Do you have a mother-in-law? Would you be surprised to learn that mine absolutely loves the Witcher? No real surprise there - my ma in law is a sucker for both fantasy swashbuckling and the kind of bodice wrenching romance dreck you see plastered on the isles in used bookstores. Mix and match, it's a perfect fit.
Closing in on the end of this behemoth of a game now. I will finish it this weekend certainly, if not tonight. Many thoughts.
I'll save the real chin-stroking for the ultimate postmortem. For now:
a) I'm... 170 hours (Jesus Christ) into the game and *still* each night it grips my attention utterly. THIS IS CRAZY. Previous to the Witcher 3, the most hours I'd ever sunk into a game (ed. that wasn't Monster Hunter) was maybe Persona 3/4 or Baldur's Gate 2 ~ 100hrs. In the case of Meownster Hunter, never-ending grinding in an iterative way is the name of the game. You don't go there for the political skullduggery or the characters.
Geralt is different though. I keep waiting for the moment the romance dies and it just becomes a case of routine "go here, pick up thing, kill monster" ad nauseum. It's to CD Project's IMMENSE CREDIT that even this far into the game I have yet to reach that point. Each and every quest (eh, mostly) is a fascinating little parable.
Some of these quests are so exquisitely hidden that I have no idea how a body is ever supposed to encounter them without a trusty control officer riding shotgun with an iPad and a quest list on standby. Ancient crypts hidden deep under the city's infrastructre, totally off the grid? Guys shackled to lonely cliff faces in the high North so far from the main drag that you need to be searching for the Northwest Passage just to run into them? It's all there. 40% of the quests don't even show up on the notice board, they must be hunted down the hard way, on foot.
It wouldn't be a stretch to say that the Witcher 3 changes the paradigm and raises the bar across the entire industry for our definition of what "sidequestin'" means. Much of the kudos necessarily goes to Sapkowski and his series of Witcher Stories - the entire game is just a 200 hour long cavalcade of Witcher short stories and morality plays wrapped up with an open world bow.
b) Playing on hardest difficulty was unquestionably the right choice:
A tough row to hoe at first, but once that custom Witcher gear starts rolling in everything settles into a nice Bloodborne-style groove. Not ball-busting (even on Death March) but still tactical enough that death is possible if you behave stupidly. Death March forces you to pay attention to your tactics and strategy and to have some knowledge of potions and alchemy for the marquee fights -- as it should be. As I approach level 31 I find I'm turning to elixirs for things other than healing only irregularly, though that Fiend decoction never fails to be useful.
Again, the Witcher shines here because of the work that Andrej did up front in creating this intelligent martial hero character who defies archetypes and who isn't quite Batman but who yet some combination of guile hero and Solid Snake. Noir Detective is the corect metaphor, as Extra Credits pointed out. Part gumshoe, part alchemist, part stone cold badass - always flexible, always the coolest guy in the room... when he's not being sort of quietly sorrowful of course or full of subtly repressed feelings which, no, he doesn't want to talk about but which much be excised at the point of a sword. Geralt is the metaphor for the modern man - Sorceresses love him, men want to be him. You can't help but fall under his cool sway.
c) Gwent. GWEEEEEENT!
So satisfying. Sleeper hit of the year. I understand that it's not really built for competitive play - more like another stat or piece of equipment that levels up along with Geralt to the point where he's just a card-toting CCG badass wandering the lands in search of worthy opponents. I would 100% play an RPG that was just walking around fighting guys for their cards.
d) So beautiful.
So many times I've just stood and gazed over a lonely vista, contemplating CD Project's world in tranquil solitude as the wind blows. That men could make such a thing is truly remarkable.
Witcher 3 showcases art at the top of its game in all regards. It is an experience that is not afraid to be mature in that Lonesome Dove way as opposed to the Kratos Way. How much of its soul I wonder is tied to and inexorable from that dour, drunkenly sorrowful heart which beats inside the breasts of Slavs and in the pages of Dostoyevsky novels?
Tender scenes full of real feeling, quests which evoke genuine anger or confused and mixed emotions of sadness and ennui. Quiet scenes, rowdy scenes - humor all over the place in unexpected places. A man must ACT and yet, no glowing blue Paragon answer ever presents itself. You must choose what is right - often on the spur of the moment - then live with your choices. Plouging ploughers and the ploughing plows that loves them. There's something just so Eastern Euro about the whole thing, I can't get enough.
Nothing ever ends happily or well for Geralt and friends. 95% of the time taking on a contract is almost certainly a guarantee of unearthing gnawed pieces of someone's beloved child -- except, except those few exceptional and rare and remarkable cases when it isn't. Those moments keep you going as a Witcher. A hand on someone's hand. A smile. A child brought home safely to their parents unharmed and uneaten from some godawful hole. A keepsake returned to a dying old man. We see in the game that it is these moments that keep Geralt grounded on the marginal side of humanity.
Aging and time are such critical components to this game. I can't count the times Geralt has looked quietly off into the distance and said something about getting old. These themes of the passage of the torch from ancestor to youth are strong and well executed.
As I stand at the edge of the finish line, I see everywhere the results of my previous choices -- so many things which started out innocently enough and have now grown to significance. I am particularly impressed at the segments involving Ciri - both the "chase" flashback sequences as well as the late-game stuff. Sequences with Yennifer, Triss and Geralt's friends (going on 3 games now) are mature and heartfelt too. Wabi-sabi. Learning to guide, sure.. but also learning to let go. How many games reward you for NOT doing something? Witcher does all the time.
All this and massive boss fights and epic knuckle-dusters too. How you going to keep them down on the farm after they've seen Novograd? It's a real question for Electronic Arts I think, especially going into Mass Effect.
I dunno. I think there's a level of real vulnerability going on with the Witcher 3 which is intrinsic to great art and yet which you don't see in very many interactive experiences outisde of HideoTown. Something about putting it all on the line, putting it out there for people to accept or reject.
There is a difference between CD Project swinging so utterly for the fence and EA Bioware doing the safe and sound thing. Witcher 1->2->3 represents just this huge leap out into the unknown -- something technically audacious as Battlefield but with the heart and soul of the most Indie Indie. It couldn't have come from the West, I don't think. That part of our industry has a callous on it.
It's a game made by a confident team trying to just swing hard for the fence, damn the torpedoes, not for profit's sake but for the sake of their own art. It reminds me in a way of Fire Emblem: Awakening, when the team was told that This Was Going To Be It - No more Fire Emblem. Everybody just rolled out all the stops, resigned to their fate, realized it was now or never and consequently worked like hell to make the absolute best Fire Emblem we've ever seen.
More thoughts after I stare it down tonight, but yeah. Game of the year? Could be RPG of the decade, no lie. I haven't been invested in a series like this since Mass Effect. Here's hoping that Geralt vs Star Child isn't my reward for my hours of service. It's the first game I've played since Planescape which has had good odds on being "the best RPG ever made". That kind of assessment would only be apparent in long hindsight, but the fact that I'm even saying it in the first place is as high a recommendation as I can make.