Game: The Witcher 3
Recommended price: $15
Metacritic Score: 94
Completion Time: ~68 hours
Buy If You Like: Medieval fantasy immersion, witty dialog, terrible game design
Having finally seen the ending credits after 68 hours of gameplay, I can now officially conclude that the Witcher 3 (TW3) is the worst best game I have played. That is not a typo. The typo is TW3 receiving a 94 Metacritic rating from the gaming press that spends more time praising TW3’s visual novel bits than the actual gaming bits – which are not only bad, but actively depress the few parts of TW3’s muted brilliance.
If I had to point to one particular quality that the Witcher series as a whole has nailed down better than any other game, it would be Immersion. This series has always excelled in conjuring a dark (but not grimdark) medieval fantasy zeitgeist, and it is as true in TW3 as the others. Isolated villages feel isolated; muck-covered peasants cough with believable phlegm; people are petty, cross, and rather accustomed to living as though they could be killed by monsters at any moment.
In a word, TW3 is authentic.
This authenticity more or less carries over to the questing elements of the game. Gone are the “kill 20 drowners” garbage quests from TW2. Indeed, there is a developer interview floating around out there that states the team was basically tasked with coming up with quest ideas first, before anything else. This ends up making them feel more like distinct, mini-novellas than the side quests one might be accustomed to in other RPGs.
This distinctiveness has a double-edge however, and the full weight of all the other poorly designed systems causes the blade to backbite deep.
For example, the overarching plot and impetus to action in TW3 is for Geralt to find Ciri before the Wild Hunt does so. As you might imagine, Ciri and the Wild Hunt always feel one step ahead of you – it would be a rather odd game indeed if she was found in the first place you looked. But the issue is that in your search for Ciri, the people with the information you need always have problems of their own… problems that you must solve for them before they divulge that Ciri has been gone for weeks. And those problems have sub-problems, sometimes nested four-deep. And in the course of solving those nested problems, you will encounter hundreds of entirely meaty side quests that have nothing to do with Ciri at all.
In any normal game, the Take Your Time trope that this turns into would be just whatever. But TW3 is not “just whatever,” it is a game that has to leverage its immersion for full effect – an effect that evaporates into the mists once you realize that you just spent 20 hours doing random shit that doesn’t matter in finding Ciri. Why create this huge open-world map to explore when the central plot is a supposed race against time? When you stop taking the central plot seriously, even the “meaningful” side-quests start sounding hollow; the writing tries to make you feel something about the world, while cheapening it at the same time by simply existing.
Every other thing about the game just gets worse from that baseline.
I could spend hours on how poorly designed everything is about TW3’s core systems – and who knows, I still might – but I feel the root revolves around the gutted crafting system. In prior titles, you collected all the things because you needed all the things to keep stocked on potions, oils, bombs, and so on. In TW3, you only have to craft a given item once, to essentially unlock unlimited amounts of them; crafting Swallow (the ever-useful health regen potion) might only give you 3/3 uses, but an hour meditating restocks all consumables. This has tremendous cascade effect on the rest of the game systems.
Using Swallow as an example again, the recipe calls for one Dwarven Stout, one Drowner Brain, and five Celadine (a plant). Craft it once, and you’ll have unlimited Swallow potions. There are upgrades to potions and bombs and such, but… do you know how much Celadine you’re going to ever need? Thirty (30). That’s enough plant material to craft every single thing in TW3 that requires Celadine. Drowner Brain? Six (6). Do you have any idea how many Drowner brains you’re going to accumulate throughout TW3? A fucking million. And every one of them after the first six are going to be useless.
As you might imagine, needing only a tiny fraction of items you loot to gain immense power essentially makes looting pointless. At least, if not for the fact that TW3 also has random loot. Not just random loot, but unbounded random loot, such that you can find a level 20+ sword recipe in a burlap sack at level 3. Or never find it at all anywhere. There are some sanity checks involved regarding actual gear, but ingredients are all over the place.
