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Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales is CD Projekt Red's latest foray into Andrzej Sapkowski's world of witchers, monsters, and rival kingdoms. However, this time around instead of using the witcher Geralt of Rivia to dispatch monsters in solo combat, you're put in charge of Meve, the queen of Lyria and Rivia, and your focus is more on armies, treaties, and castle sieges.
As the game opens up, you're only worried about some pernicious bandits who have been plaguing your kingdom, but soon enough Nilfgaard invades and you lose your castle -- and you suddenly find yourself in desperate need of allies who can help you to re-take your lands. And that's just in Chapter 1. From there, it's a long road to setting things to rights.
Thronebreaker is only sorta, kinda an RPG. You and your soldiers don't gain any experience or levels, there aren't any skill trees, and while the game keeps track of the quests you've completed, I'm not sure what it's counting (unless finding out about a chest and then opening it counts as a "quest"). But you control Meve in the game, and you make a lot of decisions for her, and so Thronebreaker is an RPG in the literal sense since you're role-playing Meve.
But really, Thronebreaker is more of a tactical strategy game, where you control a ragtag army and guide it through various battles, all while collecting resources and keeping up morale. Just imagine if The Witcher (the original one), The Banner Saga, and Heroes of Might and Magic had a night of wild sex. Thronebreaker might be the result.
Each chapter in the campaign is played on a large, linear-ish map. You move Meve on the map by left-clicking where you want her to go. As you explore, you find people to talk to, monsters to defeat, and piles of resources to pick up. Interacting with these objects is accomplished by right-clicking. A lot of what you see is optional, so if a battle is too difficult for you, then you can skip it, and if you just want to hurry through a map, then you can.
The three resources in the game are gold, wood, and recruits. You find gold and wood on the ground, especially after battles, and you gain recruits when you visit towns and ask for support. These resources are used to upgrade the tents in Meve's camp: a tavern (where you can talk to your named companions), a command tent (where you can choose which soldiers fight for you), a training ground (where you can practice your battle tactics), and a workshop (where you can train and upgrade your soldiers).
Sadly, you find way too many resources in the game, to the point where I finished constructing and training everything I needed by the middle of Chapter 4 (out of 6). In particular, I ended the game with almost 800 recruits, which is about ten times as many as I spent. It's one thing to provide players with extra resources, just in case they miss some while exploring, but with that many extra, you might as well not have the resource at all.
Along with resources, you also have to pay attention to the morale of your soldiers, which can be high, low, or neutral. Your choices and actions affect your morale, but after each battle it's reset back to neutral, so it isn't possible to bury yourself in bad decisions. As examples, praying at a shrine raises your morale, while killing enemies in a field hospital lowers it. Morale has a fairly minor effect on the power of your soldiers, so even if you regularly do the "wrong" thing, you should still be able to survive.
During your travels, you often have to make decisions. You might buy supplies or confiscate them, fight a monster or ignore it, or execute prisoners or let them go -- or even let them join you. Thronebreaker mines a lot of the same territory as The Banner Saga here, just with far less in the way of ramifications. As an example, at one point you rescue some peasants, and you have to decide if you want to take them with you. If you do, then they steal some food from your stores, but since food isn't one of your resources, the theft is meaningless. Compare this to The Banner Saga, where losing food might cause your people to start starving and dying.
You also meet some named NPCs during the game. These companions become "hero" soldiers that you can use in combat -- for as long as they travel with you anyway. Companions also provide dialogue during interactions, give you somebody to talk to in your tavern, and provide extra options and strategies during battles.
Combat in Thronebreaker is handled by playing Gwent, the card-game introduced in The Witcher 3. I've played some RPGs with strange battle mechanics before -- including one that used slot machines -- but Gwent works about as well as anything.
With Gwent, each one of your soldiers is represented by a card. Your deck for a battle must contain 25 cards, and those cards are limited in the total power they can possess (at least theoretically; I never came close to reaching the power limit). Hero cards have the greatest power; regular soldiers have less. You can use at most five copies of each non-hero card. Hero cards are unique. This rule guarantees that your deck has some variety.
