the bone: the one against the Caretaker. From his character design to the fight itself, it was incredibly haunting. Every move it made was dangerous, and every step I made could’ve been my last. It was the best boss battle in The Witcher 3, by far.

Cheesy animations

The Witcher 3 is a gorgeous game, but the animations are so cheesy and clunky that it may very well tempt you to call it a Xbox 360 or PS3 game.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt 5th anniversary retrospective

(Image credit: CD Projekt Red)

Almost all of the game’s cutscenes are done in-engine, so big story moments are limited to clunky-looking animations. And every conversation is angled in the same over-the-shoulder shot, which looks fine, but when your character has to punch, or do some sort of other animation, it looks so damn cheesy.

There are a few pre-rendered cutscenes toward the beginning and end of the game that are fabulous, but they look almost too good. The faces don't resemble their characters within the game’s engine. They appear as if they’re what the characters of The Witcher 3 imagine themselves to look like (super stylish and badass), when, in regular gameplay, they look like what normal people would look like (OK, maybe a little better looking).

My favorite moment (Spoilers, duh)

There were so many awesome and satisfying moments in The Witcher 3, but the one that stands out the most was the ending. Not the base game’s ending, but the very end of the Blood and Wine DLC, which takes place post-game.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt 5th anniversary retrospective

(Image credit: CD Projekt Red)

There’s this image burned in my mind of Geralt staring out over the horizon on the vineyard,  Corvo Bianco, as Triss Merigold leisurely lays on a bench, casually chatting over their next anticipated adventure of moving to the cold mountainous region of Kovir and living happily ever after. I love that you can get an ending where Geralt’s daughter lives and he gets to move on with his life and be happy. He’s dealt with enough bullshit; He deserves it.

PS: Geralt and Yen were never good for each other, don’t @ me. 

PSS: To further prove my point, I’ll leave this quote from Act 3 here, which further validated my choice:

“With Yen it was fight after fight, lots of arguments, drama… Not saying it was bad, but… Got to be exhausting. With Triss, it’s not. I finally feel… harmony. A calm. Feel like things are the way they’re supposed to be.”

Should you play The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt?

Hell yeah. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is one of my favorite games of all time, and many people feel the same. No, it’s not perfect, as previously mentioned, but its superb storytelling and dialogue structure heavily outweigh the forgetful, mediocre combat system. I played it on “Death March!” or very hard mode, so I experienced some of the shortcomings of the game like a slap to the face, but you don’t have to be like me. Put that baby on “Just the Story!” and enjoy the smooth ride.

With that out of the way, you have to figure out just how you want to play it. As previously mentioned, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the last chapter of this story. If you want the true experience, start with the books and work your way up. If you’re not into reading, that’s fine, check out The Witcher 1 or Netflix's Witcher series and see if you like it. Or you can just skip all of it and go straight to The Witcher 3, which is okay, too. There’s no right way to play. CD Projekt Red set up The Witcher 3 in such a way that you really don’t need to consume the other books or games to get the full experience.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will always hold a special place in my heart, as it has marked multiple major life moments for me. When I first purchased this game, I just started dating my now fiancée. When I first beat this game, we had just moved into our first apartment. And as I am writing this retrospective now, we are in the process of buying a house. 

So, I might be biased, but you should play it anyway. Go ahead and toss a coin to your Witcher.