I really like killing things that are bigger than me. Whether in Dark Souls, Monster Hunter or Bayonetta, it gives me a kick. And as a huge Monster Hunter fan it’s always disappointed me just a little bit that the Witcher games have neglected Geralt the Witcher’s day-job as a monster hunter, relegating it to the occasional boss battle with some impressive creature. The Witcher 3’s open world, though, is full of monsters - some you’ll be sent to kill, some are just there, and all of them will quickly destroy the unprepared. During the latest gameplay demo - which you can watch in full below - you can see (and hear!) some intimidating-looking, minotaur-like, lumbering tree-creature stalking through the marshes. Geralt avoids it. He knows what he’s doing.
Stan Just, The Witcher 3’s art producer, agrees that the monster-hunting aspect of Geralt of Rivia has been little-explored until now. “I would say the monster hunting part has been neglected thus far and now it’s being emphasised,” he told me at Gamescom. “When you enter a dark forest with all the dynamic weather, the blowing wind and rain, and you use the witcher senses to locate your prey and meditate and prepare for the battle, you get the feeling of really being an experienced monster slayer.”
It really is hunting, too, not just fighting. You don’t stand a good chance against a beast without the right potions, the right equipment; silver bombs and crossbow bolts for a werewolf, a potion that lets you see better in the dark mixed from plants you’ve foraged, a tip from an old book or a knowledgeable stranger about which magics might fell a griffin more easily. This is what makes me excited about The Witcher’s monster-fighting: that element of exploration and investigation before the actual fight. It builds anticipation.
It’s no fun to hunt a generic monster, though, which is why so few of the legions of Monster Hunter Clones that have sprung up over the past 5 years or so in Japan have taken hold. You want to be awed by what you’re fighting. The monsters themselves, from what we’ve seen so far of The Witcher 3 (and indeed the Witcher series as a whole), are gruesome and intimidating - even the predictable things, the trolls and werewolves and harpies, are given a disturbing twist by CD Projekt Red’s art team. I mean, just look at this… thing.
Something that the head of the Monster Hunter team, Ryozo Tsujimoto, talks about in monster design is the idea of “biological plausibility” - that a monster should be believable in its environment. It seems CD Projekt Red’s art team operates on the same principles, which also keeps the monsters varied.
“There are several layers of monsters - unique types of monsters, like races,” says Just. “They come in a variety of forms that differ according to the region that they are found in, for example. When you encounter a werewolf in no-man’s land, he’ll look different from a werewolf in the Skellige Islands. One werewolf can morph, the other cannot, because he lives in the hills and not the woods. This stops the player from feeling like they’re killing same thing over and over again, even if he is a monster slayer. It wouldn’t make sense for the same kind of werewolf to exist everywhere.”
The inspiration for The Witcher’s menagerie comes from middle-European, Slavic and Celtic mythology, largely - which is rather more gruesome in the original than the sanitised Disney versions ever make out (did you know that the original Little Mermaid in the Danish story commits suicide in the end? Dark.) But there’s an element of practicality to it, too - the gameplay and quest designers and the visual designers feed off each other’s ideas.
“The novels are a big bucket of knowledge that we can draw from, but for me personally the wickedest thing is knowing the quests that come from our designers - they tell a story around a quest, and we create creatures to match what is in their imagination,” says Just.
Stan uses the previously-revealed Ice Giant as an example. “In the first designs of the ice giant, he didn’t have any armour. But after some iterations, the quest designer discussed the quest with us, in which he’s harassing villages and attacking fishing boats - and we wondered how he would behave. Perhaps he could use the ships he destroys, putting parts of them on himself for protection. This connection between function and gameplay and design is something I enjoy personally, seeing the attention to detail that they guys put into each monster.”
I'm really looking forward to killing 'em.