Back in mid-2019 I wrote an article about how I thought that Death Note, popularly considered one of the best anime out there, was kind of trash. It was disappointing – I love the premise but after the first few episodes it drops off a cliff and becomes a slog. Well, back then I wasn’t really expecting this to turn into a new series for the blog but I spent 2020 slogging through another piece of wildly popular media and I’ve got to say… The Witcher 3 is kind of trash. I happen to be writing this while Cyberpunk 2077 backlash is in full swing and I often hear the refrain “Someday Cyberpunk will be as good as The Witcher 3!”… which makes me not want to play it at all. There’s so much stuff that I low-key hate about this game which I really need to get off my chest, because I don’t understand why people are so enamoured with it.
The Open World
First off, the big new feature for The Witcher 3 was its open world and I have to admit that it truly is massive, sporting one enormous map for Novigrad, Oxenfurt and Velen, separate open maps for the Skellige Isles and Kaer Morhen (and Toussaint in the DLC), plus a couple smaller maps for White Orchard and Vizima. It’s an overwhelming amount of ground to cover and while I can understand why someone would be excited by this, it’s where some of my first issues with the came come in. First of all, open world fatigue has well and truly set in in the past few years, but I had already gotten sick of most open worlds by the start of 2011 with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. That’s the game that made me realize that, in most games, open world traversal sucks. Spending most of your playtime just trying to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible is such a boring gameplay loop and it was bad enough that I dropped Brotherhood (which I was otherwise enjoying) entirely. Since then I’ve often found myself getting tired of open world games with sluggish, restrictive and downright boring traversal options, to the point where I tend to avoid the genre entirely since you’re spending at least half your playtime just putting yourself through tedium in order to get to something interesting. Fallout 4, Far Cry Primal, even Metal Gear Solid V (which I loved at the time, but having to sneak past the same two or three boring outposts to get to any objective was frustrating) have left me tired by the end with me just begging to be able to reach my objectives and end the damn game already without dealing with endless open world bullshit. Compare this to Gravity Rush, a game where the act of moving from place to place is, in itself, a total joy. I hear that Spider-man captures a similar experience with its web-slinging mechanics – I haven’t played it so I can’t confirm, but I just offer these as examples of how getting from place to place can be fun in itself in an open world game rather than a constant, frustrating obstacle.
…which brings me to The Witcher 3. After the first couple hours soaking in the beauty of new location have worn out their welcome, traversal becomes boring at best and infuriating at worst. Need to get to an objective directly on the other side of a mountain range? Better hope you have found a fast-travel point that’s only, like, 600m away from the objective or you’re going to be stuck with two unappealing options – either ride your horse around the mountains or cross your fingers and hope that the game will allow you to climb over the mountain. Of course, if you choose to climb then the game will also force you do to this at walking speed and if you fall off the mountain you’ll die and have to do the whole thing over again after a lengthy loading screen. How fun! Sailing is also painfully slow, but nowhere near as slow as trying to swim from place to place. Better hope your boat doesn’t get sunk in the middle of the seas around Skellige!
To make matters worse, you’re likely to come across some manner of annoying enemy on your way from point A to point B. Random attacks by bandits, wolf packs, sirens, etc can make the world feel a bit more alive, but good God they quickly become a waste of time to encounter. I usually just moan and run away from wolves as fast as possible, but enemies like the sirens basically have to be fought because otherwise they’ll sink your boat and cause you even more wasted time. It can be thrilling if you come across a monster several levels stronger than you are since at least they’ll offer some challenge, but these are rare occurrences (unless you’re going out of your way to punish yourself).
On top of that, the open world in this game is loaded with points of interest marked on the map with a “?”. These things are a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it can be enjoyable and satisfying tracking these all down and filling up your map. Some of them are even super useful, such as the Place of Power spots. Unfortunately, most of these are open world busywork at best, or useless bullshit at worst. The majority of the points of interest are monster dens, bandit camps, hidden treasure and the like, which require you to hunt down a nearby cache or slay some bandits or monsters in order to get some rewards. Unfortunately, these rewards lose any sort of value within a few hours of gameplay. They don’t scale with your level so you’re going to be pocketing hundreds upon hundreds of useless weapons and armour which exist only to be broken down into parts or sold to merchants in order to get yourself a bunch of gold (which is, in itself, pretty useless as well once you’ve stocked up a few thousand crowns). Maybe the intent is that players aren’t supposed to try to complete all these points of interest and I’d even recommend looking up the Places of Power and skipping the rest, but I cannot stop going to them. I just have this obsessive compulsion to uncover every point of interest on my map and I don’t know which are useful and which aren’t so I don’t want to miss any. Skellige was the point where this hit its absolute worst, as there are dozens of identical smugglers’ caches hidden in the water, meaning that you have to sail for literal hours around the islands, killing sirens over and over again just to get a bunch of useless items that you’re just going to sell anyway. CD Projekt RED, sometimes less is more – cut the useless bullshit out, please. I get that this is partly my problem, but I really can’t help it and if CD Projekt RED are going to put such worthless content into their game then they deserve to take shit for it.
