Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales | Principal Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One | Developer: CD Projekt Red | Publisher: CD Projekt | Genre: Digital Card Game, RPG | Year: 2018
Combining the best bits of Mass Effect with Heroes of Might and Magic, is CD Projekt’s newest digital card game, Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales. This is a 1-player adaptation of their multiplayer card game, Gwent, that trades-in the online lobbies and competitive game modes for a story-driven adventure full of RPG goodness.
The tale is set in a war-torn kingdom with players assuming the role of Queen Meve; a ruler-turned-renegade who must reclaim her homelands after a treacherous act sees them bartered away to murderers from a rival empire.
The basic premise most resembles 2001’s card-driven RPG, Etherlords, as players guide Meve across several pre-built maps whilst gathering resources, meeting NPCs, and playing hands of Gwent to fell opposing armies and roaming monsters. There’s a lot more about Thronebreaker that feels reminiscent, but to suggest any unoriginality on CD Projekt’s part would be disingenuous considering the clear passion that has gone into crafting this outstanding adventure.
Thronebreaker still manages to feel different from the games that inspire it, and that’s because the Gwent card system is not your typical clone of Magic: The Gathering. There are some shared concepts between the two, but Gwent has no resource system or health totals. It’s a game primarily about bluffing and attrition; a quality that places it much closer in style to a classic Eurogame known as Condottiere where the card concepts are heavy on synergy and timing.
It’s lucky then that the rules remain so intuitive for those who haven’t played Gwent before. The basic concepts and keywords make sense, and the superb mulligan mechanic makes sure that players always have a competitive hand before each round. Players will deploy troops to the various lanes on the board and grow their army into a machine capable of controlling the battlefield and scoring victory points.
The common puzzle battles which feature pre-constructed decks are not so good though. They often feel very clunky (e.g. asking you to end your turn when there’s no turn structure in place), with some really bad ones having random outcomes. There are times when a puzzle kept me stumped for a solution, and yet many other times would I clear a puzzle without being entirely sure of what I was doing.
Shortened battles and other scenario-based rounds of Gwent are found on the world map, although these are more sparingly used compared to a game like Etherlords where players will be battling constantly. There’s a much greater emphasis on story than you’ll find in most card games, and it’s cool to see, especially considering how well everything is presented.
The Armello-esque card animations and particle effects; the crisply rendered cutscenes and storyboards; and especially the excellent voice acting; these flourishes betray CD Projekt’s commitment to giving Thronebreaker a true AAA feel.
A superior soundtrack lends drama to the odd boss encounter or key story moment, and you’ll find agonising moral choices aplenty in the many side quests and related dialogue options. The epilogue chapter is a bit weird in how it sucks away the ending’s momentum, but there are still some gripping choices to make before that; often conflicting interests that can see NPC companions exiled, or fates far worse …
Throughout the entire second chapter I became particularly enamoured with one of Meve’s companions. This named NPC — whose matching Gwent card is absurdly useful — quickly became a trusted ally, only the merciful story choices I was making during the chapter were clearly not sitting well with her. When this companion abandoned Meve at the end of the chapter (thus removing her awesome card from my deck), the event was a severe blow to my current in-game strategy, but one I still appreciated because of how much sense it made in the context of the story.
A strict save system ensures that you can’t quickly reload if you don’t appreciate outcomes like this, so it certainly pays to know exactly how “your” Queen Meve is going to behave. This won’t be difficult though because Meve is brilliant! Easily up there with BioWare’s Commander Shepherd in terms of voiced heroes, Meve makes a perfect RPG lead. As a warrior queen and mother, Meve is a very rare video game character whose consistent portrayal and necessary hints of malleability make for a rich role-playing experience.
Further enhancing this layer of excellence is the writing. From the routine story beats to the voice casting choices, there’s a definite Game of Thrones vibe here that lasts well into the 30+ hour campaign. I did spot a few awkward card descriptions though.
“On turn start, Restore a unit to its base power. If it is destroyed, Meve wins the battle” is the sort of ambiguous line that could really have benefited from better formatting, for instance.
I was also disappointed by the deck-builder. It can be hard to spot your newly-acquired cards in this thing, and even though there are plenty of filters to subdivide its contents, I find constructing decks to be a bit fussy. Similarly, there’s no way to quickly empty a deck, no way for players to make more than one deck build to begin with, and the golden relics take up a lot of screen space despite them being among your least-used assets.
The card pool in Thronebreaker is limited to a small selection of faction cards whose availability depends on the building upgrades Meve has developed at her camp. Unfortunately, acquiring these building upgrades in the first place just isn’t very interesting. Some of the upgrades provide benefits that feel arbitrary, and the steady pace of unlocking everything makes it seem like you’re collecting resources for the sake of it — almost as if their presence is just to give players an activity to pursue on the world map.
Likewise is the morale system, which threatens to be an interesting wrinkle as it temporarily alters the power of a player’s units based on whether the moral choices Meve makes are popular (or unpopular) with her troops. But it’s uncommon for morale to swing a battle in either direction, with the mechanic being entirely unfair against Elven enemies because of their archers who can make mincemeat out of opposing units receiving even the tiniest boost.
The card system inherited from Gwent still has potential for fun plays, and it is interesting to see a card game where drawing lots of cards isn’t necessarily a vital factor in being successful. But whereas bluffing and tactical surrender can create some wonderfully tense multiplayer games in Gwent, those same qualities haven’t translated over to Thronebreaker with a great deal of success.
And the reason for that complaint is what brings us to the most divisive element of this game: its difficulty. At the beginning it all looks rather promising. You’re presented with a range of accessible difficulty settings upon starting a new file, and the introductory chapter offers up a reasonable challenge as players unlock new cards and start learning the basic strategies.
That’s before the difficulty plateaus early into the second chapter, after which it never recovers an acceptable rhythm. Put in simpler terms: Thronebreaker is way too easy. It’s one thing to say this as a card game expert (such are my credentials, yo), but it’s another thing when you consider I was playing at the hardest setting, without any prior experience of Gwent!
Roughly half way through the game I stumbled upon a strategy that was reliably winning me battles. I kept waiting for the moment where I’d need to mix up my strategy or change my tactics, but that moment never came. This isn’t because the AI is especially dumb or anything, but their lack of subtly is easy to take advantage of, even when they’re given unfair bonuses to help their play. With my winning rhythm established, every battle would become a repetitive process of playing out the same cards, in the same order, and then sedately watching on as my opponents inevitably scooped.
This might sound like a mere quibble, but you have to remember that Thronebreaker is a long game that has a lot of these battles to get through. When players find themselves not even reading the enemy’s cards because of how little difference it would make — that’s a big problem which tempts boredom. A post release patch works alongside the incredibly strong final boss to increase challenge a bit, though novices will still feel better serviced by the campaign than experts will be.
Nevertheless, Thronebreaker remains an incredible effort that is commendable for not requiring in-depth knowledge about card games or The Witcher series in order to be entertaining. Pursuing such a niche genre was surely a risky prospect for CD Projekt, so it’s my sincere hope that we haven’t seen the last of this promising series.