**Review copy provided by the publisher**
When CD Projekt Red released Gwent: The Witcher Card Game—based on the popular card game gwent that debuted in The Witcher 3—it promised that a full campaign mode was on its way. Most developers would throw together a short tournament against AI opponents with little in the way of story or context. Not CD Projekt Red. With Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales, it’s given us a thirty-hour campaign, complete with full voice acting and writing that meets the high standard of The Witcher 3. Thronebreaker‘s story ends up being a little too easy—and I say that as someone who isn’t particularly good at card games—however it’s worth playing for the excellent story and fun puzzle challenges.
Thronebreaker is set during the second Northern War between the Northern Realms and Nilfgaard which takes place just before the start of the first Witcher game. The full title is Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales, but to be clear, this isn’t a story about Geralt or indeed any witchers. Instead, you play as Queen Meve, a former Lyrian Princess who married the King of Rivia. After the King’s death, she became Queen of Lyria and Rivia because her son Villem was considered too young and inexperienced to take the throne.
Queen Meve is on her way back to Lyria after a meeting of northern royalty designed to address the impending threat of a Nilfgaard army to the south led by General Aep Dahy. The Northern rulers agree to come to each other’s aid should the need arise, however, as Meve points out, it is ultimately just a piece of paper. Actions will speak louder than words. Meve’s son, Villam, looked after Lyria in her absence, along with the council lead by Count Caldwell, however they didn’t do a great job. Caldwell went chasing after the Strays of Spalla but they tricked him with decoys while they robbed the royal coffers blind. Meve gets distracted dealing with the Strays while the Nilfgaardians invade and take over Lyria as part of a wider invasion of the North. Meve sets out to gather allies and save her son.
Given that Thronebreaker is effectively a prequel, the major events are largely fixed, however you have plenty of opportunities to change the nature of the journey, if not the final destination. Queen Meve already has a reputation as a tough ruler, but you can nudge her in certain directions for decisions both big and small. I know it’s a bit cliche to say that your choices have consequences and all that, but your choices really do have consequences. After making a decision, you’re told that you chose one evil over another and, while that is a bit dramatic in some cases, it does feel appropriate most of the time. The choices are rarely pleasant to make. Do you execute soldiers for desertion? What do you do with a blacksmith who made weapons for the enemy? There aren’t easy answers and no matter what you do, you’ll feel bad about it afterward.
Decisions can have huge ramifications that really pack a punch. On your journey, you meet key companions who have powerful cards to use in games of gwent and backstories that you can uncover via conversations at your campsite. Your actions dictate whether these companions leave the group, betray you, or even die. One event that I won’t spoil, was gloriously understated with a simple line of text and then a pop up showing the companion’s card being removed from my deck.
Disputes with companions have added tension due to the importance they have in battle. This aligns the player’s motivations to that of Meve’s. Taking a firm approach with companions who step out of line hampers you in battle later on because you won’t be able to use their card. Companions are also worth having around because they’re incredibly compelling characters. There’s Raynard, the ever-loyal general, Gascon, the loveable rogue, Isbel, the healer, plus a gnome, dwarf, and a few more that I won’t spoil.
Every character comes to life through phenomenal writing and voice acting that pulls you into the world. I’m a sucker for a Yorkshire accent so Queen Meve is a personal favorite, but it’s hard to dislike any of these characters, from the Scottish-accented dwarves to the Irish-accented residents of Skellige, or the appropriately cheeky Gascon. Everyone is voice-acted, including any commoners you meet, and non-spoken dialogue is voiced by a storyteller who appropriately enough is telling this story over a game of gwent.
Not all the decisions are a matter of life or death. As you move Queen Meve and her army around the five large overworld maps, you collect money, wood, and recruits which you use to make more cards for your gwent deck. You’ll also meet with locals who request help killing monsters, resolving disputes, or dealing with bandits. These decisions can be a little tricky early on but become trivial in the second half of the campaign because the costs don’t inflate alongside your resources. Debating whether or not to give a stranger 50 gold is a lot different when you only have 70 gold on hand instead of 20,000.
While exploring the Northern Realms, you’ll stumble up a variety of mandatory and optional battles and puzzle missions. If you haven’t played gwent since The Witcher 3, you’ll notice a couple of major changes to how battles play out. Most notably, each side now only has two rows instead of three, and the importance of those two rows has been greatly diminished. Weather conditions used to play a big role in the effectiveness of each row however they are rare in this version and while you can set enemy rows on fire, your opponent rarely does the same to you.
