The Question Mark: Bewitched by the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

As I am getting used to writing this blog, I don’t want to fall into the trap of reviewing and recommending games. There are sites for that. What I do want, however, is to sometimes take a moment and dissect a game I am playing – especially if it is leaving an impression. This provides the dual function of expanding on any thoughts that I have during the Exclamation Mark podcast as well as giving my poor wife’s ears a break. So, after about four podcasts of gushing, it is a surprise to nobody that the first game I want to look at is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

Geralt of Rivia is a bad mother... Watch your mouth! Im talking bout Geralt!
Geralt of Rivia is a bad mother… Watch your mouth! I’m talking ’bout Geralt!

Game of the Year

I think the collective feeling about last year is that it was a shit year for videogames. Most Game of the Year awards went to Dragon Age: Inquisition, a game that I still feel is genuinely good, bordering on great. The fact that Hearthstone, a collectible card game, was even in the running (and was probably my pick for Game of the Year) is a testament to what a weak year it was. Videogames take multiple years to develop and – as delays pile up – it is very possible to end up with a year like 2014. I would argue that with game like Ori and the Blind Forest, Heroes of the Storm, Batman: Arkham Knight, and Bloodborne on the table, 2015 may have surpassed it already. With The Witcher 3, 2015 has now blown 2014 out of the water. Upcoming games like Fallout 4 have their work cut out for them.

A Sequel in Name Only

The last game I felt this passionately about was Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. That game was mature, cinematic and impactful. It was also accessible. It had a short and powerful name with no colons or dashes in it. It wasn’t a sequel and it was exquisitely streamlined for console play. When people would ask me what I was playing, I could say “The Last of Us” and they generally wanted to know more. When they hear the name “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” it sounds like I am talking about a B-movie I found in the Shoppers Drug Mart discount bin.

Dere be treasure in dem dere bins!
Dere be treasure in dem dere bins! Yes I am aware that this photo is of a CD bin. Ask your parents.

The harsh truth is that nobody really played the Witcher 1 and only a few more played the Witcher 2 and that was because it was on XBOX360. The games are adaptations of the work of a Polish author that – believe it or not – have not been completely translated to English. Yes, that’s right, this is a triple A game experience based on the written works of an international author. It would be like playing a game adaptation of the third part of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. How does this even happen much less get greenlit?

Who knows, maybe one day this third part of a foreign movie trilogy will make an excellent video game.
Who knows, maybe one day this third part of a foreign movie trilogy will make an excellent video game. Stranger things have happened.

Passion on Display

It happens due to the passion of a game developer, in this case CD Projeckt Red. The company successfully funds itself through revenue generated by their Good Old Games (GOG) online store. They can afford to make the games that they want to play and their small team decided that they want the Witcher (disclaimer: they are also Polish so it might be like if us Canadians made that Neil Young MMO I have been suggesting – first boss: Justin Bieber). A one hundred man (and women) team may not sound big, but compared to the Ubisofts and Bethesdas, it is tiny. Compared to what they realized in the creation of the world of the Witcher, it is flabbergasting.

In my MMO, you would play as a bard named "Neil" and have to shred to attack enemies. 15 minute version of Cowgirl in the Sand would be needed to beat the game.
In my MMO, you would play as a bard named “Neil” and have to shred to attack enemies. 15 minute version of Cowgirl in the Sand would be needed to beat the game.

A World of War and Monsters

Temeria, the world of the Witcher is ridiculously shitty. It would be near the bottom of my list of “videogame worlds to live in”, right after the hellscape that is Street Cleaning Simulator. War-torn and ravaged by monsters, it is beyond saving, you can only hope to survive it and maybe make a little coin on the side. A Witcher is a human that was genetically mutated and given powers that allow it to track and kill monsters – a true monster hunter for hire. Technically, the Witchers skill set, including magical spells and dual swords (one for the humans, one for the fiends) make him more like a Jedi than any fantasy character I have seen. He even has a Jedi Mind Trick type ability!

Hello darkness my old friend.
Hello darkness my old friend.

The monsters are amazingly designed and legitimately creepy. Not to offer any spoilers but there is one encounter in particularly that I felt was even emotionally challenging. The variety of creatures is huge and does an admirable job of mixing western and Slavic folk traditions to create a bestiary of epic fiends.

