The Witcher III is a near-perfect game. I want you to understand that as I spend the next few paragraphs nitpicking the little annoyances that are sticking with me. Let me be clear: I absolutely adore this game. I have poured many many hours into my wanderings of The Continent as Geralt the Witcher, into tackling contracts and engaging in the small and strange politics of farming hamlets and deciding the lineage of kings and emperors. The Witcher III is easily one of the best open-world RPGs I have ever played and one of the best games of 2015 if not the best open-world RPG since the last Elder Scrolls. It gave me warm and fuzzy memories of the hours I spent in Tamriel and Skyrim, but it fascinated me with the careful and deceptively complex ease with which Andrezj Sapkowski’s world is constructed. CDProjekt RED’s efforts have not gone unappreciated and their continued efforts to update, patch, and expand the game with as little expense to the players and fans as humanly possible have been commendable. But my travels have left me with a few small annoyances, just a couple lingering details that I find wanting. And that’s what I’d like to talk about today.
In his video review of The Witcher III, SuperBunnyHop highlighted several grievances he had with the minimap in the game, advising that players try playing with the map turned off. He mentions that there are enough environmental clues and directions given to help you figure out where you are going and if you get lost, the World Map is only two clicks away. And to be honest, he has a point.
When playing the game without going into the settings and modifying the HUD, the minimap takes up most of the top right hand corner of the screen. It’s the easiest reference for where you are and is used in quite the same way as GTA’s minimap. It displays points of interest, tells you where you need to go, and tracks mission-specific GPS data for Geralt.
The problem is that I spent most of my playthrough staring at the damn thing. Not only is it an eyesore on the screen, it’s distracting and as unhelpful as its meant to be helpful. For instance, it’s not very great at letting you know the elevation of the areas you are traversing. When tagging an objective for any particular mission, it pinpoints where you need to go and then provides a dotted line for you to follow for the fastest path toward the point of interest. While the dotted line for the most part tries to stick to main roads and beaten pathways, often the dotted line will veer off into the wilderness, giving little care to any environmental obstructions in the way. Sometimes it will lead you the back way into a mission area or just be generally confusing.
In addition to these issues, the dotted line exists only on the minimap. It doesn’t appear on the environment. Compare this to a similar system in Watch_Dogs. That game treats the minimap almost literally as a GPS, with a highlighted route appearing on the actual road in-game to help you along. The result of these issues is that the player can spend half the game staring at the minimap as it directs them around The Continent with nary a care for what obstacles, enemies, or even story-relevant mission points surround them.
Now what could be done to fix this issue? Well, for starters it would be nice for something to happen environmentally when you place a waypoint on the map. Nothing as intrusive as Watch_Dogs’ GPS road markings, rather anything that could possibly help a player suss out where they are and where they are going. I’m thinking maybe adding a pillar of smoke in the distance to mark personal waypoints, like a distant campfire beckoning Geralt to inspect it. Or perhaps a version of Fallout 4’s navigational V.A.N.S. perk (which allows players to jump into V.A.T.S. for a moment to see a glowing directional path on the ground to follow to their next objective) could be integrated into Geralt’s Witcher Senses. Both of these options could encourage the player to look around the actual environment around them rather than stare at the top-down minimap in the corner. Because it’s a shame to play this game and not be given a chance to marvel at the gorgeous landscape.
Kaer Morhen is of great importance to Geralt of Rivia and the witchers of the School of the Wolf. It’s home to them, the place where they were taken to grow up and be trained in the ways of The Path. For Geralt, it’s the only place that’s really home to him. This sentiment isn’t shared by all who winter there (Lambert for instance hates the reminders the fortress gives him of the trauma of the Trials of the Grasses) but there is no denying that Kaer Morhen is singularly important to the story and world of The Witcher III. It’s the last area of the map opened up in the main story and it’s the bastion of all the main characters. Story-wise its massively important in that its where Geralt and the other choose to stand and fight The Wild Hunt when they come calling for Ciri. It’s a lively and fascinating location in The Witcher universe, not the least of which because of the overwhelming sense of history it brings with it. The castle itself looks exactly the same as it did in the first Witcher, down to the smallest detail. Even the breach in the castle walls where the Salamandra broke in during that game’s prologue remains, it being repurposed as a shortcut for a quest with Lambert. They even joke about it. It’s clear immediately when you arrive, Kaer Morhen is the home of The Witchers.