The other major change is that games of gwent are not necessarily a best of three affair anymore. In fact, they are rarely best of three. Instead, most battles take place over just one round which removes a huge tactical element, namely having to consider which cards you save for later rounds and when to accept defeat in a round to come back stronger for the next one.
Puzzle encounters require you to meet a specific objective with a fixed deck of cards. These puzzles are brilliant with plenty of variety. I loved them. Puzzles include defeating a deranged cow before he can kill normal cows, stopping a wagon escaping, and even avoiding an avalanche. These puzzles offer a risk-free way to learn how to use new cards that you haven’t crafted yet and being given a fixed deck stops you worrying about whether your own deck is strong enough to win the fight.
I spent over five hours on the first map and loved every minute of it. There was so much variety with the gwent battles that, even as someone who doesn’t especially enjoy card collection games, I had no desire to skip any of the encounters. Unfortunately, the games of gwent ended up getting a bit dull. The puzzles remained challenging throughout, however nearly every mandatory story battle was far too easy. I breezed through most story encounters and barely put any thought into my deck at all. This is a shame because you can build some great decks with satisfying synergy between cards and mix things up to cater to the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses. However, this is somewhat pointless if you can just throw out your cards and win almost by default.
I played most of Thronebreaker on normal, however the hard mode doesn’t add much of a challenge. Your cards have less power and enemy cards have more power, but when you’re winning by over 100 points that isn’t a huge deal. I couldn’t spot any differences in the AI at different difficulty levels although it’s certainly possible that I missed something. As someone who isn’t all that experienced with card games, I’m amazed to find myself complaining that the gwent was too easy. If you’ve played a lot of the standard multiplayer gwent, or just have experience with card games, Thronebreaker’s story is going to be a complete cakewalk, even on the hardest difficulty setting. You should still find some challenges with the puzzles though.
On easy mode, you have the option to skip battles entirely, although this choice doesn’t appear until you’ve at least tried each encounter. This is a great way to nudge people into playing normally while also giving them the option to just play the story if that’s all they want to do. If the card game aspect of Thronebreaker is offputting then I’d urge you not to worry about it too much. You can play as much of it as you like and it will never get in the way of you completing the story.
Thronebreaker‘s art style grew on me after the first few hours. On first glance, I unfairly dismissed the graphics because they looked more fitting for a mobile game and I’m not exactly big on them. It does look like a mobile game, but there are some lovely touches that bring the world to life. The first area is probably the worst so I can understand it not drawing people in. This region is generic fantasy: lots of green grass on a nice sunny day. However, the other four areas are much more appealing, with extreme weather conditions, fires, and dangerous swamps. You create ripples as you move through the water and Meve has to brace herself as she walks into strong winds. There are also some lovely shots when the camera pans down slightly to reveal more of the wider world.
Conversations play out in a few different formats. Lengthy paragraphs of narration are delivered via a static screen of text which might have been dull if the narration wasn’t so great. It’s like being read a bedtime story by Patrick Stewart. Direct conversations usually have the characters conversing on screen although animations are limited. Finally, there are some glorious comic book style scenes for the important action moments.
The card art is also wonderful, with the special cards having layers and some light animation for rain effects and riding a wagon. Short of animating every card and using the comic book style for all the scenes, it’s hard to imagine how the artwork could have been improved. It’s glorious and brings the world to life almost as much as the large 3D space from the main games.
I’ve been a touch dismissive of the actual gwent part of the game, however there are plenty of puzzles that I highly recommend you try out and the mandatory card games aren’t bad as such, they just don’t offer enough of a challenge. If you care about the card battles more than the story then my recommendation is a lot more tentative. You’re probably better off sticking with the main card game and dumping $30 into new packs. CD Projekt Red appears to have aimed for a gentle middle ground between those who play card games and those who don’t but the end result is a lot closer to the casual end of the spectrum. It’s a shame because with multiple difficulty settings and the option to skip battles, there should have been enough flexibility to create a challenge for those who want it while not excluding those who just want the story.
I spent thirty hours with Thronebreaker and while a couple of hours were me moving through the motions of easy gwent matches, the vast majority saw me hooked to the screen either listening to the narrator and cast of characters bringing scenes to life or trying to figure out how to stop spies making it from one end of the gwent table to the other. If you want a great story set in the Witcher world, then I recommend Thronebreaker.