A World of Size and Density

It seems that in this post-Skyrim world, open world games are chasing the square footage. From the streets of San Andreas to the mountains of Kyrat to the wilds of Ferelden, bigger is the new better. By that metric, the Witcher 3 is the best yet but square footage seldom tells the whole tale. Think of an open-world game you have played, it could be an action adventure, an RPG, a shooter. What do they have in common? Fetch quests, meaningless collect-o-thons where you repeat the same actions over and over and over again. How many rifts can you close in Dragon Age? How many towers can you climb in Far Cry? How many gangs can you hack in Watchdogs? The Witcher 3 does away with this mentality entirely. It coats every significant collectable, every quest, every Witcher contract, every event with context, quality and personality. Each piece of extra content could be favourably compared to the core story content of any similar game. What is remarkable is not only that they were successfully able to do this but that they were successfully able to do it at the size and scale that they are doing it. It takes hours of gameplay to really understand this. At one point it will just hit you that everything there is to do in this world is satisfying and enjoyable with no filler and that is when the true appreciation of the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt begins.

Oh sweet, another rift to close. Only 712 more to go! Are we having fun yet?
Oh sweet, another rift to close. Only 712 more to go! Are we having fun yet?

Finesse and Function

In the past I have felt like open-world games in general and RPGs in particular, have used their size and scope and sense of exploration to excuse subpar gameplay. Skyrim and Fallout offer somewhat mediocre first person shooter-type experiences. Dragon Age: Inquisition is essentially MMO-combat with hot keys and skills refreshing all the time. The Witcher offers full action, a system that offers a variety of ways of tackling a fight but makes you think before every move. We just saw For Honor revealed at E3 by Ubisoft, a game devoted entirely to melee combat, and as soon as I saw it, I remember thinking that the Witcher 3 was already offering a similar experience. Quality gameplay in a rich fantasy world. It seems like those two things should have been paired together a long time ago yet, here we are. This is the standard that future games will have to meet. They will no longer be able to coast on the size of their worlds.

Look guys, far be it for me to question your life choices but it may not be worth picking a fight with a Witcher known as the White Wolf. Just saying.
Look guys, far be it for me to question your life choices but it may not be worth picking a fight with a Witcher known as the White Wolf. Just saying.

A Few Issues

As much as I would like it to be so, the Witcher 3 is not a perfect game. What it does well, it does so magnificently well that it often overshadows the failings… but there are failings. In the end, it is not a game for everyone. You are playing a character with a pre-established personality in Geralt of Rivia. While you can make choices that impact both the world and the type of personality that Geralt exhibits, he is still who you are playing. In a way, it reminded me of Mass Effect games although here – despite some sections where you play as his ward Ciri – you are mostly limited to playing a white man with a gruff personality. I would say it is a bit akin to Red Dead Redemption: Fantasy Version.

I got a silver bullet with your name on it you werewolf freak.
I got a silver bullet with your name on it you werewolf freak.

Another sizable issue surrounds inventory management which, while improved over the previous two games, is still overly complicated and cumbersome, making it scary and inaccessible to many console players. It is an evolution of the game’s PC roots but could perhaps have been done more elegantly.

I am playing on PS4 and while there isn’t much loading (no loading screens in-game), there is a sizable load when you die. This can lead to frustrating situations when fighting a giant monster that seemingly has your number.

Tip #1: Play it Right You Noob!

Now I am sure you want to stop reading and run out and buy the game right now and while that is definitely a good idea, I would leave you with some tips. I am about a third of the way through which I realize doesn’t sound far but it will make more sense when you actually start playing the game. Here are a few recommendations that I would make for new players to get full enjoyment out of the game:

Skip Witcher 1 and 2! I really wish someone had told me this earlier as I was reluctant to buy the game having not completed either of Geralt’s previous two quests. The third game is so much better that I wouldn’t let not having played the first two limit you. If anything, they may put you off playing this one.

Watch a YouTube video first! While the story of Wild Hunt is fairly self-contained, you would get a better appreciation of the world, the books and the characters if you just watch a five minute YouTube video. There are a couple of decent ones out there. This is particularly helpful if this is your first Witcher game.