A battle proceeds in "rounds." For each round, you and your opponent each get a number of cards, and you alternate playing them until both of you pass (or run out of cards). At that point, the side with the higher total power wins. The victor of the battle is the side that wins two out of three rounds -- at least usually. Some battles are played using only one round.
Unlike The Witcher 3, Gwent in Thronebreaker is played with two rows for cards (instead of three), and cards can be played in either row indiscriminately (so there are no melee, ranged or siege cards). Cards also usually have a skill attached to them (instead of just a power), where that skill typically heals your cards or damages your opponent's cards. And finally, the leader of a side takes part in battles, too, but not as a card. Leaders stand on the sidelines and use an ability every few turns (depending on what they have equipped).
Skills are triggered in a variety of ways. "Deploy" skills are triggered when the card is played, "order" skills are triggered when you choose (but usually after a short delay), "loyalty" skills are triggered when the leader of a side uses their ability, and "deathwish" skills are triggered when the card dies. By the end of the game, I had found over 80 different kinds of cards, with a great variety to the types of skills they had and what those skills did. That gave me all sorts of options for how to build my deck, and I enjoyed trying out different combinations.
As an example, one of the cards is the Lyrian Scytheman. He has power 7, and his loyalty skill is that he gains 7 more power. Meanwhile, there is a special card called Reinforcements that plays all copies of a played card from your deck. So I'd play the Lyrian Scytheman, and then Reinforcements to add four more Scythemen, and then every time I had Meve use her ability, my side gained 35 power, which was nice.
Unfortunately, the balance for the battles is terrible. I think they're supposed to end up somewhere around football or maybe basketball scores, but after Chapter 2, I started regularly winning by over 100. The Scytheman strategy pretty much guaranteed I'd win one round easily, but even without it I could usually kill my opponent's cards as soon as they appeared, and build up my power in the process. I almost never lost a battle, even playing on the "bonebreaker" (aka most difficult) setting, and I rarely had to make adjustments to my strategy, or shuffle cards in or out of my deck. That's just bad, bad, and bad, especially in a game where combat is supposed to be one of the cornerstones.
Luckily, along with the battles, there are also Gwent puzzle games. In these sequences, you're given some specific cards, and you're tasked with achieving some result. Some of the puzzles are basic, where it's just Concentration or a match-3 game, but CD Projekt Red also had some fun in this department. In one puzzle, you help a dog explore a cave and sniff out some food. In another, you help a companion win a drinking contest. The puzzles, by and large, aren't any more difficult than the battles (I only got stuck once, on the very last puzzle), but they're way more entertaining.
Thronebreaker is played using an isometric view. Nothing about the presentation is fancy or memorable, but it's effective, and you can always tell what things are and where you're allowed to go. Also, the resources that you can pick up almost always have some sort of green coloring to them, making them easy to spot, which is nice.
The star of the game is the writing. Stories about battling kingdoms, with lots of politicking and background shenanigans, are almost always fun, and Thronebreaker's storyline is no exception. Plus, all of the characters are handled well, and they do believable things for believable reasons, with their personal motivations directing their actions rather than the plot. Nobody does evil things and commits atrocities just because they're the bad guy. And best of all, the voice acting is terrific, and the actors always sell their lines. Even the minor characters get nice performances.
As for bugs, I encountered very few. I noticed a couple of typos, and I had a problem with treasure chests where I missed out on an achievement, but there weren't any broken battles or skills, or anything adversely affecting gameplay. That's not bad considering I spent nearly 50 hours with Thronebreaker, especially since the game still hasn't seen a patch. There's a lot of polish to the engine, if not the balance.
Overall, Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales is a nice game. Dare I say "pleasant"? It tells an effective story, and it is polished in many ways, but it's also lightweight. It's far too easy to play, even on the toughest difficulty setting, and it covers a lot of the same ground as The Banner Saga trilogy without providing anywhere near the same sort of tension or pathos. The outlets giving Thronebreaker a 90% or better score are just plain wrong. They're either fooling themselves or trying to fool you. But still, you could do a lot worse than Thronebreaker. If a balance patch comes out, then it might elevate itself to "good," but for now I'd only recommend you try the game out if you can get it on sale. Or if you really love The Witcher and / or Gwent.