Review – Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales

Following on the heels of Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, a game considered by many to be one of the greatest games ever, there are some large boots to fill. The first of The Witcher Tales series that aims to widen the world of the Witcher with new locations, new characters from the books, and events preceding the games, Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales does as good a job as any at meeting that high standard.

Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales takes place during the second war between the Northern Realms and the Nilfgaardian Empire. You play as Queen Meve of Lyria and Rivia, which are located right on the border with the Empire and directly in the line of fire. This is the first time we’ve ever seen this world through eyes other then Geralt’s cat eyes, and it really brings some new perspective.

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This guy is definitely not a Dark Souls fan.

Gameplay is divided between the isometric map where you explore in a classic Infinity Engine inspired manner, the camping screen where you talk with companions and upgrade your deck/army, and the Gwent board which represents your forces in battle. It manages to maintain a high level of quality across all it’s features, with no Achilles heel to bring the whole thing down, but instead, each sections builds upon the other only improving the whole experience.

The game was originally pitched as a single player campaign expansion for the Gwent standalone title, and the reason it’s no longer billed as such is clear once you see how core the RPG aspect of Thronebreaker is. Everything you would expect from a core Witcher title is here from branching dialogue trees, choice consequence (almost always resulting in disaster), side quests to help out peasants with whatever issue currently plagues them, the whole package. Keep in mind this is all from the point of view of a queen, you’re not the aimless mercenary anymore. You have responsibilities to your men, your citizens, and your land to keep track of. You no longer have the benefits of neutrality that Geralt clung to like a security blanket. When faced with two evils, you don’t have the option to walk away. No pressure.

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The entire plot was based around the origin of the Keg Salesmen from the standalone Gwent game, but CDPR changed it becasue they were worried fans would thing they were TROLLing.

When you’re not in dialogue deciding the fate of kingdoms, you’re wandering the world map. If you’ve ever played Baldur’s Gate or any of the many attempts to replicate its success, you know how this goes. You move throughout the isometric lands, talk to people, collect resources to be used either to upgrade at camp or fulfill quest requirements, and to activate encounters.

There is no character to character battle system in Thronebreaker. This is where the game’s origins shine through, as all combat encounters (and some noncombat encounters as well, such as an avalanche early on in-game) are represented by Gwent games. Some are standard battles, using your customized deck of soldiers to represent your army, and the enemy forces of bandits, monsters, or the black’uns themselves. Littered throughout the maps however are special puzzle battles and special monster hunts.

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Legend has it if you let the Wyvern eat the cows in the right order, you’ll open a portal to a mythical bovine map.

The puzzle challenges give you a set hand, limited amount of rounds, and a special board set-up for you to deduce the solution. You might have to rescue a prisoner, save a herd of cows from a feasting wyvern, stop boulders from crushing you, or a wide variety of other tasks cleverly represented through a digital board game. The monster hunts are usually more straightforward in that they allow you to use your whole deck, but set you against a special stronger enemy on the board that you have to neutralize in addition to winning the regular game of Gwent.

Also, on the lowest difficulty all games have a skip option so those who want to play a Witcher RPG but don’t care at all about Gwent can enjoy this game as well. Just another example of how Thronebreaker successfully separates itself from Gwent.

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Geralt was always content with a soft patch of dirt, but Queens need tents and all of this.

The Camp screen is what connects everything together. You set camp through the world screen, anywhere you want from what I can tell, and this is where you do all of your busywork. You spend the resources you’ve collected to build and upgrade various buildings,  giving you access to new and stronger cards to add to your army, while unlocking various passive effects from faster movement speeds on the map to increasing spoils gained after battles. It’s not a large winding upgrade tree like some other games, but instead focuses more on more meaningful investments.

The story and writing manage to hold to the same level of quality we’ve all come to expect from CDPR since the Witcher series first released. Alongside a host of intriguing characters that play to many tunes, Queen Meve is very different from Geralt, and not just that she’s royalty. Not being Geralt gives us more insight into how the rest of the world discusses witchers when one isn’t present, how they feel about monsters as small as drowners from a citizens perspective, and how people fit in this world when they haven’t’ been turned into a permanent outcast. Making choices here matters moreso, because unlike Geralt who only worries about those closest to him, you are ruler of a land at war and are responsible for everyone. Responsibility sucks.

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Fire is my favorite effect in anything ever. Especially real life.

Thronebreaker is by no means The Witcher 4, but it was never supposed to be. It accomplishes what it set out to do exceedingly well, providing a look at what the world looked like before the familiar story, and a look at characters from the books that we never saw before. Though it plays out all battle encounters through Gwent and lacks everyone’s favorite white haired sarcasm machine, it conveys the core of the Witcher franchise easily, choosing between one evil and another while hoping the inevitable backlash was worth the sacrifice.

Graphics: 7.5

The Gwent gameboard, card design, and effects are fantastic, miles ahead of what was in Witcher 3’s. The isometric RPG portion of the game looks good, but compared to the plethora of similar styled games released it seems simplistic with stiff animation work.

Gameplay: 9.0

The Gwent mechanics have evolved for the better. More keywords and card synergy makes for a more interesting deck building experience, while plenty of custom challenges making clever use of the game’s mechanics help break up any repetitiveness you might find.

Sound: 10

The soundtrack is masterclass. It’s by the same composer who did Witcher 2 and 3, and it captures the Witcher world well, without being a rehash. All voice acting is exceptionally and card sound effects are appropriately visceral

Fun Factor: 9.5

Even if you don’t like Gwent, the option to skip matches means that anyone can enjoy the choice-driven RPG they’re set around. The maps are sizable and filled with plenty of secrets to discover, though they can get a bit stale towards the end.

Final Verdict: 9.0

Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales is available now on PC through GoG exclusively.

A copy of Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales was provided by the publisher.