Examining CD Projekt Red’s Overlooked Witcher Game

A massive thank you to Skillshare for sponsoring
this video. Click the link in the description to get two
free months of premium membership and explore your creativity. It’s funny how media trends work sometimes. If you had told people back when the original
Witcher released that this obscure, janky PC-only RPG based on a series of Polish fantasy
novels would blossom into one of the most well-known, beloved entertainment franchises
currently going, I imagine most people would have laughed in your face. Fast forward to 2020, and we now see massive
billboards advertising the series’ Netflix adaptation, featuring that guy what played
Superman and looking set to become the most viewed debut series on the world’s largest
streaming platform, as well as inspiring record player numbers of a five-year-old game on
Steam. Its developer CD Projekt Red has gone from
obscure indie to one of the industry’s most talked about names. I struggle to think of a game as hotly anticipated
as Cyberpunk; with confidence in this ambitious project due in no small part to their proven
ability to deliver something of that scale in The Witcher 3, itself one of the defining
games of the last decade; a high watermark of the medium even. The Witcher, against all odds, is mainstream
now. But what if I was to tell you that there exists
a game within this venerated franchise that has gone almost entirely overlooked? A supposedly massive, narrative-heavy, single
player RPG set within the Witcher universe with multiple different endings depending
on moral choices you make during its thirty hours of gameplay, that I’m willing to bet
even a good deal of the Witcher fans among you haven’t played? Well, this seems to have been the fate of
Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales; not some throwaway title released in the early days
of the series’ obscurity—this was put out not two years ago. It had a pretty big campaign behind it; they
even flew this dafty out to Poland in order to preview it, along with a bunch of press
and influencers, where the game was proudly touted in exactly the way I described. And yet, outside of a couple of reviews and
several GOG e-mails desperately informing me of its perpetually discounted state, I’ve
seen next to nothing about this game since its release. CD Projekt has stated that it failed to meet
their sales expectations and barely anyone I know has touched it. But what even is Thronebreaker and why did
it get such a cold reception despite riding on The Witcher’s coattails? Well, I figured that with The Witcher brought
back into our collective focus, it might be interesting to have a look at these questions,
and finally see (after over a year of this game taunting me from my GOG library), if
it lives up to the lofty claims put forward by its developer. That is after I take a minute to talk about
this video’s sponsor, Skillshare. Skillshare is an online learning community
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the video and now back to Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales. As for “what Thronebreaker is”, we have
to contextualise its origins a little. This is not what you might have in your head
when you picture “Witcher game”. More accurately, it’s a story campaign focused
around battles of Gwent, the card-based minigame first found in The Witcher 3 and expanded
into its own release in 2018 thanks to its wild popularity. Wild, to me at least, because I’ve never
viewed the idea of standalone Gwent as particularly compelling—even putting to the side the
fact that I’ve never been much of a card game guy, when I first heard CD Projekt was
turning it into its own competitive multiplayer game, I found myself wondering “how would
that even work?” See, as played in The Witcher 3, Gwent is
little more than a numbers game; one of brute force as opposed to careful strategy. Draw out as many of the opponent’s cards
as possible by playing your weakest units, wait until they pass, get just above their
number to win the round, then proceed to bulldoze them in the next with the stronger units you
have left. If you lose, just keep banging your head against
that wall until you get a better draw at the start—rinse and repeat. It’s simple, fast fun, for sure—I enjoyed
it; if nothing else, it quickly sated that primal urge to get a bigger number than the
other guy; inspiring a collect-em-all mentality that saw me spending a whole bunch of time
wandering about specifically to gain new cards that would, in turn, make dominating foes
even easier as you built the monster or Nilfgaard decks. Hardly the epitome of deft, balanced design. 2018’s Gwent, on the other hand (which I
actually mainly played during the 2017 open beta), with its drastic rule changes and completely
overhauled graphics and animations, failed to grab me for almost the opposite reason. Here, a newfound emphasis on strategy, while
necessary, saw real-life human opponents take up to half a minute to decide their next move,
which didn’t exactly gel with the compulsive, rapidfire action of throwing numbers at a
computer and having them instantly spit back at you. Long story short, when I heard that Thronebreaker
would be attaching a single player story to this odd, often awkward card game, needless
to say I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to get my hands on it. Curiosity got the better of me though when
elements of its presentation started to pique my interest. At the aforementioned preview event the game’s
director excitedly unveiled not one, not two, but five intricately illustrated maps to detail
the scale of the fully explorable environments players traverse here. You heard me right—exploration. Card battles merely dot this seemingly large,
cel-shaded world, sandwiched by conversations between rich, fully voiced characters that
see you making decisions about how your particular story is going to go down. There’s even an easy mode should you want
to skip every battle just to experience the tale woven by the guy who wrote The Witcher