Play on a Hard Difficulty! I am playing on the second highest difficulty. To do any less, for a game like this, is to do yourself a disservice. There are game mechanics, namely identifying monsters’ weaknesses and preparing for them, that are much more relevant when the game is harder. You will still generally feel like a badass, but you have to gauge risk a lot more. Definitely worth playing on a harder level.

Don’t Quit on White Orchard! You begin the game in the village of White Orchard and, while a microcosm for the gameplay you will experience, it doesn’t give you an effective sense of scale or adventure. I could see people dropping before they even really get going.

More to Come

I have a lot left to experience in the Witcher and there are supposedly expansions packs (remember those?) coming later this year. Those expansions have now become my most anticipated games of 2015. CD Projeckt Red’s next game bears a title associated with one of my favourite genres of fiction: Cyberpunk 2077. Imagining the density and quality of narrative and gameplay of the Witcher 3 married to a new world set in my favourite genre is very exciting and I can’t wait to know more about that one.

Will this game be awesome? Only time will tell... I AM JUST KIDDING IT WILL BE AWESOME!
Will this game be awesome? Only time will tell… I AM JUST KIDDING IT WILL BE AWESOME!

Is there a game mentioned on the Exclamation Mark that you want to hear more about? Do you have comments on the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt? Let us know!

The Question Mark – JRPGS: The Videogame Teenager

Okay, tell me if you have heard this one before: once upon a time, in a fantasy or perhaps sci-fi land, far, far away a teenager with very loose control over his hair gel bottle has been tasked with saving the world. It turns out that he is the chosen one and must rally his friends together to fight an evil enemy. The friends include a loud and brash fighter-type, a quiet ingénue woman that the hero secretly pines after, the hero’s female childhood friend who is clearly romantically interested in him, and an odd creature character with magical special abilities. After exploring the world and facing much adversity, the ragtag bunch of young heroes defeat their enemy, only to discover that another even bigger enemy was behind the nefarious deeds all along. Any of this sound familiar? If so, then congratulations: you have definitely played a Japanese role-playing game!

"C'mon Mr. Drippy, let's go express our opinion in a pointed blog post!"
“C’mon Mr. Drippy, let’s go express our opinion in a pointed blog post!”

Japanese role-playing games – or JRPGs – occupy an interesting space in videogaming as no other genre that I can think of has the nationality of the country so attached to it. The Witcher isn’t called a Polish RPG, despite being made in Poland. It is just called a role-playing game with the adjective “western” only occasionally added to differentiate it from the distinctive kookiness of the Japanese variety. Now, it already sounds like I am coming down on JRPGs and I don’t mean to because I honestly like them and there are few genres of any entertainment that elicits more nostalgia from me than a good ol’fashioned JRPG. Let’s take a look back, shall we?

In the beginning, there was only Fantasy and it was Final

In every generation, computer gaming enthusiasts continuously tout the complexity and maturity of the games that are exclusive to the PC as a platform. I would argue that there was no bigger truth to that than in the 8-bit and 16-bit generations where limited technology, marketing, and staunch kid-friendly corporate value systems limited the breadth of console gaming. Even Sega, which loudly proclaimed that it did “what Nintendont”, offered similarly basic experiences although often loaded with additional blood and ‘tude.

You had me at Spider-Man!
You had me at Spider-Man but then you throw in MJ? I love you Genesis!

There is nothing wrong with a basic experience per se – Pong is basic, Super Mario Bros. is basic, as is almost everything that requires a two button controller. For every Zelda or Metroid, there was probably one hundred Excitebikes or Track and Fields, fun games for sure but nothing that will have you gripped to your controller at all hours of the morning. From Star Control 2 to X-COM: UFO Defense, Dune 2, the adventure catalogues of Sierra and Lucasarts, the Ultimas or Wing Commanders – PC was the place to be for older gamers seeking a deep multi-hour experience.

Kids are pretty smart though and they wanted Zelda-sized experiences out of their games. Enter the JRPG: the equivalent of a gaming gateway drug. One of the first, and most notable, remains Final Fantasy.

It is now pretty widely known that the name “Final Fantasy” stems from the fact that it was Squaresoft’s last attempt at making a game before they were to go out of business. They threw everything into the game, including the kitchen sink, and a large yellow bird that you could ride around on.  It had story, personality, complexity, and it was a huge success (despite the fact that you had to buy the healing potions one at a time – I am still annoyed about that).

