‘The Witcher 3’ On Switch Has Handheld Issues, But It's A Commuter's Dream
The Witcher 3: Complete Edition is out now for Nintendo Switch. I've had it installed for a week now, and have played it every day, only in handheld mode. After all: if I wanted to (re)play this masterpiece on an HD TV, I'd use my PlayStation. This? This is all about mobility, flexibility, and diving into this amazing world whenever I want to... And it doesn't disappoint (much).
All screenshots captured by the author in handheld mode
DAYS ONE AND TWO
The Switcher, as we're all absolutely calling this thing, doesn't finish downloading until very late at night due to my slow-poke home internet. But with its 31.1GB finally installed, split between a fresh 32GB micro SD card and my internal Switch memory (because those cards are never quite what they say they are), I can't not take it for a test drive before hitting the hay. Lights out, wife snoozing beside me, I dive straight into handheld play - which is how I'm going to play a good 95% of it, given my daily commutes.
Initial impressions of this big favourite of mine, in handheld mode: pretty damn good, actually. This is my first time seeing The Witcher 3 running on Switch, in the flesh, and while all the reports of its visuals being compromised compared to the bigger console versions are certainly true, this is unmistakably the game I fell in love with in 2015. A wee bit fuzzy about its edges, with a lot of background details blurred, but not to such an extent where I feel anything's missing, or the game's terrific sense of place is broken.
On starting the game, one obvious new addition is the logo of Saber Interactive. It's this New Jersey-based studio that's responsible for the porting of The Witcher 3 to Switch, and they have some solid pedigree, having worked on Halo: The Master Chief Collection and the recent Ghostbusters: The Video Game remaster. And if the Switcher ultimately delivers an experience comparable to its cousins on other platforms, no doubt their stock will rise significantly further.
But disappointingly, my brief opening night with the Switcher ends with a crash, just after Geralt's had his nightmare about the arrival of the Wild Hunt. I don't lose any progress - upon restarting, it loads the very next sequence where he wakes up beside fellow witcher Vesemir, just outside the village of White Orchard - but it's not the ideal first impression.
The next morning, Switch fully charged, I venture into White Orchard properly while on the train into Blackfriars. I'm on the game for a good hour, and it drains the battery on my first-model Switch down to 65%. Not bad, not bad. I experience no more crashes, and everything's buttery smooth as I visit the inn, win my first game of Gwent, meet someone who'll be very important in the Hearts of Stone DLC (all DLC is included in this Complete Edition, by the way), and I begin my plan for taking down the neighbourhood griffin. My only problem is the rising sun, still low on the horizon, casting its rays across my screen - makes some of the combat a little trickier than it should be. Next time, I'll sit on the other side of the train. The sunrise in the game itself, however? Just as beautiful as when I first saw it on PS4.
The more time I spend with the Switcher, though, the more that its rougher elements come across. Riverbanks look bad, with a weird lack of textures lending them a melted LEGO brick look, and water doesn't quite flow and splash as we've come to expect. NPCs pop up on screen, when you're on horseback, with only a few yards to spare, most notably at night. Forgivable things, for sure, and miniscule in the grand scheme, but there nevertheless.
What's much nicer to experience is the reminder that CDPR really poured a massive amount of attention into the stories that shape this world, above and beyond its primary players. Speaking with Tomira, the herbalist, and the hunter Mislav, opens the kind of backstory depth that's incredibly rare for bit-part characters. Mislav tells of a homosexual relationship with the son of a local lord, that saw him expelled from the castle at Amavet; while Tomira's teenage years actually overlap with Geralt's past adventures, in the books at least.
These people have lived, and are living, and aren't simply in the game to progress your quest. They give the impression of having preceded you, and that they'll be going about their business after Geralt has left White Orchard behind. And that's a great strength of The Witcher 3: this land and its inhabitants go on. They're beaten raw by war, ravaged by power struggles between kings and supernatural forces, but the people here find a way to get by, to make do, despite the misery.
But if you've played The Witcher 3 before, you'll be well aware of the huge amount of effort that goes into making the most unremarkable NPC a believable, three-dimensional individual - and, too, the huge amount of reading material that can be collected, providing colour and context to what's happening during the events of this game, and the precedent for it.
Day 3 dawns on a bit of a downer, though. I fire up my most recent save - at the beginning of the game's sequence set in the Royal Palace at Vizima, where Geralt meets Nilfgaardian emperor Emhyr var Emreis, voiced by Charles Dance - and Geralt's skin has been replaced by what looks like the colourful squares from an old television test card. I quit, start again, and it's fine. But yeah, another niggle.
It's in Vizima where the player gets one hell of a history dump - albeit an optional one. Speak to Henry van Attre after reconnecting with long-lost love interest Yennefer (the unicorn's some way off, yet) and he fills Geralt in on the movements of warring kings, and the effect that's having on the people of Velen, and beyond. If you've played previous Witcher games or read the books, this is all going to make a lot more sense than if you're going in cold - and I'm definitely having a richer time in this second playthrough for having finished a few of the novels between the PS4 release and now.
