As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Back in 2015, I played The Witcher 2 for the second time, to get ready for the then-imminent Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Having played the series from the beginning and enjoyed its excellent sense of character, I was excited to play the hotly anticipated third entry, which earned accolades on release. I was even reading the novels upon which the games are based as I replayed The Witcher 2, so I’d have the full background I needed going in to the third installment. Unfortunately, when the time came to fire up The Witcher 3, my aging computer could barely run it. I decided to hold off until I could build a new one.

But I didn’t actually build a new computer until four years later. And even then, I didn’t fire up The Witcher 3 right away, continually putting it off for one reason or another. Only now, after another two years have passed — and after reading the novels again, to be sure I had them fresh in my memory — have I finally started playing The Witcher 3. Why did it take me so long? For all my excuses at the time, the real reason is that I had The Trepidation.

The Trepidation takes many forms. The simplest and most obvious is related to time investment. The Witcher 3 is a dauntingly huge game, with reviews universally emphasizing its epic scope and long runtime. And it’s only gotten bigger, releasing two DLC packs (Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine) that add more locations and story, and have automatically been added to my copy of the game. If they’re each as sizeable as I expect, they may nearly double the playtime.

The last big game that I played was Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which I think took me four or five months to complete, and then another four months to play through its two packs of DLC. That’s a lot of time to be focused on just one game. Was I willing to wait that long to to play Psychonauts 2? I was not, so I played Psychonauts 2 first, and The Witcher 3 got delayed again. These days there are so many exciting indie games being released that it’s hard to put those on hold either. Not to mention the fact that I’m always working on my Scratching That Itch series, and I want to keep going through the early Japanese console role-playing games too (and find more gems like Phantasy Star and Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei along the way). Adding a huge modern role-playing game to that will eat up all of my spare gaming time, and I needed to really motivate myself to take the plunge.

Then there’s the fact that I want to make sure the experience is perfect. For such a long game, am I likely to play it again in my lifetime? If there’s a chance I’ll only play it once, there’s a lot of pressure not to waste it. That’s why I wanted a new computer first; why spend so long playing if I can’t admire the game’s legendarily beautiful art in its full splendor? Fortunately, I now have a fitting computer for this. In fact, it’s powerful enough that I can enable the extra-fancy Nvidia Hairworks even though I don’t have an Nvidia card. This grants characters billowy hair and, more importantly, gives monsters magnificent manes, but has a steep performance cost that I’m happy I’m able to pay.

That’s good, but what about mods? Amidst all the praise, there were some criticisms leveraged at The Witcher 3, mostly about its leveled enemies which break immersion (protagonist Geralt is a master swordsman who should not have trouble fighting off a bandit just because the bandit has a big number over his head). Should I get a mod that adjusts this? Generally it’s better to play without mods first, to see whether I want to change anything, but if I’m only going to play the game once, shouldn’t I try to get the best experience right away? There are also mods that tweak the alchemy system in the game, which was something that I felt was lacking in The Witcher 2, so maybe I’ll appreciate tweaks there? Or what about the multiple combat rebalancing mods that all have good fan ratings? And beyond mods, I wasn’t even sure which language I should play the game in. I’d played in Polish with English subtitles for the first two games, but this time around the team at CD Projekt RED were clearly aiming for English first, as they anticipated (and got) an international hit game. The English voice cast earned a lot of praise in reviews. Does it really make sense to stick with Polish at this point? Would I be missing out on the best acting in the game if I did so?

In the end, I decided to stick with Polish, if only for Geralt himself. I’m sure that Doug Cockle does a great job as the English voice of Geralt. But Jacek Rozenek is better. His voice just fits the character of Geralt perfectly. It’s not impossibly gruff, which seems to be a requirement for English speaking protagonists in games these days, and manages to carry Geralt’s world-weariness and wisecracks equally well. Besides, he’s the Geralt I’ve played and grown attached to over the first two games, how could I abandon him now? I do still recommend players try the Polish voice acting (which is a little harder to set up in The Witcher 3 versus earlier entries, unfortunately, but sorted out with a downloadable language pack), especially if starting the series from the beginning. As for mods, after doing some research into them I eventually decided not to enable any at the start. I found some forum threads with players asking which mods to use for a first play, and the prevailing opinion was that the game is pretty great as is, and mods aren’t recommended unless returning for a second playthrough. Which, I was told, may not be as unlikely as I imagined, because the game is so good.

