On Black Friday 2019 I purchased a PS4 and a stack of games. I had been playing almost entirely indie games for the past ten years with several exceptions: Blizzard games, a few Nintendo games, Tomb Raider, Mass Effect 3, and Fallout 4. Many modern AAA franchises never interested me, or lost my interest when I heard about how long, repetitive, and/or homogeneous they often were. Still, I knew I had missed some great games over the years, so my goal now is to play through some recent AAA games that interest me and to write about each of them. Assume there are spoilers and enjoy!
Before I get into this I just want to say this: I really did not like this game. If you are a huge Witcher 3 fan just be warned now. I tried to think about different kinds of ways I could write this but ultimately my dislike of it was so great I felt compelled to write it all down. Feel free to disagree but if you’re gonna do the the standard internet freakout, well...I guess you can do that too but I’m not gonna respond.
I’m not really one to buy into hype so if you’re thinking the game was overhyped, it wasn’t, at least not for me. I went into The Witcher 3 thinking it would be a fun big fantasy game I’d probably like a lot but not love. I was dead wrong. With some exceptions I hateplayed my entire way through this absolute disaster of a game. It continuously surprised me with just how poorly designed, how stupid, and how boring it was. You might be wondering why I even finished it, but I’ll get to that later.
I hate walking in The Witcher 3. When I say I hate it - I mean I HATE it. This game has some of the worst controls I have ever seen in a game with a big budget. It reminded me of the tank controls in old Resident Evil games except 15 years too late for that to be acceptable. Everything you actually DO in this game: walking, running, riding your horse, swimming, looting, punching, and swording (more on the combat in a bit) is awkward, stilted, and a constant struggle with the game controller. I can not tell you how many times I spent 15 seconds trying to open a door, or I got caught on a fence, or I spent 30 seconds trying to trot past two trees on my dumbass horse. The controls in this game fight you every second of the game and make the entire thing game feel like a game developer’s sick joke.
When you add in the fact that the text, along with the on screen button icon for interacting, is TINYYYYYY the simple act of looting a corpse or opening a barrel (things you will do literally constantly) was a nightmarish ride through hell. Will Geralt step past the corpse? to the left? to the right? will I accidentally light this candle for the fifth time? How a game with such basic failure in controls can be so popular is beyond my understanding. My main method of playing this game was leaning forward on my couch, squinting, staring at the minimap, spamming the X button on my PS4 controller, and running in circles attempting to loot. In fact, I played like this so often I felt like I barely spent time looking at the actual game.
The fighting in this game is absolute trash. I could talk about the huge delay from button press to action, or all the combat bugs - like the time I couldn’t use any signs for an hour, or the several times I couldn’t dodge, or how locking onto a target only seems to work 50% of the time - but instead I’ll talk about the actual simply basic failures of the combat.
Geralt’s flourishes are a nice idea but lock you into animations far too long for a game with such frequent combat. It was so hard to tell when Geralt was done dancing that my general method for combat was spam light attack for 5 seconds to get two hits in, spam dodge until I dodge, and repeat. Literally every fight can be won this way because the fighting is extremely boring and every single battle is the same, every monster seems to have the exact same AI. This game was so incredibly easy I found myself fighting ?? enemies for fun just to see if I could widdle them down (after five minutes of attack attack dodge I’d lose focus and eventually get hit after not paying attention). Sure there are a few challenging fights that I guess just involve you spamming dodge a lot more, but probably around 95% of the fights in this game are identical. I imagine the game is a lot more challenging on the hardest difficulty...but why in god’s name would I want to play such a badly designed game on hard?
Yet again I am puzzled by people’s insistence that a game is “deep” and has “great characters” and an “amazing story”. Geralt, for a 90 year old man who has traveled extensively and met a huge variety of people, is an idiot. Every other character in the game either 1) wants to fuck Geralt for unknown reasons 2) has virtually no character development or 3) is filler.
The dialogue itself is beautifully written and obviously is well tailored to fit into this sprawling medieval-stylized world. I commend the writers for committing so much to the tone and world of the game and for writing SO much. However, writing is not just well crafted individual lines - it’s a narrative, a story, a plot, character development, character motivations, themes, and more, something I feel like too many people forget.
So much of The Witcher 3 conflicts with itself and/or is arbitrary. There will be a deep serious scene where Geralt opts to not kill someone, only to IMMEDIATELY kill many people in the exact same situation as the previous character. Primary NPCs repeatedly talk about Geralt’s celebrity status as an epic undefeated Witcher and yet every single other NPC you meet seems to have never heard of him AND wants to fight him - even if they’ve just watched him slaughter a dozen men. The Emperor of Nilfgaard keeps getting pissed at and will stop you, in the middle of searching for Ciri, to yell at you about not searching for Ciri. There are also a slew of incongruent scenes that talk about plot you haven’t experienced if you didn’t happen to do a certain side quest. The best, simple, example of this constantly conflicting and poorly organized plot is the fact that the entire story is predicated on a desperate urgent search for someone in the LEAST urgent game ever. It is constantly jarring for Geralt to berate someone for information about Ciri only to then do nothing with the information gained while he prances around killing people for some unknown reason. To put this specific point more simply - I don’t think the plot of this game makes sense in an open world format.
