Thronebreaker proves card games can tell a story every bit as punchy and provocative as the blockbusters it takes inspiration from.
I had concerns about Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales. What worried me most was the story. It's the most important thing; the premise the game is sold on, and a chance to return to the world of The Witcher. How could Thronebreaker possibly follow on from the outstanding The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt? When I first played, I wasn't sure it could. The queen whose royal sabatons I was filling left me cold. I couldn't relate to her stuffy world of advisors and generals, and I didn't like them. Her mission to reclaim gold stolen by bandits? Hardly mutant monster-hunter Geralt pursuing the near-mythical Wild Hunt, is it? But Thronebreaker gets better. It gets so much better.
It takes a wonderful turn, and in doing so makes the sedate opening act look more an ingenious set-up. Think of it as a prologue: make the necessary introductions to world, characters, and game, then, when you're knee-deep and invested, flip it. Everything goes out the window. All the regal pomp flies away and the real story underneath is uncovered, and in blows a gale of charisma. Thronebreaker gets personal. I've been gripped ever since.
Now I know what you're thinking: 'You said card game,' and I get it. The Witcher 3 was a cinematic action role-playing game and you ran around slicing monsters of all kinds into pieces and it was all glorious to behold. But a card game - what?
Don't be so hasty.
Thronebreaker doesn't look the same, obviously. You look down on a dinky world map from way above and order Queen Meve around, who represents herself and her army, and when you bump into situations, writing appears describing them, with a picture. Sometimes there are animated dialogue sequences where characters stand either side of a text box, talking but barely moving, and sometimes there are comic-pane-style sequences, but mostly it's writing. This doesn't dull the impact.
It's because the writing is confident, witty, and imaginative, and accompanied by a rousing library of sounds. When a 30-foot golem comes crashing through the forest towards you, you hear it; when a town is ablaze and inhabitants roasted, you hear it; when armies hurl themselves against the walls of a city, you hear it. And you hear every word written, either narrated by the Storyteller or voiced superbly by whichever character is being quoted.
Thronebreaker made me think more than once of Game of Thrones, actually. I know The Witcher 3 used British accents, northern English accents particularly, but in Thronebreaker, you're a monarch, which means people call you "Y'Grace" a lot. You're also on a mission across a gritty world to strengthen your faction because you're at war with others, which in turn gives rise to all kinds of politicking and backstabbing. Sounds familiar doesn't it?
Regardless, what I mean to say is Thronebreaker can evoke a scene as powerfully as The Witcher 3 by sparking your imagination in the right ways. A leading image here, a noise there, and hey presto a battle springs to life in your mind's eye. It's a freeing technique. In some ways Thronebreaker can show you bigger and grander things because it isn't limited by the expense of painstaking art, animation and motion capture. It just can't do it in as explicit detail, which isn't to say there's nothing to look at. The lands you roam through, from hazy, lazy river villages to burning, dismal forests, and to mountainous blizzardy peaks, are delightful. They react to you moving through them, debris spilling on the road after battles, or little candles flickering to life at wayshrines, or flocks of birds flapping by just too close for your vision to focus on them.
Cute it may look, but it's tone is far from it. At one point, for example, I came across a big tree which, at a distance, appeared to be moving slightly and was letting off an odd smell. On closer inspection I realised why. Humans, captured by elves, had been strung up and left for the tree's corrosive sap to burn them, which wouldn't kill them but would open wounds that would fester. Then the insects would come, and come they had, in their swarms. Some people could still speak, others were staring husks being eaten alive. It was disgusting; it was brilliant. You wouldn't find Legolas doing that in The Lord of the Rings.
As Queen Meve you must also decide, frequently, whether to execute captives - to hang them where you stand. Remember when Geralt rescued that lady from being hanged by the roadside in that famous Witcher 3 cinematic? This time you're the one ordering the hanging. It's grim, but it's the lot of a ruler - the buck stops with you. It's not as simple as wandering the land as a nomad, fighting evil as you see fit. Behind you stands an army scrutinising your every decision. Go against them at your peril. There's no such thing as an easy choice in Thronebreaker, and the consequences can be far-reaching. Liberate a captured town for the enemy's gold stored there, for example, and you may effectively sign their death warrant, because as soon as you leave, swift and bloody revenge will come in your place. Everything Queen Meve does has many more strings attached.
But it's not all doom and gloom. Thronebreaker can be funny, too - silly even. Coarse characters blurt out all kinds of inappropriate things. Queen Meve asked a villager for directions, which he duly gave, adding, "then ride on straight as piss". Then he remembered who he was talking to and quickly corrected himself: "um, an arrow". It's a sense of humour which seeps into everything. I've got a dog called Knickers, for goodness sake!
What's even more ingenious about being a warrior queen is how well it fits Thronebreaker being a card game - or how well a card game fits telling this story, more to the point. It makes total sense laying cards as if you were a commander ordering troops into a battle. You can even get stuck in yourself via your leader ability.
It's easy to get to grips with, the card game. Any quibbles I had about difficulty before are not here now. Thronebreaker is spot-on in the speed it introduces Gwent, the card game underpinning it, and there are three difficulties to cover all bases. You don't really need to touch your pre-built deck if you don't want to, you can just add new cards here and there. But if you want to meddle, the sky's the limit, and when you eventually upgrade your camp to raise your army's power-cap, you can really pack some punch.
Amazingly, using cards to settle almost every encounter doesn't get boring. Some of this is because Gwent is great, but it's more to do with Thronebreaker painstakingly tailoring the majority of encounters to be one-round (rather than three) affairs with special rules. A siege might have a puzzle based around breaking palisades, for example, whereas a manticore boss might be spread across several cards, each one representing a different body part with different abilities. They're all thematically in keeping, and they're all pacey, fresh, and imaginative.
Puzzles are the best of these, and often fiendishly hard, but they're optional so you needn't bother (although you should). Puzzles disregard your deck and give you a specific hand to overcome a specific challenge. It could be using a handful of crossbow-type soldiers to clear an entire screen of monsters, for instance - but monsters which blow up damaging adjacent monsters, and crossbow-type soldiers whose damage depends on how many other units are on their row. So the puzzle becomes how to place your crossbowers and where to trigger a chain reaction of exploding enemies first. You know you have the right cards, you just have to work out how to play them. What's so clever about this is Thronebreaker surreptitiously teaches you advanced Gwent. It introduces new cards and has you find the complex synergies between them.
Those initial concerns I had about Thronebreaker have vanished. Thronebreaker has proven a card game can be gripping, entertaining and powerful in a way I hadn't realised was possible. It's CD Projekt Red going above and beyond again - pushing things to another level with lavish care, attention and talent. Thronebreaker isn't a blockbuster, but it has the heart of one. I am smitten.