Like I just said, 99.9% of the loot you get in this game is worthless crap. I mean, sure, you can sell it for coin that you have no practical use for after a few hours or break it down into crafting components which you’ll quickly be drowning in. It also doesn’t help that the vast majority of the loot you find in the world is clearly procedurally generated, uninteresting guff that exists just to fill out the world. Beyond this, the overabundance of loot leads to two big issues. First, it makes acquiring loot at the end of a quest or out in the open world feel unrewarding and nothing more than a boring chore. If I complete a quest and get a cool sword, I’d like to be able to use it, not go “oh, this is way weaker than the sword I crafted 10 hours ago”. Secondly, this contributes to this game’s frustrating inventory management. Most of this stems from the restrictive encumbrance mechanic. Like many annoying RPGs, a good chunk of your playtime in The Witcher 3 is going to be spent running back and forth to merchants because the loot you picked up put you one point over your encumbrance threshold and now you suddenly have to walk slowly across the world map. This just makes the traversal issues and unrewarding loot that much more frustrating, and this is compounded even more when you consider that encumbrance is totally arbitrary. Sure, some people may say “it’s more realistic!” or “it’s for immersion!” but both of those arguments are shot right out the window when Geralt can comfortably run around with dozens of swords, armour sets and saddles but then that one last flower pushes him over the edge. That doesn’t even take into account that several items don’t even have an effect on encumbrance, such as the hundreds of pieces of food that Geralt can carry at once.
To make matters worse, The Witcher 3 also features a weapon degradation system, because you weren’t spending enough time in your inventory already. On the one hand, I could see this being somewhat useful if the game was set up in such a way where degradation would force you to use other weapons until your favourites get repaired, but that just isn’t the case at all. After the first hour you’re almost always going to have a dozen weapon and armour repair kits on hand, not to mention that you can just go to a blacksmith and pay to get your gear fixed – it’s one of the few things actually worth paying gold for. Again, you could argue that this is about realism or immersion, but it’s just not fun. It’s not common enough to actually affect gameplay in any significant manner, which means that it’s nothing more than a pointless chore the game makes you go through. Seriously, just drop it, weapon degradation systems always suck.
Which brings us to the combat in this game. The Witcher 3 drowns you in options right out the gate. Not only do you have your actual sword fighting skills, but you also have access to five signs (aka, minor spells), a crossbow and an ever-growing collection of potions with varying effects. These are all improved as the game goes on, with you being able to put skill points into new techniques and upgrades for whatever abilities you want to focus on. Me? I put all my points into sword damage buffs and upgrading my favourite signs. These upgrades never felt particularly significant to me – like, sure, 25% more damage from sword attacks is probably making a difference, but I can’t say that I actually feel it. It wasn’t really until I got the charged heavy attack that I really felt like an upgrade was actually changing my playstyle any. It also doesn’t help that some options are just broken. The Quen sign in particular is so OP that it not only makes combat boring but makes me play lazily and treat it like a crutch. The very first upgrade gives you a one-hit shield which blasts back enemies and recharges quickly. This means that every fight I get into starts with me casting Quen, dealing damage and then taking a hit, backing off for two seconds til Quen recharges and then casting again. Rinse and repeat. Sure, there are other options available, such as buffing your potions (and spending even more time on inventory management!), getting limited-use out of new melee techniques, or applying damage buff oils to your weapons but… like, why? Unless you’re stupidly under-levelled against a tough enemy, you can coast by on all the crutches this game gives you – and I call them that because when the game suddenly takes them away from you (such as in fist fights or Ciri segments) you realize you now need to remember how to parry effectively or you’re going to get annihilated.
It’s cool seeing Geralt spin around and decapitate foes for the first couple dozen hours, but the combat in this game is just not good enough to sustain itself over the course of a hundred plus hours. As I said before, I dread coming across packs of weak enemies because they’re such a waste of time to deal with and that’s because most fights are stupidly easy. You either get one- or two-shotted by enemies more than five levels above you or you’re massacring everyone with ease. If you play like I do and try to complete as many side-quests as you can, then you’re going to be insanely over-levelled with very little effort, making most of the game’s quests a slog to get through. Like… could they not have implemented a level-scaling system, or anticipated that players would actually play their content, or something? I’ve read elsewhere that I’m not the only one with this issue, it’s like the game’s difficulty was designed for you to be only playing main quests and doing even a couple side quests throws the difficulty curve out of whack. And note that I’m playing the game on Blood & Broken Bones difficulty, so it’s a step up from the standard difficulty. I haven’t played Death March, but considering how mind-numbingly boring B&BB is I can’t help but think that it won’t make the game much harder.
