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This article contains spoilers for The Witcher 3 Wild Hunt and its DLCs, Hearts of Stone and Blood & Wine
As I meet Gaunter O’Dimm in the White Orchard inn for the first time, for the fourth time, his enigmatic prose lacks the mystery it once did. He doesn’t know it, but we’ve met. We’ve battled - less so with the standard weapons of a witcher, but absolutely with wits, with riddles, with races against time. I’ve seen him retreat from this realm twice already; and yet, there’s still something wicked in his words, a bite that no repetition can dull. You can see it reflected in Geralt’s cat-like eyes, the suspicion, the doubt, the suggestion that this man isn’t right. And just like that he’s gone with only the merest of pushes provided: to the Nilfgaardian garrison with you, run along now. We’ll meet again, of course, but it’ll be tens of hours until Geralt is in desperate need of an escape at sea.
With three complete plays of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt behind me, two of which have included the twin DLCs of Hearts of Stone and Blood & Wine, I have to pause as I start a fresh playthrough on a new platform, this time Xbox, and ask myself: why? I’ve walked these virtual lands for the best part of 500 hours already, across PlayStation and Switch (say what you will about the fidelity of the Nintendo port, but to play this thing wherever you want is a dream), but despite there being a sizeable backlog of unfinished and never-started games littering my downloads and dusty shelves alike, it’s to this game I’ve turned, I’ve returned. What’s that about?
As much as we love playing as Geralt, wouldn’t it be awesome to play a Ciri game?
Familiarity is comforting, of course, and the landscapes of The Witcher 3 - the war-ravaged Velen, the frost-bitten stone of Kaer Morhen, the sun-kissed Toussaint, the wind-lashed shores of Skellige - are by this point absolutely familiar to me. The sights and sounds feel as real in my mind, as palpable, as the walk I semi-regularly take from my front door by the English Channel to a high point on the South Downs, from where the urban sprawl I call home disappears and the countryside stretches out to the horizon; or as a circuit around our local National Trust woodland, where the same dens and the same ducks await us whatever the weather, whatever the season. The music that accompanies a number of The Witcher 3’s locales is a salve after a stressful day, so too the ambient sounds of nature that filter through the groans of a populous that so rarely has a day pass without the need to hire a professional monster hunter. That Conjunction really did a number on the place, huh.
But replaying The Witcher 3 isn’t a simple case of retracing steps, cutting the same path through familiar scenes, sounds and scores that need settling. Playing the Blood & Wine DLC for a second time on my third playthrough proper, on Switch, I deliberately went against what came before. I knew at some point Duchess Anna Henrietta’s sister, Syanna, would show her true colours, albeit only through some detective work on the part of Geralt and his vampire colleague Regis. And I knew that in my last play I’d chosen to help her, to free her from a magical imprisonment, and that choice led to, I suppose, a happier-than-not ending. Less death, anyway. A city that celebrated rather than mourned.
On my Switch campaign however, when the undead assault of the Night of Long Fangs mission commenced, I played against type and chose violence. Syanna remained trapped in a dimension where the enraged Dettlaff couldn’t reach her, and I had an evening to remember encountering the Unseen Elder, one of the (sincerely, holy shit) most terrifying beings in this whole game but one I’d not have seen at all had I played this story out the same way as before. I also got to experience the Blood Simple quest and reveal the horrific reality of Orianna, who remained only a bit-part character on my previous run. These are both main quests if you decide to follow them - that I hadn’t before, and had somehow dodged spoilers about them, meant that they were amazing late-game surprises. And it has me wondering what more previously unseen situations await on a fourth time around if I go against my gut, against what my Geralt might normally do, and invite the chaos in.
Inevitably, some things will stay the same. I will upgrade my Geralt’s Wolf School armour to its maximum stats despite there being ‘better’ sets available; I will romance Yen and not Triss, and keep Keira and Shani at a friendly arm’s length; and I will not let the Bloody Baron off the hook given what an abhorrent human he is. (Hook, noose, whatever.) But back on the big TV after so many handheld hours, with this world resplendent once more, I’m excited at the possibilities I’m yet to see play out. At the endings to quests I’ve not brought about before, and even locations I’ve never ventured to, as I know there are some out there. I also know there are 36 unique ways to see The Witcher 3 through to completion - so if I want them, there are hundreds more hours of this game ahead of me.
Tiny alterations in timelines aside, I’m primarily going back for more because I really like The Witcher 3. This is a game that’s seven years old now, its second and final DLC six years old; but I see no end in sight. The horizons of this game feel like they can stretch on forever, beyond where only devils play. Speaking of which, Gaunter tells Geralt, in Hearts of Stone: “I give folk what they want, nothing more.” I find it truly amazing that, this long after first playing The Witcher 3, in a Scottish castle in early 2015, this game remains what I want, but somehow more. It’s a fantasy that seems so real to me at this point, an escape where I can feel both relaxed and engineer great tension and challenge. When we counted down our greatest games of all time on GAMINGbible, in late 2020, The Witcher 3 came second, behind The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. But I think it says a lot about the staying power of these two wonderful open-world games that it’s the bustle of Hierarch Square and Kaer Trolde Harbour that I yearn to be amongst rather than any beauty spot amid the majesty of Hyrule. Seven years down, then, but with the new-gen version of the game coming later in 2022 (and the next game proper a long way off), I know I’ll be playing this for several more.
Chosen for YouChosen for You
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