Jon got me The Witcher 3 as a gift on Steam shortly after it came out because I was replaying Dragon Age 2, again, and he wanted me to find a new game I might love. He had been watching Destiny stream it and thought it looked up my alley. I had heard of the game and had seen it getting rave reviews on Reddit, but I was dubious since it forces you to play as a set character. I’ve not had much luck getting into games like Tomb Raider, Uncharted, and even the first game in the Witcher series; I prefer games like Dragon Age or Skyrim that let you create your own character. However, the bits of The Witcher 3 gameplay I’d seen looked cool, and it’s a super pretty game, so I tried it. I’m so glad I gave it a chance.

I’m level thirteen now, wandering around Novigrad with some forty hours in the game. I love it! I feel like it’s a very special game that does some things different from the usual games I play, and those differences make me appreciate it. There’s so much effort that obviously went into The Witcher 3. I remember when Skyrim and Dragon Age 2 both came out and playing Skyrim made all the problems I had with Dragon Age 2 really stand out. Playing The Witcher 3 after years of playing the Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Legend of Zelda, and Elder Scrolls series has a similar feeling.

I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum, just mentioning places and general ideas.

Things I Like

Living world
Oh my goodness, wind blows through trees, shrubs, and grasses, and who knew that such a small detail would make such a big difference? Wandering around Skyrim or Thedas, they feel like dead worlds now by comparison, even if the plant life is made more lush by mods. Hearing the rush of the wind and seeing tree tops wave about really makes me want to explore. It’s very peaceful, I’m picking some flowers, then suddenly a wolf attacks or a wraith floats by and the open landscape is kept from being dull.

Along with the wind making the world seem alive, NPCs notice you in The Witcher 3. While running through town, if I bang Geralt into someone, they get knocked out of the way and cry out. In the Dragon Age series, NPCs are like mini walls in the world; not only can I not affect them with my character, but I also can’t run through them. I’m forced to route around them.

After rescuing a merchant from bandits, or doing some quests around a village, when I come back later, I find the merchant has set up shop in town or the village NPCs have changed a bit because of my help. It’s a nice feeling that I’m affecting the world.

Big decisions
My coworker Will is playing, too, and we’ve been discussing what things have happened as we go along. We were both pretty amazed at how differently things have turned out based on one choice. In Velen, as part of The Whispering Hillock quest, one of us chose to side with the Ladies, the other sided with the tree creature. Depending on which way you go, different people die. It isn’t just a matter of person A dies versus person B, either, like in Mass Effect 3 where the same quest is going to happen and you might see Captain Kirrahe versus some other salarian in his place. The actual story changes, too: in Will’s game, there was a curse and a suicide that didn’t happen at all in mine. In my game, there’s talk of traveling to a medicine man for one of the characters instead.

Will also apparently made some different decisions regarding one of Geralt’s lovers than I did, resulting in a death. In my game, the lover went to live at Kaer Morhen, hopefully to resurface later.

I don’t think characters other than adults come up enough in games in meaningful ways. I remember a few instances of children in other RPGs, like the bratty kids in Skyrim or finding lost Bevin in Dragon Age: Origins, but you don’t interact with them much. I loved in The Witcher 3 when I found the orphans in Velen because you get to talk with them a lot, then conspire with them to advance a quest by luring their gran out of the house. There’s one boy in particular that you can ask about his back story, and it’s a pretty sad tale. Later I met with a handful of kids who were starving, taking residence in an old shack; I had the option to feed them. Then there’s Gretka, whom you rescue while playing as Ciri and lead back to a comfortable life in Crow’s Perch.
Intelligent non-humanoids
So there’s your typical fantasy races, elves and dwarves to go along with regular old humans. Skyrim has lots of intelligent races. I think there’s a dearth, however, of intelligent yet non-playable races. I was tickled when I met my first godling in The Witcher 3. Here’s this adorable creature who is mischievous and living his own life, and we were both able to help each other. I met a singing troll who needed my help painting his fort. I just like the variety, that not everyone I need to talk to is another human like myself.

A godling in The Witcher 3

Few dungeons
Dungeons seem such a staple of RPGs, I was surprised when I realized The Witcher 3 uses them sparingly. In other games, they always seem like a large chunk of gameplay that you’re committing yourself to, like “here’s another dwarven ruin, wonder how long I’ll be lost down here.” Maybe it’s just me, but I almost have to psych myself up for one. It’s not just dungeons, forts, and old ruins either; I have the same feeling about starting a mission in the Mass Effect series where I know I’m going to be locked into an area until the mission is over.