What gets me the most is how much this affected my own sense of immersion. There were a lot of things wrong with the first Witcher game, but the convoluted Alchemy system felt right in the setting. You were in a dirty medieval world, crushing flower petals to combine various elements together to create a potion that was pure poison to a normal, non-mutated man. You had to keep collecting herbs and monster organs because otherwise you wouldn’t be powerful enough to survive the next encounter. That kind of system has a positive feedback loop with immersion. The one in TW3? It is a negative feedback loop. One and done, everything else is trash.
Then there is the combat itself, which is similarly
streamlined dumbed-down. Left-click to light attack, Shift-left-click for strong attack, right-click to parry, Alt to half-dodge and Spacebar to full dodge. Use Signs and Bombs and whatever as you need them. At the 3rd-highest difficulty, combat was always a snooze-fest even if I died; a level 12 Drowner took out my level 22 Witcher in 5-6 hits because I got too lazy to time Alt correctly. Having to pay attention is usually a hallmark of an engaging, difficult combat system, but it simply isn’t in TW3’s case. It is more that actually paying attention and being careful makes TW3 combat a joke; it is only hard precisely when you’re trying to speed through it because you want to be done.
Don’t get me started on the talent trees and Rune systems. They’re bad, whoever designed them is bad, and every single person who allowed them to occur should feel bad. Seriously, after you spend 20 talent points in the Signs tree, the entire 3rd row of talents you unlock is… +5% Sign Intensity for a given Sign. The first two rows granted new abilities and effects to your normal Signs and you follow-up with +5% to an incomprehensible stat? And that’s exactly what all those precious Rune slots in weapons and armor are: +2% chance to stun, +3% Igni Intensity, and similar garbage. It’s like the designers aren’t even trying.
At the end of the day, the people out there praising this game are praising the Telltale Presents: the Witcher 3 story. From a game mechanics standpoint, this is one of the worst designed games I have played. It’s not clunky, it just works against all of the strengths that the game otherwise brings to the table. In other words, the worst best game I have ever played.
I have been holding back on Witcher 3 discussions, in the vain hope that I will encounter the brilliance everyone else appears to see in it. But yesterday the game finally reached it’s unintentional shark-jumping moment to me:
The phenonom is not new. The Blade of the Bits was a quest reward, crafted by the legendary Hattori blah-blah, master craftsman, at the end of a high-level quest chain. The sword was said to have no equal; “a sword to outshine all others.” Peerless… aside from the goddamn common sword of the same level with better stats (!?) that Hattori himself is selling.
Many RPGs fall into this same trap. In fact, it’s rare that an RPG with a crafting system doesn’t. Remember Skyrim with that stupid amulet quest that rewards you with a 1,000+ year old neck piece that’s worse in every way than the stat bauble you crafted at level 10? If the best gear came from drops alone, crafting would largely have no point; the reverse is not true, however, as it rewards players for engaging in the crafting system while not necessarily penalizing players who skip it.
But goddamn if this particular issue is not just another glaring hole in the abyss of Witcher 3’s broken-ass game design. Immersion? Spot-on. Side quests having weighty story bits? Absolutely. But Witcher 3 fails at every other thing that makes a game a game. You know, the actual systems part? This Hattori thing is just a symptom of a much larger issue that apparently everyone is willing to ignore. Namely, the leveling, the crafting, the item collecting… basically all of it.
Bah. I’ll likely finish the game within the day, so I’ll save the full deconstruction for the review.
One of the definitions of nihilism is “the belief that nothing can be known or communicated.” I was thinking about this the other day, when I was watching the anime Cross Game. See, I was watching Cross Game because someone had rated it very highly, 9 out of 10, and I am always on the lookout for such recommendations. As I talked about in my review of it though, I personally thought the show was okay… but not a 9 out of 10.
Which is fine, of course, as everyone has differing tastes in entertainment. For example, the acclaimed Breaking Bad series which I stopped watching around Season 2. I’m not sure whether it gets better or not, but I had a hard time getting over the initial premise (I didn’t buy into the main character’s reasoning) and I don’t much care for the whole “double-life tension mechanism” as a whole. I was able to put up with it in Dexter, but that’s about it.
So I then realized that for the people who were deeply moved by Cross Game or Breaking Bad or what have you, I will never be able to experience their same joy. I can certainly empathize with it, and of course I have my own personal joys as well. But in a sense, we’re alone.
