This week I want to cover a few different topics, with my comments on each.
The Crones of Crookback Bog
The Bloody Baron got more press, but to me personally, Geralt’s interactions with the Crones (and the even more mysterious being they deposed, so mysterious that fans usually refer to it as just “the thing in the tree”) are the highlight of Velen.
For those that don’t know, the Crones are the beings Anna Strenger went to for help when she was pregnant with the Baron’s child. They’re three… things. Witches? (Demi)gods? Former Druids? It’s not clear, but whatever they are, they’re powerful and extremely unsettling.
This, to me, is top-notch character design. Even after having seen this scene before, playing it this time creeped me out all over again – the wicker cage thing over Brewess’ face, the twitchy, almost insect-like movements of Weavess, the profoundly obscene way that she strokes the severed legs she has strapped to her belt, Whispess’ necklace of severed ears… and the music, too. Even going back to the orphanage after the quest is over, hearing the music makes me nervous. (Here’s a link if you feel like listening.) The game’s composer is a man named Marcin Przybylowicz, and as Nobuo Uematsu (composer for the Final Fantasy series) is celebrated for his work, so should Przybylowicz be if you ask me. Eastern European folk music is rich ore to mine, and he mines it well. I think more of this game’s unique mood comes from its music than people realize.
The Crones were also the first thing I encountered in the game that made me feel like I was in danger. Generally speaking, Geralt is a cool guy who kills monsters and doesn’t afraid of anything, but in this scene I was saying to myself “Now Geralt, be polite. You don’t know what these things even are.” The player doesn’t know much more. Some of Velen’s inhabitants worship the Crones (they refer to them as “The Ladies of the Wood” or the “Good Ladies”), and there are two in-game books you can read (called the “Ladies of the Wood” and “She Who Knows”) which will tell you a bit more, but neither book can be considered a reliable source of information. Still, here’s the text of “She Who Knows”:
Folk say they were four at first. The Mother, She-Who-Knows, the Lady of the Wood, came here from a faraway land and, since she suffered terribly from loneliness, she made three daughters out of dirt and water.
A long, long time ago the Mother was sole ruler of all of Velen. Her daughters brought her the people’s requests and served as her voice. Each spring, sacrifices of grain, animals, and men were made to the Lady of the Wood on her special night. Yet as the years passed, the Lady of the Wood slipped deeper and deeper into madness. Her madness eventually spread over the land – men took to abandoning their homes and setting out into the bog, where they became food for beasts. Before long, Velen was drowning in blood.
The daughters saw their land nearing destruction and took it upon themselves to save it. When spring came once more, and with it the night sacrifices, they killed their mother and buried her in the bog. Her blood watered the oak atop Ard Cerbin, and from then on the tree grew wholesome and hearty fruit for the people. As for the Lady’s immortal soul, it refused to leave its beloved land, and so the sisters imprisoned it. To this day it lies trapped beneath the Whispering Hillock, where it thrashes about in powerless rage.
I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for fictional folklore. I’m a sucker for lore in general, of course, but folklore in particular scratches me right where I itch. Many writers never quite master the trick of how much to reveal and how much to leave murky and evocative, but CD Projekt’s writers do.
The Crones send Geralt to destroy She-Who-Knows (aka the thing under the tree), who takes the form of a creepy bramble-covered thumping heart thing. At this point the player can either destroy it or free it, via a ritual that puts its soul into a black horse, each with a different outcome for the orphans in the bog and the nearby village of Downwarren. Many games have had similar choice-and-consequence mechanics defeated by players simply quicksaving and trying out all options before deciding. The Witcher 3 works around the save scumming problem via a straightforward method: they delay the consequences until well after the choice is made.
So basically, I liked this part of the game. Let’s get to another part of the game I liked.
Keira Metz and the Towerful of Mice
King Radovid of Redania is hunting down magic users, so many of them have gone into hiding wherever they can. One is a Sorceress named Keira Metz, who has information on Ciri. She sends Geralt first into a cavern inhabited by a mysterious Elf she was seen with, and later to a gloomy haunted tower.
We explore the tower and, with the help of a spirit-locating lantern Keira gave us, piece together what happened: a Lord and his family lived there, his daughter fell in love with a local fisherman beneath her station, the Lord’s mistreated subjects rose up and stormed the castle, and the daughter was (through a mishap involving a potion that mimicks death) left for dead by the man she loved. Oh, and a mage researching the Catriona plague was there too, who was experimenting on mice, which is actually not directly related to everything else, but accounts for all the mice scurrying around as you ascend the tower.
