There and Back Again: A Witcher 3 Tale

STARTING SCREEN | The Witcher 3 continues to surprise me with every return, even years after its release.

I helped a man fetch a black pearl for his wife in the cold sea off the coast of Skellige. He was older and could jog freely alongside me. When it came to diving though, he said nay. That's what I, the white wolf Geralt of Rivia, was here for. To do the dirty work. And I'd be paid doubly in coin.

I dove back into The Witcher 3 over the weekend, partially because I find it silly that I've spent nearly a hundred hours within its vast world and still haven't beaten its main quest line. Also partially, because I couldn't think of what else to play for the day. My routine returns are always a slow-burning experience. I pick up where I left off—often in the middle of nowhere, with not even Roach nearby. I'll usually make my way to the nearest road sign for teleportation purposes (even if a gruff Geralt might grumble, "I hate portals.") This time, I flicked through my outstanding secondary quests, and landed on a low-level one: this one, in Skellige.

I swam. I fought off beasts with my crossbow while submerged. After turning over a few oysters, I finally found a black pearl. I resurfaced, to find the man battling some resident Drowners—beasts that live off shores, or in swampy areas. I helped him defeat them, and he lived to tell the tale and give the black pearl to his wife. But he didn't bring any coin with him, so he urged me to meet him in Novigrad, The Witcher 3's largest, most lively city.

Nidas, this side-quest bearing lad, didn't seem too ecstatic when I met up with him. So I asked, was his wife unhappy with the gift? Was there trouble or disappointment brewing in the household? Geralt delivered his lines with a smirk, as if taking pleasure in the potential arguments this had caused as he was still getting paid for his deed in the end. But the reality was much sadder.

Nidas told me that his wife was "sick," and hardly recognized him anymore. He thought the black pearl would be so beautiful as to rejuvenate her memory, and in turn, make her recognize her own husband again. But it didn't. Nothing changed. She, likely stricken with dementia, was trapped that way, even in this fantasy world where Witchers and monsters exist. If you squint, you can see Geralt express a tinge of sorrow at the revelation, even regret at jokingly poking fun at the potential for marital strife at the start of the conversation. But it's nothing he hasn't seen before. Nearly all roads lead to quiet revelations of sadness for the white wolf.

I often call The Witcher 3 one of my favorite games of the past decade, even hilariously having never even "technically" finished its main campaign. Not finishing the main storyline isn't a knock against it (and even then, it's by no means a perfect game). If anything, it's more that its world is so easy to get so fully lost in. Whether I'm side-tracked by being a detective and tracking down monsters, chasing down rare Gwent cards, or talking to anyone who's ever put up a quest on a bulletin board.

The Witcher 3 presents a world that is staggering; a world that is seemingly impossible to see in its entirety. It bustles with life, where all side quests are telegraphed accordingly: the story driven ones, the beast-hunting ones, and so on. This world is never at the player's mercy, to twist and turn to their own delights like an Ubisoft or Bethesda open world game, but the opposite. This is no playground. There are people actually living in this world, be it with sorrow or happiness or something in-between. Geralt's only there to help. When he can, and if he can.

The power of The Witcher 3 comes in its quests, both main and side. Its characters embed themselves in your mind. You'll never forget the heartache of helping The Bloody Baron. You'll never forget your run-ins with Keira Metz, the sorceress. You'll never forget whoever you choose as your lover (I chose Yennefer). When you come across familiar faces—you truly remember them. When you revisit old areas, you remember your experiences there. Hell, where I fished for the black pearl, I recalled defeating a wraith haunting a nearby lighthouse.

The Witcher 3's world is more memorable than any other game I've ever played. Where the ghosts of your past experiences haunts its lands. It's a fantasy world that breathes without the player in it. A fantasy world that isn't afraid to get ugly, and show the palpable drama in its residents' everyday lives. It's why so many side quests have a sad ending, or a heartwarming one; and in other cases, something in-between. But even I seem to forget its world's power in my lapses of playing it.

I wondered as I lost an entire day by accident to The Witcher 3, for what felt like the millionth time, if I'd ever finish it. I think that as I'm now determined and making an honest effort to complete the main storyline so I can move on to finally tackle its DLC (oh god, DLC), the goal is a lot clearer than it once was, as if the fog parted over it. I've been playing The Witcher 3 on and off for nearly two years now. That time is always stolen away by weekends, where I pop in the game, get lost in its depressing side quests, and in the blink of an eye it's 10 p.m. at night on a Saturday.

The Witcher 3 is all-consuming. And I'm finally, finally on the road to seeing it through to its end. I've just entered Act 3 after an intense battle, a reunion, a loss, a thirst for revenge. I wonder how much longer I have. But it's not like I'm going to look it up. After all. I'm way too stubborn to even look up how to call Roach again, instead leaving it to muscle memory to call me back. (...I eventually looked it up. It's a double-tap on the analog stick.)

I have this problem with many games, but most don't get the same return treatment as The Witcher 3. Usually if I'm not obligated to complete a game—whether via a review, or some other coverage—I fall off, and visit something else. I recently managed to complete Wolfenstein: The New Order after picking up where I last left off years prior. I wonder if this is my next phase in this quiet lull of a summer season for games: finishing the games I was once intrigued by, but left to the dust in favor of other games. Is this the summer where I make a dent in my backlog? Only time will tell.

Kat's Obscure RPG of the Week

In honor of the Super NES Classic Edition officially being announced, I will use this week's column to highlight Terranigma: a much-loved action RPG that sadly never made it over to North America.