Without some prior knowledge of the wider Witcher world, there's a good chance that the nuances of the politics featured in this game will bounce off you. That's not a problem as its story doesn't rely on any past experiences, or expertise; but if you've the chance to at least read through author Andrzej Sapkowski's two short story collections, The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny, you're going to get so much more out of The Witcher 3's vast depth of details, expansive lore and novel (pun intended) easter eggs.
DAYS FOUR AND FIVE
Despite it being the weekend, I resist the urge to dock my Switch and play out a few quests on the big screen. Instead, I spend pre-snooze book-reading time sat up in bed with Geralt and pals, working my way through the early stages of Velen and onto Crookback Bog, and the hideous crones that live there.
I'm still having a terrific time exclusively playing handheld, but a few other wrinkles present themselves. There seems to be a dip in audio during some conversations - when I speak to the Tree Spirit inside the Whispering Hillock, for example, there are times when Geralt's responses can barely be heard over the background music. I don't remember this being a thing when I played the game on PS4.
Certain cutscenes stutter terribly, too. I first noticed this when leaving White Orchard alongside Yennefer, pursued by the Wild Hunt - the frame rate completely tanked. And there are further instances of this. It's not a problem, really, as there's no direct-control gameplay going on. But the dips can briefly break you out of the moment, out of the immersion.
As for the controls themselves, well, they were rarely precise in the first place. It can still be a chore to line up against the right dead body or discarded lockbox to loot, and swimming underwater can be a little tricky when it comes to squeezing through tight spaces. Initially I felt the JoyCons' sticks too sensitive, pinging Geralt this way and that during the Kaer Morhen tutorial phase. I've gotten used to their twitchiness, but it's something to be aware of - you really needn't apply much force to the Switch's sticks to get the job done.
Back on the train to work, and it's time to face the Bloody Baron. And doesn't the brute fill the Switch's little screen, and some. Speaking with him triggers the first proper Ciri sequence, where the quarry of Geralt's main quest flees the crones and winds up at Crow's Perch, home of the Baron, after putting a local werewolf to the sword.
The change of pace Ciri offers is a refresher, a palette cleanser, after so much trudging about the swamps in the witcher's boots - and, yes, I really would love to see her sections fleshed out, her abilities broadened, for some form of standalone game in the future.
The above criticisms aside, nothing fresh is presenting itself now. I could get very picky and say that the lighting isn't quite as magical at dawn and dusk as it appears on the prior console versions, but really, that's to be expected. Some scenes feel a little duller, a little flatter, as a result - but this is still one of the greatest adventure games of all time, one of the biggest adventure games of all time, squeezed onto a handheld console. Every time I see it pop up on my Switch dashboard, I feel like pinching myself.
Baron's requests duly heard - his wife and daughter are missing, and needs them brought home before he'll spill the beans on Ciri's movements - I head out into the night once more. And if there's one thing I definitely remember from my time with this game on PS4, it's that this quest is going to be a long one, and there will be a goat involved. Come along now, princess...
I've fully made my peace with the occasional hiccups that handheld play puts in front of me: now, I've spent enough time with the Switcher to accept it for what it is, rather than hold it up against other versions. Which is to say: goodness me, even with a few shortcomings, how did they do this?
I ring my bell for a goat, see to a 'shrieker' (damn the damage dealt by bleeding, forgot about that), and bring closure to a romantic tryst complicated by lycanthropy. I question my decision to give Geralt a goatee at the barbers. I spend more time with the Baron, saving his horses from a burning stable and seeing that his botchling of a child is given a proper send off (repeat after me: never kill the baby). I creep ever closer to Ciri, but I know she's still several miles and hours of play away.
This is no review (nine outta ten so far though, if you're desperate for a score), but if you want a sentiment to end on, it's that despite having seen these scenes, met these characters, a few times before - in sharper detail, to better pick out the viscera and violence - I cannot wait to go all the way through it again. The Witcher 3 on Switch feels like a miracle, the impossible made real. And yes, that's my bias showing - this is a massive favourite game of mine, and it's now on my console of choice, the only gaming platform that fits around my personal and professional life. I no longer have to fight for TV time in the front room to set sail to Skellige. What a blessing. What a time to be alive.
And one other thing: now that we know a game of this scope, this incredible scale, can work on Switch, what next? Grand Theft Auto V when, Rockstar? And Rocksteady, if you're reading this, how about moving those Arkham games onto Nintendo's console? Mass Effect Trilogy, anyone? I really feel that the Switcher has kicked down the door of potential, when it comes to what the Switch is capable of - and as it's only two and a half years into its lifecycle, with a 'pro' version apparently on the way, who can say what games we'll be playing on it before long.
Featured Image Credit: CD Projekt Red