Of the game’s three main questlines (Velen, Novigrad, and Skellige), I personally consider Novigrad to be the weakest.
This isn’t because of Novigrad itself, which as I’ve said is one of my favorite cities in all of gaming. Rather, it’s because the quests, which invovle finding Dandelion, unraveling a heist, navigating the city’s underworld, and finally taking on the Church of the Eternal Fire, are frequently disjointed and full of stray threads. During my first playthrough, I remember often losing track of exactly what I was doing and why.
I personally suspect that the entire area was the subject of significant last-minute cuts which required a rapid reshuffling the story. I say I “suspect” this because I don’t claim to have any inside knowledge of the development process – however, the suspicion is a strong one. There were many things here that made my “last minute scramble in development” spider senses go off: how the various figures of Novigrad’s underworld were introduced in more detail than their significance in the story seemed to merit, the detail invested in the buildings of Temple Isle (the Church’s home base), most of which were only seen in one cutscene, the rather wet-fart resolution of the whole “find Dijkstra’s treasure” quest (we just never find it, and we knew it was Dandelion all along anyway), and numerous smaller rough edges, some of which I’ll mention as we go on.
I’m not trying to dump on the developers here. The Witcher 3 was a massive game with massive ambitions, and given all that it’s a miracle it came out as polished as it did. What’s more, as I’ve heard more stories about the development of this game or that game, I’ve come to believe that one of the most important skills a game developer can have – and especially if you’re in a management position – is improvisation.
What recollections of the development of various classic RPG’s that have filtered out into the world of RPG nuts corroborate this. Without launching into a bunch of long-winded stories, many of the classics, both Infinity Engine and otherwise, had last-minute changes, features cut short by looming deadlines, and emotions in their teams in the months before going gold that could easily fall under the category of “sheer panic.”
If anything, it seems that a smoothly-running pipeline that stays running smoothly right up until release is the exception, not the rule. But if you have to cut a level in the final stage of your production schedule in a Call of Duty game or something, it may be a relief, but in a genre that features complex stories it’s not so simple. In my opinion, in the case of the various quests involving Dandelion and Novigrad, the improvisation could have been better. Or maybe I’m way off base, there were no last minute cuts, and this was just rough writing from the beginning. Either way, my complaining will proceed as scheduled.
It starts out promising enough, if a bit confusing. Dandelion is missing, and Geralt is trying to track him down by talking to his various romantic prospects, helpfully catalogued in his journal. None of them know where he is, but they each have bits of confounding intelligence to share: Dandelion was interested in the work schedules of a local bathhouse, Dandelion met with a mysterious woman he claimed was his sister, Dandelion was researching a recently deceased nobleman, Dandelion wanted to talk to a certain alchemist, Dandelion was studying different types of fungus.
The player, by this point, is obviously supposed to be mystified at all this, but there’s an explanation coming. First, we confer with Zoltan, who reveals that Dandelion’s “sister” is in fact his current special lady, a singer named Priscilla. We find her performing at one of the city’s swankier inns, and there’s a nice cutscene where she performs a song about Geralt and Yennefer.Mostly nice. I don’t know if it’s just the potato I play the game on, but for me there were pauses in between each stanza that screwed up the tempo.
So Priscilla knows the score: Dandelion was planning a heist to steal the treasure of one “Sigi Reuven,” who we soon learn is actually Sigismund Dijkstra, a former Redanian spookmaster turned crime lord. We have to talk to Dijkstra, since he can help us find another big-time Novigrad gangster named Whoreson Junior, who may have taken Dandelion captive. So we found Priscilla, to tell us to find Dijkstra, so he can help us find Whoreson Junior, and then we finally find him he’ll tell us that Caleb Mange of the Witch Hunters has Dandelion. The first time I played the game, by the time I got two-thirds of the way through all this I was a mixture of irritated and confused.
Most of the above plays out in a quest called “Get Junior,” which has you visiting the crime boss’s various enterprises (his house, a casino, and an underground fighting pit) and dispatching the endless mooks who try to stop you. There’s another quest, given to you by Dijkstra, to solve the mystery of who robbed his now-empty vault and how.
Of course, we know it was Dandelion, but the “how” of it is rather clever. Remember all the things Dandelion was researching? They all come back into play now. The fungal research was to create an antidote for the toxic spores in the sewer he used as his getaway route. The dead nobleman was impersonated by a creature called a doppler (more on them later), who dropped an explosive device down a pipe that went through the vault wall.
Of course, there’s still the question of why he was doing all of this. Dandelion is not an Ocean’s 11-style heist planner by trade or inclination. This is where you learn bits of the truth in bits and pieces, in this bit of quest dialogue or that one, and out of order to boot. Near as I can tell, what happened is this:
- Ciri came to Dandelion with a broken phylactery (a magic gizmo, we’ll learn what it is and how she got it later)
- Dandelion, instead of making use of his extensive contacts in the worlds of both sorcery and academics, turned to local degenerate thug Whoreson Junior, who “knew a guy” (this is the only explanation I managed to find)
- Whoreson demanded a staggering amount of money for performing this service, so much that Dandelion had to rob a bank vault owned by one of the city’s most dangerous people
- Dandelion robbed the vault with the help of the doppler named Dudu, but then apparently didn’t give Whoreson the money for reasons I never managed to figure out
- Whoreson kidnapped and tortured Dudu, who was rescued by Ciri
- Whoreson’s men chased Ciri and Dandelion all the way to Temple Isle, where they were captured by the Temple Guard (getting them to the other end of Novigrad required a comically long chase sequence)
- Somehow the Temple Guard got ahold of the treasure too, I didn’t catch how (Dandelion got it out on a barge. It’s not like it was on his person or anything, that would’ve been impossible)
- Even though he never got the money, Whoreson went ahead and had the phylactery fixed anyway (he gives it to you when you storm his hideout)
Maybe there’s a better explanation for all of this in some note I never picked up or something, but my impression while playing through all this was that the whole thing was a mess. There are some cool things: the heist is mechanically interesting, each of Novigrad’s underground bosses is some kind of interesting hook (except Whoreson, who’s just a disgusting person overall), and at one point you get to talk to a rock troll. I feel like the raw material for an interesting – and less frustrating – adventure is here, but it just doesn’t cohere into anything.
Fortunately, the worst is over. The rest of the stuff in Novigrad is quite good, and in part two we’ll cover the last part of the search for Dandelion, which handily outperforms the first. See you then.
 Mostly nice. I don’t know if it’s just the potato I play the game on, but for me there were pauses in between each stanza that screwed up the tempo.
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