In The Witcher 3, I’ve encountered perhaps two dungeons: the first early on while with Keira, and the second when looking for a witch. Mostly I’m out in the open world when I’m killing monsters and looting things. I found some “elven ruins” yesterday that amounted to some open-air crumbling pillars with a chest of goodies. It was such a relief to kill the wraiths guarding them, loot the goods, and then get back on Roach to ride to another location. I wasn’t lost in a maze of endless hallways, trying to figure out the fastest way back to the overworld.

Another frustrating thing about dungeons is backtracking and repetition. Especially in Legend of Zelda games, if you save and exit the game in a dungeon or if you ever leave the dungeon, you have to repeat a bunch of things to get back to where you were. I haven’t felt any repetition in The Witcher 3 gameplay so far, and dungeons are so infrequent that they haven’t become a chore.

Loot collection
I’ve got a real problem with picking up everything in RPGs so that I can sell it later, and I always end up overburdened when I’m kept away from a merchant too long. Should I leave behind the dubiously useful potions that I probably won’t get around to using, the crafting supplies that I totally will use but are super heavy, or the bit of armor that looks cool and I might eventually enchant?

I’ve had less of this internal struggle in The Witcher 3. Maybe it’s because alchemy supplies and food are so lightweight, I never even consider dropping them. Heavy items like weapons and armor are usually either clearly awesome and I should definitely use or sell them, or clearly junk shit-tier items that I looted off of some scrub and can gladly toss. How many Velen longswords does one really need anyway?

Controller support
I love playing PC games because I get mods and better graphics. I love playing with an Xbox controller though because I can play on the TV from my couch. So I’m tickled that The Witcher 3 lets me use a controller on PC, and I’m especially tickled about how seamless it is. I load the game up and nudge my controller, the game knows immediately; it shows a message about how the control scheme has switched to gamepad. Likewise, if I then bump the mouse or hit a key on my keyboard, it switches to keyboard and mouse control. If there is any text on the screen about ‘hit X to skip’ or numbers on dialogue options corresponding to keyboard buttons, they update as soon as the control scheme changes.

Boating in The Witcher 3

Games that have potions tend to require you to make those potions over and over again. Because of this, and because I’m a nervous sort that always thinks “what if I really need this later?”, I tend to use potions sparingly if at all. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, health potions get refilled for free every time you go to camp, and I use those potions regularly. It’s the same feeling with all potions, bombs, and oils in The Witcher 3. You need the raw ingredients to craft something initially, but after that, when you meditate some alcohest gets used up and that refills all your consumables. I’ve never had a time when I didn’t have alcohest, and as far as I can tell it’s not used for anything other than refilling my other stuff, so I don’t worry about it.

I hesitated about using blade oils for a while because I was still in the mindset of “don’t use it till you absolutely need it” from other RPGs. Then I tried applying a specter oil while in a tough fight and it said I couldn’t do that in combat. That made me realize they must intend you to have some foresight and apply the stuff beforehand. I tried putting on some oil outside of combat and discovered it lasts for some number of hits, unlike poisons in Skyrim that you have to reapply for every arrow you shoot, for example. Oils seem even more convenient than bombs and potions in that they don’t seem to need refilling with alcohest. I think I just have a bottomless bottle of each kind of oil, after having crafted it once.

When you load your game, you get a little scene illustration as a loading screen with a voiceover explaining your current position in the game. It’s nice to see the art since it’s a different style than what you see while playing, and it’s handy when I come back to the game after a day or so of being away.
Variety in appearance
One thing that has annoyed me in the Dragon Age series is a sameness to everyone’s appearance. Women all have the same boob size, lips in Dragon Age 2 all had the same shape, NPCs wear outfits that are recolors of everyone else’s outfits, etc. One thing that seems common in Oblivion, Skyrim, and Mass Effect is that everyone’s the same size. I’m talking within adults, most men have the same frame, same for most women. James Vega in Mass Effect 3 was an exception, being a big, hulking muscly dude compared with other men. He was a companion, though, not some random NPC you run into.

I appreciate that in The Witcher 3, there’s some real variety in how people look. Old and young, fat and skinny, hairy and bald. Faces have a lot of detail, and I love that fat NPCs don’t just have a regular head tacked on a bigger body: the neck and face are actually different from those of thinner characters.

