Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales Review (Switch)
Release Date: January 28, 2020
File Size: 4.4 GB
Publisher: CD PROJEKT
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
Before Polish studio CD Projekt Red became inextricably associated with the debacle that was 2020’s release of Cyberpunk 2077, for many gamers they were a developer that could do no wrong. At a minimum, it couldn’t be denied that their credibility as one of the premiere innovators within the space was well-established by a resume which included 2015’s The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt, a colossal action-RPG that boasted not only one of the most compelling, resplendent open-worlds of any game, but a memorable cast brought to life by impeccable writing and voice-acting performances. Saber Interactive delivered an equally impressive Nintendo Switch port in 2019.
Whatever else one might say about CD Projekt at this point, none of their recent missteps of the past six or seven months can diminish the impact that Geralt and the other characters from the Witcher series have had on the medium and the culture at large, and this applies to me personally as well. And with rumors abuzz about another future Witcher game, it’s clear that CD Projekt is fully aware of the importance of that legacy, both in previously solidifying their reputation among gaming audiences and in rebuilding that pristine image once again.
Nonetheless, my purpose here isn’t to reminisce over bygone days or discuss an unfortunate situation that has already been analyzed to death. Instead, I want to talk about the seemingly much smaller-scale, card-based role-playing game, Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales, more or less shadow-dropped on the Switch in January, 2020 and still somewhat obscure in comparison to the aforementioned AAA releases for which CD Projekt is most known. I can’t help but feel that Thronebreaker has been mostly overlooked, and it’s a bit of a shame. In my view, it was and remains one of the foremost RPG experiences on the Switch. Sure, I happened to get into it at the perfect time, coming off from the incredible high that accompanied my completion of The Witcher III and which included a deep craving for more of its straightforward-yet-surprisingly-addictive card mini-game, Gwent. But even replaying it again now, the game remains as fresh and satisfying as ever.
Perhaps you’ve never played The Witcher III or generally don’t care for card battle video games. Firstly, you don’t need any familiarity with the persons or places of the mainline series to understand and enjoy the narrative that is told in Thronebreaker. Secondly, despite its use of Gwent (to be explained in greater detail below) as the basis for its combat mechanics, and the fact that the troops under your control are represented by a deck of cards rather than character models, in revisiting Thronebreaker I’ve come to suspect that its appeal extends outside the niche of card-battlers. For what it’s worth, I probably haven’t played a proper digital card game since the Pokemon Trading Card Game on the Game Boy Color (I’m really aging myself here, aren’t I?), and yet every time I pop in CD Projekt Red’s most recent masterpiece I find myself completely hooked on its highly polished gameplay.
At bottom, if you’ve played Gwent before and couldn’t get into it, Thronebreaker probably won’t change your mind as it doesn’t fundamentally alter the manner in which Gwent is played so much as substantially evolve it in a number of interesting ways. For everyone else, I hope to successfully make the following case: Thronebreaker is an RPG that you don’t want to pass on.
Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales is set a few years prior to the events of the original Witcher game, during which the southern empire of Nilfgaard has begun making repeated incursions into the territories of the Northern Realms. You’re thrown into the role of Queen Meve, ruler of the lands of Lyria and Rivia and a character whom I vaguely recalled from a tangential reference in one of the sidequests featured in The Witcher III’s ‘Blood and Wine’ DLC. Players of other Witcher titles will be intimately acquainted with the ruthless armies of Nilfgaard, and Thronebreaker offers an engrossing perspective as one of the belligerents engaged in a defensive war against the imperial power.
As stated, in leading the charge as queen and commander of an armed force, many of the faces flanked by your side and met in the heat of battle are entirely new to this entry, and no prior knowledge of earlier installments is required for understanding either the narrative or the stakes. As might be expected, there are a number of cameos that series’ veterans will appreciate, including a brief appearance by a certain ‘White Wolf,’ but don’t feel yourself under any obligation to complete the lengthy campaigns of any of the previous Witcher sagas before happening upon the events of Thronebreaker. It is, as I alluded, a wholly self-contained prequel of sorts.
