Title: Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales
Developer: CD Projekt Red
Publisher: CD Projekt
Genre: Role-Playing; Digital Card Game
Official Site: thewitcher.com
Release Date: January 28, 2020
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is one of my favorite games of this generation. I remember fondly slaying terrifying monsters, becoming ensnared in political intrigue, and exploring a rich, dangerous world.
Just kidding – I remember playing Gwent.
If I was swimming through underwater caverns or trekking through mysterious forests, it was for new Gwent cards. In fact, Ciri would simply have to wait until I complete my collection. I loved Gwent that much.
So Thronebreraker: The Witcher Tales, developed by CD Projekt Red, caught my interest when it first released in October 2018. Thronebreaker featured an engaging story, but all combat was oriented around Gwent; it was a card game. But I hadn’t had the chance to play the title until it came to Switch on January 28 of this year.
And I am left a little…underwhelmed. Thronebreaker is a good time, but a few flaws prevent it from becoming everything I wanted it to be. My desire for a great story was satisfied, but other aspects of the game left me wanting.
Once Upon a Time…
The plot concerns Queen Meve, ruler of both Lyria and Rivia. Meve is stubborn, honorable, and intelligent, but her character is still somewhat the result of your choices. Regardless of those choices, though, the main plot still follows a relatively strict path. The game opens with Meve returning to her kingdom only to find it besieged by bandits. Even with the ever-present threat that is Niflgaard closing in on her land, Meve takes it upon herself to run these brigands from her kingdom. Of course, things aren’t as they initially seem, and Meve encounters great threats to her kingdom, her reign, and her life from a variety of intimidating and intriguing enemies.
Political intrigue is the name of the game, and it isn’t something uncommon to Witcher. It’s part of what makes it such a good book, a good show, and a good game. But it takes the front seat in Thronebreaker. There are no monsters to slay, at least explicitly, so the narrative is what carries most of the weight. That weight consists of twists and turns that feel earned, not forced. I found myself verbally cursing when there was betrayal, cowardice, and hubris bringing ruin upon the game’s characters and world.
The writing is phenomenal, and all the characters are expertly fleshed out. With each having their unique personalities, their personal pleasures and distastes, conversing with them or hearing their input on events in the game was one of the highlights of my experience. Although the combat was fun, I continued to play Thronebreaker for the story, not for the cards.
It’s Time to Duel!
Ultimately, the combat is great; it’s Gwent, and Gwent is one of my favorite card games to ever grace a console. However, there have been changes to the formula in some very significant ways, some good and some bad. For example, there are now only two rows instead of three. As well, units can be placed in either row, unrestricted by unit type or class. This allows for more flexibility with what the player could do on the board, but I found that it made the location of my troops arbitrary. I rarely encountered situations in which I had to think strategically about card placement.
Cards now also have abilities. The “deploy” ability is activated only when you play a card, but an “order” ability can be used at any point in time, but only once unless recharged by another card with the “charge” ability. There is a multitude of functions cards can have, including your enemies’ cards. This is one change that made Thronebreaker’s combat a bit more complex, as experimentation with different abilities could lead to devastating combinations.
A negative change is, to me, the modification of the passing system. In The Witcher 3 and Gwent: The Witcher Card Game, you can pass at any point during your turn, even if you played a card beforehand. This isn’t the case in Thronebreaker – you have to pass at the beginning of your turn – and it detracts from the nuance of the pass system. Instead of playing cards to a point where I am comfortable passing, I have to let my opponent play until I can pass. By that time, the situation has changed, forcing me to respond. This meant I rarely ever passed in the game, a strategy I used often in the past.
Lastly, the cards aren’t very well balanced. Some cards are incredibly powerful. For example, the Strays Bomber card is incredibly powerful, with a “deploy” ability that sets one of the opponent’s two rows on fire. On the other hand, for every card that proved incredible useful, there were one or two that were arguably useless, like the Lyrian Scytheman. It didn’t help that, with a few exceptions, I rarely obtained new cards. You have the option to craft cards, but many of them are cards you already have. There was no longer the need to collect cards, and that was disappointing. Due to the lack of variety, I found myself constantly redrawing looking for the same powerful cards, never adapting my strategy to the situation at hand.
