The PlayStation faithful might not be familiar with The Witcher, developer CD Projekt RED’s RPG take on several Polish fantasy novels. The first two games, 2007’s The Witcher and 2011’s The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, never landed on PlayStation platforms, despite hopeful rumors and a general “never say never” attitude from the devs. That all changes with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which will both conclude Geralt of Rivia’s tale and mark his first appearance on a Sony console.
Geralt, the eponymous Witcher, is a monster hunter by trade, bred for combat and survival excellence, and a capable alchemist who amplifies his abilities with potions and mutagens. This puts strategy at the forefront of The Witcher’s action-RPG combat, which is known for its realistic difficulty. Sure, Geralt can take more hits than your average medieval so-and-so, but he’s far from invincible—a cocky attitude and ignoring his defensive abilities will be met with swift death. Sitting down with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’s opening hours—nearly four hours of play, to be exact—I could tell this particular series tradition was in full effect. Rest assured, if you haven’t played a Witcher game before, you’re getting the real-deal, authentic experience with Wild Hunt.
You’ll also be OK as far as plot is concerned. Having only dabbled in previous entries myself (the first game, in particular, hasn’t aged well), I knew only passing facts about The Witcher’s universe. Geralt of Rivia is a grizzled veteran, incredibly cool, and about as close to a sex symbol as you’re like to find in this land. He has an on-and-off love interest in the beautiful sorceress Yennefer, has played various roles in political machinations and wars, and generally stays removed from any mission that isn’t his own. This foundation was perfectly fine for The Witcher 3’s opening quests. From subtle hints in dialogue to side storylines sprouting from the background lore, it was easy to catch up with The Witcher 2’s biggest revelation: the kingdom of Nilfgaard has forcibly conquered Temeria, and Temeria’s residents are dealing with the aftermath in different ways.
If you’d like to enter The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt completely fresh-faced, with no narrative knowledge whatsoever, I would stop reading here. My detailed impressions of the game’s combat, structure, and world all follow.
Despite the series’s trademark difficulty, you won’t be at a huge disadvantage coming in fresh to The Witcher’s fast-paced combat. The gameplay on-boarding is just as effective as the narrative welcome. Geralt and Vesemir, the most experience and grizzled of all Witchers, are teaching their Witcher ways to Ciri, a young, silver-haired girl. With compelling dialogue and sparring under the guise of tutelage, the introduction effectively conveys the basic controls—switching weapons, using magic Signs, dodging and rolling—without feeling much like a tutorial. I expected this segment of the game to be a flashback, or the precursor to a leap in time, given all the ado about Ciri being a playable character. I was close. As the titular Wild Hunt—a ghostly force of skeletal kings and warriors on horseback—soared through the skies to assault this Witcher school, Geralt suddenly awoke from his nightmare to the present day, near a campfire in the Temerian countryside.
Geralt and Vesemir, his traveling companion, discuss the good old days and how much Ciri has grown before setting off in search of Yennefer. Along the way, they encounter a flying monstrosity: a griffin, larger and more ferocious than just about any prior fantasy incarnation, has the merchant cowering under his overturned cart in fear. After fending off the griffin, Geralt hears from the merchant that a woman matching Yennefer’s description has been in the area, passing through the hamlet of White Orchard. Geralt and Vesemir set off for the town; along the way, I get my first sense of this world’s impressive scale.
Over rolling autumn hills, across fields, light forests, and dirt roads, Geralt and his horse Roach can freely explore every visible bit of terrain. This is a big change from the first two game’s somewhat linear, limited zones with natural walls, and CD Projekt RED has done a mostly admirable job of crossing over into true open-world territory. Geralt’s horse can move at a slow trot, a cantor, or a full-speed gallop and moves with some automation along main roads. This makes traveling from landmark to landmark relatively hassle-free, as you can avoid the kind of natural obstructions that make a trip longer. It’s easy enough to veer off the beaten path, however, and there’s a large number of quests and other diversions along the way. After settling in at White Orchard’s tavern and before inquiring about Yennefer’s whereabouts, I instead checked the local bounty board and picked up one of several posted quests.
This particular one sent me out to the hut of a native Temerian whose brother had set off to fight an invading Nilfgaardian force. Having received no word from his brother despite the battle’s end some time ago, the man fears the worst, but requests Geralt accompany him to the swampy battlefield to search for his brother’s remains. Once there, the quest proceeds in two phases. To start, Geralt and his companion battle the rabid dogs rifling among the corpses. These animals are grotesque and lightning-fast; it’s a great chance for me to make use of Yrden, one of Geralt’s five magic Signs. This one lays down a circular field that debuffs enemies within, severely slowing their movements. It’s a snap to switch between the five Signs—merely tapping L1 brings up a selection wheel with magic, consumables, and weapons while the on-screen action comes to a slow-motion crawl.
In the second phase of this side quest, I search the battlefield using Geralt’s Witcher Sense for shields with a particular coat of arms, identifying what could be the corpse of the missing brother. My man’s dog took off in another direction, following the brother’s scent. Soon after, we come across the Temerian man with a Nilfgaardian soldier in a hut. Both are severely injured, and a discussion proceeds that reveals much about post-war grudges and nationalism that help shape the world’s plot for newcomers like myself.