But The Trepidation doesn’t stop there. In 2018, when Red Dead Redemption 2 was released, it was accompanied by numerous reports of terrible working conditions for the development team. The final game was a blockbuster, sure, a huge and highly successful game. But it had come at great human cost, with the team subjected to long hours of crunch and associated burnout. This is not a new concern in the games industry, but the public backlash was larger than before, and it felt like a turning point after which no development studio could hope to treat workers this way without repercussions. As part of the discourse, The Witcher 3 was brought up again, as another example of a huge game that took a great toll on its development team. This was hardly reported on back in 2015 when it was released, but members of the team were now speaking up about how difficult it was to make the game, and how many careers were ended early as people felt unable to go on in game development after working themselves ragged. Ethical questions about whether players should support such games are not easy to answer. In my case, I’d already purchased the game, before I knew about this. But it’s impossible to play The Witcher 3 without thinking about the cost I hadn’t paid, but so many others had.

On top of all this, The Trepidation took one final and more insidious form. The Witcher 3 is the first game in the series to embrace a fully open world design, letting Geralt wander across the countryside at will, traveling between towns and completing contracts. It was hailed as the greatest such game ever made, putting the likes of The Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age to shame. But I feared that the move to an open world would mean losing some of the charm of the earlier games. Geralt’s adventures always felt personal, affecting him and his friends as they dealt with local events that only hinted at what was happening in the wider world. I feared that, by embracing a larger world, The Witcher 3 would paradoxically feel smaller. When everything is happening in and around one town, it’s easy to imagine the vast world beyond, but actually build that world and it won’t be vast at all. The danger of open world games is that their worlds can feel artificial, scale model playgrounds rather than real places, where the player character is the only one with any agency and everyone else just waits for them to act. If, like most open world role-playing games, Geralt took the role of a world savior, running the length and breadth of an alarmingly small kingdom, it would mean losing everything that made the first two games so compelling.

Now that I’ve finally started The Witcher 3, I’m happy to report that these fears were unfounded. The open world that Geralt travels through is, amazingly, still just a small local area, despite dwarfing the size of all the locations in the first two games combined. In fact, there are a few places Geralt visits in The Witcher 3, each with their own open map, but travel between them is skipped over with a loading screen. Some reviews at the time criticized this, complaining that the world wasn’t truly open due to these disconnects, but those complaints are completely off base. This separation is what makes the game work. After leaving the tutorial village — which is more to the scale of a location in The Witcher 2, if less dense — I’ve only managed to explore part of the first large map, which sprawls in every direction, packed with things to do. Yet it only represents a portion of northern Temeria, as well as a bit of neighboring Redania (and its city of Novigrad). For reference, those are but two of the many Northern Kingdoms in which the Witcher games and novels are set. By taking this approach, The Witcher 3 retains the feeling of being a small player amidst larger events, with plenty of small scale problems to deal with even as Geralt travels across a huge swath of countryside. It works better than I could have imagined, and the design team deserves accolades for nailing it.

I’m also struck with the similarities to The Witcher 2. Combat, especially, feels very similar, a refined version of the way swordfights worked in that game. The fast and strong attacks were immediately familiar, including Geralt’s advancing pirouettes when attacking an enemy a short distance away. Geralt’s oft-mocked dodge roll is back too, although it doesn’t need to be upgraded to be useful like it did in The Witcher 2. It’s also not quite as ubiquitous, due to the addition of a shorter-distance sidestep dodge. I didn’t use this much at first, since it’s awkwardly mapped to the left Alt key by default, but I later swapped it to a spare mouse button and I love it now. The full dodge roll is still useful, but as a way to disengage from the fight and regroup. The quicker sidestep instead lets Geralt immediately mount a counter-attack, evading damage while staying on offense. I’ve also been using Geralt’s magic signs a lot, since I enjoyed them so much in The Witcher 2, and again they feel familiar, just slightly refined. I’m only level 12 right now, so I’m not sure how character progression will scale in the long run, but I’ve enjoyed investing in magic so far, since each sign is situationally useful and allows for different tactics during battle.