Even worse for Americans, It is widely considered the best of the loosely connected Soul Blazer series. Like Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia, it features top-down action gameplay and dense, intricate dungeons. Like many of its contemporaries, it also features a rich story about quandries of creation. And to top it all off, it has one of the generation's best soundtracks.

What's infuriating is that there is an official English release of Terranigma, but that it remains out of reach of North American fans. Blame the struggles of Enix, which struggled to compete with Square in the pre-JRPG explosion.

Finding a copy will cost you a pretty penny—it's a good $100 on Amazon even without the packaging—but it's worth it if you want to experience the SNES generation of RPGs in all its rich glory. Shame it won't make it to the SNES Classic, though.

Nadia's Note Block Beat Box: Venom Highway (Star Fox)

The official reveal of the SNES Classic isn't a big surprise in itself, but the console's inclusion of Star Fox and Star Fox 2 is a big ol' bombshell. I'm excited for Star Fox 2, but I'm equally as pumped to play the original Star Fox again.

I was a master of the original Star Fox back in the day [cough cough], but the game's often-dismal frame rate might trip me up in the here and now. By contrast, Star Fox's soundtrack has aged beautifully -- but only a couple of its tunes have wormed their way into retro game culture. The epic Corneria theme is one example. The Space Armada theme is another. I want to highlight an equally-engaging tune that gets zero love: Venom Highway.

There are three paths to Andross in Star Fox, and Venom Highway is the road of medium resistance. As Fox zips down the freeway, he has to fight with bikers for the road (said bikers are represented by very aggressive triangles). It's a tough journey, but it's also a riot; Venom Highway is one of the few stages that doesn't suffer massive frame-rate drops, so it offers the intense sense of speed pitched by the original Star Fox commercial.

Additional point of interest: This is the only stage in the game that lets you glimpse Venom's civilization, for what it's worth. Sharp-eyed pilots will notice a lit-up cityscape below the floating highway. Living under a tyrant ape on a planet choked with pollution sucks, but at least there's electricity. I wonder what kind of video games kids on Venom play to pass the time?

Mike's Media Minute

Is it time for a Transformers reboot?

That's the question folks seem to be asking in Hollywood after the first weekend of the Transformers: The Last Knight in the North America. The film pulled in $69 million for the weekend, a big drop from previous films and the lowest opening weekend in the franchise. It's prime-time for a fresh set of eyes on the franchise, given that Michael Bay, who has directed every film, has said it's his last film.

Like the previous film, Age of Extinction, this latest Transformers film looks like it'll be carried by overseas revenue. Notably, the film pulled out an impressive $123.4 million in China, which was most of the $196 million international take. Even if the domestic gross dies, it looks like Transformers may continue to be an international success, even if it's down overall for the franchise.

The question is, Where do you go from here? I admit, I'm disconnected from the overall discussion, having not watched the last two films in the franchise. I didn't like the first two and saw no reason to continue watching. But the Bayhem obviously struck a chord with some folks. Is there a film that keep Transformers fans happy, while also reaching the wider audience of the previous films? Who helms this new vision? I honestly have no clue.

Caty’s AltGame Corner

Yahaha Beats is a quaint little browser-based fangame from artist Louie Zong. It takes the adorable little Koroks from Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and asks you to make music using their tools. The game is a simple little music sequencer, with you dropping little korok masks along a bar of music, with chimes marching in as the line passes over them. Zong made a demo video showcasing actual music crafted with the fleeting sequencer. Meanwhile, I'll continue to toy with it, making sweetly nonsensical melodies.

This Week's News and Notes

  • I was on my way to grab coffee this morning when I opened Twitter to find the world screeching into the void about Nintendo's announcement of the previously unreleased Star Fox 2, now buried within the upcoming SNES Classic (or as dubbed in Europe: the SNES Mini—our pals at Eurogamer had the scoop on that before anyone else, by the way). The line-up is pretty stellar at a glance, but I'm a baby. I never had a SNES. I've only played Super Mario World and A Link to the Past off of it. Maybe this will be the push I need to finally play Secret of Mana, Super Mario RPG, F-ZERO, and Earthbound.
  • Final Fantasy XIV's latest expansion Stormblood launched last week. It's had a rocky start so far, but players seem to be enjoying it. Mike's been playing it a whole bunch, and you can look forward to his complete review sometime soon!
  • "'Life and death' may seem like the beginning and the end, but I believe that 'living' means discovering your life’s purpose as well as 'struggling' to never giving up," Ever Oasis and Secret of Mana creator Koichi Ishii told us last week in an interview. "You can grow and build experience by challenging yourself to see how much of your life’s purpose you are able to fulfill during this life, which in turn can take you up to the next level. What you couldn’t accomplish in this life will be carried over into the next life in a different form. I feel like that kind of repetition is the path that souls travel."
  • Final Fantasy XV gets Episode Prompto this week, which looks like a third-person shooter. So, we'll see how that goes. Also Ignis is getting his own standalone DLC, and he doesn't cook at all in the teaser trailer. What a shame.
  • Pokémon Go's update has the casual fans like me pretty stoked (gyms aren't saturated with Dragonites anymore!), but the raids are having some trouble.
  • Axe of the Blood God: In this week's episode, Kat and Nadia give the run-down on last week's surprisingly healthy RPG news. Plus, the charming simplicity of Ever Oasis, the latest RPG from the creator of Secret of Mana for the 3DS.
  • I think I finally have E3 2017 out of my system. Last week I felt hungover, like my brain was fried from all the game news. Now that we're settling back into reality, what games are you most looking forward to in the coming months? I'm eager to get my hands on Splatoon 2, to see if it does enough to differentiate itself from its charming predecessor.

Tagged with Feature, Star Fox, Starting Screen, super nes classic, Terranigma, transformers.

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