The world of The Witcher stands out as a subversion of fantasy tropes. Sapkowski took Tolkien’s legacy and turned it on its head, conjuring a more cynical and naturalistic vision of medieval fantasy. The dominant motif was no longer good versus evil, but instead the hard choice between two evils. Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales is heavily invested in this quintessential ethical dilemma as a means to drive home its Macbethian tale of royal revenge and revolt.
CD Projekt RED’s original trilogy was set a couple of years after the timeline of Sapkowski’s saga. Thronebreaker takes place right in the thick of it, chronicling the untold story of Queen Meve of Lyria and Rivia as she fights to liberate her realms from the Nilfgaardian invasion. Along the way, she exacts revenge on traitors and meets several characters from both the books and the games. It feels like the game is trying to please both sides of the divide.
First conceived as an expansion to Gwent, Thronebreaker became its own standalone game as development evolved. While marketed as an RPG, this is really more of an adventure game with light RPG elements on top. These include dialogues with NPCs, but nothing even close to what some might expect based on the original trilogy. Deckbuilding does involve some form of stat management that could be an RPG element if you squint hard enough. However, don’t expect more than that in terms of formal RPG trappings.
As you assume the role of Meve, you start exploring the map of Lyria from a top-down perspective. It’s an obvious homage to the classic Heroes of Might and Magic, though a simplified version. In Heroes, you could recruit several heroes, conquer and rule cities, but in Thronebreaker you can only control Meve, and you don’t conquer anything. You instead liberate cities and villages from the Nilfgaardians before moving on to the next map. There’s enough resemblance to make it compelling, with resources to gather and treasures to find, but it’s superficial. It gets old after the first twenty hours or so, like ticking off a to-do list.
The core of Thronebreaker’s gameplay was supposed to be Gwent, but it feels like the focus shifted during development. As I wrote in my preview of Gwent: Homecoming, it seems it was Gwent that informed the design of Thronebreaker at first, but then it was the opposite. That’s probably why the easy difficulty mode allows players to skip Gwent battles. And that’s fine, just as players of The Witcher 3 were able to completely skip the minigame.
Sadly, the hard difficulty, called Bonebreaker, is a complete joke. I am far from a competitive Gwent player and I felt completely unchallenged by the AI. I had to figure out ways to cripple my decks so I could make the matches somewhat interesting. Most of the time I was on autopilot, making the same combos and clearing the opponent’s board completely. I didn't have to pause and rethink my strategy until the final boss battle. Even then, the boss didn’t put up much of a fight. There’s supposed to be a difficulty overhaul in the works, but Bonebreaker feels broken as it stands now.
The causes for this lack of difficulty probably have something to do with the way they designed deckbuilding as part of the overhaul of Gwent. The main problem is that decks aren’t just a handful of units and a leader. There are a few collectible leader cards that work as Meve’s abilities during battles. These are massively overpowered on their own. There are Trophies, permanent artifacts that never leave the battlefield, able to wreak havoc between rounds. There are also Trinkets, special cards with a variety of effects allowing a lot of flexibility in playstyles. All of which makes it almost impossible to lose battles unless you’re completely new to Gwent.
This overabundance of power and options contrasted very poorly with the narrative. Meve’s army should be a guerrilla resistance force, barely able to keep it together. As she journeys from Lyria to Mahakam, she is supposed to be desperate, in dire need of resources and men. Instead, it’s as if not only her Gwent army is invincible against Nilfgaard and monsters combined, but there’s also a surplus of resources in every map. Some of the cutscenes and the dialogues make it seem like she and her army are on their last legs. I was able to upgrade every single option available in the camp, buy all copies of all available units, and I still had about 20,000 gold left by the time I finished.
If not for that, Thronebreaker vividly portrays the squalor and the grim brutality of war. Through a variety of moral dilemmas between two evils, it often feels oppressive and hopeless. No matter what you do or choose, there is always a downside. Someone will die, someone will betray or leave you, something will go wrong. Sometimes you can choose a middle term, trying to practice neutrality, but even then it’s not optimal. Most of the time you have to choose an obvious evil, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The signature reactivity of the series is also present, and some of the consequences felt impactful.
Of course, you could argue that good and evil are relative. One of my favorite characters in my army was Black Rayla, an Aedirnian Special Forces officer who hates Scoia’tael with a passion. It just so happens that I can’t stand them myself, the damn commie elves. So when I had to choose between Rayla and someone else, I chose her, though she's set up as the greater evil. I had to justify myself through dialogue, and that’s something CD Projekt RED have excelled at since their debut title.
The character development of Queen Meve has some rough spots. In the final stages, her constant war cries and deep-toned commands start to annoy. It would be equally annoying if it was a male character constantly trying to look tough and fierce. Even the best dialogues, when she interacted with her officers and her son, allowing herself some vulnerability, could have been more developed. As a whole, it feels like there’s something missing here that wasn’t missing in The Witcher. The writing isn't bad at all, but it doesn't seem to replicate the magic of The Witcher 3.
It took me about 50 hours to complete Thronebreaker, but this was a completionist run, as I wanted to unlock all the Gwent collectibles as well. For the first twenty hours, there was a sense of accomplishment and progression, though hampered by the lack of challenge. By the time I reached the third map, Mahakam, I was looking forward to the end. The variety of encounters and puzzles didn’t feel rewarding enough, and clearing the map felt like a chore.
Some of my choices locked me out of some narrative branches. I’m curious to see what I missed on a second playthrough at some point. I felt satisfied with my ending, bittersweet as it was. My favorite characters made it to the end, though I hoped to see an ending slide for Black Rayla in particular, and I didn’t get it. There was also a lack of resolution for the metanarrative of the omniscient tavern narrator who introduces the story in the beginning. Apparently, he is due to reprise the role in future The Witcher Tales games, though I’m somewhat skeptical those would be viable in the long-term.
Thronebreaker looks and sounds splendid, with a magnificent showcase of card art and a haunting soundtrack from the same composer of The Witcher 3. The voice acting is also on the same level of quality. All of which doesn't change the fact that it suffers majorly from the lack of challenge in Gwent battles, and it needs a balancing patch immediately. After all, it may be the only reason why Gwent players would pick it up in the first place. Fans of The Witcher and general non-Gwent players will no doubt enjoy it for the casual adventure, but it might not have the emotional punch some would expect. Even so, it's definitely worth your time if only to experience the Battle for the Bridge on the Yaruga.
TechRaptor reviewed Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales on PC via GOG with a code provided by the developer.
- Phenomenal Soundtrack & Voice Acting
- Magnificent Visuals and Card Art
- Harrowing Moral Dilemmas
- Broken Difficulty
- Chore-ish Map Clearing
- May Lack Emotional Punch