Equipment, also, feels like an iterative improvement on what was present in The Witcher 2. The best way to get equipment is to have a craftsman make it for Geralt after hunting down the needed materials, and the crafting process is a refined version of the system in The Witcher 2. But it does feel like there’s just a bit too much equipment in the game. One thing I liked about the first Witcher game is how Geralt only rarely got new armor or swords, making each upgrade feel important. The second game lost some of that, and it seems The Witcher 3 is leaning even further into constant equipment upgrades. The fact that Geralt’s equipment degrades with use and must be repaired only adds to this feeling, often encouraging replacing equipment with better stuff rather than bothering with repairs. It’s not as bad as many role-playing games where players are drowning in piles of loot, but does feel farther from the source material. Geralt, as a trained Witcher, should already have the best equipment, and would never want to swap out his mastercrafted swords for some blades he found on a few starving bandits. Having said that, I have only just finished the first of several treasure hunts for specific Witcher gear, which sound like a cool way to keep loot thematic. My new Witcher threads are better than anything else I can use at this level, and the fact that there are other sets out there that cater to different character builds, and all of them can be upgraded throughout the game, helps keep the fun of getting new stuff without feeling too incongruous.

Ah yes: the levels. In perhaps the biggest change from The Witcher 2, the third game has very heavy level gating. Equipment all has a base level Geralt must reach before he can use it, and enemies have levels too, with no hope of beating them if they’re much higher than Geralt. As I feared, this is a weakness to the design. It simply doesn’t fit with who Geralt is. He’s already the best, he doesn’t need to gain more levels to prove it. But level gating is not as bad as I thought it would be. I do wish that levels were more consistently distributed on the map, so the areas that Geralt might explore first will be appropriate to his level, whereas wandering too far from his current goal would mean he runs into tougher foes. As it is, I’ve hunted a level 8 beast in one village without incident, then traveled to a neighboring one only to find a monster hunt quest that recommends level 20. This doesn’t happen too often, but it happens enough to be jarring, and it’s just so weird to run into a band of ultra-tough army deserters right after I hacked through a pack of bandits with glee. What mitigates the level gating a bit, however, is the fact that experience points come almost entirely from completing quests, which means Geralt is highly encouraged to just get on with things. Sure, he could wander around and find some hidden treasure with schematics for making some sweet level 33 armor, but he can’t use that until level 33. He may also have picked up some side quests, but they all have high recommended levels too, whereas the first step of the main story is right at his current level. Better take care of that now, and get back to those sidequests later.

And what quests! These were the aspect of the game most praised upon release, and it’s easy to see why. Despite the fact that quests are peppered around everywhere, just like other open world role-playing games, each quest that I’ve encountered so far has been excellently written, with surprise twists, often multiple possible endings, and far more character than players would have reason to expect. They manage to keep the style of the earlier, more densely-packed games, but spread across a huge world. Many focus on monster hunts, which make a welcome return after being somewhat sidelined in the highly political story of previous game. Now, Geralt is indeed embroiled in a larger quest, but his open surroundings offer plenty of chances to lift a nasty curse that’s struck a village, or kill a fearsome beast that’s taken up residence in a nearby graveyard. These tasks re-emphasize the folklore inspirations that underpin both the original novels and the games, and are so much more interesting than the typical, bland fantasy settings of most role-playing games. They also take advantage of new “witcher senses” feature, that lets Geralt use his supernaturally acute vision, hearing and sense of smell to track monsters. The mechanics are perhaps borrowed from the Batman: Arkham series’ Detective Mode (although I haven’t played those games so I can’t confirm that), engaging a visual overlay that reveals footprints or other important details. But it’s a nice addition, and coupled with Geralt’s deep knowledge of monsters it helps cement his role as an expert monster hunter. That these hunts are also tied into such memorable quests is the icing on the cake. An impressive achievement, although ruminating on all the work required to put everything together recalls the human cost of developing such a remarkable game. It’s fantastic to play. But I hope we find a way to make such games more sustainably in the future.