So why doesn’t it feel like it? Sure, there’s a couple of side-quests scattered around the valley and the main quests that you undertake within the walls of the castle are massively entertaining and exciting, but the actual castle itself is…well, it’s kind of hollow. Items lay about the large hall, scattered amongst shelving and piles of books, but nothing of any real value. There’s nothing really to do at the fortress besides the few quests dotted about, and what use you really have for the castle diminishes once The Battle of Kaer Morhen is over. During cutscenes and dialogue, the castle feels like home. But in gameplay it couldn’t feel colder or hollower.
I’m reminded of the Normandy in the Mass Effect games. That place felt like home. It was where you went between missions, where you commiserated with your crew and gathered their respect. In some instances, you could even connect the storefronts on the citadel to your ship’s quartermaster’s store so you could access them without leaving the Normandy. It was nice, cozy, and felt like home. While Kaer Morhen doesn’t unlock until later in The Witcher III, it is meant to be Geralt’s home base. Yet it offers none of these comforts. The NPCs I send there like Keira and Letho cannot even be found in some side room until the plot deems their presence needed. There’s nothing distinguishing Kaer Morhen from any dockside inn or ale house in Skellige and that just doesn’t feel right.
In my opinion, one thing that can be done to fix this up is to make Kaer Morhen feel special as a location. Another gripe I have about the game is the way merchants and herbalists are scattered across the Continent without us being given any real assurance as to what items they are selling. And while it helps enliven the subtle worldbuilding for some merchants sell different wares of different economic status and value corresponding to the areas they operate in, it’s ridiculously frustrating that it’s near impossible to tell where I can buy what herbs or which merchant has the treasure maps that will lead me to new Witcher school gear. I understand that an herbalist in Skellige may not be selling the same herbs as one in Velen, it is annoying to jaunt around the map and endure several loadings screens in order to find the one little herb I need without having to consult an online guide.
So why not let Kaer Morhen be stocked with as many herbs as possible? That would make sense wouldn’t it? Maybe Vesemir has a whole storage room in the castle and will gladly give Geralt herbs if he is willing to pay in order to replace them. Maybe some of those treasure maps are hidden amongst the bookcases in the castle, left behind by wandering witchers in years past. Maybe Eskel can place an order of materials for your armor crafting or Lambert could let you buy some decoction formulas he had lying around. Can one of the Persons in Distress on your travels be a blacksmith or armorer you can send to Kaer Morhen? Any of these things can be used to liven up Kaer Morhen and make it feel more like an actual home for Geralt than just a castle relevant only to the plot.
I’ll admit, the first time I saw the comic-book style paintings used on specific loading screens in The Witcher III, I thought they were gorgeous. Not only were they pretty to look at, they were also a nice way of keeping the player updated as to where they were in the story. A lot of huge RPGs suffer an issue where the player gets so caught up enjoying the side-content that they nearly forget where they are in the main story. They get lost and the story loses all tension. This was particularly notable in Skyrim, where the main story (which felt like such an immediate issue in the prologue) could be postponed and forgotten about easily. Grounding The Witcher III’s plot using the loading screens overlayed with an older Dandelion’s chronicle of Geralt’s adventures keeps players abreast of the immediate goings on of the story.
The problem is that, if a player is easily distracted and wanders off the beaten path to play some side missions and complete Witcher contracts, there’s a very real chance they could end up seeing the same loading screens multiple times during the game. This becomes a particularly notable issues later in the game when the player reaches Skellige and ends up fast traveling between the Isles, Velen, and Novigrad to complete side content. The loading screens feel the need to remind us what happened in each of those areas when jumping between them. Even worse, once all three areas have been searched for Ciri and the story converges back together into one questline in Act 2, the loading screens stop differentiating between areas. I swear I saw the loading screen about Uma about a dozen times before I took to muting the TV when I fast traveled.
This is a particularly galling issue because the game already features some nice silent loading screens showcasing landscape images of the areas you are traveling to. Traveling to Velen for instance shows off a nice mural of a swamp while Novigrad is displayed as a city in the background amongst pleasant farming villages. I realize fast traveling will result in me seeing more loading screens than I probably needed to in-game, but I could have dealt with them being these nice silent ones rather than having to hear that Uma is the key to finding Ciri for the umpteenth time. If the game could possibly register how often the player has seen a single loading screen in a play session and stop showing them after maybe the third time, it would certainly help. I know the main plot is a pressing issues, but there’s a lot of other things to do in the game so I’d appreciate it if I didn’t have to be constantly reminded of what I’m “supposed” to be doing while I’m doing what I “want” to do.
Again, all of these are small issues in an otherwise perfect video game. At the present I’m looking forward to getting through the New Game+ content and level high enough to get into the Hearts of Stone Expansion pack, but these are all complaints large enough to warrant mention.