The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is a big game. More specifically, its sprawling open world is 35 times larger than that of its substantial predecessor’s. More impressive than its massive map, though, is its ability to fill its stretching real estate with meaningful, story-supporting content.
Rather than padding its 100-plus hours of playtime with mindless, arbitrary missions, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt aims to inject each and every encounter with narrative-enriching objectives, colorful character interactions, and the sort of plot twists other role-playing games save for their most critical quests.
A recent presentation (you can check much of this out in the video above) gave us a taste of this ambitious approach, when a seemingly simple side-quest turned into a 30-plus-minute seat-of-the-pants adventure to rival some games’ main campaigns. As titular monster-slayer Geralt of Rivia, the player was tasked with helping a child-like creature retrieve his stolen voice. The forest-dwelling being – dubbed a godling – was equal parts cute and creepy; despite not being able to speak, though, he brought plenty of personality to what could have been just another generic non-player character interaction.
Having retrieved a potion protected by harpies (which Geralt’s new crossbow handled with little fuss), the player returned to the godling; elated to be able to speak again, he spewed a series of multi-syllable words, before sharing way too much information on his morning bowels-moving ritual. Beyond the bathroom anecdote, he also gave Geralt what he came for: intel on a mysterious “ashen-haired woman.”
This entertaining encounter led to a quest update called “The Ladies of the Wood,” which saw the pony-tailed protagonist led to an elderly woman for further info on the lost lass. While the old lady had little to share, her magical tapestry was more forthcoming. Emblazoned with the images of three beautiful women, the hanging fabric turned out to be more than a decorative piece; the women it depicted spoke to the woman, instructing her to arm Geralt with an ancient dagger and send him on a dangerous quest in exchange for the information he desired.
Desperate to discover the whereabouts of the aforementioned lady with the salt-and-pepper locks, Geralt accepted another side-mission within his ever-expanding quest. After passing an eerily quiet and apparently abandoned orphanage, he met with the village’s Alderman. An interesting chap – who clearly held secrets he wasn’t ready to share – the man asked for Geralt’s help in quelling a curse that plagued his people. Reluctant, but with eyes on the prize, the skilled monster-hunter hauled hide down another branching path.
Upon confronting a possessed tree believed to be responsible for the village’s recent woes, the player encountered one of the game’s signature “choice-and-consequence” moments. The supposedly evil spirit claimed to be a savior of sorts, with the power to rescue the children missing from the orphanage we’d passed earlier. Apparently not in the business of believing talking trees, Geralt severed its roots with his dual blades and returned to the Alderman. At that point, our demo took a decidedly darker turn: Grateful for the peace that the Witcher brought his people, the NPC took Geralt’s dagger and sliced off one of his own ears. The self-mutilation – an apparent “payment” owed to the tapestry trio – didn’t faze the world-weary hero, but left us uncomfortably tugging at our own lobes.
That grisly act, however, looked like a parlor trick compared to what came next. Upon returning to the old woman’s hut (bloody ear in hand), Geralt was met by the lovely ladies from the magic tapestry… only they weren’t so lovely anymore. Defined by the sort of skin-crawling character design usually reserved for the residents of Silent Hill, the physical manifestations of the three sirens were nothing short of terrifying. One of the she-monsters carried a satchel full of human limbs, but it was her necklace – made entirely of severed ears – that caught our attention. After unceremoniously stringing the fleshy prize onto her jewelry, the head of this hellish sewing circle began spilling the beans on the fabled “ashen-haired woman.”
While this winding, multi-tiered mission might have felt like a series of fetch quests in another fictional universe, they were anything but in The Witcher III: Wild Hunt’s absorbing world. Thanks to engrossing character interactions, surprising narrative twists, and objectives that never felt arbitrary, Geralt’s lengthy mission kept us pinned to the edge of our seats at every turn. Of course, it didn’t hurt that his errands were occasionally interrupted by dynamic battles with mystical beasts; in addition to felling harpies and the aforementioned untrustworthy tree, Geralt unsheathed his blades for an epic bout with a werewolf and its fanged minions.
The combat, which featured seamless swapping from hacking-and-slashing to spellcasting, was a definite highlight. Based on previous presentations of developer CD Projekt RED’s bar-raising RPG, though, we already knew Geralt was a blade-wielding, magic-hurling badass. What most impressed us this time was the welcome lack of filler content during a mission that consumed the better part of a half-hour. Little did we know, when we witnessed that playful interaction with the godling, that the quest would conclude with a length of human ears being dangled before us.
Finally, in addition to the release of the video above, developer CD Projekt RED recently announced details on the game’s upcoming Collector’s Edition. This awesome boxed set comes with a copy of the game, the original soundtrack recording, a detailed cloth map of the game world, and a compendium of the universe of The Witcher. It also includes a Polystone figurine of series hero Geralt of Rivia battling a griffon, some stickers, a 200-page art book, an exclusive medallion for collectors, and two decks of cards for Gwent, the game played by the citizens populating The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. And it’s all packaged in a durable SteelBook case, making it an ideal showpiece for anyone’s gaming shelf.
We have no idea where The Witcher III: Wild Hunt will ultimately take us, but we look forward to following its twisty (and twisted) path into the darkness. In the meantime, though, we’ll lie awake at night wondering if that tree really was telling the truth – and if Geralt’s decision potentially sealed the fate of those missing orphans.