For what it’s worth, the writing in The Witcher 3 is by far the best part of the game. Long after I grew bored of the combat and open world, I was still hanging on because I wanted to see what would happen next. There are also some fantastic stories and characters within this game, particularly the “Bloody Baron”, who is a textbook example of how to write a charming, sympathetic monster, and many of the side-quests have fully fleshed out stories that make them worthwhile to grind through. However, even the writing begins to wear thin over time and test my patience.
Sometimes I’ll decide “fine, it’s time to start getting the main quest underway again” and you try to get the story moving… only for some stupid, random bullshit to happen in the plot which halts all momentum and you have to deal with before you can move on, even though it’s less important than several of the side quests in the game. One annoying example of this is on Skellige when the plot has finally moved on and you’re ready to leave the island, all that’s left is that a king needs to get crowned. So you’re ready for that to be decided when, uh… bears attack the kingsmoot. What the fuck? I should mention that this kingsmoot is taking place in a guarded castle atop a seaside spire, so when this army of bears attacks it’s truly baffling. Then you’ve got to solve a mystery about who unleashed the bears at the kingsmoot and the person you decide to support in the search ends up being the king. Man, I was done with Skellige when this happened and was just ready to move on, but then this happened out of nowhere and felt like an annoying, uninteresting shark-jump that the game was dropping in my lap just to make the game that much longer.
The worst example of this narrative padding is definitely what happens after you complete Dandelion’s doppler play. You spend hours getting a play put together so you can put out a message to an ally who has gone into hiding and it all goes off without a hitch, hooray! You find the ally, he gives you info about Ciri and now you’re ready to move on with the plot… except immediately afterward someone randomly attacks Dandelion’s girlfriend Priscilla and leaves her near death! Oh no! So once again you have to solve a mystery that comes out of nowhere and halts the actual progression of the plot, except in this case the writing is utter bullshit. Turns out there’s a serial killer who ritually murders prostitutes and makes a big scene of calling them whores. You have three suspects: a doctor with a history of violence, a shady coroner who the doctor doesn’t like and a fanatical priest of the Eternal Fire. You find clues about who the next victim is and, oh, looks like the killer doesn’t like people working against the church, imagine that. He kills an acquaintance of yours who has renounced the church and then you discover the name of his next victim, a prostitute. So you go to the brothel and, oh my God, it’s the priest there torturing her. You get the option to kill him, spare him or let him continue torturing her (!?!?!!), and obviously I’m going to kill him because he has to be our murderer, right? Wrong, turns out that it was the coroner and he was just masking his crimes by pretending to be a fanatic because he’s actually a vampire feeding on people. Umm, what the hell? I mean, I get that misdirection is difficult in a mystery but how do you make a red herring so bad that they end up being an entirely separate serial killer with an identical modus operandi? There’s no reason to assume that the coroner is responsible given the evidence that the game gives you, other than metagaming when the game allows you to spare the priest’s life because why would they let you do that unless he wasn’t the killer? The worst part is that when you think you completed the quest you’ll later find clues that the killer is still at large and Geralt basically just shrugs his shoulders and lets them keep at it. Like… dude, turns out one suspect was a different serial killer and you had only two other suspects, maybe look into that!? The fact that this doesn’t reopen the quest or open an alternate version of it is legitimately infuriating to me, I get that this game is complex and ambitious enough but this quest just shows weakness within the game’s structure and it would seriously be better off without it.
The Witcher 3 was apparently a buggy mess at launch and while I would consider the bugs that remain in the game a fairly minor issue at this point, there are still several that will pop up in every playthrough that range from funny to infuriating when they happen. The worst one I encountered was this weird audio glitch that happens when you encounter the Crones of Crookback Bog, where the dialogue completely cuts out for like ten minutes, while you awkwardly read the text on screen and watch the crones pantomime to you about how evil they are. Worst of all, my PS4 crashed at one point and I had to restart my game from the beginning, so in two separate playthroughs this glitch happened… how is this still unpatched to this day? I also had one bug that happened repeatedly during the horse races – I would win the race quite handily, but when I crossed the finish line the game wouldn’t register it, forcing me to restart the game and redo the entire race six or seven times before it would finally register the win legitimately. I have no idea why this one was happening but it was maddening when it did.
