With The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt and its two expansions, one of the best RPG sagas in living memory had triumphantly come to an end and the gaming community was unsurprisingly grief-stricken. You know that particular combination of angst, heartache, and craving when you’ve just finished something that was an important part of your life and had barely come to terms that you won’t associate anymore with the characters you’ve come to care for as if they’re actual persons? The mechanic of Gwent, a card game featured in the Witcher 3 was so good and addictive, that it undoubtedly merited its own standalone title. However, players desperately wanted to revisit dark and thrilling Slavic-inspired world of Witcher in more tangible manner, to find themselves up close and personal with its challenges, silver sword in hand, pirouetting around monsters and spreading fiery devastation across the landscape with their Igni sign. Alas, it seemed that CD Projekt had moved on into entirely different direction with their upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 and that we will never have an opportunity to play another Witcher RPG. When Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales was announced I was mildly suspicious of this strange hybrid of Gwent styled card game and RPG. Is it some instant half-product designed to fill the CD Project’s coffers in the interim the last “proper” Witcher game and Cyberpunk 2077, milking fans hungry for more Witcher action? Thankfully, the answer is no – Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales is quite possibly the most pleasant gaming surprise of the last quarter of 2018.
Before I commenced to play the game, I was somehow under an impression that all content besides Gwent will serve as a mere filler for the card duels. However, i quickly realized that it’s not the case at all and that the storyline itself is rich and branched just like in original Witcher trilogy, teeming with pivotal choices you’ll have to make and the consequences that stem from them, some good, some bad, some even disastrous, but just like Geralt of Rivia, you’ll have to learn to live with them. Also, the game on the first look seemed like a relatively simple affair, a slideshow of combat, dialogues and travels across the world map, but everything is practically jam-packed with various options, gaming opportunities, and high-quality narration, that Gwent card duels which served as an initial foundation for the game are now perceived as its least important or impressive segment.
Another question that needs answering is, where exactly this Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales fits into overall Witcher canon and timeline? In short, it’s a prequel of sorts and it takes place before events described in the Witcher trilogy. You’ll play as Queen Meve of Lyria and Rivia who was remembered as just, noble and fiercely brave ruler, playing an important role in the Second Nilfgaard War. Of course, she was also mentioned in Sapkowski’s books and those of you familiar with the lore probably remember her as the one who knighted Geralt after the Battle for the Bridge on the Yaruga.
The game starts after a peace summit between northern rulers (noble crowned heads you’re familiar with from previous Witcher games). You return to your own kingdom which you’ve left in the care of your obviously incompetent elder son, to find it in complete disarray. However, the bandits known as the “Strays of Spalla” which are wreaking havoc throughout your realm are just the first of your many problems. There are unsettling reports of Nifgardian activity which hint that very soon the queen will have even more troubles on her royal hands which will greatly surpass a mere bandit menace (even if they do tend to bite and howl at the moon as the peasants claim). On top of that, the queen is burdened with personal issues and doubts concerning her young son’s suitability to succeed her as a ruler.
You’ll journey across the absolutely huge map, spanning Lyria and Rivia of course, but you’ll also get to visit Mahakam, Aedirn, and Angren. The travel itself is done in the isometric perspective of some RPG, resembling the visual style of that gorgeous cinematics from Witcher 3. You’ll lead the queen herself, but it, of course, goes without the saying that her close advisors along with her whole revenue are following her. As you explore the map, you’ll have the chance to talk to the peasants and other characters (which have always something interesting to say, even if it’s just to curse the land and its ruler – you – for letting such atrocities happening to decent folk), recruit soldiers, collect resources such as gold and wood, solve side quests, finding pieces of treasure maps and go treasure-hunting. Those resources you’ll use in different situations – for instance, if you want to recruit a particular card in your deck or even in various random encounters that await you on the road. You’ll also have the opportunity to pitch your camp, and that will also afford you a bunch of opportunities and options. Think of it as a sort of hub which gives you the access to Royal Tent, Command Tent, Mess Tent, and Training Grounds. Each one has a specific purpose and can be upgraded several times via the Workshop, which will allow you to recruit more men, new companions, generate more gold and other things which will make your life easier while you’re on the road.
Of course, pretty soon you’ll have to fight bandits, ghouls and other monstrosities lurking along your path. The combat is done in the form of a somewhat modified Gwent game, with which most of you are familiar from the Witcher 3 game. If you ever played Gwent before, you’ll immediately get the hang of it, and even if you haven’t you’ll master it in the no time. The basic goal is just to collect a higher total score than your opponent in two out of three rounds. Each unit card has a certain amount of strength points which are added to this total, and some of them have special abilities which make them particularly useful in combat. What makes this version of Gwent particularly interesting in the context of an RPG game is the fact that the choice of cards in your deck doesn’t depend solely on simple card collecting. For instance, during the game, you’ll enlist some characters in your company which will then appear in your deck as hero cards. Likewise, if something happens and they are missing from your company, you’ll lose them from your deck also. Another aspect that’s especially pronounced in this version of Gwent card game is a synergistic relationship between certain types of cards. Quite simply, there are cards that function in combination, which makes them very effective during the game. Of course, there are many subtleties concerning the building of your deck, cards and the combat itself, but we simply won’t spoil the fun by revealing them all.
The Gwent part is very satisfying, but the thing that truly excels is the narrative component of the game. Due to its specific hybrid form, Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales may seem like a less ambitious game that Witcher 3, but its storyline is equally skilfully constructed. The characters, especially your companions are also one of the highlights of the game. Each one possesses a considerable psychological depth and personality most games can only dream of, and they are portrayed with skill and flair, sometimes even with apparent warmth. Another thing that immensely contributes to their characterization and the overall impression is that CD Projekt had provided in the complete voiceover, not just for the main cast, but also for every NPC you’ll encounter on the road, no matter how insignificant it might seem. Finally, as can be expected, the visual component is excellent, resembling the sleek comic-book style of recap cinematics from Witcher 3.
As I’ve mentioned before, what at first seemed like a simple spin-off of Witcher franchise, a curious blend of Gwent and isometric RPG mechanics, had turned out to be one of the most pleasant gaming surprises of 2018. Not only that this is a title that nicely complements the lore of Witcher trilogy, but it’s also a great game in its own right. If you’re a fan of Sapkowski’s world and our favorite itinerant monster hunter, this is simply a must.