And the problem isn’t just what we find meaningful, but also when we were exposed to it.
It should come to no surprise to anyone that one’s favorite games/movies/etc are generally correlated with what they watched first, typically when they are younger. It makes perfect sense after all – games and movies and so on are experiences too, occurring in a specific time and place in one’s life. There is a fundamental difference between playing FF7 back in 1997 when it was bringing the entire RPG genre into the mainstream… and playing it for the first time in 2015. Even putting the graphics aside, one would miss the zeitgeist, miss the novelty of a lot of its systems and character design, missing the power of one of the most recognizable spoilers in gaming history, and so on.
For me, FF7 ties with Xenogears for my favorite games of all time. The majority of that goodwill however is tied up in personal experiences unique to me. I can indicate to you that these two games are my favorites, and perhaps even attempt to explain why, but unless we shared similar experiences back then, the actual feelings would not be transmitted. You will not be able to feel what I felt; in that or any experience.
I am finding this realization incredibly tragic. Not just because my tastes in entertainment are clearly the best, but also because I could not even really begin to understand yours on a coherent level. Why was Cross Game a 9/10 for that person? What is it about EVE that is in any way appealing? Or Dark Age of Camelot? We can use words and arguments and perhaps even sales figures to convey as much as we can, but the words themselves aren’t experiences.
It seems the best we can do while stuck in the back of Plato’s cave, is to desperately use shadows to express to others the objects only we can see.
I think I just need to admit it: I no longer play games, I collect them.
There is no other explanation for what just transpired. Which was me buying the Humble Capcom Bundle, that included Resident Evil 4 & 5, Devil May Cry, and Remember Me. In my defense, it was the inclusion of Resident Evil 4 – which I have heard is one of the best in the series – and Remember Me that pushed me over the edge. In my prosecution, this was a few days after getting the Humble Weekly Bundle Valentine’s Day 2. For the pants. Or for Hatoful Boyfriend for $1. Your choice.
Indeed, the entire reason I am writing this post is as a distraction to not also pick up Grand Theft Auto 5 for ~$32. Granted, GTA 5 is on my 970 hit-list along with Far Cry 4, and this is an all-time low price. At the same time… I’m at 45 hours in Witcher 3 and I doubt even halfway done with the game. Then there’s Pillars of Eternity still languishing in my Steam account. And, you know, the literal library of other games that were purchased presumably for a reason. Don’t get me started on all those PS3 games on my shelf either.
This shit is the first-worldest of problems. And it has to get sorted out in the next three weeks because Fallout 4.
I don’t even know anymore.
Genre: High School, Romance, Comedy
My Little Monster is a charming and sometimes ridiculous romantic high school comedy focusing on the evolving relationship between Mizutani Shizuku, a girl who wants nothing more than to study and be alone, and Yoshida Haru, the namesake “monster” who ends up turning her peaceful life upside down. Both social outcasts, once Haru encounters Shizuku and immediately declares his love, Shizuku is left trying to salvage her grades and worldview from a boy who doesn’t even really seem to know what love is.
There isn’t much else I can say about this anime other than I enjoyed it. The show was entertaining to watch and still relatively satisfying even though it never really comes to a cathartic conclusion.
Genre: Drama, Romance, Junior High, Music
Your Lie in April is… well, as beautiful as it is devastating.
It follows the life of Arima Kousei, a Junior High school piano prodigy who has been living life in monotone. Following the death of his abusive, piano-instructing mother, Kousei can no longer hear the notes he plays, and thus has abandoned the craft for the past two years. Forcibly introduced to Miyazono Kaori one evening during a friend’s double-date, the boisterous and free-spirited Kaori begins to reignites his world with color.
Almost every single element of this anime is brilliant and well-executed. The art direction is amazing, including how the designers incorporated Kousei’s monotone worldview into the actual color-scheme, while gradually having Kaori’s vibrantness bleed through. Then there’s the music, which forms the basis around which the plot pivots. While I already liked some classical piano pieces, in the context of this show I began to appreciate them on a higher level. Then there is the devastating emotional payload, which reminds me of why I watch these sort of things in the first place: to feel something. And it succeeds in doing so.
