Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Role-Playing
Developer: CD Projekt RED Studio
Release Date: Oct. 23, 2018

About Chris Barnes

There's few things I'd sell my soul to the devil for. However, the ability to grow a solid moustache? I'd probably sign that contract ... maybe ... (definitely).


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PC Review - 'Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales'

by Chris Barnes on Jan. 18, 2019 @ 2:00 a.m. PST

Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales is a single-player, role-playing game set in the world of The Witcher that combines narrative-driven exploration with unique puzzles and card-battle mechanics.

Buy Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales

CD Projekt Red has done it again.

In 2015, it released a fantastic RPG in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and for many, the card collecting game Gwent was a captivating piece of side content. Three years later, CDPR has spun off Gwent into its own full-fledged story-based card game, and the results are nothing short of a masterpiece. With fantastic writing, gripping game mechanics, and fun side-quests to break up the tense drama, Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales is a masterclass example of a well-crafted card game. It takes great strides in revolutionizing the CCG genre, and it's one of my favorite games released in 2018.

Gwent was a fantastic addition to an already vast collection of content in Witcher 3. To spin off the card game into its own stand-alone game though, CDPR needed to do much more with it, and in that regard, the title has more than exceeded my expectations. Forget everything you know about Gwent. This is a whole different animal with new rules, significantly more depth, and a ton of new factions and cards to explore. The end result is a competent card game that can compete with the best card games available today.

At the most basic of levels, the rules remain similar to the original game. Two players compete against each other in a best of three rounds, playing one card per turn (sometimes multiple cards, with the help of some unit abilities) to gain points within the round. The player with the most points after both players have either passed or are out of cards takes the round. Instead of the original game's concept of three rows with set deployment rules for each unit type, players are limited to two rows, but a card can now be played in either row. At face value, it may seem like utter blasphemy to reduce the number of rows, but there are plenty of new additions to counterbalance this change.

There's a significant increase in the number of cards that can deal damage to opposing units. Some cards can deal damage immediately upon deployment. Others can deal damage every turn after a single turn cooldown. One or two cards in your deck may not deal damage at all, but focus on boosting your own units with armor or raw power. "I have the higher card count, so I'll win." That statement may have been true in most battles in Witcher 3, but not anymore. Gwent's all grown-up, and players can come up with a plethora of strategies.

Over the course of 30-40 hours, players traverse six different maps across vastly different environments, collect loot, and manage their army and the supporting Gwent deck to battle different factions. Each map has a ton of loot that goes toward card crafting, upgrading camp to unlock new units, increasing card cap counts, and other various upgrades.

The maps are more than just loot-filled collect-a-thons, though. Throughout the game, players stumble upon both standard battles (best of three rounds), shortened battles (single-round games), and puzzle-based games interspersed across the various regions. Initially, it was a surprise to see how many puzzles CDPR included within the game. I wanted a really good Gwent game with an engaging story, but Thronebreaker is so much more than that. In the early segments, it felt like every other match was a puzzle battle, which require players to use specific cards and rules to "win." For instance, you may have six of the same unit type, but you need to play them in a specific order to clear the opponent's board, which is filled with 20 of the same unit type. Other times, you may need to shuffle and boost your cards to overpower the enemy before a counter runs out. The puzzles change up the pace and force you to use cards in ways that may not have been apparent initially. Upon completion of a puzzle battle, you'll gain access to a small section of the map that contains some loot. The puzzle battles are entirely optional, and there are plenty of other loot and standard battles to occupy your time.

All of this may excite folks who are already invested within the CCG genre, but what about those who want a grand, sprawling RPG? There's a lot of card playing — it is a CCG, after all — but there's also a fantastically written RPG tying it together with a fully voiced cast. The plot starts off with Meve, queen of Lyria and Rivia, taking care of a number of bandits who have wreaked havoc in her region. During her absence from the throne, Nilfgaard, the imperialistic region to the south, has found it to be an opportune time to strike against the Northern realms and increase its ever-growing stranglehold on its neighbors. Players follow Meve on an epic quest to push back the Nilfgaardians while also dealing with the fallout from a naive teenage son, the demands of racist peasants, and the stubbornness of bearded dwarves. Throughout the journey, you'll encounter a number of decisions that are very difficult to choose between, since it's often a matter of choosing between the lesser of two evils.