3’s most celebrated quests. It might seem then, that the card battles
themselves play less of a role in this “Gwent with a story” experience than you might
think. That said, after playing it to completion,
I can tell you that for multiple reasons, both good and bad, things are slightly more
complicated than that. This becomes clear as you realise that, however
beautiful the drawn maps actually are, the scale and variety they suggest is overstated;
existing mainly as a series of samey, squiggly paths that you follow from one end to the
other; their diminutive nature rendering the many fast travel points you come across practically
meaningless. Going off the beaten path means you’ll get
to play more Gwent, of course, but other than that, you’ll see variations on the same
vista shot time and time again; you’ll endlessly right click on random piles of wood to expand
your camp (which functions as little more than a deckbuilding screen); you’ll have
one-sided conversations with NPCs; you’ll click through the occasional text box. Your reward for solving the puzzle of sussing
out a treasure location from a handdrawn map (a potentially really neat feature) is…
cards and avatars for multiplayer Gwent. All of this is to say that, if you’re looking
for tens of hours getting lost in a huge open world, this game will disappoint you. Indeed, the reason the developers can get
away with calling Thronebreaker a lengthy multi-hour campaign then, is because the vast
majority of that playtime will be spent in the game’s card battles; repeating them
again and again until you can finally get the slip on your opponent and find the winning
strategy. Because the version of Gwent found in Thronebreaker
is pretty different to even the one found in 2018’s game, let alone The Witcher 3—and
honestly, I love it. It goes even further with 2018’s rule changes,
making for a far more refined, fast-paced, dynamic and tactical affair. In any given battle, for example, I could
place my arbalest and have it damage an enemy, or I could wait, place Wagenburg which I can
order to damage an entire row based on how much armour it has (gaining one armour for
every unit I place on its row), then place my scytheman down, both drawing out further
enemy cards so I have a better idea of my opponent’s strategy, then in the space of
one turn, place my arbalest, do the damage, then use Meve’s leadership ability to damage
an enemy by 4 (after deciding if eliminating one card will have a knock-on effect on other
enemy cards or whether I’m better off keeping their row full of low-strength cards so they
can’t place more on that row), which will subsequently trigger my scytheman and arbalest’s
loyal abilities, boosting the former and causing latter to fire another shot, then use Wagenburg
to damage the entire row. Oh, and this all comes with the risk that
your opponent is likely damaging your cards the entire time too. Phew. In short, boosting, subtracting or outright
eliminating individual cards becomes a much more important moment-to-moment consideration
than basic weather effects or simply throwing numbers at the bigger number at the side;
you’re far more concerned with staying multiple moves ahead of your enemy. And combined with the fact that it’s a CPU
controlled opponent rather than a real-life fleshbag humming and hawing about which card
to counter yours with, battles have a snappiness to them that I found sorely lacking in the
multiplayer component. And what’s more, these battles have variety. One of this game’s best features is its
newly introduced puzzle fights. As first encountered upon stumbling into a
rockslide and finding myself in a battle against the rocks, these puzzles cleverly recontextualise
in-world events into card duels themselves; providing you with specific decks with their
own rules to perform actions like taking on a dwarf in a drinking competition, or escaping
a troll’s cave by essentially preparing soup for it or even performing a daring heist. Thronebreaker is able to create scenarios
as diverse as stealth missions here. It’s these kinds of encounters that often
saw me scratching my head, constantly retrying bouts, absolutely perplexed as to the one
move I was missing in this elaborate web the developers had planned out. Outside of the main story battles which have
to allow for pretty much anyone to succeed, Thronebreaker can be pretty goddamn difficult
at times. It’s actually rare to find a full game of
two-round Gwent here, with a focus on intensifying competition resulting in many shortened battles;
completely obliterating the tactics I relied on in The Witcher 3. This is about using every card in your hand
in one round, placing them in the exact right order to maximise their effects across any
one turn. Every move counts here and as a result, battles
are honestly more tense than The Witcher’s often floaty combat. Hitting pass can lead to a nailbiting finale
as the computer tries to figure out a way to outnumber you, and when that moment doesn’t
come, there’s an exhilaration I never thought I’d get out of a card game. So yeah, once you get a grasp of the workings
of all your different cards, Thronebreaker is probably the most fun you could have with
Gwent. Unfortunately though, it got me thinking about
why anyone would pick that story mode difficulty, not just because it skips the game part of
this video game but, just like the scale of the world and the length of the campaign might
have been overstated by CD Projekt Red, the much talked about narrative driving this whole
thing ain’t exactly up to much; feeling decidedly… basic compared to the series
it spins off from. Ultimately, Thronebreaker is the story of
a caravan—serving as a prequel to the Witcher games, Queen Meve of Lyria and Rivia is betrayed
by her court in the face of Nilfgaardian invasion and must battle across this world in order
to build an army and get her vengeance. And that’s kind of… it. Along her travels she faces some further betrayal,
she might stumble into the occasional encounter that shows her how this war is affecting her
subjects, but it’d maybe be more accurate to say that she stumbles past them—you read