There are some other new things in The Witcher 3 that work better than expected. It’s the first game to feature Geralt’s trusty steed, Roach (named for the fish, not the insect), and now that there’s finally an explorable area large enough to justify it, galloping around is great fun. The alchemy system is also improved over the last game, but not in the way I was expecting. In the first Witcher game, Geralt needed to carefully prepare before battle, meditating and preparing appropriate potions to imbibe before joining the fray. In the second game, potions were largely left by the wayside (unless players specifically went for an alchemy build), with short durations and limited usefulness. In the Witcher 3, potions still have short duration, but they also have a few uses before they’re depleted. But the big change is that they can be “recharged” with strong alcohol when meditating. Which means Geralt no longer has to prepare every potion, he only has to make each type once, and can then just keep recharging it.

At first, I really disliked this. I loved the preparation aspect of the first game, and it seemed like this was removing it entirely. But I soon came to appreciate the change. It makes creating each potion a more momentous occasion, and lets them require some very specific and often rare ingredients. Essentially, making potions is more like crafting, where Geralt must hunt down specific components first. And since potions are now reusable, players are encouraged to guzzle them more often, so they’re not forgotten like they were in the second game. It’s not quite as immersive as alchemy in the first game, but it’s a good compromise that doesn’t force players into a ton of ingredient collection if they don’t want to, but rewards the initial investment in preparing potions. Also, I’ve recently discovered that (like Witcher gear) potions can be enhanced with more advanced recipes and rarer ingredients, increasing their effectiveness later in the game. There’s also the interesting addition of decoctions, new types of potions that last much longer and have a range of strange effects (and which must be brewed with parts from specific monsters, from which the decoctions take their name). So far, I haven’t found any of these to be that useful, largely because their high toxicity means it’s hard to use standard potions when a decoction is active (unless players invest into the alchemy skill tree). But I’m hoping I’ll come across some later that I’ll want to imbibe often.

So, perhaps unexpectedly, I didn’t end up installing any mods to overhaul the alchemy system. But I did install some other mods, mostly for quality of life things. I installed the Friendly HUD mod, mostly so I could summon the HUD for my quickslot potions on command. By default, elements of the HUD fade out when there’s not much going on, but I would sometimes forget the key that corresponded to a specific potion I wanted, and this mod lets me un-fade the HUD on command. I also installed the Jump In Shallow Water mod that lets Geralt jump in shallow water, because I wanted to be able to jump in shallow water, as well as a mod that removes the immersion-breaking “dirty lens” effect whenever light shines at the camera. Who knows why the developers thought that was a good idea. The most important mod, however, is the All Quest Objectives On Map mod. Geralt quickly accumulates a ton of quests, but by default only the currently tracked quest is shown on the map. Since I was often planning travel routes such that I could tackle multiple objectives in one trip, having every quest marker on the map at the same time is so incredibly useful. It even color-codes them based on the recommended level, so I know which ones to avoid for now, and I can click these markers to start tracking that quest which helps with navigation. It’s great. If you are considering mods, know that you’ll want to install the Community Patch first, to make a stable base for mods, and then the Witcher 3 Mod Manager to handle them, as well as the Script Merger tool to make mods play nice with each other.

As I said above, I’m only level 12, and I’ve already collected several quests that recommend levels in the 20s or 30s. So I’ve got a long way to go yet, and I’m sure I’ll write a bunch more about the game as I go. But in closing let me just stress how much I’m enjoying the game. All the rave reviews are right. It’s amazingly good, even at this early stage, and its staggering size is no longer daunting, but exciting. It’s also a very beautiful game, even six years on. Screenshots don’t really do it justice, it needs to be seen in motion, as wind whips through the trees while Geralt guides Roach down a dirt track and clouds gather on the horizon. I’m tempted to take a screenshot at nearly every moment. Stunning work from the art team, which just reinforces how good everything else is. I kind of wish I was playing it right now. So while The Trepidation is real, I’m glad I conquered it and finally started The Witcher 3. You should too.