Dijkstra being funny

Cut scenes
Something I love in the Mass Effect series is that every conversation, no matter how small, gets its own camera work. It feels like you’re in a movie, with the camera panning to show Shepard’s face when she speaks and then panning back to the other person when they speak. You get to see facial expressions clearly, and it feels like what’s happening matters. Most conversations in Dragon Age: Inquisition by comparison felt inconsequential, because all that happens is the camera zooms in a little closer from where it is when you’re running around. You can’t make out expressions, and it’s actually hard to hear what the characters are saying sometimes.

Fortunately, The Witcher 3 is in the camp of always giving cut scenes for dialogue. I love it. Even interactions with shopkeepers are done this way, as opposed to Dragon Age games past Origins where you don’t even have to talk to someone to buy things. Having to talk to other characters and seeing those conversations close up makes me feel more immersed in the world. An NPC isn’t just a transparent interface to the buying and selling mechanism, they’re a person with a story and emotions and there may be something more to them. I’ve had a few merchants give me quests, and many merchants will play a card game with you.

Since every conversation gets a cut scene, cut scenes don’t indicate plot. One side effect of the cheap zoom-in for most conversations in Dragon Age: Inqusition was that when you did get a cut scene, you knew something Important to the Plot was about to happen. There’s no such tell in The Witcher 3. When I meet a stranger in a tiny hamlet in the middle of nowhere, maybe they’ll just want me to rid their barn of ghouls, or maybe they’ll be the start of some sprawling quest.

Humor and references
One quest had me tracking down all the ladies a friend had been seeing. When asking after one of them and how she got on with my friend, I was told things were fine till she referred to my friend as her “stallion” and called him Christian while calling herself Ana, then got out the bridle and horsewhip. I bet 50 Shades of Grey isn’t familiar reading for most of the dudes playing The Witcher 3, but I sure got the reference, and it made me giggle. I also enjoyed the singing troll:

A singing troll

Things I Dislike

There have been a few things that bother me; some are small things that I think a patch or a mod could fix. The only mod I’ve heard about so far is one to make Ciri naked, but I hope others come out eventually.

So much boob
I read the Polygon review of The Witcher 3 before Jon got it for me, and it made me hesitant to buy the game myself. They describe the game world as “oppressively misogynist” and women in the game as “titillating props for Geralt and the player.” While I haven’t been offended by some things that bothered the reviewers, like the monster types that arise from violence against women, the amount of cleavage is a little ridiculous. Every young woman you meet shows crazy amounts of boob. Keira Metz shows her areolas in her everyday outfit, and you won’t meet a woman under the age of sixty in the game who doesn’t reveal most of her chest.

I love the variety of monsters and characters you can interact with, so it seems strange to me that all the young women would dress in different outfits that all show their breasts. There’s a wide variety of clothing in the game, something I love, and there’s great attention to detail in the textures and decorations on clothing. I wish CD Projekt Red would have carried that forward into more variety in how much skin women exposed.

Unskippable recaps
While I love the recaps when I first load a save after opening the game, they get annoying when I manually load a game after I’ve been playing awhile. I’m able to skip dialogue in game and the title screens when I open the game, but these recaps aren’t skippable. If I haven’t progressed far enough in the story to get all the dialogue for a recap, it’ll show the illustration with no text and no voice for several long seconds. I’d like for the X button to work to skip this just like it does for in-game cut scenes.
Inventory management
There isn’t a way to sort stuff in your inventory tabs. I have a slew of books and notes, and I don’t know which ones I’ve read or not. I also get an asterisk on an inventory tab when I pick up some dinky flower; I don’t care. I care if I pick up a new weapon or piece of armor because it might be better than what I have equipped, but if I just got some new alchemy component, bottle of milk, or old sheepskin, I don’t want there to be an indicator that makes me feel like I need to clear out my inbox. It just feels like busy work, but if I don’t do it, later I might get some item I do care about that gets lost in the cruft from before. My mutagens are also all mixed together. Blue with red, special with lesser, dogs and cats living together…

So overall, I love the game. I know it’s going to last me a long time, and I just bought the first two games in the Steam summer sale, so I’ll be able to go back and get all the backstory I’ve missed. I’m excited to find out whether Triss or Yennifer should be my one true love, and who all these other recurring characters are that Geralt already knows and I don’t. It’s a big investment getting into a new fantasy series–my brain only has so much room for worlds, and Thedas and Tamriel already take up a lot–but The Witcher series seems to be worth it.