Joaby serves up a rather well thought out reason for playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt on Easy, and while we don't all share that sentiment, his case is a good one and worth reading or listening to...
Listen in for Joaby's reasoning with visual aids in his video feature above
The Witcher 3 is one of the most fascinating and engrossing games I've ever played. The world is a massive, gorgeous canvas hosting some of the best story-telling I've ever seen in games. I never realised until I played it how much I wanted detective noir style story-telling in a fantasy world setting. It's a bloody brilliant game -- monster-hunting is fantastic, the quests are complex and sprawling, the world rich and well-developed, full of things to see, places to explore and items to steal.
But the combat in The Witcher 3 is just... unsatisfying. And there is no reason why a smart gamer like yourself should force yourself through bad combat systems just to experience all the other great things The Witcher 3 has to offer. So... play it on easy, or Just The Story mode.
I mean, why the hell wouldn't you?
I'm sure your initial reaction is "Joaby, you filthy casual, maybe you should just git gud and play through on a harder difficulty than default like so many reviews said." I've heard it already, and I can understand where you're coming from. Gamers have been spoiled recently with brilliantly challenging games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne, which force players to think both strategically and tactically about how they approach combat in games. I don't think I have to prove to you that I'm not a filthy casual (and I shouldn't have to regardless, but that's a conversation for another day) but I beat the Ancient Dragon in Dark Souls 2 and it only cost me most of my sanity, so I'm not awful.
The Witcher 3 isn't that sort of game anyway, however. The combat systems aren't robust enough to afford the game anything beyond further tedium, and the impact they have on gameplay is almost entirely negative.
Allow me to explain.
There are, in modern gaming, two accepted forms of hand-to-hand combat. There's the Street Fighter style of combat, where your button press directly translates to an attack on the screen. If you press triangle you throw a punch. If you press X you kick. If you hammer the square button repeatedly you turn into an electric ball of death and you cheese your way to victory.
Lots of games use this style of melee combat -- for the purposes of discussion, however, I'll use 2014 game of the year Dark Souls 2 as my example. In Dark Souls 2 you have buttons for each of your hands, left and right, allowing you to attack differently depending on what you have equipped. If you have a sword and shield, you can block with your left bumper and swing with your right. You can parry with your Left trigger. If you'd instead prefer to go all offensive, you can have two swords and you can attack with all your shoulder buttons.
The game contextually analyses what's in your hands, and it gives you the opportunity to attack based on the items equipped. On top of this, the player is able to dodge roll at will, and this is also contextually modified by equipped items -- if you wear heavy armour, you dodge slower.
Success in Dark Souls 2 comes from understanding your equipment, understanding your opponent and using that knowledge along with decent reaction times to become the weapon. The Street Fighter style of combat allows you, if you know your character, to simply do things with confidence in knowing that your inputs will translate directly into actions on screen, allowing you to concentrate on what inputs would be best next. The reason people find combat satisfying in Dark Souls is because an increase in player knowledge relates immediately to an increase in success in game, which means the only thing holding the player back is... the player.
So, that's one type of melee combat system. The other type takes contextual inputs and extrapolates them into the entire system. In this case, we're talking about the combat seen regularly in the Assassin's Creed and Batman: Arkham series.
This time we will use 2011 Game of the Year Batman: Arkham City as our example. In Batman: Arkham City, the combat takes advantage of multiple buttons to create cinematic and choreographed action designed to look great while still forcing the player to endure some challenge. Essentially our caped crusader fights with a quick attack, a heavy attack, a parry/block button and a dodge button.
What's interesting about Batman, and the reason why this combat system works so well, is that all of these attacks are tied to pre-determined, contextually appropriate choreographed movesets. Arkham City's combat relies heavily on Batman's ability to counter enemy attacks, where Batman anticipates incoming damage and parries it to do damage of his own. Batman can wade into a battle swinging, but his best approach is to allow enemies to swing first, counter them and then use that to create a damage dealing combo.
This results in a combat system where what occurs on the screen is fantastic to look at, and it makes our hero look like a martial arts master. It creates combat which isn't just extremely satisfying to take part in, it's thematically appropriate. The important factor for Batman Arkham City, though, the thing which sets it apart as a cut above the others (even if Assassin's Creed arguably pioneered the concept) is that both attacker and defender are animated in lockstep -- in combat, your input doesn't just control the player character, it controls their opponent as well.
These are the two best forms of melee combat in games in 2015 -- the 1 to 1 control scheme present in games as far back as Barbarian on the C64, and the far more recent contextual combat scheme from Assassin's Creed.
The problem with The Witcher 3's combat is that it's not quite either of these systems.
Superficially The Witcher 3 bears the most in common with the latter system, sharing an immediately similar control scheme and flashy combat designed to portray Geralt as a finesse fighter. He moves through combat with grace and speed and he spins as he strikes, his sword combat effortlessly emulating kung-fu movie style attacks.
But the combat breaks down along the way when it animates combatants independently of one another, allowing Geralt to spin his way into combat while not locking his enemy into the attack, except for execution and parry attacks. As a result, while Geralt moves like a person in the Batman style combat system, his combat takes place in a Dark Souls style universe. Geralt can block and parry and dodge and roll, and all of these occur as direct one-to-one inputs. But while he is attacking, the quick attack button reacts contextually based on a variety of factors such as the weapon and Geralt's gear. This is just as Dark Souls 2 approached the system, but the change here is a third contextual modifier -- the position of the enemy to Geralt.
