by Matthew Thompson
Months ago I talked about my first steps into the world of The Witcher and I am finally here to deliver on my promise of diving deeper into my thoughts on CD Projekt RED’s epic RPG. In my first post, I heralded The Witcher 3’s open world as one of gaming’s best and today I will be breaking down its various locations – their strengths and weaknesses, their unique characteristics, and why some resonated better with me than others. The main focus will be on the game’s three major areas, but I have added some quick thoughts on the others as well.
The Witcher 3 opens in White Orchard before a quick visit to Vizima, but it truly opens up when you reach the vast region of Velen. On your journey into Velen, you are greeted by corpses swinging off trees – an apt introduction to a place you will quickly come to know, one torn apart by the war that acts as a backdrop to the story that will unfold as you progress through the game. You will see how this conflict has affected the region through both sights like the one described above and your interactions with the residents of villages and small cottages that pepper the countryside. It sets a rather depressing tone, but one that feels at home in The Witcher world.
Velen features a varied landscape. You’ll find yourself crossing large fields and winding through forests. There are murky swamps and dank caves. You’ll stop by small towns and discover old ruins. While they may not match the scale of what you will encounter later, you will even come across your first city and mountain on your trek through the area. All this variety makes for a place that is a joy to explore, one that presents surprises at every trail’s turn. The sense of discovery here is wonderful and it makes wandering off the beaten path just as fun as engaging in the game’s next main quest.
It is also here that the game – and perhaps the genre – clicked for me for the first time. That is partly because I finally came to grips with The Witcher’s mechanics, but I also think it is due to some impressive design. That comes in the form of memorable questlines like the much ballyhooed ones involving the Bloody Baron. I also loved how multiple quests intertwined with each other. I found myself halted with one mission and decided to pursue another only to run into the solution for my original problem. There are some fantastic monster contracts in this area as well. The game’s leveling makes for a problematic difficulty curve, but the one time it happened to be in the sweet spot for me was towards the end of my time in Velen which helped make this portion of the game have a more positive impact on me.
I don’t have too much negative to say about Velen. I suppose Keira isn’t as big a deal as the other region’s love interests, but I still found her storyline interesting. I guess it may not include any of the late game’s climactic moments either, but what is here is great.
CDPR deserves a lot of praise for constructing such a detailed and lively medieval city. Unfortunately my first extended stay in Novigrad was a bit of a slog. The mission design has you just bouncing between NPCs too often. Fighting indoors exposes the warts of The Witcher 3’s combat system and a camera not suited for battles in such tight spots. That sense of discovery that made Velen such a joy is lost in the city streets and the big beasts that made contracts so special to this point are nowhere to be found. Heck I just vastly prefer exploring via horseback to running around on foot.
When talking to long-time Witcher fans, it is apparent that a large part of the appeal of Novigrad is interacting with old friends. Given this is my first Witcher game, this aspect was obviously lost on me. I do think your return to the city later in the game works better. That segment doesn’t overstay its welcome and generally has more interesting quest design. So perhaps delivering Novigrad in smaller doses would have solved some of its problems (I generally did the three major regions in order during the first half of the game, so maybe I could have helped alleviate some of those issues myself by mixing them around more).
I appreciate what the developers created in Novigrad. It feels like an integral part of this world and it certainly has its share of memorable moments. The early parts in the city are a bit of a pace killer though and represent my least favorite portion of the game.
After being cooped up in Novigrad for so long, my trip to Skellige felt like such a breath of fresh air. The landscape with its towering mountain peaks and island speckled sea has the most interesting terrain. Having said that sailing around isn’t too eventful, so I ended up fast-traveling about fairly often. Still it is a blast to explore on land and brought back a lot of the feelings Velen gave me that were lacking in Novigrad. The Viking-esque culture of Skellige really help these sections of the game stand out as well. I must say I loved the music here too. It pushed an already impressive atmosphere up another notch and made exploration that much more enjoyable.
You don’t spend as much time here in the early going as Velen or Novigrad, but it does feature some of my very favorite sequences from the game. Along with some extremely important mainline quests like Isle of Mists and some of the endgame stuff, I really loved the Kingmaker questline. Here you help shape the future of the island region by helping to choose its next ruler. The missions here are fantastic, your interactions with various candidates are extremely well-done and I liked how my impact in this portion of the game was felt when the story came to a close.
As for drawbacks, this is really where I became completely overleveled which generally hurt the challenge of the game. It may have been better to have this area more connected to the previous ones too although I understand why that may not be an option.
Some quick thoughts on the other areas:
- White Orchard: This is a solid introductory area that was probably hurt by how out of sorts I was at the beginning of the game. It does feel a little cramped compared to the other main maps though.
- Vizima: It is a place you go a few times. Not much happening there to be honest.
- Oxenfurt: I guess this is an extension of Novigrad, but it felt like the area I explored the least. It seems it is expanded upon and featured in the recent expansion Hearts of Stone, so I will probably talk about it more when I get to that.
- Kaer Morhen: It clearly isn’t as large as the main places in the game, but there is a lot of history here and it hosts one of the game’s key (and best) events. It is also fun to catch up with some of your Witcher buddies here. Really cool location.
- A Final Note: Apologies if it seems like I am not giving credit to Andrzej Sapkowski, the author of the novels the series is based on, for his part in this. He obviously deserves praise for his role in crafting the world. I am a little unsure where the inspiration for these areas begins and ends in the game’s creation as I am still working through the books. I’m also focusing a lot on the game content in these areas which is on CDPR.
That will do it for my look at some of the locations in The Witcher 3. I am a little torn between Velen and Skellige for my favorite area, but this game really is full of places that stick with you. I have several other posts planned in this series including a look at the decision-making, some of the game’s faults, and some thoughts on the Hearts of Stone expansion. Thanks for reading!