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Character creation is great, the more detailed the better but it all means next to nothing if there’s no personality to back it up. Of course personality doesn’t have to be the spoken word. Some of the RPG genres best player characters don’t have a voice but they have great dialogue all the same. Take Fallout: New Vegas for example, few other games give the player the option – if their strength stat is high enough – to say: “I’m sorry, but all these muscles make it hard to hear sometimes. What was that about risk?”. It’s why sometimes in an RPG you’re better off controlling a pre-set character with an actual personality rather than a custom character whose dialogue sounds like it was written by an AI after playing 1,000 hours of Fallout 4. This specificity of character is what makes games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt so successful.
Making a good RPG often comes down to great writing. Admittedly there’s a whole lot more like mechanics, graphics and world design to consider but without a compelling story with writing to match then the rest is moot no matter how good it is. The Witcher 3 had everything that makes a good RPG in spades. Even minor characters stayed in the memory long after their side-quests or conversations were complete. It’s graphics were often pristine as players maneuvered the Witcher Geralt of Rivia over the wild terrain of Skellige, through the bustling, filthy port of Novigrad and over the cracked and war-torn Velen countryside. Enemies were vicious and varied ranging from giant spider-ants to human bandits to werewolves and fighting them felt at once acrobatic and desperate. But it would have all meant nothing had The Witcher 3 not had such likable characters living in such a rich, detailed world.
The Cintran Princess Cirilla, Ciri to her friends, is missing and the mighty Nifgaardian Empire has hired the Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, to find her. Of course Geralt is Ciri’s surrogate father and he has his own agenda for finding her. He will journey from the ravaged farmland of Velen through the port city of Novigrad and take ship to the Skellige Islands. Along the way he will meet seductive, deceptive sorceresses, cowardly bards and face the dimension crossing Wild Hunt who seek the princess in order to save their home world.
All of that sounds like your typical fantasy mumbo-jumbo and it would be were it not for the captivating characters and exceptional world design. But the game is by no means linear, player choice is integral to The Witcher 3 and although players must play as Geralt they can craft and hone his personality as they see fit.
The Witcher 3 disposed of limiting and arbitrary morality systems instead letting seemingly innocuous choices and bits of advice echo into the later parts of the game. Advising a sorceress to take her plague cure to the magic-fearing Mad King Radovid of Redania will lead to her death on a burning stake. Advising her to head to the Witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen in the northern mountains has a much more positive outcome.
It’s not just the choices in The Witcher 3 that echo. CD Projekt Red’s award-winning series were part of a wider trilogy and although The Witcher and The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings shared a more unified story the choices made in the first two games dovetailed nicely into the third. After all The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings tells a story of continental geopolitics and Geralt’s actions – whether he was siding with the Temerian nationalists or allowing the assassin Letho, a fellow Witcher, to survive despite his regicide – meant something in the wider world of the series. It was a leaf taken from the likes of the Mass Effect series and like that sci-fi epic the impact of Geralt’s choices resonated not just through the halls of Kings and Emperors but in the hearts and minds of his friends and foes.
The Witcher 3 is the greatest mainstream action RPG this decade. What do I mean by mainstream? Accessibility is how I define it. The first two Witcher games were about as easy to get into as a brick and the third maintained this challenging nature but it had such confidence in its story and characters that more difficulty options were added. This way less able players or those who wanted more story than action could still feel like a bad ass monster slayer. Its design reflected its appeal at both ends of the action RPG spectrum from Skyrim to Dark Souls while also allowing for a wide middle ground. A story chock full of sex and violence alongside political and personal backstabbings helped things along.
“They say you Witchers cannot feel emotion,” is a line often spoken by everyone from random paupers to haughty princes but that’s only true if you let it be. As Geralt of Rivia players can choose to make him a cold-blooded, avaricious killing machine or a charitable knight errant. The world and those that live in it respond in kind.
Geralt’s choices can leave whole villages destroyed or saved. Turn down a morally darker path and Geralt’s friends, especially the minorities such as the Sorceress Keira, will suffer cruelly for it. On the more honorable side of things Geralt will see justice done on mad kings, scheming chieftains and evil trans-dimensional elves.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is hard not to fall in love with. It offers up a story full of warmongering, xenophobia and feudal politics and gives players a blank slate whose personality and fate is decided by them. This is really no different than what Mass Effect 2 had done years before. Still, where Mass Effect 2 was both the middle and high point of that trilogy The Witcher 3 was the end and high point of its trilogy which is exactly as it should be.
It’s easy to see why The Witcher 3 was so beloved and is still one of the most popular RPGs ever. It’s a game that places equal weight with its fraught story and the little things. To Geralt of Rivia the sovereignty of Novigrad matters as much as the sovereignty of a ghouls’ nest, until his friends are involved of course. In a game world as violent and brutal as the Witcher’s such personality and the depth of feeling generated for these personalities is what matters most. That’s what makes The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt the best action RPG of this decade.