(Warning: Minor spoilers below.)
"The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt" may be the most demanding game I've ever played — it just didn't demand what I wanted to give it most.
The third entry in CD Projekt Red's series of action RPGs based on Andrzej Zapkowski's fantasy saga demands, more than anything, your time. It took me about 80 hours to finish a hurried run in which I ignored side quests, skimmed dialogue and fast-traveled at almost every opportunity. Its full-bodied card game, Gwent, seems fun and strategic enough for several hours of hands, but I couldn't sit at the table more than five times. (Being a full-time journalist who reviews games sort of on the side, it indeed took me until late July to get around to this late-May game.)
"The Witcher 3" also demands your attention. Even having played its predecessor, 2011's "Assassins of Kings," I felt adrift on the sea of consonant strings that is "Wild Hunt's" Euro folk glossary. I recognized the names of maybe one out of every 10 of its wartorn regions, their mad rulers and the monsters overrunning them. (Thankfully, we live in The Age of the Wiki, and the guide compiled by Kotaku's Kirk Hamilton came particularly in handy.)
What "The Witcher 3" barely demands, however, is participation. The game puts titular monster-hunting mercenary Geralt of Rivia on the trail of his adopted daughter, Ciri, as she flees the doombringing skeleton riders of the Wild Hunt. He's basically playing detective. But his tweezers, his magnifying glass, his fingerprint dust — everything — is wrapped up in his witcher senses, which are deployed by simply holding "L2." The zoomed vision colorizes clues like footprints and perfume wisps, leading you by the hand to the next silver-plattered break in Ciri's case.
When those senses lead Geralt into battle, you become a little more involved. Before long, though, mashing "square" and "triangle" to lash his enemies in too-graceful axel jumps gets almost as wearying as the Slavic yodel of the game's fight song gets grating. For so staggeringly huge a game, the sweet spot of its combat is the head of a pin. Unless you're just underleveled enough against a foe that reaching into Geralt's cavernous pockets for potions and sword oils makes a difference against them, the encounter will be either impossible to win or impossible to lose. "Wild Hunt" leaves little to no room in between.
Perhaps knowing this, CD Projekt Red smartly randomizes the challenge levels of the bandit camps, monster dens and other perilous distractions the Polish studio sprinkles generously across the open worlds of "The Witcher 3." Nests of level-five nekkers may sandwich a level-25 swamp hag that can end you in one hit. You never know what challenge awaits — until a number appears above its head.
Such is the lay of "Wild Hunt's" three beautiful lands: The smaller farm country of White Orchard, the sprawling ridges and trampled Cheval de frise of Velen cupping Novigrad's libertine capital, and the craggy archipelago of Skellige. My PlayStation 4's sometimes choppy vision of those lands notwithstanding, they rank among the most vivid spaces ever realized in games. Dynamic weather paints their horizons the kinds of reds and yellows that can light up a hangar with a lone ember. The sophisticated lighting and animation of their forests conspire to trap Geralt under infinitely jointed nets of swaying shadow. As size goes, they're a county to "Assassins of Kings'" cul-de-sac — that is, they're one reason "Wild Hunt" takes so damn long.
Another reason is the game's doglike distractibility. The main story — Geralt tracking Ciri amid the threat of the Wild Hunt — makes as many lateral moves as forward ones. As I herded a goat named Princess back to the cabin of its crackpot mystic owner, or as I played muscle to a bullied Novigrad theater troupe, I found myself forgetting "The Witcher 3's" end-of-the-world end game for hours at a time.
Often, though, the game's will to indulge the weird and the off-putting serves it well. Uma — a 2-foot cousin of "The Goonies'" Sloth whose name is an acronym for "the ugliest man alive" — would probably misfire elsewhere. In "The Witcher 3," the weirdly cute little guy is the crux of the game's most hand-wringing scene.
The Bloody Baron, a lumpen bruise of a man as jovial in speech as he is vile in action, tows a jagged moral line. As he barters information about Ciri's whereabouts for Geralt's help uncovering his wife and daughter's, I couldn't settle on a verdict. Sometimes I wanted to console him, sometimes I wanted to maim him. The paths to forgiving or condemning a character like the baron would have been straighter, better-lit elsewhere. In "The Witcher 3," I was guessing, ambivalently, to the end.
A mid-game tavern song by Priscilla is a moment of overachieving pathos, stunning in its ability to stop everything and coax a tear. Later, the blonde bard is a central figure in a feel-good side quest that takes a buckling hard right into "True Detective" grimness. The twist would have felt too abrupt or forced elsewhere. In "The Witcher 3," it felt like fair game.
Then there's the romance. Despite his facial scar and his stalker rasp, Geralt has almost as many women to fend off in "Wild Hunt" as he does monsters. CD Projekt Red scripts his courtships with Yennifer, Triss and the rest with a pleasing regard for both sexes' agency, whether the note is cosmically written romance or a boredom-beating roll in the hay. They don't feel like conquests. Treat them as such and you'll suffer the much-deserved consequences.
The women of "The Witcher 3" are reduced in another way, though: their bodies. The breasts and butts of Geralt's co-stars all the way down to the courtesans look like the same lab-designed (white) woman's. The same tracking shots even crawl over their cloned bodies when Geralt beds them in the same old circuit of sex positions. There's more diversity to be found in the game's fully clothed female characters, though few, if any, are normatively unattractive. There's no female equivalent to Geralt's homely but likable witcher buddy Eskel, for instance.
Nor does playing as Ciri approach the already minimal complexity of playing as Geralt. Her interstitial flashbacks are an inspired way of fleshing out "The Witcher 3's" story, but when the scenes stop and you take control, they're just more button-mashing with even less variation. It checks the "playable female character" box with the faintest of marks.
"The Witcher 3" checks a whole lot more: clever dialogue, emotive facial animations, easy-to-use crafting and upgrade systems. Because it supplies so much, it's a very good game. But because it doesn't demand the same, it's not a great one.