As a result, The Witcher 3 attempts to marry the flashy, cinematic combat of Batman with the precise gear based combat of Dark Souls, and the result is a combat system where Geralt can begin a generic attack before his enemy and still get interrupted before completing it. As combat systems go, it looks great until you're hit for a third of your health mid-pirouette.
Ultimately this is manageable. You learn the systems, you learn to mitigate their issues and you move on, right? Geralt, like Batman, has tools at his disposal designed to complement his combat and allow him to get the upper edge through slows and stuns, so spinning sword attacks don't have to be his only moveset, right?
But The Witcher 3 has other problems. Geralt isn't as nimble on his feet as he should be. His roll is functionally worthless, with no i-frames and a slow engagement speed. He can't change magics unless he's standing upright, which is an odd problem to have seeing how he's just deciding to do a different spell or use a different ranged weapon -- inside the game world, it's a case of a mental adjustment, not a physical adjustment on our white wolf's behalf.
Because combat is contextual, the game decides when the player is in combat and when he is not, and on a number of occasions it has decided I'm not in combat while an archer is shooting me with arrows. If he's not "in combat", Geralt can't block -- L Trigger instead engages Witcher vision so Geralt can see with pinpoint accuracy where he's being shot from.
The awkward movement system combines with the hybrid combat system to create situations where Geralt is taking damage he can't necessarily mitigate -- and this is where The Witcher 3 has a real problem.
There are a few ways to regain Health in the Witcher 3. You can meditate if you're on the lower two difficulties, allowing you to sit for an hour while you brew potions and regain all your health. If you're on the higher two difficulties, this isn't an option -- meditating replenishes potions, but not Geralt's health. You can use ability points to buy abilities which heal you, although you need to equip them if you expect them to work. The main method for regaining health (at least until you get Quen's Alternate Sign Mode) is by eating food -- and this is actually the chief reason why you should just play on Easy.
The world of The Witcher 3 is one at war. Armies hold outposts and checkpoints just short rides from one another, deserters and bandits roam the forests and monsters plague the areas around villages. Battles have ruined harvests and left villagers destitute to the point that they sacrifice their children and turn to ancient evils for help. More than the kings, the lords and the barons in this world, Poverty rules as people ply desperate trade in a world that has turned against them.
It's a heavy setting for a game as you pass gaunt face after gaunt face in each new village you visit, but because Geralt needs food to live, and because the game doesn't punish you for stealing things en masse, The Witcher 3 quickly becomes a game where the player robs destitute people for everything they have. You quickly stop even looking at the items you're stealing, because anything you can't eat you can sell, and you can use that money to buy food. Each new point of interest you come across becomes less about the location and more an opportunity for you to steal anything not nailed down, and I've literally gone into houses filled with people sleeping on the floor just to steal everything from them.
At one point, you stop two banditos from robbing a friend of yours (she's in hiding for religious reasons, another reminder of the themes the game deals with) and then, if you're inclined, you can rob her blind.
And on higher difficulties, if you're not doing this you're unnecessarily hamstringing yourself. You do less damage against opponents with more health, and they do more damage when they hit you. If it's not daytime, you can't regen health without Swallow potions (of which you have three) or food, and without materials you can't replenish your Swallow potions -- meaning stealing from every crate you see is an absolute necessity.
This turns what should be glorious exploration into a tedious scavenger hunt as Geralt finds himself forced to hunt for scraps of food in every box and crate he comes by. Hunting down packs of wolves for their raw meat was a common occurrence for me before I dropped the difficulty all the way down. Villages weren't places to get new quests or find out more about the world, they were treasure troves of junk for me to loot and sell. If you want to talk about an immersion breaker, consider the early game warning that stealing is frowned upon and then later realise that nobody actually cares if Geralt basically cleans out a village (and then sells their stuff back to their merchant).
It's a killer, especially for a game that works so hard to shift away from video-gamey ideas like dungeon runs or grinding out levels. Your best sources of XP in The Witcher 3 are side quests and main quests, to the point where fighting random enemies is nearly pointless. It's a system designed to encourage you to engross yourself further in the game world by doing quests outside of the main story path, but it has the side effect of also reminding you that Witchers aren't altruistic monster hunters -- not earning any real XP for killing a random world monster reminds you that Geralt isn't doing it for the love.
The thing is, when you shift the game to easy difficulty, all of these complaints go away. The combat is simple, Geralt is a badass and you feel like you're in control of a highly trained two-sword wielding monster hunter again. Human enemies -- even those dickheads with spears -- are dismissed and dispatched with the brevity you expect from a Warrior Mage. You won't get stunlocked to death by a pair of Drowners every time you cross a river anymore. Grander monsters still require some strategy -- if you try to take on a NightWraith at midnight, you'll still be doing bugger all damage unless you trap her, and Werewolves can still regenerate to full health if you don't burn them with Axii -- but the fights don't take 5 plus minutes as you dodge and wait for your stamina to replenish.
There's nothing to lose here. The advice from many reviews when the game came out was that it was in your best interests to raise the difficulty level to something above what you think you're capable of, because the game gets too easy eventually -- but if the combat is always pretty much too easy, that's never your concern. In fact, the idea that the combat system fails to evolve at the same pace as Geralt reinforces my point -- natural progression in an RPG should see enemies gradually get tougher, not so much easier as to require a change in difficulty.
It's a better experience because you never reach a point where it impacts your enjoyment, because you're not playing The Witcher 3 to endure its frankly subpar combat any more -- you're playing it to experience some mature character development and storytelling, to explore a gorgeous world with breath-taking graphics, to engage in dark ages era detective work.