Growing Pains

My mom didn’t want us to have a Nintendo when we were kids. She saw the zapper and thought that it would conditioned her boys to join the military (in her defense, the zapper really does look like a gun – I would like to see Nintendo release something like that today).

Nintendo zapper: Fun toy or insidious military training tool?
Nintendo zapper: Fun toy or insidious military training tool?

One day, I had to have a tooth pulled and – to reward me for being tough son of a gun – she borrowed an NES from a friend along with a couple of games, including the original Dragon Warrior (also called Dragon Quest, it’s complicated, don’t ask). From fighting my first slime to getting my first phat piece of l00t, I was hooked. I played Dragon Warrior more than all the other games combined and didn’t even come close to finishing it before, to my dismay, I had to return the system.

Ignore his cuteness - this sucker means business.
Ignore his cuteness – this sucker means business – and yes Beau, this is the best resolution I could find.

The same pattern repeated itself when I got my wisdom teeth yanked, except this time it was a Super Nintendo and I finished the game. This time it was the story-heavy adventure of Cecil, the Dark Knight and his friends in Final Fantasy II (or IV depending on how you count – it’s complicated, don’t ask). As a young teenager at the time, the emotions presented in that game – betrayal, friendship, love, loss – while perhaps rudimentary by our Last of Us modern standards, captured me and whisked me away. Whereas many of the PC RPGs I played had me inhabiting nameless avatars, Final Fantasy II made me a part of a team of friends, one that bonded together as the adventure took them to the moon and back. And the music! Oh that music! Final Fantasy III followed (or VI, it’s complicated, don’t ask) and upped the stakes further, allowing you to control an epically large cast of characters as they worked to take down an evil empire. Games like Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger and Breath of Fire helped round out the SNES, each epic in scope with soaring musical scores and intense emotion.

These guys are my homies.
These guys are my homies – even that backstabber Kain.

The JRPG reached its nadir with Final Fantasy VII on the original Playstation. Sony pulled off a coup, luring Square away from Nintendo and putting a large marketing campaign behind the first PSX-exclusive FF game. I remember seeing actual television ads! People at my school legitimately asked if I had ever heard of “Final Fantasy” as if it had never existed before. It was completely crazy and while not the sole reason the Playstation beat the Nintendo 64, at least a significant one. Final Fantasy VII came on something like a hundred CDs with video and everything. It was big-time and – twenty year spoiler alert – included the death of a major character. Multiple other JRPGs, including two other Final Fantasys, were released for the Playstation and if you ever look at a “Best of” list of its games, you will see a lot of Japanese content. Some of the games, like Suikoden and Final Fantasy Tactics tried to broaden the narrative scope to encompass entire wars (don’t worry, they were still resolved by teenagers). However, with Halo, Grand Theft Auto, God of War and the Xbox on the horizon, console gaming was about to become increasingly adult.

Not only is this not a girl but that sword is also super practical. Crazy, I know!
Not only is this not a girl but that sword is also super practical. Crazy, I know!

The End of an Era?

Now time has gone on, gamers have aged and consoles have become increasingly similar to computers. Some of the most complex and mature gameplay experiences now exist solely on console. Time has seemingly not been kind to the JRPG which has almost remained stagnant, evolving little since the days of Cecil and his Red Wings. The narrative tropes are visible, young teens saving the world with their friends, the game mechanics recycled (random battles anyone?), all catering to the same young audience that is now spoiled for choice. The days of a JRPG making or breaking a game console are long past and many of the franchises have dried up in popularity in the West.

As I have mentioned on EXM recently, I am currently playing Xenogears, which many are saying was the last truly great JRPG. I am enjoying it, if partially in a nostalgic way, but at this point I feel like I can see a lot of the seams. I truly hope that the story of Shulk and his friends is resonating with young teens in the same way that Cecil’s Red Wings won me over. The emotion these games possess are powerful and the values they share important but, as sure as one day we have to grow up and become adults, so too does it seem that we are all fated to leave what we all used to view as the most narratively complex videogames behind.

Is there a JRPG that meant a lot to you? Is there still room for them in this modern world or are they teenaged relics of a previous generation? Tweet at @exmpodcast or @croftonsteers and let me know!