The opening cutscene shows Queen Meve returning from a summit organized by the Northern Realm’s sovereigns to discuss the encroaching threat of Nilfgaard. Upon her arrival back home, the queen is informed by her trusty advisor, Count Caldwell, of an insurrectionary assault by a group of bandits known as the Strays of Spalla. These cutthroats have pillaged the village of Hawkesburn, the site of the region’s tax offices, and have come away with all of the gold. Your tale commences with the pursuit of the savage criminals responsible for the heist but soon devolves into matters more personal and pressing when Nilfgaard enters the scene and Queen Meve finds herself besieged by internal political strife, including trickery and betrayal among her very own ranks. The plot is one that takes her across a variety of destinations and climates, peaks and valleys both figuratively and literally as she attempts to restore order to her kingdom and inflict revenge upon her enemies.
The writing in Thronebreaker never misses a beat, with outstanding dialogue that matches the high-quality precedents set by CD Projekt’s prior releases. It’s apparent that every line, from the storyteller to the wide range of characters, has been thoughtfully constructed and is delivered in equal measure. As with The Witcher III and many other RPGs, verbal exchanges often involve choices on behalf of the player that will greatly affect the course of the narration and, in this case in particular, the availability of certain cards that can prove immensely beneficial in combat. There are also something like a dozen or more different possible endings at the conclusion of the game’s five chapters, so there’s plenty of replay value if you find yourself wanting to indulge in the thrills of Gwent further after you watch the credits roll and don’t mind retreading some old ground.
Speaking of Gwent, let’s now turn to that topic which for me made the game nigh impossible to put down once I started playing, a sentiment that holds as true today as the first time I traversed the realms of Lyria and Rivia, the dwarven abode of Mahakan, or one of the game’s other sizeable maps.
The basic premise of Gwent as it appeared in The Witcher III is pretty simple; you and your opponent each have three rows upon which units can be deployed. In that game, the rows were designated for one of three card types: close-range, long-range, and siege cards. Thronebreaker’s first major departure is the elimination of the siege row. Nor is the placement of cards on any given row limited to types. Also differing here is the number of cards allowed in your deck, capped at twenty-five. At the start of a ‘Standard Battle,’ you get to choose six cards from a random assortment of ten drawn from your deck. These, in addition to four more that you don’t get to select, will be the ten cards with which you start the match. Your opponent, naturally, opens with ten cards too. The side that initiated the conflict will get the first turn when the clash begins.
Almost every card is assigned a numerical value, representing the health and power of that specific card. Gwent is typically divided into three rounds and victory is awarded to the side that wins two of them. To claim a round, the sum of your cards on the board must simply have a higher numerical value than the sum of your opponents’ cards when both sides elect to pass. Where things get interesting is in the cards’ abilities, each card possessing unique characteristics that determine its utility in battle.
For example, take the ‘Lyrian Arbalest +’ card, which has two abilities: a ‘Deploy’ ability that causes it to ‘damage a unit by the number of cards on this row, including self,’ when first sent forth, along with a ‘Loyal’ ability that, when triggered, damages ‘a random enemy nearest to self by 2.’ How does the ‘Loyal’ ability get triggered? By other cards, of course! One is the ‘Meve: Rivian Broadsword’ card, with an ‘Order’ ability that reads: ‘Damage an enemy unit and all other enemies with the same power by 4, then trigger all allies’ Loyal abilities.’ It has a ‘Cooldown’ that requires waiting five turns before its ‘Order’ command can be employed again. When you attack an enemy unit, or card, to the point that its assigned value (i.e. power) reaches zero, it goes into the ‘Graveyard’ and remains there until the end of battle… unless you have a ‘Field Medic’ card which can revive a random fallen card back from the dead!
Each turn you are allowed to send forth one card from your hand onto the board or you must pass. Should you feel that you’ve lost the round well before you’ve run out of cards on hand, it’s often advisable to take the L—assuming there’s at least another round to be played—as the cards that remain in your hand will carry over to the next series, at the beginning of which three more cards will be drawn from the top of your deck (the same goes for your opponent). The rest of the cards on the board go to the graveyard unless they contain some special ability such as ‘Resilience,’ allowing them to stay on for an additional round.