Also, just to note: I was told by several people, and read in posts online, that the plot really gets going during the Bloody Baron questline and uh....no. It really doesn’t. The writers of this game are neither qualified nor capable of writing a good story about domestic violence. And while the voice acting in this quest, and in the whole game, is generally very good, the quest is ultimately pretty idiotic. When I somehow ended up with the result of returning the Baron’s wife to him, in a vulnerable state, after years of severe physical abuse, all because he said once that he was changed, I was like “yeah.............no.” That entire quest line has problems far too deep for me to get into here but, like the rest of the game, it seems serious and well thought out on the surface but if you scratch even an inch underneath it all falls apart. Which also leads me to...
It’s a tough call but I’m fairly certain The Witcher 3 is the most misogynistic game I’ve ever played. The examples are plentiful: women’s unexplained obsession with the aloof Geralt (and his stupid friend Dandelion), the sexualized naked women dead or alive, the constant sexist NPC jokes as background chatter, the frequent noonwraith quests which seem to all involve the trope of a woman scorned/ruined/whatever, fantasy’s long standing obsession with rape and brothels and its terrible depictions of both, even its mythology around a miscarried baby turning into a botchling perpetuating the myth that unborn fetuses are just straight up fully grown babies, etc. etc. etc. This game is absolutely obsessed with women except for where it actually matters.
While the game does give choices, and some choices are certainly better than others at showing a woman’s agency as an actual human being, the choices are still selected by the writers of the game and are often no real choice at all. I think a good, simple, seemingly innocuous example of this is the end result of all the Dudu quests. If you’ve killed Whoreson Jr. and finished the main quest line with Dudu you’ll eventually get a quest hearing that Whoreson Jr. is still alive. You will find and confront him and learn that Dudu has taken his image and is leading his gang! You get a quick overview of what led Dudu to this point and learn that there’s a happy ending - Dudu has sold his brothels and casinos and is making more money than ever in legitimate trade! The ignored problem here is that not only did Geralt and Ciri not seem to care at all when they first thought he was running his own sex slavery business, we are supposed to be happy that Dudu sold his slaves to someone else, and is now happy and the men in his gang are getting paid. It never even occurred to the writers that the women in the brothels could get new jobs in the business or be given control of their own sex work. Like so many women in the game, they’re an object in the plot pushed around an elaborately shallow narrative.
When I finally traveled to some of the other dimensions referenced earlier in the game I couldn’t believe that this could have been the game world all along. In game dialogue and writing constantly references stories about Geralt that are far more interesting than what you actually do in game, so to finally go somewhere new was a breath of fresh air. And then it was over. The most interesting leg of the main questline was so short it ended up just making me annoyed. There was so much there that could have been interweaved throughout the game, but that reminded of one of the main issues that made The Witcher 3 so unbearable: the pacing.
This entire game you’re searching for people to help you search for people who will help you search for people. You run around the same boring monotonous grey caves and brown fields. There’s so many hours of discussion of finding Ciri that is strong-armed into the dialogue and ignored in the actual playing of the game that by the time I actually found her I was like...how do these two know each other again? What is the plot of this game? Who is the Wild Hunt? Why are they space elves? What is a Witcher?
The Witcher 3 very much felt like so many game worlds feel like: a huge fucking mess that I can cherry pick cool parts out of to remember and enjoy and pretend like that is the full experience of the game.
Everyone I spoke to and everything I saw online kept saying the same thing: oh it gets REALLY good at X part, oh you gotta play with mods it’s amazing with mods, well yea the first 80 hours can be rough but those last 20 are AMAZING, etc. Stuff like that tells me one thing right off the bat: this game is probably overrated. However, I figured it’s gotta be at least pretty fun to mess around in its huge open world, and ultimately it was, I just didn’t expect the actual game to be so awful.
The truth is that open worlds are fun for a whole lot of gamers, myself included. They are the height of video games’ raw technical power and a lot of that shows in The Witcher 3 even though it has bad writing, bad art direction, and bad gameplay. This is something that large game corporations have been exploiting for years and why I lost interest in AAA games in the first place. After I finally finished Skyrim years ago it occurred to me that the game was just kind of okay. The fun I had was all in exploring a very expensively made world that had sacrificed a lot of other game design concepts to make it bigger and prettier than anything else out there. The superficial nature of the game hit me like a truck. The same exact thing happened with Fallout 4. Now the same thing has happened with The Witcher 3, by far the worst open world game I’ve ever played.
The Witcher 3 reminded me exactly why I stopped playing these typical big AAA games in the first place. They are specifically designed to suck me in, not because they’re good or because they’re fun, but because they follow a specific formula tailored to stimulate me, consumer #56782A. Now that I’m older, and have been through this before, I can recognize this formula much more easily. I finished The Witcher 3 because I knew it would be the last time I ever play one of these painfully mediocre, time wasting, frivolous disasters. The game was so bad, boring, and meaningless it made me question whether I wanted to continue playing AAA games at all. Fortunately, I recently played Bloodborne which very much feels like the AAA antithesis of The Witcher 3 and reminds me that there are still fun, good games out there. So I guess I’ll go play Dark Souls Remastered next?