some very well-voiced, well-written text, play some cards, then move on. This game’s story, the way it’s structured,
is markedly less concerned with taking its time and allowing you to ruminate on individual
problems than prior Witcher titles; than it is with Meve achieving her main goal of toppling
Nilfgaard—leaving me feeling like this monarch is a bit of a wasted character. It’s mainly a problem of relatability, however—while
it might seem unfair to compare the two, Meve’s priorities are just not as compelling as Geralt’s. See, one of the great triumphs of The Witcher’s
storytelling was that Geralt was written to be pretty dispassionate about the larger conflict
ravaging the world. His concerns involved getting paid and surviving,
making sure those he cared about were alright, dealing with discrimination and sometimes
loss, crucially the same as the other citizens in this world. He was grounded. If you could pay him, you would get Geralt’s
attention no matter your social standing. Regardless of how cold he could sometimes
be in this regard, his willingness to hear out the problems of the lower classes, to
take time out to help them in an otherwise brutal world made him likeable. Meve, on the other hand, while she might not
be as caught up in the pomposity of royalty as other rulers, she’s still a ruler; the
kind of person Geralt would deal with only if he had a personal stake in matters. The betrayal at the end of chapter two, however
surprising, follows several *slow* hours of Meve just being a monarch—you know, we root
for underdogs in stories for a reason. Even beyond that point, her arc of learning
to work with those on different rungs of society fades into the background in favour of royal
vengeance and quelling dissent from those beneath her at almost any cost, swiftly ruling
on any individual problems she comes across and moving on. Side quests – content that in prior Witcher
titles would unfurl into these multi-layered missions – are often relegated to single
text boxes, so meaningless in the grand scheme of things that I’d barely pay attention
to them after a while; instead mindlessly clicking on whichever option would boost soldier
morale and heading on my way. For me, the central plotlines of the main
Witcher games were nowhere near as memorable as the characters I got to know along the
way, the time I spent with them, the locations, those worlds that remain so vivid in my memory. Here, the opposite is true, the main mission
is the focus—build your army, get it to the other end of the map. But even then, knowing that Thronebreaker’s
story is nowhere near as well-structured or paced as The Witcher, I can’t say I felt
nothing when that betrayal happened, or the multiple betrayals that came after it. The moral choices might not have meant much
in terms of the main narrative, the multiple endings are nowhere near as unique as they
were made out to be, but there were a good few moments in there that had me sweating
over my decision nonetheless. And all this comes down to one thing—how
these events affected my deck. Let me explain. Chapter two’s betrayal stings not because
of these characters you barely know despite spending hours with them, but because of the
montage of screens informing you that the cards you’ve relied on for hours are no
longer in your deck. It’s tense having to think of new strategies
on the fly, considering the abilities of factions you’d previously had no experience with. Those moral choices make it pretty clear what
the right decision is, but that decision would also mean either giving up a really good card,
living in the knowledge that something bad happening to another good card down the line
or gravely sacrificing soldier morale (with the effects this has on unit strength sometimes
making all the difference in a tough fight). These choices are directly linked to your
gameplay; you’re forced to make the game concretely more difficult for yourself, weaken
your deck, in order to do the right thing. As a result, the deckbuilding really feels
like you’re gathering up a rag-tag army, one that’s yours, that you grow attached
to, enduring everything together, even if mechanically you’re just dragging Meve across
these repetitive landscapes. The cards and the battles you enter with them
are the story here, and part of me thinks this is the reason Thronebreaker has struggled
to find its audience. See, in the marketing for Thronebreaker, the
vibe I got at that original preview event in 2018 was that CD Projekt Red were really
trying to emphasise the Witcher-ness of this whole thing—“it’s got a long campaign
with a big open world and an engaging story just like The Witcher!” With the assumed follow-on from that being
that it isn’t just Gwent. And indeed, it certainly wasn’t the card
battles that initially drew me to this thing. But when examined in that light, compared
to its supposed predecessors, Thronebreaker’s story is poorly paced; its environments unmemorable;
the scope of exploration drastically limited. Thronebreaker is a disappointing Witcher game. When taken on its own merits, though, Thronebreaker
sees CD Projekt Red perfect the balance and strategy of a card game that at one point
had very little of either, while maintaining the speed and intensity of play that made
the original so addictive regardless; they created ridiculously varied scenarios using
the same cards and arenas you’d use for normal battles and what’s more, they used
those cards to tell a more interesting, morally affecting story than anything the main narrative
could hope to convey through text. And with that in mind I would highly recommend
checking out Thronebreaker; I’d welcome further experiments with single player Gwent. It’s just that what I’d be looking for
out of that is very different to what I would want out of another Witcher game. So I hope you enjoyed my piece on Thronebreaker. Once again a massive thank you to this video’s
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see you next time.


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