In my most recent coverage of The Witcher saga, Baptism of Fire, I disclose that it is the novel where Geralt earns his surname, “of Rivia.” He and his gang are trying to cross the Yaruga river but end up stranded in the middle of a skirmish between the invading Nilfgaardians and the army of Lyria. To make things worse, Milva is suffering from a miscarriage! Regis tends to her while Dandelion runs interference with the retreating Lyrian soldiers. Geralt and Cahir hold position on the Red Lobinden bridge in order to protect their incapacitated ally. They managed to rally the soldiers in flight, and commanded them to repel the pursuing Nilfgaardians. After the Battle for the Bridge of the Yaruga, Cahir disappears, fearing that he might be recognized by captive Nilfgaardian rather than a now-dead one. Meanwhile, Maeve, Queen of Lyria and Rivia, finds Geralt and believes him to be fighting in the interests of the Northern Kingdoms rather than his own whims. Because of his valor, she and knights him “Geralt of Rivia.”
As a fan of the novels and Witcher series as a whole, the primary reason I purchased Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales is to reenact this famous Battle for the Bridge on the Yaruga (River). Originally released exclusively on CDProjekt Red’s digital distribution service, GOG.com, the game underperformed to expectations. While I have been unable to track its performance since its port to Steam, I can only assume that CDPR has found the results satisfactory. As someone who only played the one or two mandatory sessions of Gwent in Witcher 3, I wondered if I would find Thronebreaker itself satisfactory.
Though I consistently reiterate that the Witcher series is for adults, Thronebreaker can be seen as a gateway to the franchise for teens. Above lies the most graphic image in the entirety of Thronebreaker, and I had to search Google to find it because I did not encounter it myself. Other depictions of blood and gore are considerably less graphic, mostly appearing as stains in scenery or artwork. This is a game set in the backdrop of war; players should prepare to see dead bodies and read about atrocities inflicted upon the living. Throughout my playthrough, I have prevented, conducted, and observed several executions. “You’ve chosen one evil in favor of another” is a phrase that players should grow accustomed to experiencing no matter how noble their intentions.
As far as debauchery is concerned, taverns and strong drink are analogous to soldiers as is weaponry. Often, Meve (players) will be offered a choice to allow soldiers to indulge themselves for morale boosts that impact card battles. In fact, one of my favorite items is called Mahakam Ale (or Golden Froth), a beer that provides +2 to all cards on its same row. Besides the game’s penchant for strong drink, a certain dwarf enjoys smoking a pipe. Lastly, it is possible to recruit a sorceress who claims to specialize in healing.
I do think it is worth pointing out to those unfamiliar with the literature that amidst war between an empire to the south and a coalition of kingdoms in the north is war at a racial level. This becomes clear during the second map in Aedirn where Black Rayla and the Scoia’tael exchange atrocities. I consider the turmoil between the races a metaphor for modern racial strife.
Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales takes place in the heat of the Second Nilfgaardian war. Queen Maeve returns from an excursion secret meeting among the kings of the North. She returns, only to find that the Strays of Spalla, a bandit gang, is running amok in her lands. Soon after suppressing the riffraff, Maeve found herself as the principal figure in a coup taking place in her lands. After being thrown in a dungeon while awaiting execution, the Queen an unlikely scoundrel rescues her. After releasing her most trusted advisor, Reynard Odo, the trio escapes the castle in the middle of the night.
With her kingdom subverted, Maeve escapes from the clutches of her own army as a fugitive. Armed with almost nothing but her heredity, Maeve steals across her former lands, seeking honor among thieves while piecemealing a ragtag army. The quest to overthrow her usurpers shall be a long and arduous one.
Long and arduous indeed! I recorded sixty hours during the Thronebreaker campaign. Admittedly, there may be a few AFK hours baked into this tally (wife + 3 kids + dog), but this should not minimize the fact that this game is RPG-length with quality to match. Completionists should expect to double their time—true to Witcher game tradition, the consequences of choices made in hour-one may not be reaped until hour ten. Some might want to replay to experience something different.
Thronebreaker plays precisely like fundamental Gwent as explained in Michael’s review. Therefore, I will not revisit those mechanics. I do feel compelled to confess that three hours into Thronebreaker (plus the few mandatory games of Gwent in the Witcher 3), I struggled to understand basic concepts such as how to end a round with my score being higher than my opponent’s, let alone strategies such as not using all of my cards in the first round. My lack of knowledge and experience in deck builders really came into play on the second map when the Sccoia’tael decks appear, because they are particularly devastating with direct damage.
Like Marshawn Lynch does interviews so he does not get fined, I played Thronebreaker largely because of the game’s association with Witcher lore. So instead of diving in, experimenting with card combinations to formulate unique strategies, I purloined one from the internet. I do not recommend this, because standard campaign card duels became impossible to lose, making the lengthy campaign more of a grind than a challenge that yields a reward for conquering it. After all, there are dozens of battles per map.
Because I lack skill in deck builders, the puzzle battles live up to their namesakes. I would either conquer these in 10-20 minutes, or give up in frustration, watching the solutions on YouTube in like the savvy gamer that I am. Some of these puzzles are really fun, such as the kind that can clear the entire board after two or three key moves; others are difficult not only because require an esoteric solution, but also because the logic clues seem to be poorly-translated from CDPR’s native Polish to English.
The “ease” of regular duels and the inconsistent difficulties of the puzzle battles are my only real critiques of Thronebreaker, because true to what we have seen from the Witcher series, the game’s presentation is top-notch—a B-tier game with AAA production value. Every character encounter features full voice-acting. The graphic novel aesthetic of the cutscenes compliment the cell-shaded graphics on the main map. The OST features some bangers. Lastly, true to CDPR fashion, the game prompts players to make ambiguous choices to advance the plot. This last point I enjoyed up until I missed a whole character because I unknowingly failed the “choice check” question. Welp!
I love animated cards a little too much, flipping back and forth between them to refresh their looped video animations. I have sat and stared for many minutes while observing the Subtleties like Odo’s nod of approval on his card, or the playfulness of a hippie-like sorceress as she juggles a collection of flower pedals. If there is anything I anticipated the most, it would be collecting the special animated cards.
As for the finale for which I played this entire game, I thoroughly enjoyed the Battle for the Bridge on the Yaruga, as Geralt (and Cahir) make their guest appearances. I was hoping that they would join my army temporarily as they do in The Tower of Swallows, but alas, Thronebreaker is about Meve, not the Child of Destiny. Guess I will have to fire up the Witcher expansions for more Geralt!
Though CDPR likely intended to create a budget title while expanding upon the Witcher universe, the developers have managed to create an splendid product. Maintaining its reputation for excellence, CDPR delivers here. As someone who does not care for deck builder games, I cannot recommend it enough.