Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales Review | Gaming News
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If you like a fantasy RPGs at all, even if you’re not normally a card game person, you should treat yourself to this one.
When something comes along that as thoroughly exceeds my expectations in so many areas as Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales, it reminds me why I got into video games in the first place. Far, far from a mere single player afterthought slapped onto a multiplayer collectible card game, CD Projekt Red has given us a sweeping, complex, emotional story with memorable characters, excellent voice acting, and varied, exciting card battles all along the way.
I was most blown away by the writing. Set just before the Witcher RPG trilogy during the Second Nilfgaard War, you take on the role of the dauntless, dynamic, many-layered Queen Meve of Lyria and Rivia. Every step of her journey is complicated by an overwhelming enemy, abundant political intrigue, and the kind of gut-twisting, no-right-answer moral choices the Witcher series has become known for. Are you willing to sacrifice your personal honor to preserve your basic, human decency? Are you willing to do what’s best for your soldiers at the expense of a possibly instrumental alliance? This tale recognizes no distinction between good and evil – only tough, emotional, imperfect compromises that stuck with me hours after I’d made them.
I was accompanied on this journey by a cast of multilayered, diverse, and interesting aides-de-camp who could stand right beside – or even outshine – the best of the best party members from more traditional RPGs. From the irreverent bandit captain Gascon to the fanatically pacifist sorceress Isbel, they’re all more than meets the eye and have unique reactions to the decisions you make that can lead to them opening up more or even departing your service. In fact, I found it impossible to keep everyone happy, adding a tangible component of ongoing consequence to my behavior.
It’s impossible to keep all of your party members happy, adding tangible consequence to my choices.
And it’s more than just missing out on another drinking buddy. Access to powerful hero cards is contingent on that hero remaining in your service, and many party members can offer special solutions to certain story events and quest dilemmas that allow you to come out of them with much less blood on your shirt than you would otherwise. Having the monster slayer Sir Eyck lets you bypass having to sacrifice the lives of your men to rid a treasure-laden cave of nasty fiends, for instance.
And still more cards and story paths can be unlocked by using shrewd diplomacy and your party members to broker alliances with various factions you meet. I adored the organic-feeling reactivity of this system and how it rewarded or punished me for the values I chose to stand for. Though I only played through once, it seems like the number of possible outcomes available for various quests could be vast.
Give Me a Hand
The quests themselves and accompanying dialogue are written every bit as well as The Witcher 3, presenting moments of supreme emotional satisfaction and crushing sorrow. And the card-based battle system it all revolves around is a lot of fun as well. Far from playing a couple hundred rounds of standard rules Gwent, nearly every encounter has some kind of unique twist that’s satisfying to overcome. Some commanders have the ability to immediately resurrect any cards you kill, so the only way to win is to whittle them down with non-lethal attacks so your side comes out ahead at the end of a round.
Certain story battles require you to destroy a heavily-armored gatehouse before you can attack the units behind it. And the level of deck customization, especially later on once you get the ability to recruit special cards like dwarves and Skellige mercenaries, means you can always change things up if you’re bored or a particular battle is giving you a really hard time.
One of the biggest things I missed was a way to save and load decks for specific situations. This was most bothersome in some story battles that had special rules heavily favoring or disfavoring a specific type of card – like a lieutenant who could strengthen his units based on the strength of my strongest unit, encouraging me to only use lower-tier cards.The only way to prepare for such encounters is to manually swap in and out the cards you need one by one. And you have to undo it all afterwards to get back to your “standard” deck. This also discourages experimentation to some degree, since I’d have been much more likely to field some radically different decks if I knew I could easily go back to what I had before if I didn’t end up liking them.
Particularly interesting were the various optional puzzle fights scattered around Thronebreaker’s lovely, hand-painted world maps, which require you to accomplish some unorthodox goal using a specific set of cards in a limited number of turns. You might be asked to get a specific card to a certain side of the board using movement abilities, or to raise a card’s power to a target number. Some of them were really, legitimately tough, taking me close to an hour to come up with the right solution. Some were a bit frustrating, but it was always so, so satisfying when the solution clicked. And since they all use pre-made decks, they get around the lack of a deck saving feature.
Each of the five maps (six counting a brief epilogue) are full of character and style, creatively using parallax background vistas to make you feel like you’re in something bigger than a mere 2D isometric RPG. I especially loved getting to see the snow-swept peaks of the dwarven realm Mahakam, which are unlike any area Geralt’s adventures have taken us to before.The sprites and environments are bursting with character and capture the essence of the Witcher world down to the mud puddles and marauding monsters just as well as those in Thronebreaker’s fully 3D big brother games. And it’s all tied together by an attractive, responsive, easy-to-navigate interface that plays well with either a controller or the mouse and keyboard.