If you’ve played The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – and I know a lot of you have – you’ll know all about ghouls and alghouls. These quadrupedal monstrosities, lurking around cemeteries and battlefields, can be tricky customers when encountered en masse, and alghouls can extend some mean spines that should be avoided. But few players will have problems with them, once they’ve levelled up a little. Before long, these necrophages are little more than silver sword fodder for our wandering witcher, Geralt.
But in CD Projekt Red’s Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales (which underwhelmed sales wise at launch, but is surely enjoying a Netflix boost right about now), a mere triad of such beasts can cause significant headaches. Or rather, they did for me, when I encountered such enemies as a puzzle battle, as I made my way across the game’s opening region of Lyria.
Puzzle battles are different from regular encounters in Thronebreaker, as they consist of only one round of the in-game card game used to determine the outcomes of such conflicts, Gwent (or, in this case, Gwent: Homecoming, as it’s slightly different to the game found in The Witcher 3). Victory conditions are very specific, and in this instance I had to destroy two ghouls and an alghoul using only very limited resources: three archers (or arbalests), two ‘powers’ (one fire, one lightning), and Queen Meve’s ability to boost a unit’s armour and reactivate a ‘loyalty’ ability.
Okay, I see that I might have lost you. Let me rewind. Thronebreaker is, basically, the story mode for Gwent, which follows Queen Meve of Lyria and Rivia – you do not play as Geralt in this one, although he does turn in a cameo – as she moves across the north of the Continent, pushing back invading Nilfgaardian forces and forging alliances with other kingdoms.
It partly plays like a kind of interactive graphic novel, with many choices to be made across a wealth of morals-testing encounters – and these decisions have ramifications, so you’d best strap in for those. It’s a little point-and-click like, too, as you move Meve and her army (whose troops need to be kept motivated) around the map, to her next destination, recovering resources wherever possible. And, regularly, your path across five distinct regions is blocked by a battle or a puzzle, where the screen switches to the field of Gwent, and those cards come into play.
Thronebreaker‘s standard battles are as you remember them in The Witcher 3, or very close to them. It’s all about having the superior numbers, and using abilities or types of troop to gain the upper hand. Best of three rounds, and there’s no shame in conceding one to run out triumphant in the next (indeed, it’s often the only way to win). But the puzzles, like my ghoulish conundrum? Those are something else.
I’m told to destroy the monsters, but I only have a few moves to do it in. I’m told to put faith in my archers, who individually do little damage but do scale up their attack power, depending on the number of friendly units on the same row. The problem here is twofold: I’ve not enough archers to hand, and the ghouls and alghoul can, and do, gain extra hit points every few turns by ‘feeding’ on my fallen soldiers.
It’s no lie to tell you, reader, that it takes me 40 minutes of play, and countless failures, before it all clicks. I finally realise, with a little closer reading of the cards in front of me, that I don’t have to finish off any of the three monsters first, but can weaken them all and then hit them with my Scorch card. So long as they’ve all the same number of hit points left, they’ll all burn together. And they do, and I punch the air, much to the surprise of the commuter sat next to me.
Because now that Thronebreaker is on Switch, this testing Witcher experience can travel with you anywhere, making lessons in card deployment dexterity available whether on a lunch break or train ride home. And, oh boy, do I ever need some more lessons. But I’m going to stick with it, because even after just three or so hours of play, Thronebreaker has its story claws in me.
Queen Meve is a powerful central protagonist, whose north-of-England tones are immediately striking and endearing. She’s voiced by Lucy Black, who’s appeared in HBO’s Gentleman Jack and ITV’s The Durrells – two shows I’ve never seen, but IMDB assures me she was in them. Meve is mentioned in all three mainline Witcher video games – if we count Blood & Wine as an integral part of Wild Hunt – but it’s only with Thronebreaker that we really get a full picture of her measured personality and uncompromised power in battle.
Meve is a fairly prominent secondary character (if that quite makes sense?) in the books by Andrzej Sapkowski that inspired the games – and the recent Netflix television show. She argued against other rulers of the Continent to hunt down and kill Ciri – which, I expect, will be a part of the next season of The Witcher – and is portrayed as an all-conquering leader. Which makes it all the funnier that it took me so long to see off a few beasts. Sorry, Meve. I let you down.
But I’m trying. After the best part of 400 hours spent in The Witcher 3, across PlayStation 4 and Switch, as well playing through as a hefty chunk of The Witcher 2, I’m pretty engrossed in this world – and that was before Netflix came and plastered it all over my television. So Thronebreaker, set before the events of the mainline Witcher games and laying down the foundations for Geralt’s quests in them, is entirely my jam – if that’s still a phrase we’re using. And if not, you know what I mean. Stop being so particular about informalities.
I’m not a card shark by any means, but again, I’m trying. There will be more minor mishaps that cause me more problems than they should, but I’ll muddle through. And besides, if you’re in this for the plot and the lore – and I very much am – putting Thronebreaker on its easiest setting does allow you to skip Gwent encounters altogether and just crack on with the story telling. I’ve not taken that option yet, but let me tell you: put half a dozen ghouls in front of Meve and me, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll be tempted.
Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales is out now on Nintendo Switch, having previously released for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. We tested the game using code provided by CD Projekt Red. Or, perhaps, it tested us, eh?