I’m really only scratching the bare surface in this explanation of Gwent’s essentials, but as this is a review and not a tutorial I’ll refrain from offering further details here. Hopefully my elucidation highlights some sense of the depth and strategy demanded of each skirmish. For newcomers, the learning curve will likely appear steep at first. There is a good deal to comprehend before the functions and implications of each card’s abilities can be fully grasped. My main advice is to take your time! Thronebreaker offers a helpful introduction at the outset but don’t shy away from trial and error. There are ‘Training Grounds’ that allow you to experiment with your deck, as well as multiple difficulty settings that can be altered at just about any instance. And the penalty for failure is never too punishing, merely forcing you to restart the battle or load your last save point. Fortunately, the game autosaves quite often.
While I’ve already confessed that card-battlers aren’t my forte, I’d like to think that I’ve played a decent number of RPGs, both traditional and unconventional. Thronebreaker can hardly be classified as a ‘traditional role-playing experience,’ and yet the level of forethought and consideration often required to triumph over its challenges whisk me away to some of the most exhilarating moments that I have met in RPGs. With that being said, I’ve only played through the game on its hardest difficulty setting, ‘Bonebreaker,’ and actually is what I would recommend even for Gwent initiates. Although it’s admittedly hearsay, I’ve read that the other options end up being far too easy. I found ‘Bonebreaker’ to offer some extremely formidable head-scratchers at first but, with careful deliberation, what seems insurmountable eventually becomes child’s play… sometimes with the necessary aid of a little luck.
Aside from standard battles, which are as addicting as (S)RPG contests come, there are among the more gruelling trials multiple unique encounters like ‘Puzzle Battles’ and whatnot with specialized rules and custom cards. These entail the fulfilment of a certain objective, such as reducing each of the opponents’ cards to a specific numeric value or setting up particular conditions so that all of the foes’ cards on the board can be dispensed with in a single turn. The puzzles in Thronebreaker sometimes possess but one solution and will take repeated tries, along with a fair amount of brainstorming, to figure out. But once you do eventually solve the enigma, I can hardly put into words the sense of gratification and reward you feel, knowing that you worked through it from start to finish, keenly discerning the light-bulb moment when it finally arrived. Perhaps it’s that Thronebreaker straddles the line between nail-biting vexation and effortless delight to a T, but the split second transitions from a state of rage-inducing stress to an outpouring of innate ecstasy, endured on several occasions throughout my journey, kept me wanting more. I know it’s a highly subjective judgement but where difficulty is concerned, in my opinion Thronebreaker’s ‘Bonebreaker’ mode strikes the right balance.
It would be negligent of me to conclude this section by leaving the impression that Thronebreaker is little more than a visual-novel-meets-digital-collectible-card-game. It is, in part, those things. It’s also, obviously, an RPG, and one with a handful of sprawling maps to explore, teeming with NPCs and discoverable resources that can help you unlock new cards and upgrade existing ones. This portion of the game, where events outside of combat mostly occur, takes an isometric perspective similar to titles like Divinity: Original Sin 2 or Diable III: Eternal Collection (cited only because those are two other releases on the Nintendo Switch that I’ve completed), and features a beautiful, hand-drawn, cel-shaded art style that I’d love to see more games emulate.
On any of Thronebreaker’s five enormous maps, you’re basically given complete freedom to explore wherever you’d like, with fast travel becoming available when you chance upon signposts, unlocking the option for that specific location. Battles of all kinds (standard, puzzle, etc.) can be found at appointed areas throughout the map, though sometimes you’ll find yourself the victim of an ambush. You can also set up camp anywhere on the map, which allows you to engage in mock skirmishes, speak with your advisors, review letters or other tidbits of information you may have come across, recruit more units, customize your existing deck, or spend the resources you’ve accumulated—such as money and wood—to upgrade your encampment structures à la skill trees, expanding your powers in ways that will prove indispensable both on and off the battlefield.
