by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 27th November, 2018
Guys and Girls at CD Projekt Red indeed are marvelous at their job. They managed to turn a game that spawned as a single player portion of a collectible card game which itself was born as a mini-game in the Witcher 3 into a real masterpiece filled with excitement, joy, and a stunning story. We are talking about Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales, a game that should've been a 10-ish or so hours long journey playing the part of a cool and interactive (but a tad bit long) tutorial for Gwent that featured its own story about the Queen Meve of Lyria and Rivia and her struggles during the war with Nilfgaard.
The original plan was to offer Thronebreaker as an in-app purchase in Gwent for all those who desired a bit of single player card battles similar to what Blizzard offered with Adventures in Hearthstone. What we got is a massive, 30-hour long game with an epic story, dozens of characters and hundreds of battles along with a huge game world and numerous activities to participate in. What we got is the best single player card game of all times.
Thronebreaker starts slow. Instead of waging epic battles against the Empire of the Black Sun we meet Meve as a victorious leader returning from a long journey during which she has partaken in many a battle and also participated in long peace negotiations. She is finally home and en route to her kingdom's capital. But soon, we find out that Nilfgaardians decided to invade lands of Lyria and Rivia with Meve, the warrior queen, being the only one who can stop the invading army.
This all happens during the first chapter of the game, which can be looked at as a prolonged tutorial (and which takes almost as many hours as it was originally projected for Thronebreaker to last) during which new players (those who never played Gwent) can learn the basics of the game and find out all the rules of Gwent. Those who already played Gwent learn about Meve's army and her war camp, which is your movable main base where you can recruit new forces (craft new cards), upgrade various buildings (giving you new cards to craft and various bonuses), and talk with various characters you meet through the game.
You probably know how to play Gwent and if you don't, do not worry because the game will explain the basics pretty well and after the first hour or so you will be ready to tackle any opponent, being it a simple Nilfgaard regiment or an atrocious Royal Wyvern capable of killing half an army. The interesting thing is that almost all cards present in Thronebreaker are original designs that either carry the same name but have different effects or are completely fresh designs never seen in multiplayer Gwent.
This gives Thronebreaker a breath of innovation and guarantees that even hardened Gwent veterans will enjoy the game because they will play with completely new cards. Sure, a couple cards are the same, but they are few and far between and are there because their effects are a perfect fit to Thronebreaker battles.
During the course of the game, players will discover lots of golden chests carrying rewards that can be used in multiplayer Gwent battles. These are unique banners, portraits, and golden cards but the good thing is that banners and portraits are pure cosmetics and golden cards can be crafted the same as other cards meaning that owners of Thronebreaker cannot receive any gameplay advantage with rewards found in golden chests.
Anyway, after you finish the first chapter the real fun begins. The story really stretches its legs from then on, becoming much darker and somber, in line with other games from the Witcher universe. Instead of playing as Her Royal Highness, Meve becomes an outcast trying to survive in harsh, war-ravaged lands, while trying to gather allies to defeat Nilfgaardian forces and free her kingdom. On this journey, she meets plenty of interesting characters and they all are well-written individuals, each carrying their own burned and hiding their own stories which can be heard by talking with them in Meve's camp.
Each character who becomes a part of Meve's army can be used in your deck as a card and after a while, you will gather a plethora of powerful golden cards that will swiftly deal with almost any enemy you encounter during your journeys. Yes, you can completely change your deck, adding new cards removing those that don't do much good, and crafting new ones.
This allows players to build unique decks that carry inventive combos or decks that are simply fun to play, or maybe decks that rely on the strength of a few individual cards. The choice is yours and you have complete freedom in building your deck. You will start with a fairly limited set of cards but will acquire a ton of new cards during your journey.
And Meve's journey takes place across different open world maps, each map representing a state or a province found in the world of Witcher novels.
You lead Meve (which represents her army and the whole camp) from an isometric perspective, and can roam through each map finding resources needed for crafting cards and improving your camp (wood, gold and recruits), looking for side quests that range from simple encounters where all you have to do is to pick one possible outcome (will you slay an elf who was accused of being Nilfgaard spy or will you spare him and take him into your army; will you dig up a grave and get a bit of gold but lower your troops morale or leave the grave and receive a morale boost) to full-fledged side quests that include multiple decisions and/or card battles.
There are also various puzzles which are basically card battles where you have to solve a puzzle with a custom card deck while playing under custom rules. They offer a welcome change of pace and present a different kind of challenge in comparison to classic card battles which play by regular Gwent rules and where you use your own deck.
When it comes to the visual department the fact is that Thronebreaker looks amazing. The game features heavily stylized visuals that make it look like an oil painting that somehow came to life. Saturated colors combined with clear cell shaded graphics are extremely pleasant to the eye.
And the small details that make the world alive like the subtle movement of trees on the wind, or a gentle water waves which can be seen in streams and rivers, or the image of a village ravaged by Nilfgaardian army with half-ruined houses and half-reaped wheat fields make the world of Thronebreaker a living and breathing entity that changes with the passing of time. Scenes change with your advancement through the game, from war-torn lands to dark forests filled with hidden Scoia'tael forces to frozen lands that are home of the dwarves. Fog and fire effects look extremely pretty and areas scorched by fire look amazing despite the fact that they are places of extreme suffering where war had hit the hardest.