In short, Your Lie in April has, to my own surprise even, become one of the best anime I have ever watched. It’s sad, it’s beautiful, it’s fantastic.
Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama, Devastating Emotional Payloads
Plastic Memories is a pseudo-Sci-Fi anime that follows the life of Tsukasa Mizugaki as he joins the Terminal Service Department of SAI Corp, and attempts to get along with his partner Isla. This particular department is responsible for the removal of the family androids who are approaching the end of their seven-year lifespans. What follows in this short, half-season anime is a series of devastating emotional payloads that, despite seeing them coming from a mile away, you nevertheless get destroyed by. Or maybe that was just me.
The closest analog to this anime would be Anohana: the Flower We Saw that Day, in the sense that the premise itself is sad, but you continue to get absorbed by the narrative and how exactly things will play out. You see the knife coming, but you still yearn to feel it twist. And in that regard, Plastic Memories does so with particular vigor. In spite of this, I came away from this catharsis with a greater appreciation of the relationships one can form, even if they prove to be temporary.
After all, that is exactly what everything is.
Episodes: 1-13 (S1), 1-8 (S2)
Genre: Comedy, Slice of Life
Mitsudomoe is a risque comedy slice-of-life that ends up a combination of Azumanga Daioh and Kodomo no Jikan. It mostly follows the misadventures of the Marui triplets as they (intentionally or not) torment their 6th grade teacher and classmates with rampant misunderstandings, usually of a suggestive nature. For example, in an early episode they end up officially naming the class hamster… Nipples. Hilarity ensures.
In truth, how much of the humor actually gets a reaction out of you will depend on your willingness to let the show do what it does. I compared the show to Azumanga Daioh and Kodomo no Jikan, but both of those shows are far, far superior to Mitsudomoe as they have a sense of progression and deeper meaning underlying the jokes. Mitsudomoe? It’s basic, frivolous comedy. Don’t get me wrong, as I found the show quite funny. But if you aren’t looking for 24 minutes of 6th grade humor and panty jokes, you can keep on looking elsewhere.
For the record, there is a 2nd 8-episode season of this show, but it really felt like the entire second season consisted of jokes cut from season 1 for not being funny enough. Unless you are some kind of masochistic completionist (like I can sometimes be), feel free to skip it.
Genre: Sports, High School, Drama
Cross Game is an old-school-looking, baseball-themed anime centered around Ko Kitamura, the Tsukishima sisters who live nearby, and the struggle of growing up with loss.
In truth, it is difficult for me to really summarize Cross Game, for one specific reason: the anime is 50 episodes long. This is not to suggest that the show was boring or had any particular amount of filler – indeed, I sat down and watched 20 episodes in a row one evening – but rather its ultimate theme takes form over such a distance as to make the thematic transition gradual. Which, in a way, is noteworthy on its own; this is an anime of small gestures, long silences, poignant looks, and accumulated experiences. The character progression feels completely natural, and there is ample time to grow acquainted with just about every character.
At the same time, I could not help but feel like the anime would have been more impactful had it been, say, 26 episodes. Or even less. Indeed, what I keep circling back on in my head is how shows like Your Lie in April or Plastic Memories or Anahona can in 13 episodes deliver an emotional payload on a greater scale than Cross Game does in 50. The relationships in Cross Game are “thicker” with the sheer volume of experiences, but… I dunno.
Ultimately, whether Cross Game is worth your time is going to need to be a call you make yourself. You do not need to be a baseball fan to watch the show (I’m not into sports), but you do need to be prepared to buckle down for the long haul. It will be a satisfying journey if you aren’t in a hurry.
Genre: High School, Drama, [spoilers]
Holy shit, you guys.
I almost don’t want to write a review for this anime at all, as the best way to watch it is to go in completely blind, as I did. So this will be your first chance to stop reading and go watch it yourself without getting spoiled in any way.
The basic premise of School-Live is that a group of four high school girls have started a club with their teacher adviser called the School Life Club. In this club, the rules are that they are not allowed to leave the school building, and otherwise have to stay on school grounds. The anime follows their everyday life in this club, the various activities they get into, and the struggles they have with classmates, and adapting to living in the school building.
Last chance to stop.
