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Thursday, December 7, 2023

CD Projekt Red has made a great RPG since The Witcher 3—it’s just not Cyberpunk 2077

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Since the disastrous launch of Cyberpunk 2077, fans of CD Projekt Red have largely fallen into two camps. The first is in denial, desperately clinging to the studio’s commitments to make Cyberpunk better. The second has already moved on, accepting the loss and burying its hopes for future games to rival The Witcher 3. I’m here to tell you there’s a third way through the grieving process: Play Thronebreaker, CD Projekt’s card-based RPG. It’s out now, and has been since 2018.

If this Witcher game has passed you by, it’s small wonder. A spin-off of a spin-off, Thronebreaker is the singleplayer campaign of the multiplayer Gwent card game that bombed amid a slew of Hearthstone competitors. Though highly scored by reviewers on release, the solo game didn’t find the kind of audience the Witcher universe typically enjoys, maybe because players didn’t really get what it was. It didn’t help that CD Projekt announced the shutdown of Gwent on consoles a couple of months after Thronebreaker’s launch, leaving a great game cut off from the supply line that should have fed it.

There’s a metaphor in that, at least. Thronebreaker’s story concerns a northern monarch overthrown in the early days of the Nilfgaardian invasion that has mostly played out by the time of The Witcher 3. Cut off from her family, her armies and her allies, who have mostly given in to the gilded marauders already, Queen Meve is forced to flit between unlikely partners, rebuilding her forces (or, y’know, deck) from a new position of humility. Her goal is to survive and deal just a minor blow to her usurpers—a scratch to prove to her peers in nearby lands that Nilfgaard does in fact bleed, and so can be killed.

It’s a setup that shows, for the first time, that CD Projekt Red is very capable of creating its own protagonists for Andrzej Sapkowski’s world. Meve is utterly unlike Geralt in every important respect. She has a home, for starters—a permanent one, and a responsibility to those within it. As a ruler she’s trained herself to keep whims in check, and presents a stern veneer reminiscent of a certain kind of school teacher. It’s a persona that’s tough to switch off after-hours, if her strained relationship with son and successor Villem is any indication. 

Of course, as a player with access to branching choices, you can choose to file down some of Meve’s edges—but you quickly learn why she sharpened them in the first place. At heart, she may be just as impulsively moral as Geralt—”a witcher crawling with scruples like a fox’s pelt with fleas”, as Sapkowski once described him—but any softness is a chink in her armour, an invitation for one of her many enemies to plunge a knife into the gap and twist.

Thronebreaker tells its story differently to other CD Projekt games. Though you control Meve directly as you move about the map, she’s merely your Monopoly piece—representative of all the units and characters you carry as cards in your deck. And that abstraction extends to the narrative. Rather than restrict text to dialogue or found notes, CDPR lets loose with long passages of prose, describing your swampy surroundings and the mood of your troops. It’s all fully voice acted, but in the context of storybook-style narration, delivered with steady warmth and dry wit by Timothy Watson.

The format lends Thronebreaker a soothing, bedtime gaming quality—it’s verified for the Steam Deck, by the way—even as the plot takes Meve to distressingly dark nooks of the Northern Realms.

The Lord of the Rings, the template for Western fantasy, is sometimes interpreted as an accidental allegory for a world war in which British soldiers left their home and travelled abroad to tackle a looming, but distant threat. The Witcher, by contrast, has always unmistakably been the story of an occupied nation—preoccupied by civilian collateral and the casual cruelty of soldiers. There’s something about Thronebreaker’s zoomed-out, monarchical perspective that hammers the point home, pushing CDPR’s writers toward parallels with Polish history.

During the Second World War, the Nazis set about systematically depopulating Poland through mass murder and forced resettlement, clearing the way for ethnic Germans to live on the emptied land. In Thronebreaker, fictional invaders are doing the same: expelling peasants from Meve’s twin kingdoms of Lyria and Rivia in order to make space for Nilfgaardian settlers.

It might be bleak, but this kind of dark storytelling is important. It’s a way for players to process cultural pain without looking it directly in the eye. The longer you study it, the more The Witcher’s world turns out to be a deceptively hopeful one. You may not be playing as a monster hunter in Thronebreaker, but you encounter plenty of them in Gwent-based combat. This is a land where leshens defend the forest against loggers who get too greedy, and a demon named Hym feeds on the souls of those who have committed a terrible evil. 

In other words, it’s a place where people are held to account for injustices both environmental and societal—even the ones that are covered up, explained away or forgotten. In that sense at least, it’s a kind of horror-tinged escapism.

If Thronebreaker is starting to sound just as meaty and complex as the numbered Witcher games, that’s because it is. Although initially conceived as a relatively simple singleplayer campaign, it gradually evolved during development into a standalone game that’s easily 30 hours long. Ironically, it’s the result of exactly the sort of overscoping that led CDPR to its downfall a couple of years later with Cyberpunk. But in Thronebreaker’s case, it’s something to be grateful for, producing a sprawling, literary RPG that proves the studio’s still got it.

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