Tracing the origins and development of Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales is a lot more complicated than it is with most titles. Just tracking its path through previous games quickly gets dizzying: it was originally developed to act as a single-player campaign in CD Projekt Red’s Gwent: The Witcher Card Game, a spin-off of The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, the third game in the Witcher series. Before that could come to pass, however, the developers decided that the title would be better served as a standalone title and it was carved out to be sold separately.
Even after that convoluted development, the game has managed to undergo five separate releases in the last three years. Initially it was released in 2018 as a PC title, with Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions releasing later that same year. Then, it arrived on Nintendo Switch in early 2020. The game made the jump to iOS in July last year, before finally arriving on Android this June.
After such a long, complicated, and messy development, it might be reasonable to assume that the finished product would turn out much the same. So, did it? Let’s take a look.
Story – Long live the Queen
Thronebreaker opens with the news that Meve, Queen of Lyria and Rivia, has just returned to her country following a summit of the Northern Kingdoms. Unfortunately for her and her retinue, the homecoming is not the celebration they had hoped for. Instead, they immediately run into trouble with the Strays of Spalla, a group of bandits terrorising the land.
From there, players travel with Meve as she works to reclaim her kingdom and defend it from invaders. In a country on the verge of war and tensions at an all-time high, Meve faces enemies on all sides. Her adventures take her across the Northern Realms, through lands never-before-seen in the series including the famed Rivia, Geralt’s homeland. Along the way, she can recruit allies to aid her in battle in the form of unique Gwent cards.
The game is filled with important decisions that need to be made and each choice brings players closer to one of twenty possible final world states. Minor decisions have the power to influence the morale of your army; more momentous choices can change the course of an entire kingdom.
When I first started playing Thronebreaker, I’ll admit I was hesitant about the story. In part that was because I am so fond of the games and books that have come before; jumping into a different adventure with new characters ran the risk of souring that affection if the developers couldn’t pull it off. My reservations weren’t entirely helped by the large jump away from the series’ grounding in the action-RPG genre. Stories are much more accessible when you yourself are a part of it, and the main Witcher series has always put players in the centre of the action. Through the distance of an impersonal card game, I feared I wouldn’t sink into the narrative in the same way.
Ultimately, I shouldn’t have worried. The start of the game can be a little rocky as you’re being introduced to a lot of characters and plots all at once, but it passes quickly. Once it did, I found myself falling totally in love with Meve’s character and fiercely rooting for her success. While she initially appears as a self-assured Queen with a tremendous amount of power at her disposal, over time you can learn about the flaws in her character and the trials she faces. Hers is a very different story from Geralt’s, but it is overflowing with its own merits. Couple that with the numerous side quests that add tremendous richness to the core story, and it is extremely easy to get invested in the events unfurling before you.
Thronebreaker’s method of storytelling may be atypical for most narrative-based titles, with a lot of telling not showing, but CD Projekt Red has put the time in to make it work.
Gameplay – A Different Sort of Game
Unsurprisingly for a spin-off of Gwent: The Witcher Card Game, all interactions in Thronebreaker outside of dialogue take the form of card games. An important note for anyone familiar with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt but not the previous Gwent game is that this title’s version of Gwent is substantially different from what you might have seen before.
Each player draws a selection of cards from their customisable deck, six of which can then be redrawn if desired. Players then take turns playing cards on one of two possible rows that are more or less indistinguishable; some cards have effects that are influenced by the row they are on, but this is not often the case. Cards also have actions that can be activated when they spawn, in response to other actions, or at will when they have an expendable resource called charge.
On each turn, players have to deploy a single card and may take as many actions as they wish. The abilities of cards vary substantially; some call forth secondary units to boost your score, while others deal damage directly to enemies. As in The Witcher 3, a select handful of cards can resurrect fallen comrades. Learning what each card does and how to use it is a hugely important part of mastering the game.
For standard battles, the objective is to finish two out of three rounds with the highest overall score. This score is dictated by the total value of the cards a player has on the board.
It’s difficult to compare this game’s version of Gwent to the much more widely known – and perhaps loved – one from The Witcher 3. It might initially appear as though this version is simpler. In truth, however, removing the constraints of having three set rows with firm limitations on card placement has given the developers much more freedom when designing cards. The result is a surprisingly complex game of strategy that takes a while to properly master. The inclusion of card actions in particular is a substantial departure from the original card game. The Witcher 3 only featured a few cards with straight-forward abilities; in Thronebreaker, every card has a unique action to consider.
