I’m going to start by listing the initial ground rules of the playthrough.
- No equipment, meaning no weapons or armor. Geralt will be wearing his classy white boxer shorts the whole way.
- The only thing Geralt can keep on his person is booze. Since Witcher potions are made with alcohol as a base, I consider potions to be a type of booze, so they’re acceptable. This will obviously require us to occasionally have alchemy ingredients in our inventory as well (I think of them as being something like cocktail mixers), so those are acceptable. Gwent cards are not actually stored in your inventory itself, so they’re all right too.
- No HUD. I actually recommend making very limited use of the HUD even for a non-crazy person playthrough, as I and others have found that it causes you play the game in a very different – and arguably more immersive – way.
- Geralt must never turn down an offer of either alcohol or gwent.
- Combat should be as punching-oriented as possible, meaning minimize the use of signs. Rule 5 is, of necessity, going to be one of the more flexible ones, since there are some enemies that you simply can’t defeat with punches alone (that, or it would be painfully boring to do so).
I may add more rules as we go on, but those are the basics. This is obviously going to make the game more difficult, but based on my experimentation so far I believe it’ll still be doable. I have a relationship with game difficulty that’s kind of the opposite of the usual. Usually it’s the young whippersnappers, with their mongoose-on-adderal reaction times, who like the hard stuff. But for me, I always used to play games on normal (or the equivalent) and it wasn’t until later that I started routinely cranking up the difficulty.
To me a higher difficulty is a way of savoring a game. Of necessity you play it a bit slower, and it also makes you really learn the mechanics. I play fewer games than I used to, so I want to savor the ones that I do play. In the Witcher 3, the highest difficulty (death march) is not really that hard, at least not compared to, say, a Fromsoft game, or even earlier entries in the series. Plus, I always enjoy playing what I call “punchmages.” Hence, the five rules.
First up is the tutorial. I had to break the rules here, as there’s several things the game doesn’t let you do yet (like access the inventory screen). My only complaints about the tutorial are that it’s too long and it’s not skippable. If you’re like me, and you start way more playthroughs than you finish, you’re probably a bit sick of it by now. That said, it does its job. It introduces you to the major players (Yennefer, Vesemir, Ciri, the Wild Hunt), teaches the basics of combat succinctly, and then dumps you into the game.
Geralt and Vesemir have a short conversation that covers the plot’s initial setup: you were supposed to meet Yennefer at a village named Willoughby. Problem is, Willoughby’s in a war zone and was razed before you arrived. There’s a nice clear early goal: find Yen. After the cutscene you’re immediately attacked by ghouls. Here is where I have to reveal a disappointing truth: punches do almost no damage to monsters, probably because Geralt’s hands aren’t made of silver. This means that Igni is basically your only source of damage against them – hence the flexibility of rule five above.
I died a lot in this fight before finding a workable way of cheesing it. Basically, you go far away from Vesemir and draw one ghoul away at a time. Then you Igni it and kite it with dodges and positioning until you can Igni it again. At this point I’m already having doubts about this whole no-equipment thing, but the secret to being an obnoxious contrarian is persistence, so I persist. Vesemir, fortunately, is a good sport and cheerfully does most of the work in this fight. He doesn’t do much damage but he does draw a lot of aggro and periodically knocks enemies down with Aard.
We proceed to the village and witness a traveling merchant being attacked by a Griffin. The game does something clever in this cutscene: Vesemir gets hurt. Not badly, but it does introduce a note of vulnerability to his character, and probably draws a note of concern out of most players, which pays dividends later. You could say that CD Projekt does the small things well – you could also say that every thing, taken individually, is a small thing. Saying a developer does the small things well is kind of like saying they do everything well.
On to the first town. The first stop is obviously the tavern, where another short but well-done cutscene plays. We learn that the village of White Orchard, once part of Temeria, has recently been annexed by the Empire of Nilfgaard, and the locals are none too happy about it. This conflict is the setting hook for this first part of the game. I’ll cover this a bit more later, but suffice it to say that TW3’s nuanced take on war and its various unpleasant realities is a strong point.
After all this, you’re finally detached from Vesemir’s hip and allowed to play the game proper. First order of business: find some hooch. This proves surprisingly difficult! Apparently, the good citizens of White Orchard prefer the hard stuff, and the only alcohol for sale in the tavern is the likes of alcohest and dwarven spirit. Problem is, the game considers these things to be alchemy ingredients, not food, meaning you can’t drink them (unless you make them into a potion first, which I don’t have the ingredients to do yet) and they don’t restore health. Since we’re playing on death march, my health doesn’t regenerate unless I eat, and it’s already low after occasionally getting hit while watching Vesemir solo a group of ghouls earlier.
Fortunately, there’s a solution: good old fashioned RPG-style home invasion. Geralt, still humiliatingly sober after almost two hours of total gameplay, methodically enters and ransacks every house in White Orchard, often while their owners look on just a few feet away. Of course, this isn’t unusual in RPGs, and people often complain that it’s unrealistic. In this case, however, I find it perfectly plausible. I can tell you that if a nearly naked stranger entered my apartment in broad daylight and started rummaging around for alcohol, I would probably just let him. “Nothing good will come of getting involved in this,” I would say to myself. “Just don’t make eye contact and wait for him to leave on his own.”
Seven or eight burgled houses later, I’m beginning to doubt the patriotism of White Orchard’s inhabitants. Their houses are chock-full of Redanian Lager and Erveluce (which I believe is a type of snooty elven wine), but there’s not a single Temerian Stout to be found. This is why you lost the war, fellas.
At this point I should cover a few mechanical things about playing with no equipment or HUD. One is that fights are longer. I did in fact kill the drowner above by punching it, but not before I whittled its health down with Igni first, and even then it took forever. If I’ve learned nothing else from this experience, it’s that Witchers don’t get paid enough. Drowners are tough. This guy took as many clean hits to the jaw as Ali did in all three Frazier fights put together, and that was after I set him on fire multiple times.
Another is something that’s true of many aspects of HUD-less play: you’re immersed more. Since you can’t see your own health bar, you have to gauge Geralt’s chances by how much blood is on his character model, and you never quite know if the next hit is going to kill you or not. It makes things tense, if nothing else.
One obstacle is that I’m still level one, and recovering from just one fight requires me to drink several beers – this is unsustainable, as I’m drinking them faster than I can steal them. I’ve decided to use a tried-and-true RPG cheese method: do as many quests as possible that don’t require combat, to build up my XP a bit. We’ll cover that in next week’s installment of The Puncher 3. Stay tuned.
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