One of the defining games of this generation, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt and its subsequent expansions told fantastical and realistic stories in a harsh fantasy world full of mystery, surprise and wonder. Almost overnight it propelled developer CD Projekt RED from relatively unknown, or moderately successful studio, into a powerhouse. A name that now sits alongside some of the biggest and most talented in the industry. The Witcher III’s success also helped popularise the fantasy world of The Witcher and its main protagonist Geralt of Rivia – so much so that a big budget Netflix series based on the property is currently underway.
As a sprawling open-world RPG filled with rich characters and a believable world, one of the surprises and hidden gems found within The Witcher III was the intricate and detailed card game GWENT. The RPG genre is no stranger to games-within-games (Pazaak anyone?), but GWENT immediately stood out as something that felt like so much more. Quickly gaining a cult following due to its deep strategic play and unique spin on the card-game genre, CD Projekt RED responded by creating a new team to work exclusively on a standalone competitive GWENT. A journey that took time to fully realise, and one that along the way saw the creation of a single-player story mode or add-on. Something that would inject more of The Witcher’s familiar world into the normally narrative-free genre. A new Witcher Tale, called Thronebreaker.
As long as that little introduction was, initial and final impressions certainly aren’t. Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales is to put it simply, fantastic. A standalone release that takes the core mechanics and flow of GWENT as first seen in The Witcher III and turns that into an epic, sprawling, story-driven RPG with strategy, progression, puzzles, grand battles and meaningful player-driven choices. All wrapped up with exceptional art direction, animation and voice acting. A proper Witcher game if you will, but even that descriptor fails to sell just how different and initially weird Thronebreaker is compared to just about anything we’ve ever played.
Holding all its various bits and pieces together is a wonderful and nuanced story that follows Meve, Queen of Lyria and Rivia, on the cusp of an imminent Nilfgaardian invasion. Presented as a story being told at a pub somewhere, the narration blends perfectly with the graphic novel presentation, wonderful performances, music and sound design.
Not only well written and well executed, and surprising in its twists and turns, it serves as the flourish or icing that makes everything else about Thronebreaker shine. To get a better idea of the game itself, imagine an isometric RPG along the lines of a Baldur’s Gate or Pillars of Eternity, where all combat and danger is depicted through the guise of GWENT battles. Even random encounters take on a puzzle-like approach, where you’re given chess style brain teasers within a strict set of parameters to solve a situation. These side-quests found throughout Thronebreaker are brilliant and genuinely challenging. And weird too, with one pitting you with clearing a board full of corpses with limited resources and figuring out the right order for an almost chain reaction of gruesome destruction.
By keeping all action and moments and ambushes and other events within the world of GWENT, Thronebreaker immediately carries with it a different feel to other RPGs. And it’s worth reiterating that last bit, because Thronebreaker is very much an RPG. Linear in structure sure, but managing and recruiting new forces, upgrading abilities and unit line-up, keeping an eye on morale and making the tough choice of whether to keep food or give it away to nearby villagers - it’s every bit as involved and engrossing as the very best stories found in the The Witcher III. In fact, Meve and her personal journey to reclaim her lands might just be CD Projekt RED’s finest hour, narratively speaking. Easily on par with Geralt’s story, the sheer breadth and scope of the 30 or so hour journey feels epic. In the way that all good fantasy stories do.
Where it falters slightly, comes down to the nature or GWENT as envisioned as a story-driven RPG. Once you’ve upgraded or created your deck and are happy with handling most battle situations, there’s little need to switch things out during the second half of the story. In fact, the challenge in the latter half all but dries up as the story comes to an end – where it probably should have ramped up. This affects exploration too, as there’s little need for more resources to recruit new units or cards. This side of the experience feels a little watered down too, as having to balance resources to replenish your army is mostly absent outside of the well-realised morale system that plays into each encounter.
As to why or how, again, perhaps this is due to the nature of GWENT and trying to balance difficulty once the sheer variety and number of competing strategies and decks come into play. Whatever the reasons though no doubt it comes from creating an RPG story-driven game unlike anything else out there. One that features one of the best interactive bits of fiction this side of The Witcher III – with a flawed, interesting and awe-inspiring protagonist in the form of Meve. No doubt, we can’t wait to check out the next Witcher Tale.