Fields On Fire
And there are a variety of situations Meve and her troops will encounter. Thronebreaker does a good job of ensuring that Gwent doesn’t get stale. It offers different fights with special rules, such as eliminate a specific card or surviving until a certain number of turns pass. However, there are different fights available on the map as you travel.
Thronebreaker has a map which you, Meve, can travel through. It looks beautiful and, just like the characters, is animated as if from a macabre storybook. On this map, there are many icons – question marks, exclamation points, puzzle pieces, etc. – and each one has different connotations.
Puzzle pieces trigger, you guessed it, puzzle fights. You are given a very specific collection of cards and have to complete a given task in one round. Although this does keep things fresh, I soon started skipping these optional fights. I liked using my custom deck, and I found that the repeated losses I suffered in trying to solve the puzzle slowed my pace, hence stifling my enjoyment of the game.
On the map are also exclamation points, which are events and battles connected to the main plot. But there is plenty to explore, and it is worth it to stray from the main path in search of question marks. Just like The Witcher 3, question marks indicate points of interest; they may feature unique battles, interesting scenarios, or completely new characters. At any rate, some of my favorite moments playing Thronebreaker came from investigating these symbols.
A Grey Area
As is typical in a Witcher game, there are many choices that have no easy answers. The main plot has some of these choices, but since the main narrative follows a relatively strict path, it is in side-missions and events that Thronebreaker’s excellent morality system really shines. To understand this system, you must understand Thronebreaker’s army building system. When exploring, you will also come across wood to harvest, coin to loot, and soldiers to recruit. All of these resources can be used to upgrade your camp, expand your army, and craft new cards. So Thronebreaker is also a game of resource management as you attempt to maintain the strength and morale of your army. So the game asks you big, difficult questions, building off of this system:
Are you willing to lose troops to save innocents?
Would you let homeless and weak peasants join your army to save them from slaughter, even though they will drain your resources?
Are you willing to commit war crimes to appease your troops and maintain morale?
Some of these questions may seem easy to answer without context, but Thronebreaker does a great job of presenting positive and negative consequences to seemingly obvious choices. I’ll be honest – I am not proud of some of the choices I made. Sometimes I made choices that made me proud, made me feel benevolent, only to have the consequences of those actions reap havoc on my army hours later. In Thronebreaker, it’s dangerous to be compassionate but dismaying to be malevolent.
Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tale’s Performance on Switch
Thronebreaker ran pretty much like a dream on the Nintendo Switch. I cannot attest to its performance relative to other consoles, but it ran very well both handheld and on the TV. Occasionally, there would be moments of lagging when an opponent played their cards or a card’s ability was activating. These moments were seconds long at most, though, and hardly dampens one’s experience with the game.
I will say that the portability of the Switch lends itself well to Thronebreaker. It felt good to start a fight, go to school, and come back to just pick up right where I left off. Since it’s a card game, I rarely booted it up and became disoriented. If the Switch version actually does not perform as well on Switch, the ability to bring the game with you wherever you go is a strong argument for picking it up on the console.
The End of Road
Verdict: With a good, though plain, soundtrack and a beautiful art style, Thronebreaker is certainly pleasing to the senses. The combat, Gwent, is entertaining, but so much is changed from its roots that it loses what I believe to be some of its best elements. And that fact is disappointing, but Thronebreaker adds enough to the game to keep it engaging and fun. Its story, supported by strong writing, is the star of the show, though.
I kept playing because I care about Meve, about Reynard, and about my subjects. I agonized for minutes over certain decisions, and I laughed aloud when my decisions blew up in my face. Not because it was humorous but because I truly didn’t see it coming. Thronebreaker is full of twists and turns that make it endlessly entertaining and emotional, regardless of some aspects of the game not being optimal.
If you want to pick Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales up, it’s only $19.99 on the Nintendo Switch.
Have you played Thronebreaker? If so, what did you think of the game? If you haven’t, are you thinking of picking it up? Let us know in the comments below!
- An Engaging Plot
- Difficult Moral Decisions
- Beautiful Art Style
- Gwent, No Matter How Changed, is Still Fun
- The world is Interesting to Explore
- Some of the Changes to Gwent Detracted From the Combat
- Puzzle Fights Tedious and Slow
- Card Crafting System Unsatisfying
- Choices Not as Impactful in Main Plot