The huge, mind-blowing juxtaposition this show presents is that all of this occurs after the zombie apocalypse. I literally almost turned the show off before the end of the first episode, as it seemed just another goofy high school comedy. As it turns out, the “narrator” of that first episode, Yuki Takeya, has completely blocked out the mental trauma of seeing everyone she liked die during the fall of the city, and thus sees everything as “normal.” So Yuki goes to class and sees a normal classroom, whereas in reality it is an empty room littered with blood, broken glass, and other debris.
And the most amazing thing about School-Live! is how it plays all this straight. These are not girls with magical powers, unlimited ammo, or even particularly strong constitutions. The only real weapon they have is a shovel, and only one of them is strong enough to even use it. They are simply trying to survive on the upper floors of their school, while Yuki inadvertently keeps their spirits up by suggesting club activities as if everything was fine. And in so doing so… it somehow is.
As stated the juxtaposition is the best part of School-Live! After the first episode reveal, the title sequence changes to reflect reality (and continues to change as a foreshadowing mechanism), but the cute anime style stays the same. By “cute” I do not mean that School-Live! avoids sucker-punching you in the throat on occasion (especially towards the end), but rather the style remains consistent throughout. These characters could be air-dropped, personalities and all, into any other anime and perfectly fit in. But they still work beautifully and devastatingly here as well.
In short, this show is worth your time. It might not change your life, but it will make you feel something.
The Hearthstone Americas Champion tournament aired this past weekend, and one particular game stood out: JAB vs Trump, Game 5. Or more specifically, this game-deciding bit of RNG at the final moments:
Now, the first thing I’m going to say is this: listen to that crowd. They’re loving it. I was watching the stream live and even I was going “OoooOOOoooh!” For all the derogatory “coin-flipping” and RNG flak Hearthstone gets, I think it’s pretty clear that watching these games can still be pretty exciting. Certainly more exciting than watching a perfectly mechanical, zero RNG game in which the outcome is known by turn four.
But as someone who watched the entire match-up, what gets me is how everyone always boils the RNG down to the final sequence… but seemingly ignore everything that lead up to it. This the final match in its entirety:
There is a ton of RNG at the beginning of the match, including a lot of amazing top-decks that changed the tone of the game. If Trump didn’t draw that Big Game Hunter to answer Dr. Boom, if the Shredder outcomes were different, if some other combination of cards were drawn… and so on. It reminds me of sports like football or baseball when mistakes are made with the final field goal or bottom-of-the-ninth plays. Everyone always remembers that last failure, and not all the other equally critical failures that lead up to it.
That thought then brought me to the Reddit thread in which someone wrote this:
You missed the whole pont, people say Hearthstone can’t be an esport because RNG isn’t affected by skill (mostly), so it’s more like playing bingo than a real sport in which there is 0% luck like soccer, or an esport like StarCraft 2.
There is no question that there is a lot of RNG in Hearthstone. But it is also beyond absurd to not recognize how much random bullshit occurs in meatspace sports as well. It is like suggesting all these soccer goals were 100% intentional, including the one where the guy tries to headbutt the ball, misses, and it bounces off his hip into the goal. Is the fact that a literal random number generator is not involve somehow make those “1cm to the right and it’d have bounced off the pole” scores less random?
Point being: randomness is involved in every asymmetric game, up to and especially including real-life sports. Are soccer games determined by coin-flips? Not ones we can see, anyway. But how else would you describe a penalty kick-off in soccer? That goalie has to arbitrarily decide to jump left or right, pretty much instinctually and before they see where the ball is heading. Or going back to card games like Poker – which a lot of people take very seriously – the most skillful aspect of the game is… bluffing. But what is that? If you read someone perfectly, all that really tells you is “they like/don’t their hand.” It doesn’t tell you what cards they have, or if yours could beat theirs.
I dunno. I don’t play Hearthstone as much as I used to, but I still enjoy watching it quite a bit. To suggest it can’t be an esport due to it having RNG moments though, is just ridiculously wrong. The randomness in other games is just more well-hidden. Perhaps we can say Hearthstone has too much of some arbitrary amount of RNG to be successful in an esports sense, but… is that really the criteria? Or is it “this is fun and exciting to watch?”
