Like lots of people, much of my free time nowadays is spent playing through the giant-sized Witcher 3; a game that’s as fun to play as it is pretty to look at. And as my journey as Geralt of Rivia continues down its dark, twisting, rain soaked path, I continue to be amazed at how much this game pushes the envelope in terms of what RPGs can do. Not since Skyrim or Dark Souls 2 have I felt this convinced of an RPG’s raw iconic appeal.
Seeing that the Witcher 3 has been met with near universal acclaim and financial success, it should be clear that the consensus is positive. But what, specifically is it that The Witcher 3 does so damn well? To clarify things, here’s a list of five elements I feel that most distinguish The Witcher 3 as a unique and innovative tour de force.
11. The world of Witcher 3 feels unique (rather than cliché)
The Witcher 3 is chock full of different historical, mythological, and cultural references; of the sort rarely showcased in video games. That being said, the themes and story feel cross-cultural, in a Joseph Campbell ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces‘ way: Geralt himself is something in between an Arthurian knight belonging to a mystic order, a Shirlock Holmes type sleuth with unique powers of deduction, and a lone Ronin/Samurai on horseback who travels the land to expel evil. The monsters you encounter are likewise drawn and recombined from a litany of different source material, at least from what I can tell. A number of folkloric traditions are included here, and the melding together of so many cultural stories makes for a truly unique environment.
Nowhere do we see this evidenced more than in the game’s creature design. From benevolent forest spirits to snarling Deer-Bear demons, these visually compelling creatures are at times bizzare, beautiful, hilarious, and terrifying. You may recognize some and be completely mystified by others; which isn’t to say the game doesn’t also have its fair share of human enemies, as well. Whether your foe be man or beast, each of the enemies you face adds richness and depth to the game’s world.
Though Witcher 3 does feature both Elves and Dwarves, they aren’t featured as prominently as they were in Assassin of Kings; a fact that is recompensed in the time you’ll be spending hacking away at Wyverns, Griffons, ghosts, and other unspeakable monstrosities. Considering that elves and dwarves are arguably overused in fantasy culture, this is a positive change for my money. If there’s one thing playing JRPGs taught me as a kid, it’s that you need bold and interesting new enemies and locales for a fantasy world to feel interesting. The Witcher 3, much like Ocarina of Time or Chrono Trigger before it, is fun to explore because of how little you’ll be able to predict what awaits around the corner. And the game’s ridiculous size and story length mean you will continue to discover new content for quite a long time.
More importantly, the creatures you encounter in The Witcher 3 are often products of some kind of psychological disturbance or crime against nature. This puts human psychology at the center of these fantastical tales, because it is their capriciousness or ignorance often at the root of whatever evil Geralt ends up vanquishing. The humans and the demons of The Witcher 3 are within a continuum: they don’t just occupy the same world, they are in many respects functions of one another. The demons often work as metaphors for emotional trauma and other facets of human suffering, which lends the game a real complexity few RPGs of this generation even attempt. So other than giving the player glimpses of folktales outside established high fantasy clichés, this folklore-like stylization of real world psychological forces gives the game a unique perspective on human nature as well.
Sure, Dragon Age: Inquisition gave us demons named after, and ostensibly incarnations of, human emotions like fear and envy. But that shallow depiction of the spectrum of human shortcomings pales in comparison to the types of woe, misery, backsliding, and contempt you’ll be dealing with along the way in The Witcher 3.