CD Projekt Red is known for taking chances on the popularity of their titles. Following the success of The Witcher 3 and Gwent: The Witcher Card Game, they have created a standalone single-player focused version of Gwent, called Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales. Instead of taking a cash grab, Thronebreaker shows off the developer’s storytelling talent. Since its release in 2018, the title has now arrived on Nintendo’s portable console, and I have to say, Thronebreaker and Switch make an impressive marriage.
Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales introduces Meve, The Queen of Lyria, and Rivia as she nearly arrives at her kingdom. However, she is stopped along the way by Count Caldwell, an advisor tasked with aiding Meve’s son in ruling her kingdom as she was away at a summit of rulers. Caldwell told the Queen of a group of thieves called the Strays of Spalla stealing large amounts of gold from her tax collectors. Deciding to take care of it herself, the Queen sets out to straighten out bandits on her land.
As the adventure unfolds, Meve’s army discovers the powerful and rapacious kingdom of Niffgaard. During combat, Meve makes decisions that test her abilities to be an effective ruler of an army. Various outcomes affect gold, resources, and army morale. These choices become more impactful as she even has to choose between herself or her loyal followers. From there, Thronebreaker opens up as a narrative adventure card game that blends elements of other genres like isometric adventures, card games, and visual novels.
On the open map, players take Meve from quest to quest. Along the way, however, optional, and sometimes not so voluntary, events take place. Meve can find plenty of resources lying around the map. Those resources can be gold, recruits, or wood used to unlock new playable cards, upgrade your camp, or use in situations that require them.
In one instance, I came across a giant tree log that was blocking the road. I could either use gold to hire local villagers to move it or use my recruits to get my men to do the job. While some of these small events asked me to sacrifice one or the other, different events would have a benefit to Meve’s army. Benefits like army morale, which affects the card’s power, card pieces that need all three pieces to create more powerful cards, or only a boost in resources.
When it was time to use those resources, opening the camp menu shows everything I need to manage Meve and her army. Changing up my deck while reading back on journals I found and making upgrades to the camp. Upgrades ranged from Meve’s movement speed on the map to winning extra resources after battles.
The most familiar battles to Gwent players are the standard battle with the goal being to have a higher level of power in each round while using the same set of cards for all three rounds. Though in Thronebreaker, standard matches are less common and optional.
What CD Projekt has done instead is designed these “puzzle battles” specific to stories that make them dynamic and exciting for a game that is only single-player focused. For example, fighting a single mad cow among a drove of innocent cows has enemy cards laid down like a board game. I was tasked to defeat the mad cow before it kills the herd. With a custom deck and only a couple of ways to win the puzzle, I had to carefully remember the different kinds of strategies my deck can pull off, creating challenges beyond just having a higher power level.
Other types of battles are the story and side quest battles, though both similar in structure. These matches are not as strict in terms of winning perimeters yet tough to beat all the same. Goals, such as killing a commander or keeping a friendly troll alive, are typical objectives. I enjoyed these matches the most as they challenged me to come up with strings of combos that weaken specific targets.
There are many different examples of puzzles battles that I wish I can keep talking about, but it’s better to say that these battles kept me in context with the story. The smart decision to turn matches into puzzles definitely kept me immersed more than I expected any card game to pull off.
Lastly, the game features a few formats of cutscene that I liked because it breaks the monotony of seeing similar scenes over and over again. These range from basic visual novel presentation to a more cinnamic experience during pivotal story moments. There are some rather impressive three-dimensional renders of characters who blend well with backdrops to the point that I have mistaken them for 2D hand-drawn animations early on in my playthrough.
Backdrops are also astoundingly well designed. Controlling Meve as she passed full-sized farmland, rivers, and villages gave me plenty to rummage through to find extra items and non-player characters to talk to. But the sense of scale is never lost even when trekking to the next city, quests, or interactions despite how close they actually are.
The soundtrack is varied and pleasant to boot. Calm and slow tempo strings and wind instruments can be heard reflecting the ambient river flows, animal howls, and birds flying overhead. When battles started, the music immediately buckles into a frenzy of horns and drums. Inbetween the decisive rounds, the hasten music lowers its volume as the tense card game can be anyone’s match.
Unfortunately, the amount of polish couldn’t distract me from some issues that the game had. Scouting around for resources and card pieces can be confusing when walking off the beaten path. It’s not always easy to spot where I’m able to explore.
While it may have been the developer’s intention to hide some pathways to encourage adventuring, I feel hiding these areas makes gameplay more difficult for those who don’t search for them. Upgrades like faster walking speed, extra coins per battle, and new cards relieved some stress about my progression.
I should also mention that some of these card battles are as tough as nails. Having played The Witcher 3’s Gwent a handful of times, becoming acquainted with the game’s rules proved to be more challenging than I initially thought. Luckily, fail states give the options to start over or go back before the match started, relieving pressure from permanent consequences.
Fans familiar with CD Projekt Red’s talents in storytelling won’t be surprised to read that the adventure and decision making in this game is impressive or even that this version of Gwent plays well. What is surprising is that is title blends three genres into a single cohesive piece, engineered to be the perfect combo without lacking too much in any particular way. The different appearances of hand-drawn art, or the imitation of it in 3D models, does wonder for a created world that feels alive. The same can be said about the contextual card battles and full-voiced audio during every scene.
If it weren’t for the card games being a sort of niche or the fact that they can be frustratingly difficult at times, I would recommend this Switch title to everyone. This is a bit of a shame, given that this is the most impressed I’ve been with a title that goes beyond the core ideas of the series. But I will say, Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales is more than another addition to The Witcher series, it’s for anyone who is looking for a challenging and lasting experience, which is now delivered on Switch.
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