Having made it well into hour 30 of The Witcher 3, I am beginning to realize something about the plot. Namely, it is entirely incongruent with the actual gameplay.
The basic premise of Witcher 3 is that Geralt is looking for his adopted daughter, Ciri, who is also being chased by The Wild Hunt. So already there is a trajectory here to the plot, which is “quickly follow the clues to find Ciri.” But every other single element of the game clashes with any sense of urgency that the premise should be bringing.
For example, during a beginning segment of the game, Geralt finds out the baron of the area has met with Ciri. However, the baron refuses to give Geralt any details until he finds the baron’s own missing wife and daughter. Before you can do that though, you will likely need to gain some levels completing other side quests in the area. So you complete quests, level up, go find the wife, then daughter, then head back to the baron to get the full story, 15+ gameplay hours later. The end result is, spoiler alert, Ciri is no longer in the area.
Which of course she isn’t. Literally nobody is the world expects to find Ciri in the very first area indicated by the quest objective. It would actually be incredibly novel for a videogame to feature a “quickly chase down this person” plot structure and actually allow the player to find them in the first area if they are quick enough. It would also make said game really short, and almost punish the player by removing gameplay, but very novel just the same.
The problem in Witcher 3 goes deeper than just using a false sense of urgency though. The problem is actually having any plot whatsoever in an otherwise open-world game. Every time I decide to strike out on my own and investigate every abandoned shack in the woods, inevitably I encounter the end-result of some quest I have yet to accept. For example, I spotted a shack, looted it, found out there was a cave system beneath it, explored and looted that, noticed all the red-highlighted spots (indicative of quest markers), then left the area. An hour or two later, I got a quest to investigate the same shack, “discover” a monster nest in the cave below, and then fight said monster. I ended up feeling punished for exploring on my own.
The irony here is that Witcher 3 would have been screwed either way. It’s bad the way it is. It would almost be worse if there was some kind of plot lock on the cave system, because it would engender a feeling of false open world-ness. “Go anywhere you want! …except here. And there. And over there too.” It wouldn’t be much of an open world if you could only explore the empty bits.
The other thing that Witcher 3’s open world is demonstrating to me is how much I do, in fact, loathe fixed-level monsters in open-world settings. It is getting beyond frustrating to be exploring and exploring and all of sudden, skull-level monsters. I mean, it makes sense that there might be monsters out in the world that are super-deadly and Geralt would need to become more powerful to overcome. But quite often there is no delineation going on – you’ll be killing level 10 Drowned one moment, and then 50 ft away is a level 20+ monster. I suppose that it is more “organic” than just having all the monsters coincidentally more powerful near the edges of the map, but again, it feels bad to me as a player wished to engage with the “open” world. Especially considering all this really tells me is that the “right” way to play is to not explore anything until level 20+ so I don’t have to skip areas.
I don’t know. I suppose the conclusion I am coming to is that if a game offers an open-world setting, I almost want it to have little-to-no plot, or really level-based progression of any kind. Fallout 3 allowed me to explore every corner of the non-DC map by level 3 (and had scaling monsters), which is probably why I enjoyed that game so much. Minecraft of course lets you punch trees anywhere. I don’t remember being too put-off by Dragon Age 3 either. In the Witcher 3’s case however, I may as well go back to treating it as the hemmed-in, plot-centric game its two earlier iterations were.
…unless it’s Fallout 4 for $42.14:
While my parsimony is well-established, sometimes you just have to spend more money to spend less, you know? It’s Bethesda, I already know there will be crippling, horrible bugs on Day 1 and likely heading into Day 14. It is known.
…but I also know myself. Even if by some miracle I avoid spoilers (assuming there are story elements worth spoiling), I know that every other game I play during Fallout 4’s release to distract me from having not purchased it will necessarily be diminished. “I could be playing Fallout 4 right now.” “Am I having more fun than I would playing Fallout 4?” Thus, to me, in certain specific situations, not preordering will end up costing me more: either by breaking down and purchasing at full price, or by losing the value of fun from an already purchased game. So not taking them up on this deal is like robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Or maybe I just think ~$40 is a fair-enough price for this game and I don’t expect to be able to pay that amount two months after release.
…or maybe both. Yeah, probably both reasons.