During the course of the game, you will partake in numerous dialogs and they contain animated characters that don't move much but can perfectly reflect their emotions and reactions making for believable conversations with various characters. Card battles utilize Gwent's updated visual style meaning they look stunning and like no other card game on the market.
Maps of each area are a high point of the game, each and every one being a true masterpiece, looking like those beautiful maps made during times when explorers still had huge lands to uncover when we still feared of uncharted lands which took a better part of the map of our world. Overall, Thronebreaker is a really pretty game with plenty of style and loads of beautiful compositions hiding beneath its rugged surface filled with deep scars earned in numerous battles each land in the game has seen.
As we noted above, the story is mature and grim and it deserves undisputed praise. The world is grisly and unforgiving and you will learn to trust no one after you spend some time in Thronebreaker. The game is filled with deplorable scenes filled with rage, racism, hatred, and gruesome violence which is common in this world filled with various races who rage war against each other all the time.
There are plenty of interesting plot twists and unexpected appearances of characters we thought we wouldn't see in Thronebreaker, and the game has its share of tough decisions where you have to choose the lesser evil and where there's no winner no matter what you decide to do. This perfectly reflects the world of the game, an unforgiving place that won't give anything for free and where even the most just can fall if they make wrong decisions.
The nice thing is that the effects of your decisions aren't immediately known. You can come up with a decision and nothing will happen in the next half a dozen hours only to suddenly experience an event that is tied to the thing you did during the previous chapter. Also, many decisions will affect your ending and the game hides those important decisions quite well so there isn't a chance you'll know which choice will play out during the next hour and which choice will play out during the endgame.
We adore the huge number of choices you must pick in Thronebreaker; you will have to battle with yourself non-stop and often come up with picks that do not align with your inner sense of morale of justice because you got burned the last time you tried to be just and abide the law. Luckily, the world of Thronebreaker isn't some uninviting place where all hope is lost. The game offers plenty of healthy humor that can make anyone forget about the horrors of war and laugh out loud during some scenes. These lighthearted moments are just what you need after a long day of battling against all kinds of enemies.
Another high point of the game is the writing. Since Thronebreaker is a simple adventure game without pompous cutscenes or stunning visuals, writers had to give life to the world and events happening in the game because most scenes are explained via common text that is usually accompanied by voiceover. And they did a terrific job.
The writing is spot-on; you can clearly imagine the horror left after Nilfgaardian army rode through a village, slaying most of the people, or the sheer fear building in soldiers while they enter the lair of some monster while not knowing what exactly will they encounter and will they stay alive to tell the tale. Each scene is explained with great care and with plenty of detail; it's like you're reading an excellent high fantasy book and imagine each scene like it's laid in front of you. You can smell the sharp smoke of a nearby fire or a damp scent of the swamp you're crossing with Meve's forces.
Sound plays a huge role here and it works by providing those tiny slices needed to imagine a vivid image in your head. A howling of wind when you move through frozen lands while you're on your way to meet Brouver Hoog; a slew of arrows heard just before your forces get ambushed by elves; a clash of swords during a huge battle with Nilfgaardian Army; a horrific sound of claws going over rock just before drowners attack you.
Voice work is also top-notch with almost every character sounding believable and in line with their emotional state and intentions. You can sense dread in the voice of peasants who are left with nothing after the war, or the unquestioned loyalty of Reynard Odo, Meve's second in command. The sound department is another shining gem in Thronebreaker's royal crown.
While Thronebreaker has many strengths the game come with a couple of weak sides that aren't deal breakers but can affect your enjoyment. While battles are interesting and they can really make you feel like a true tactical genius they are extremely easy. Even when playing on the hardest difficulty many battles end with your forces completely obliterating enemies. And if you happen to tinker with your deck a bit (and most of the players will surely do this) optimizing it and making it more effective you won't find a single challenging battle in Thronebreaker.
This is further amplified by the fact that most battles take only one round and not three. This means that you don't have to worry about leaving a couple of heavy hitters for the third round; you can simply slap your best cards one after another and annihilate enemies without even thinking about tactical play.
While puzzles are a bit better they too are often too easy and most of them can be solved after just one or two restarts. If we compare puzzles found here with those we had the chance to play during Gwent special events we have to say that those found in Gwent were much more challenging and fun to play. And there are simply too many resources. You don't have to worry about having enough wood and gold for upgrades; just wait and bit and you will be able to upgrade each part of your camp while saving up enough resources to craft any card you need.
Each map is filled with resource stashes and if you like to clear every map of POIs (points of interest) you will find that Meve and her army have more than enough resources at all times. Can these shortcomings ruin your fun? No, they cannot, especially if you haven't play Gwent before; in that case, you will find the game's difficulty more challenging because you didn't play Gwent for 300 hours before diving into Thronebreaker.
Thronebreaker is a triumph of video game design. It is an amazing story-driven experience and the first single-player card game that came with a truly exciting campaign. It's long and filled with tough choices, it's beautiful and filled with pretty scenes, it is serious and filled with scenes of immense suffering, it is lighthearted and filled with moments where you just forget about everything and start laughing from the depth of your hart.
The game is a perfect spinoff to the Witcher games - it offers something completely new in terms of gameplay, it comes with its own story that introduces new characters and doesn't focus on characters we know and love from the Witcher games, and it broadens the world of the Witcher games, uncovering new lands and adding new lore to this already lore rich series. If you love Gwent, the Witcher series, adventure games, strong story-driven titles, or amazing stories you simply have to play this one.