Switch's Witcher 3 patch 3.6 is an excellent upgrade to a superb game
PC cross-save support tested, graphics options explored, performance analysed.
When we reviewed the Witcher 3's Switch port late last year it was a cause for celebration. Cramming the entire adventure onto a cartridge was a real technical feat, the graphical nips and tucks were appropriate to the platform and the fact is played at all was something of a miracle. That said, there were still some key aspects missing we would have loved to have seen included in the port and what we really wanted to see was the ability to port saves between PC and Switch - a feature of Divinity Original Sin 2 that played out beautifully on the Nintendo hybrid. The good news is that patch 3.6 for Switch adds this must-have feature - and a whole lot more.
In addition to the cross-save support, performance optimisations and additional graphics options are implemented, while touch controls make the cut - mainly for menu navigation. However, the big breakthrough is indeed the cross-save option and it works pretty much exactly as you'd imagine. You get a choice of Steam and GOG stores on the main menu and from there, you sign into your account of choice through the Switch browser, where you can select which saves to download. It's worth stressing you must own all DLCs and extras installed on PC for it to work properly but this is the only real catch. Otherwise it's seamless and operates exactly as it should.
Cross save support is a game-changer. What distinguishes the Switch version is the ability to take it anywhere - but obviously, this comes at a cost to performance and graphical quality. So why not play the game on the go on Switch, while enjoying a visually richer experience at home on PC? Patch 3.6 delivers this option - the best of both worlds.
After cross-save support, improved image quality is the next item on the list of improvements I'd love to see and yes, the game looks better now, up to a point. Loading up the game on default visual settings, the upgrade in image quality certainly isn't obvious or noticeable. Compared old captures to new, I've spotted no major changes to the way the dynamic resolution scaling solution works It's always in flux from one second to the next and so exact measurements aren't possible but the perceptible result isn't far removed from what we had before. Where there is an upgrade, however, is in the arrival of more option-heavy graphics menus. Now there's room for a little DIY tweaking to the way the base image is presented with a range of options to dig into.
Curiously, what the developers have delivered is eerily similar to the enhanced graphics mods available for users of hacked Switch hardware, with some tweaks and variations. It's worth stressing that most of the options adjust post-processing features and have nothing to do with improving asset quality, shadows or other rendering-based settings.
However, you do get toggles for sharpening, depth of field, cutscene depth of field, light shafts, underwater effects. foliage visibility range and anti-aliasing. All of these were a part of the 'unofficial' mod except that the water quality setting is absent here, replaced with a depth of field toggle for cutscenes. Also, the slider range for foliage is limited to low, medium and high (missing the ultra preset we had unofficially). All of this gives us a lot of power to tweak the game a lot more than we could previously with some surprising results.
If you want a sharper image, you have a few options, though I'd highly recommend using the new sharpening filter as a starting point. Its effects are barely noticeable on the low setting but there's a huge boost clarity across high contrast edges when you ramp up the setting. Everything on-screen has more pop, without the side effects of too much visual noise or aliasing. For anyone worried about the impact on frame-rate, don't be: this isn't taxing on the GPU at all, with no impact on the performance level.
The only drawback to using sharpening filters is the tell-tale ringing artefacts - white halos around objects you see in the distance. It's a common fault, especially working with a low resolution image, which in this case is often operating at a sub-720p resolution. Still, I think it does reasonably well in reintroducing some of the detail lost owing to the TAA and as it's effectively free from a performance perspective, I recommend trying it out.
The other approach to boosting image quality is to remove anti-aliasing altogether. As you might expect, turning off the option strips bare the framebuffer leaving behind the raw, untreated pixels. It's not always pretty but it's still fascinating to see how aggressive the Switch's AA method is. You might be able to stomach it while playing in portable mode, seeing as pixel density is so tiny on Switch's mobile screen. However, the drawback is obvious when docked: visual noise is obvious and the foliage can flicker constantly. It also reveals the exact frame at which the dynamic resolution scaling solution shifts, marked by a burst of pixel crawl while holding still. Removing anti-aliasing is a useful tool to have in the box perhaps, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend playing this way. However, some of the options on offer do offer up an unexpected advantage: the ability to claw back some frame-rate.
The patch notes mention improved performance but re-running our library of tests on the latest upgrade reveals very similar results overall, with only a 1fps gain at points. Obviously though, we can't test every area across the breadth of such a huge game and the results we do have may indicate more of a stability improvement all round. Even in crunch areas like Novigrad or Crookback Bog - where we'd hope to see more obvious improvements - the gains are slight, whether you're playing docked or in portable mode.
That said, once we start tinkering with the new graphics settings, performance can improve, largely owing to the foliage draw setting and depth of field options which are taxing enough to have a substantial impact in dense woodland areas. So, for example, you can reclaim 3-4fps in places like Crookback Bog, making it a near-perfect 30fps. Cutting back the foliage draw helps enormously in this section but be prepared for more pop-in on grass elements. There are even bigger gains to enjoy within cutscenes, where pruning back settings saw a 5fps advantage during the village siege, for example. Interestingly though, in this case, frame-rate boosts were much less pronounced with The Witcher 3 operating in portable mode.
There is a limit to what the new graphics options can do. Most of it is centred around GPU features, so CPU-bound areas like Novigrad obviously don't benefit and dropping graphics settings here has zero benefit whatsoever. Indeed, the only regret is that Saber Interactive and CDPR aren't able to tap into the higher clock speeds on Switch at all, which our tests revealed as being the key to improving the game's frame-rates in CPU-limited areas
Overall though, it's satisfying to see the developers support the Switch version of The Witcher 3 with tangible upgrades like this. Between cross-saving and extra menu features, patch 3.6 helps cement The Witcher 3 as one of the best games you can own on the console. The only thing left on the table is, perhaps, an optional asset pack for audio for those who might want it. Otherwise it's fair to suggest that this is a system being pushed as far as it will go. With every DLC included it's an excellent handheld version of a classic game - but more than that, The Witcher 3 for Switch has evolved thanks to this new patch. Not only is it a remarkable standalone port, it's now a superb mobile companion to the full-fat experience for owners of the PC version of the game.
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