I’ve by no means painted a complete picture of all that a single playthrough of Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales involves but to do so would extend this review beyond its intended scope. A common estimate is that the main campaign takes around 30 hours to finish, with completionist runs adding 10 or so more hours to that length. I must be rather inefficient, though, as the game took me around twice that long during my initial playthrough. The point is, there is a lot to do and see here, and every moment of it feels justified by solidly executed gameplay. If there were any complaints that I had when I wrapped it all up, they boiled down to the fact that outside of exploring the various branching dialogue choices, I was pretty much left out of any veritable excuses to keep on playing.
If I didn’t already know that CD Projekt is a multibillion-dollar corporation with over a thousand employees on its payroll, it would be easy to mistake Thronebreaker as another ingenious example of the indie market surpassing industry standards. But while neither publisher CD Projekt nor its development studio, CD Projekt Red, are indie by any reasonable definition, and though I don’t know the specifics about Thronebreaker’s development costs, it seems safe to assume that it was a relatively modest undertaking when measured against many of their past releases. The happy result for us Switch owners is that we get a game that not only looks and sounds fantastic on Nintendo’s hardware, it runs smoothly too.
To touch once more upon Thronebreaker’s gorgeous art direction, cutscenes and environments are ravishingly illustrated to create an aesthetic that appears as fashionable as it does timeless. It’s enjoyable to take a moment, on whichever of the game’s several topographies you happen to be traveling, and revel in the minute details that the artists included in every picturesque scene.
The music is no less notable, vacillating between bombastic, fully orchestrated battle cries driven by horns, percussion, and all manner of obscure stringed instruments, and ballads delicately arranged to capture the mood that is present, whether tense, gloomy, ominous, or reflective. The Witcher III: Wild Hunt’s lead composer, Marcin Przybyłowicz, has delivered another coup de maître. For an epic situated in an era somewhat resembling 13th-century Western Europe—the events of Thronebreaker occur in the year 1267 though to be honest I don’t really have any idea what that means in the broader context of the Witcherverse—its Celtic-inspired soundtrack compliments the setting as well as the glimmering production evident in virtually every other aspect of the game.
And when it comes to first-rate production in the audio department, CD Projekt Red once more demonstrates how voiceovers ought to be done if they are to be done at all. For a game that consists of pages upon pages of text, not to mention multiple audio language options, enough good things can’t be said about the performances exhibited by the actors and actresses; they’re convincing, heartfelt, and make the characters come alive in ways that even games using photorealistic facial expressions oftentimes fail to achieve.
With reference to Thronebreaker’s ‘Presentation,’ what more is left to be said? The game looks phenomenal, it sounds phenomenal, and—oh yeah, there’s also a cross-save feature if you already own the game on Steam or GOG. And if you don’t own Thronebreaker yet, then there is one final word to reiterate.
Assuming you’ve read the previous paragraphs up to this point, you know how this concludes: Yes, Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales is an intoxicating RPG experience that all fans of the genre ought to try out for themselves. The fact that it’s a card-battler and an offshoot of the Witcher franchise is all the more reason if you’ve been titillated by either of these epithets before, and if you’ve hitherto dipped your toes in neither, there is perhaps no better entry in which to plunge.
Well, okay, Thronebreaker doesn’t quite hold a candle to The Witcher III but few—if any—games do. Regardless, and though my knowledge of the series doesn’t reach beyond these two titles, I’m willing to bet that Thronebreaker deserves to be near the forefront of any conversation surrounding CD Projekt’s finest work to date.
Will the Switch ever see Gwent: The Witcher Card Game, the stand-alone, free-to-play, online multiplayer release that originally launched alongside Thronebreaker back in 2018 on the PC, placing the combat mechanics I’ve described above in an exclusively PvP competitive setting? Probably not, and it’s really too bad. I, for one, would certainly jump at the excuse to satiate the Gwent-shaped hole that has been carved out in my chest over the past year and a half. Still, between these two card-battlers, it seems kind of selfish of me to ask for more than the remarkable single-player Gwent campaign that we’ve received in Thronebreaker.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a realm to redefend.