Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales began life as little more than the single-player mode for Gwent, CD Projekt Red’s standalone PvP spin-off of the card game from The Witcher 3. But it’s grown far past those roots, and you wouldn’t know it’s a spin-off of a spin-off while playing it. I went hands-on the first two and a half hours this week, and it feels like nothing short of a full-fledged Witcher RPG.
Watch the video at the top of the page to see Thronebreaker in action!
The major difference is that instead of having action-RPG combat where you fight monsters in real-time, you’re playing a card game. I’m sure a lot of people have stopped reading right there, but Thronebreaker’s captivating story and fantastic writing and voice-overs make it a game every Witcher fan should be excited for. Simply put, this is way more than just a card game.
I took command of Meve, queen of Lyria and Rivia, as she led her forces across her war-torn kingdom. On that journey, I talked to peasants and soldiers, all fully voiced, and many with branching dialogue paths that let you express what kind of ruler you want to be – whether that’s merciful and kind or strict and forceful.
The out-of-combat experience feels far closer to Pillars of Eternity than Hearthstone.
CD Projekt Red told me there’s actually more recorded dialogue in Thronebreaker than in the entire Hearts of Stone expansion for The Witcher 3, and everything I heard had the same level of fidelity too. Its characters are expressive and complex, and I can’t wait to see where their stories go.
Thronebreaker is set before the first Witcher game, so you don’t need knowledge of the others to get into it, but it’s still a story that feels rooted in that lore and the world around it. It’s also a story that knows you are probably here because of The Witcher 3, and pokes a little fun at that throughout, making sly remarks about Rivia or Witchers in general.
And as every good RPG should have, there’s a whole lot of optional stuff to do here. The gorgeous open maps are free for you to explore, full of loot to collect, secrets to find, side quests to complete, and even buried treasure to hunt down and dig up by using collectible maps as a guide. The map movement felt a little clunky as I waited for Meve to slowly change directions in the early build I played, but the out-of-combat experience feels far closer to Pillars of Eternity than Hearthstone.
It’s extremely cool to see how much there is to discover here, and side quests and dialogue decisions you make affect the world around you. For example, in the gameplay video at the top of the page I rushed into a fight where reinforcements ended up arriving halfway through. Had I explored more, I could have intercepted those reinforcements early and prevented them from showing up later.
Thronebreaker has all of my favorite parts of The Witcher 3, even if it doesn’t have the same combat.
Thronebreaker has all of my favorite parts of The Witcher 3, even if it doesn’t have the same combat. That is, of course, the biggest difference. Queen Meve isn’t hunting monsters, she’s commanding an army – which, in this case, is represented by a deck of cards. It’s an interesting way to present the card game structure, though of course it’s not quite as exciting as an actual battle.
It also allows for a super cool camp mechanic, which is sort of like a Heroes of Might and Magic-style city builder. You can upgrade parts of your camp, use your resources to “recruit” new soldiers (which is actually getting new cards), and go to a camp pub to have branching conversations with companions you gain along the way. You can also look at all sorts of little lore elements, like letters and other papers you’ve received.
Thankfully, Gwent is also just a very fun game, and a lot of the changes that have been made for Thronebreaker make it even better than the PvP version. Not playing against other humans actually frees the core mechanics up to be significantly more entertaining as they aren’t restricted to being balanced or fair.
I played plenty of asymmetrical fights and faced enemies with strange cards or overpowered units that were a fun challenge to figure out how to beat. Playing against preset AI opponents like this actually felt like a more complex and refined version of Gwent from The Witcher 3 rather than just an added single-player mode for the multiplayer game.
There are also interesting puzzle levels to encounter, like one where I had to quell a group of rioting townsfolk in a single turn as they constantly healed. These challenges break up the longer, more standard matches and keep things fresh, especially when they are also draped in extra flavor. After stopping those rioting townsfolk, I was given the choice to hang them outright or simply whip them as punishment, and the people around me reacted accordingly when I sent them to the gallows.
Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales may have a big challenge to overcome in convincing people that it’s more than just a Gwent mode, but if you’re a fan of The Witcher 3 or RPGs in general then it’s undoubtedly a game to keep your eye on. It may not have the same core gameplay mechanics, but it’s still a lovingly crafted and remarkably detailed RPG made by the same people who made The Witcher 3, and boy does that show.
Tom Marks is IGN’s PC Editor and pie maker. You can follow him on Twitter.