It’s a losing battle, to be the new game in the “The Witcher” franchise. And that’s what Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales is, despite its title gymnastics. Even though it is a game in a different genre, it is doomed to being compared – when it comes to character development and narrative – to one of the greats in these areas.
But let’s start with what the game does well: the metaphor. Specifically, the mechanical metaphor that translates, through cards, the tactical and strategic concepts of war. It is surprising how many situations the game’s creators can portray through the various abilities characteristic of each individual card, and how these abilities can, in turn, modulate the basic rules of the game board.
This factor, coupled with the growing variety of cards that become available for the player to build their deck throughout the game, opens the door to a staggering number of strategies – some more obvious than others. It’s a shame that, apart from heading into the multiplayer competitive mode, there’s no way to see the decks that other players are using, because when it comes to deck building, the game is ripe with opportunities for player creativity.
The issue here is that the difficulty curve does not encourage much experimentation. The player’s power level is already so high at the end of the first chapter, based on the most straightforward card and deck upgrades, that you can
The result is that, despite the mechanical wealth inherent in the rules, almost everything between the first chapter and the said final battle is filler, a stroll from banal battle to banal battle where we may use the same deck with the same strategy, doing minor tuning as we upgrade cards, but for the occasional confrontation with a / boss / or a puzzle in which we are given a pre-defined deck and a specific goal to fulfill.
It’s left to the story to pull us through the roughly forty hours of play, and this one’s story is mediocre. Once again rises the spectre of Witcher 3, a game superficially about confronting an invading army and a supernaturally powerful foe, yes, but in reality, about a father trying to protect and shape the character of his adopted daughter. And also, a game in which every decision felt meaningful, which led us to think about the consequences that could come from it.
The contrast is deep. The main character – queen Meve – is a mother who is turned against the son. However, rare are the occasions where this seems to be a factor in the character’s inner life.
In Witcher 3, Geralt had a well-defined personality, yet in it, we were able to find justification for any decision we made. In Thronebreaker, Meve is neither; she is a one-dimensional strongwoman, a tabula quasi-rasa in which we are rarely given the opportunity to carve out any sort of bas-relief.
The decisions that have the greatest impact on the game are not those that say something about the character, but those that lead us to lose some favorite cards based on our moral compass. There, at least, is a courageous decision – to make our choices have a direct impact on our strategic capacity.
It is a shame that the game’s designers didn’t bet on this aspect to the point of making the choices that affect the morale of our army be of any real consequence. Each of the game’s sports an abundance of easy ways to raise the army’s morale, ready to be tapped upon whenever the soldiers disagree with our royal decrees.
Thronebreaker is not a bad game, but neither is it a good one. The seeds of a good game are there, buried under a pile of filler and a mission to pander to the masses.
It lacks the courage Meve has in abundance: the courage to decide which course it wants to take, and to pursue it adamantly, Gods damn the consequences and the displeasure of those left behind.