In this regard, Thronebreaker is more reminiscent of titles like Hearthstone than The Witcher 3, but that isn’t necessarily to its detriment. As Gwent is the core focus of the game, developing and getting to know your card deck is a very involved part of the experience.
One particularly interesting feature is the inclusion of puzzle games, in which the player is given a hand of preselected cards and tasked with achieving specific goals. Rather than simply getting a higher score than their opponent, players may have to destroy all enemy cards, for example. This means that instead of trying to play as many cards as possible, players need to think very carefully about the order and location of card placements. The change in objective makes for a very different type of game, where players have to plot many moves ahead.
There is a limit to the complexity of these puzzles. They are often restricted to a single round and generally have one specific solution. This can make them feel a little restrictive at times, but working out how to overcome them is still incredibly rewarding. Thronebreaker has also been designed such that if you are having trouble with a particular challenge, it is very quick and easy to restart and try again. And, if you really aren’t having a good time, puzzles are typically confined to non-essential, skippable side quests.
For my part, these puzzles were the most enjoyable part of the whole game. They offered enough challenge to be interesting diversions without being so difficult they got in the way of the story. They also work to make you feel like a Queen in charge of an army, using tactics to plan your attack. As Meve is presented as a war veteran, these battles did a lot to help cement that idea without having to be told it directly.
Audio and Graphics – The Return of a Familiar Soundtrack
While Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales is not a perfect title, one area in which it is, in my opinion, faultless, is in its visual and audio design. The game’s graphic novel-style artwork manages to be both colourful and striking, while perfectly encapsulating the feel of the Witcher series.
When travelling through the Northern Realms, players are treated to a beautifully designed overworld that is a joy to explore. Interactable objects are carefully highlighted and there is a tremendous amount of detail to be found in innocuous places. A lot of thought has clearly gone into making the world you’re exploring feel as real as possible.
Alongside the carefully crafted world, each Gwent card has been given its own unique artwork. These miniature paintings serve the dual purpose of being visually appealing and helping to distinguish between different cards. After a few matches, the distinctive images mean that players don’t need to stop to read each card description; from there, the game becomes a lot more fluid and intuative.
At the same time, Thronebreaker’s soundtrack borrows substantially from the preceding Witcher games and does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to tying the two together. Instruments like the hurdy-gurdy, lute, and fiddle are tremendously evocative of the Middle Ages-era the game mimics, as well as mirroring previous titles in the series. Even when you’re not directly interacting with recognisable Witcher elements, it’s impossible to forget that’s the world you’re inhabiting.
Praise is also owed to the voice acting at work in the game. The story is largely conveyed through chunks of dialogue before and after battles, each of which is fully voiced. While these snippets don’t particularly factor into gameplay, they’re an important part of selling the story and getting players invested.
Platform – The Medium is the Message
As stated earlier, Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales went through a lot of iterations before landing on Android this year. In theory, bringing it to mobiles makes sense; the gameplay is not technologically demanding and most modern smartphones aren’t going to have a problem running it. That being said, however, it is cripplingly obvious when playing this game that it simply was not designed for mobiles.
While the game’s HUD rarely confuses different inputs, the limited screen size available on mobile is a real hindrance. There is often a lot of things happening on screen at once that require attention – cards being played, actions being taken, countdowns progressing, etc. – and trying to keep track of it all on a small screen is far from perfect. This problem is exacerbated by the amount of reading players are required to do.
Unfortunately, the issue seems most prominent in the tutorial sections of the game, which runs the risk of marring a new player’s experience with Thronebreaker. Text box pop-ups explaining the rules will often have to overlay the game board, obscuring important details. This has the knock-on effect of making it that much harder for players to understand what’s happening.
Later stages of the game suffer from this problem less, but it never feels entirely comfortable on a small screen. The developers seem to have realised this, because they released the first few hours of Thronebreaker on Android and iOS as a free-to-play title. Players wanting to continue beyond that point have to buy the full game, giving them the opportunity to switch platform. Allowing players to test the game on mobile before they have to invest any money goes a long way to soothing any potential dissatisfaction about its less-than-optimal performance on Android. Regardless, players who are certain they want to play this game are better off starting on PC or console.
Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales was reviewed on Android.