Perhaps the most persistent and irritating bug though is that the swimming controls will randomly crap out at times, not allowing you to dive in the water. This is particularly annoying because if I’m in the water then odds are I’m only there because I’m diving for sunken treasure. When this happens, your only options are to climb back onto your ship and hope that that fixes the issue, fast travel to reload the world map, or just restart the game and cross your fingers. This is so goddamn annoying and just makes the already awful Skellige smugglers’ caches that much more of a slog to get through, because this issue happened to me multiple times in just that one section of the game.
You may have noticed that there’s a running theme throughout all my issues with The Witcher 3 and that is simply that the game is bloated beyond belief. The open world is massive, but it seems to prioritize size and pretty vistas over actually being fun to explore over a hundred hour journey. The game showers you with loot, but when 99.9% of it is worthless it becomes nothing more than a chore to deal with. Combat gives you tons of options, but overpowered options make the rest redundant, the combat is ridiculously easy and it just can’t sustain itself over the game’s playtime. The writing has some truly great moments, but it just feels padded for nothing more than making the game even longer. I had a similar issue with Alien: Isolation, where the game felt like it had to force itself to be a bloated, twenty hour game when it would have been perfect as a tight, terrifying eight hour experience. All-in-all, The Witcher 3 is a game in serious need of content trimming and a tighter focus. I shouldn’t have to actively force myself to not engage in most of the content you’ve put into your game in order to find any sort of enjoyment with it.
At this point I’ve dropped The Witcher 3 after slogging through it over the course of a year. I’m only at Kaer Morhen now and I just can’t bring myself to play it again. Instead I’ve played the remakes of Resident Evil 2 and 3 and just started Hitman and the difference in enjoyment is palpable. Knowing that I can finish these games casually in a week or two is exciting in itself, not to mention that these are far better curated experiences that deliver greater levels of enjoyment in each play session. If I can give The Witcher 3 one big prop in spite of all this it’s that the game does offer hundreds of hours of playtime for like $20 – that’s a pretty insane value if you need to stretch your money out, but for my own part I’d like to actually get close to finishing a game I started.
But hey, at least Gwent was fun. If I ever do pick The Witcher 3 back up, it will probably be because I want to take part in the Gwent tournament. So that’s something at least.
So How Would You Fix It, Smart Guy?
First off, if even a couple of my big issues with The Witcher 3 got addressed then it would make the experience much better overall, but we’ll go pie-in-the-sky and try to address them all here. Let’s start with the open world. Just due to the mechanics of the game, traversal is never going to be fun, so let’s at least make it less annoying. To that end, make fast travel points a bit more common and make random packs of enemies only really a concern if you’re going deep into the wilds off the main roads. Maybe make them scale in level as well so that they can be an actual obstacle. Similarly, I’d cut down on the useless “?” spots on the map (ESPECIALLY in Skellige), or just straight-up reveal what type of point of interest each is so you know whether to bother with it or not.
For the loot and inventory management, I’d want to make some sweeping changes. First of all, ditch encumbrance and weapon degredation. They suck and can never not suck until you remove them entirely. Secondly, let’s make the loot you get far more valuable. Cut down on the number of random items you can steal or loot from enemies significantly. Let weapons be upgradeable, with each level requiring you to get upgrade materials which you can craft and get the materials around the world map. This would allow reward weapons to actually be useful and could cut down on the number of useless items the game drowns you in. Plus it also means you don’t have to say goodbye to a favourite weapon when you outpace its damage output. Boom, all of a sudden inventory management is no longer a hassle, you actually can get some sort of satisfaction out of new items and it makes looting itself more rewarding because it’s helping you get something that can make your equipment better.
The combat in this game should be Monster Hunter-lite. I get that, conceptually, this is what the game is going for with its decoctions and oils, but they’re pointless compared to spamming signs. Make monster encounters something you have to actually plan for instead of just rushing headlong in like an idiot and suddenly combat would feel far more rewarding. Most importantly, introduce a level-scaling system to make enemy encounters more interesting.
For the writing, basically all that needs to be done is to trim down the padding in the main quest, or at the very least move these into the side-quests. As far as I’m concerned though, that serial killer quest needs to be completely reworked or cut out entirely. In any case, the sum total of these changes would result in the game’s annoyances being reduced or removed entirely, while its strengths are more up-front. It would also mean that the main game would likely be shorter, but if more side-quests were incentivized for the post-game then this would allow players more time to play the game the way they want without feeling like they have to or are missing anything. Given that the lack of urgency in spite of the game’s actual narrative is one of the main criticisms of The Witcher 3, I feel like it would make it a much better game.