This being the Witcher universe, this tragic story has produced a curse, and the Lord’s daughter is now a dangerous creature called a “pesta” or “plague maiden.” (It’s about as inviting as it sounds). Geralt can break the curse by either taking the daughter’s bones off the isle (thereby releasing her on the wider world) or by telling her former lover what happened, and returning him to the tower, where the curse is broken when he kisses her.
This whole sequence is not a big deal in the larger scheme of things. It’s just one of dozens of optional sidequests. And yet its quality speaks to the quality of the entire game. Both the Towerful of Mice quest and the interactions with the Crones demonstrate CD Projekt’s mastery of mood.
To me, mood may be the single most important thing a game can have – and also the hardest to produce. It’s the result of doing everything else well. There are certain through lines in the series’ narrative habits: supernatural events are nearly always connected to some kind of human foible, there’s a persistent sense of the present being tethered to the regrets of the past, and even when we mechanically understand what happened there’s always a dimension of understanding that’s withheld from us.
It all adds us to a sense of solidity – a game world that’s credible, for lack of a better word. They nailed it once. Can they do it again? Cyberpunk, both as a genre and a specific Mike Pondsmith-designed setting, doesn’t share the same mood. And creative workers that show talent and inspiration in one context may not show as much in another. I don’t have any insight into this question at the moment other than to say we’ll have to wait and see.
But that’s enough of the floofy lore-and-talky/read-y stuff. Let’s discuss some game mechanics.
The Reverse Difficulty Curve
I’ve played through this game three full times now (plus all the playthroughs aborted by my severe restartitis), using conventional builds in addition to my current naked punchmage build. And every time, the hardest fights have always been in the first third of the game. Specifically, two sequences: the one in the cave, where you have to defend Keira Metz from wild hunt dogs while she closes portals, and the one at Crow’s Perch where you have to defend the Baron from wraiths as he takes the botchling to the threshold of his castle.
Both have been hard, but even in this playthrough’s overleveled state, the fight with the wraiths took many tries to win. Wraiths have two main attacks: a normal one, and a teleporting double attack. If you fight one at a time, you just stay close to them so as to trigger the normal attack and not the teleporting one, a trick that should be familiar veterans of FromSoft games. However, if you have to fight 3-4 of them at once, you can’t keep them all at the same range, you get chains of them teleporting into you, and things get hairy fast.
This was also the case in the first game. For me personally, the hardest fight in the Witcher 2 was the one where you have to defeat the guards to raise the gate in La Valette Castle – in the prologue. And it wasn’t just beginner’s fumblings either (though it was partly that). That fight remained hard even on subsequent playthroughs.
This isn’t even just a CD Projekt problem, but an RPG problem. I’m currently struggling to think of a major RPG I’ve played that didn’t have a reverse difficulty curve. Right now I’m playing Deadfire (the sequel to Obsidian’s crowdfunded isometric throwback Pillars of Eternity), and it’s the case there too. Bioware games generally aren’t that hard, but to the extent they are, it’s usually in the first half. In every major RPG I remember playing, this is the case: struggle in the first third, things get easier in the second, and by the endgame you have some variety of OP build that just steamrolls everything.
Mechanically speaking the culprit is mostly the multiplicative effect of advantages the player gains over the course of the game. As they level, players stats go up, but they also earn new abilities and bonuses, and they also get more adept with the mechanics. The combination of these things leads the player to quickly outpace the enemies in terms of power level growth. This is now happening in my current Witcher 3 (now post-Keira and the Baron) playthrough. Igni and Axii are OP thanks to upgrades; not only that, but putting so many points into signs has sent my stamina regeneration through the roof, meaning I can now nearly spam these now super-powerful abilities.
(There is a mod that pretty much completely rebalances the game’s combat, if its descriptions are to be believed: The Witcher 3 Enhanced Edition. I haven’t tried it yet and kind of wish I had known about it before I started this playthrough. I am going to try it and will report back if there’s anything interesting there. It changes the way attacks are targeted and removed all enemy scaling(!), both of which sound too good to be true. I’ll guess I’ll find out soon.)
I don’t have some clever way to fix this problem except “make the early parts of the game easier and the later parts harder,” which is the sort of thing that’s probably trickier than it sounds. But I thought I’d discuss here since this particular part of the playthrough is generally the hardest. Contrast it with “big” boss fights later (like Eredin), which you can, by that point, generally just cruise through.
We’ve now wrapped up most of the major stuff in Velen. Next week we head to Skellige. See you then.
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