A Look Back #1: Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales - ArticleJacob James , posted on 18 August 2019 / 1,236 Views
CD Projekt RED is known for the Witcher series. The Witcher 3 was hailed as one of the best open-world RPGs ever made. Ever! That’s a pretty stellar accolade. That achievement aside, it also introduced the world to something else: GWENT, a strategy card game full of choice and consequences where your decisions, not just the cards, lead you to victory or defeat. It was such a successful game within a game that CD Projekt RED decided to give it room to stretch its legs with Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales.
To be clear, Thronebreaker is an RPG developed with the card game GWENT at its core. Originally thought to be the campaign for GWENT: The Witcher Card Game, it would instead be developed as a standalone title. You play as Queen Meve, ruler of Lyria and Rivia. Early on you are betrayed and cast out of your realm with only a handful of soldiers and advisors that follow in your exile. Together you must travel the land beating back the Nilfgaardian armies while recruiting allies to your cause and expanding your army.
You traverse the overworld map searching for resources - gold, wood, and recruits. With these resources you are able to expand your forces by crafting new cards and purchasing skills at the workshop. As you make your way through the map you encounter regular card battles, puzzles, loot, and points of interest. These points of interest can be anything from an encounter with a troll, to a camp of local bandits, or simply a bridge in need of repair costing you precious wood resources.
The variety ensures that you never can be sure what’s in store for you next. Some situations require you to listen to a tale and make a decision. One such instance I found myself facing an angry mob in the street trying to kill an elf. The crowd stated he was a thief and had stolen their goods, while the elf protested that they simply hated elven kind; that they were lying. I was left to decide the elf’s fate. Do I let him live? After all these mangy street folks were known to turn on outsiders on a whim. Then again, if the elf was lying, I’d be letting a criminal walk, and I need the denizens of my realm to love and respect me, I am their queen after all. These choices can lead to combat and loss of an ally or perhaps recovering an ancient weapon and netting a stockpile of gold! Either way your journey is fraught with difficult decisions which will exact a cost one way or another as your story plays out.
Combat in card battles is done by taking turns playing unit cards. Each unit card has a strength value assigned to it and at the end of the battle values are tallied up and compared, with victory going to the highest total. There are also special cards and leader abilities that aid in turning the tide of war. Standard battles are won by winning two out of three rounds. A further layer of strategy is involved by choosing when to play your strongest cards. First round looking like a blow-out? Pass (forfeit) this round and save your big guns for rounds 2 and 3.
For those new to the GWENT card game, the first few battles in Thronebreaker act as its tutorial, which does a good job of getting you acquainted with the card system. Each successive map that your travel through slowly ramps up the difficulty curve as well, pacing the challenge-level nicely. Once you’ve completed the solo campaign, you can even go online and battle against the world.
As a veteran of the GWENT card game I found most battles a bit easy with the standard deck I was given. I only subbed out a few cards near the beginning of the game and that carried me through to the end, without ever having to craft a deck with mega-synergy. Still, if deck building is more your thing, there are enough options to craft a killer deck tailored to your playstyle. For me, there were 3 or 4 cards of my 25-card deck that I looked for at the start of every battle (Black Rayla I’m looking at you here). Which leads me to an issue I have with Thronebreaker. At the start of every battle you have the option to redraw cards up to 6 times, like a mulligan, to form your starting hand. Though if you still didn’t end up getting just the right card setup you were after, all you have to do is forfeit the battle. Then you’re prompted to restart the encounter without any penalty. Why not just let you pick your starting hand then? At the very least, the player could have incurred a resource penalty when restarting the battle. This would discourage “gaming the system,” and lend more weight to win/losses.
Many times, in card games, or fighting games for that matter, the core gameplay can get old quickly because of its repetitive nature. Thronebreaker however, devises many interesting battles that keep fights engaging from start to finish over the 30+ hour campaign (40+ for completionists). This is achieved through regular battles and puzzle battles. Puzzles are encounters with only one right solution, and it means playing just the right cards, in just the right order, or you fail…. and my brain didn’t like that. For those that enjoy the challenge, the brain-teasers are there. If you’re like me, you looked up the solution to the brain warping nonsense in some later puzzles.
Like most components of Thronebreaker, CD Projekt RED found ways to keep consequences at the forefront. Prior to each battle you can view your troops' morale in the upper left-hand corner, represented by a soldier in a triangle symbol. Yellow is neutral, no bonus. Red is negative, causing all cards in your deck to have their strength lowered by 1, and green is positive, increasing all cards' strength by 1. You can affect your army’s morale by completing side quests, helping residents of the area, or by visiting the select few shrines along the roadside. Stopping and praying at them will boost your morale. Bonus-granting green morale status only lasts for one battle, then returns to neutral. Having low morale can certainly make your next foray an uphill battle, so always be on the lookout for ways to keep your morale up.
Being a game centered around cards you might be surprised to learn the battles themselves often take a backseat to the storytelling. If you’re familiar with CD Projekt RED that will come as no surprise at all though. Nothing draws me into a game faster than an articulately crafted story. CDPR outdoes itself with vividly expressed detail in every account told from the one-off encounters to the buildup in the main plot. Every time a narrative was being delivered, I listened intently and felt as if I were there myself, unsheathing my blood-soaked sword with Meve and crew, battling my way to victory. With such superb and engaging writing, you can almost forgive an uneven voice-over performance.
While I enjoyed the yarn that was being weaved, I did feel the VO was a little uneven at times. Some chronicles were delivered with such passion I got goosebumps, while others were just read like lines from the printed script pages. This issue was noticeable periodically, but with the abundance of dialog perhaps there are bound to be a few dud deliveries. Overall it didn’t take away from the experience that much, but was a bit of a disappointment when encountered.
Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales is truly a gem in my collection. Masterfully mixing RPG mechanics with card playing strategy, I never grew tired of the loop; battle an enemy, collect some loot, upgrade my camp, hear a tale and make a choice. It's not typically what you’d expect from the genre, but CD Projekt RED knew the winning formula to break up the tedium. Best-in-class storytelling and unique card game tactics make this a standout must-own title for fans of both the RPG and Card Game genres.
Jacob James grew up in the golden era of 8- and 16-bit games, forever shaping and molding him as a life-long gamer. Some favorites include: Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy and Super Mario RPG. Jacob graduated FullSail University with a degree in Computer Animation, so he has a working knowledge and understanding of what it takes to make these imaginative and immersive games he spends so much time playing and reviewing. You can follow him at www.LiveLootLevel.com