I had two big takeaways from Wild Hunt’s combat after my full demo. Each of Geralt’s Signs present equal value in most situations, so it’s hard to choose between them—especially since you only have enough energy for one or two casts before needing to recharge. Geralt is fast, but even skilled dodging and rolling won’t save you from every hit. So what’s best? Quen’s shield that damages enemies on contact? Igni’s powerful and incapacitating blast of fire? Axii’s mind-altering power that sets enemies against other foes? I was rarely completely certain I was making the right choice, which added a good degree of tactical urgency to fights where merely parrying and striking require focused attention.
My second takeaway? How smooth and elegant killing things as Geralt feels. I’m curious whether the flow of combat, which involves carefully watching enemy movements and quickly reacting with dodges, parries, or bursts of offense, will stay fresh and interesting over dozens or hundreds of hours. But mechanically, movement feels great and timing feels fair and accurate. Much of the challenge comes in learning the aggression, behavior, and unique defenses of new monsters. Parries don’t seem to work on every foe, for example, as one might expect—who could be expected to riposte the swipe of a griffin’s enormous wing? Meanwhile, an abundance of abilities to spend level-up points lends potential for deep RPG customization, but I couldn’t get a great sense of these abilities and their utility in my playthrough.
Fighting this beast was the touchstone moment of the game’s opening act, and came after an extensive series of preparation quests. Despite Geralt’s suave, world-weary demeanor, he knows the monsters command respect. Anything less than careful preparation would be a dance with death. With this griffin, Geralt follows leads and his own knowledge to determine the griffin’s sex, craft a potion boosting attack power, and find Buckthorn, a fragrant herb to use as bait.
Geralt and Vesemir thus draw the griffin out to an open field where their epic clash begins. With a crossbow, I can attack the griffin while it’s airborne. It’s not clear whether these attacks prevent his swoops or bring him back to ground sooner, but as soon as our ground clash begins, I can see its value for peppering him with light damage from afar. His attacks are swift and brutally damaging—the food I’ve equipped to restore health can barely keep up. But I manage to reduce his health to 50 percent, at which point he takes to the skies and flies some distance away. Vesemir and I give chance, sprinting across open fields after the beast before spotting him atop a nearby plateau.
I die during this second phase—and again during my second attempt—as I get a feel for the griffin’s behavior and attack patterns. Even on my successful try, it comes down to the wire, and the attack power potion I crafted beforehand ends up being just enough to finish off the beast before Geralt succumbs.
Truly, the griffin was a formidable foe, and I can’t wait to see what monsters, traditional fantasy foes or otherwise, will be felled before the game is done. I’m especially hopeful that the best of these fights, with the most interesting mechanics and settings, are optional side quests. Such a feature will elevate monster hunting above the scripted nature of main-story missions to an activity that makes the world feel truly alive.
Shortly after this, a developer teleports me to a point in the game several hours later. Geralt is on the Skellige Islands, a wintry archipelago dominated by the fortress Kaer Trolde. Within, the an Craite family is having a battle of succession between siblings. When enormous bears interrupt a feast and the family is blamed for the ensuing deaths, brother and sister have opposing views on how to clear the family name. I side with the brother, who wants to take the fight directly a clan he suspects of foul play. I could have followed the sister’s lead with a thorough investigation of the fortress, or I could have walked away from the conflict altogether. The brother leads me to several engaging fights with bears and, ultimately, a druid who could teleport and unleash powerful magical blasts. The fight’s dynamic felt very different from my tussle with the griffin, and I can think of several strategies I didn’t employ during my hectic fight.
At this point, my demo came to a hard-coded end. I’m left with high expectations for the final release, especially since the game could ship tomorrow and be in a better technical state, with more content and technical polish, than most blockbuster games these days. Don’t let that be a slight: CD Projekt RED’s decision to continue polishing this RPG epic until a May 19 release is nothing short of admirable, and I can’t wait to see its final state. Visually, we’re already in a very good place. There’s no question the PC version will outperform the PS4 version in this area—I saw the difference firsthand—but Geralt’s world is nevertheless brought to life by incredible draw distances and remarkable sights like every visible tree blowing independently in the wind. Some animation hiccups plagued cutscenes, texture pop-in occurred a few times, and I thought Geralt and his horse got stuck on a few too many environmental objects. But all things considered, The Witcher 3 looks fantastic and does justice to its incredible trailers.
Perhaps more exciting? The Witcher 3 plays incredibly well and puts up a formidable (though not overwhelming) challenge. Geralt’s Signs benefit his offensive and defensive game in equal measure, forcing you to make careful, quick decisions in combat that’s fast and fluid. There’s a whole lot of narrative context elegantly strewn throughout the world and its abundant side quests, so curious newcomers and lore-hungry veterans alike can get their fix while the main storyline stays concise and purposeful.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is Geralt of Rivia’s swan song. Lucky for PlayStation 4 owners, then, that it’s far and away the most fun I’ve had with the series. When it launches on May 19, expect one of the new generation’s best and biggest RPGs to date.