Similar to Witcher 3, you'll never be presented with a proposal that's black or white. To say the game is colored with a palette of gray would be an understatement. Players are often forced to choose between dark or darker, and rarely will you feel good about the picture you end up painting. In previous Witcher games (and in most Tolkein-esque fantasy novels), humans are portrayed as the greedy and arrogant evil-doers. Typically, I root for the elves and dwarves, but I was constantly surprised at my own actions and decisions within Thronebreaker. I sometimes supported non-humans within the game, and I slaughtered my fair share of racist humans, but I took a while to choose between two ultimatums. I went in to this game with the conditioned mentality of "Everyone wins, and I love everyone," because that normally leads to the "good" ending in fantasy RPGs. By the end of Thronebreaker, I had learned to abandon these pre-existing biases. As the player, I shared the same emotions as Meve: Trust no one, and think twice before any decision is made.

Beyond the gameplay and narrative, Thronebreaker also excels in the visual department. I used to collect holographic Pokémon cards and Magic: The Gathering cards because they looked so cool. I didn't think I'd still care about card illustrations almost 20 years later, but I do. Any time a new card was added to my deck, I'd be excited to see what the card looked like and understand the depth that its ability could add to the game. This was especially true for the elite cards, which sport a small animation snippet when you view them.

As stated earlier, Thronebreaker also has the player explore maps across varying environments. The snowy, Dwarven mountains of Mahakam are a perfect change of pace following the wooded areas of Aedirn and the swampy lands. At the start and end of each map, players are often greeted with backdrops over cliff sides revealing epic displays of beauty, or at the darkest of times, the sprawling miles of carnage brought upon the North by the Black Clads.

Like Aedirn and the surrounding realms oppressed by the power-hungry Nilfgaardians, not everything in Thronebreaker is sunshine and rainbows. There are a number of bugs and quality of life changes that are the biggest reason for the final review score. The game freezes far more frequently than I'd like to admit, and it usually occurs during a card battle. There is a generous auto-save system that prevents the player from losing any significant progress, but it can still be frustrating when this occurs during a tough card battle. Other times, cards were displayed on the battlefield that hadn't actually been played and weren't adding to the opponent's overall score. Perhaps my favorite bug was one in which my card power read as 99, was populated with "Lorem Ipsum" text, and became unplayable during the card battle.

Players will quit and restart matches for more than just the bugs. Surprisingly, CDPR has not included a "deck edit" button or the ability to create and manage multiple decks. Eventually, my deck was strong enough to steamroll most opponents, but in the early parts of the game, the "one deck to rule them all" strategy isn't possible. As a result, you'll start matches against unknown enemies only then realizing that your current deck is unsuited to take on that strategy type and requires a handful of tweaks. To do that, you must forfeit the match, reload the most recent checkpoint, edit your deck, and then trigger the battle again (sometimes preceded by narrative text). None of these criticisms are game-breaking show-stoppers.

Overall, Thronebreaker is a revolutionary game within the CCG genre, and I hope other companies take note. With a 40-hour story to support an engaging card game, there's nothing else quite like it, and its unique nature is to its overall benefit. It's made me realize how much I can and do enjoy card games when they're done right. I always loved the idea of CCGs, but it often takes a lot of time and grinding to get up to par with others. CD Projekt Red remedies this by slowly teaching the complexities of Gwent to the player with an engaging plot to keep players enthralled all the way through. It's time to take all my hard-earned rewards and experience gained in Thronebreaker and have my ego obliterated by a horde of Nekkers controlled by a 13-year-old kid — and I couldn't be more excited.

Score: 9.0/10

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