Switch has the pick of extraordinary, open-world RPGs. With Nintendo’s own The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim from Bethesda, both story-led and user-guided experiences are gloriously catered for. While Switch gamers may have held out hope for anything remotely similar to The Witcher 3, being this multi-threaded and mature-themed colossus among RPGs, the closest we’ve seen is Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey – and only in Japan via cloud streaming, suggesting complexity far beyond Switch capability.
Ever since The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - Complete Edition was announced for Switch in June, we have tempered our expectations somewhat. Resuscitating Skyrim, first launched in 2011, is not quite the same feat as reprising the 2015 recipient of prestigious technical accolades alongside untold creative and Best Game awards. We need not have worried, not even a bit.
Our hands-on experience with ‘Switcher’ in Handheld mode was utterly convincing, and best summarised as: Hey, it is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Complete Edition on Switch! However, we did also get chance to speak with Senior Producer at CD Projekt Red, Piotr Chrzanowski, to learn more about how such dark arts were even possible. So, here’s how that all went…
When In Velen
At some point during our interview, we put Chrzanowski on the spot to reveal what he is most proud of with Switcher (which we can reveal is what the game is affectionately known as at CDPR). Partly to know what we should be looking out for, beyond any practical impossibility of existing in the first place. His response was modest. “First and foremost, getting the full experience on the cartridge,” smiled Chrzanowski. “It’s the same as you’ll find on other platforms, how it looks and feels.”
Broadly this is true. We did not have the opportunity to compare Switcher side-by-side in docked versus handheld modes, but the latter runs smoothly and handles so securely that we swiftly lost ourselves to the quests at hand. With save slots provided at The Skellige Isles, White Orchard, Kaer Morhen, Novigrad and Velen, our hands-on tour consistently upheld Chrzanowski’s claims that Switcher is “precisely the same game, based on the latest version available on other platforms.” Initially, the only noteworthy concession made is the control scheme, which favours the A button for most selections, but this can be changed if needed.
We did also ask if there might be any specific Nintendo features, along the lines of Skyrim, but learned that there are no exclusive armour sets (e.g. The Legend of Zelda), nor are there any motion-sensitive additions. It should be enough that the game looks this solid and handles so well. Blocking, parrying, spell-casting and world navigation feels almost identical to PS4 and PC.
What Sorcery Is This?!
When nudged to share some tech specifics, Chrzanowski guardedly referred to across-the-board optimisation, taking into account the onboard memory especially. “We had to cut down a little bit on texture resolution, for example,” says the senior producer. “Technically we did some work with the density of the foliage. We had to adapt to the processor versus those in stationary consoles – there are differences, but the experience is the same.”
In terms of performance enhancement when Switch is docked, Chrzanowski advises that “it’s mostly resolution. You’ll probably get some other performance improvements as well, but we’re trying to make sure it’s a stable performance on both.” There are also tweaks to the user interface, “to scale this properly depending on whether it’s handheld or docked.” Audio too is impressive, with the orchestral score present complete with intoxicating vocals, all the while allowing for atmospheric detail from the wind rushing to wildlife mutterings.
“There were some adjustments [to audio],” Chrzanowski explained. “On the other consoles, you could have a separate thread for audio. On the Switch, you have only three threads, so there was quite some work put on the audio system to make sure that it works well, plays all the sounds, not cut anything out. We worked a lot on that, and I think you can hear it.”
Our Witcher Senses Activated
Most sincerely, we did scrutinise every scene while playing Switcher for a robust 2 to 3 hours. Holding clear memories of Kaer Morhen, we started a new game with Yennefer and Ciri in the tutorial for an easy-going impression of mostly untroubled tech. Character models and special effects – particularly Geralt’s Witcher Sense – differed minimally from PS4, harsher around edges owing to lack of high-end rendering passes, missing some subtlety of lighting. The scale of the castle is unchanged, with every detail present, only in lower resolution.
Upon taking Roach for a ride in pursuit of lilac and gooseberries the heart-stopping beauty of the wilds is hardly compromised. There are regular instances of pop-up, which is really only to be expected, but it’s in the middle-far distance and not a distraction. Besides, the game is being optimised on an ongoing basis. We could yet see more polish in this regard.
Toussaint has the same visual impact, albeit judiciously restrained, as greeted on the ‘larger’ consoles. The spruce trees waver in the breeze, we can spy the distant mountains, flocks of birds swoop and soar. Right now, and likely permanent, the blades of grass and crops of wheat do not bend was Geralt wades through, on horseback or on foot. The light-refracting subtleties of water seem absent to a degree, though that’s trickier to explain at this stage.
Where Switcher really starts to surpass expectation, to the point of being dumbfounding, is upon reaching Novigrad city, where banners flutter against brightly-lit building façades. Stained-glass windows glisten with glassy contours minutely rendered, the textures contrasting with the matte finished walls. The folk music of street artists grows louder as Geralt approaches. It’s enjoyable just to step from the shadows into light as NPCs bustle all around. By the way, all NPCs are present in Switcher, playing an essential role in the experience – as anyone who has played The Witcher 3 will tell you. The most valued of adventures are off the beaten track, sometimes delivered by the unlikeliest of bystanders.
The game does appear to hold steady around the 30fps mark, and certainly didn’t dip low enough to distract from battles against heftier beasts. During the confrontation with the Beast of Toussaint, no lag was tangible, every hit felt satisfying while the creature did its utmost to trap and disorientate our Geralt in full flow. This truly is The Witcher 3, people.
Considering that we’re being graced with all DLC and both expansion packs contained in the Complete Edition, Switcher hardly deserves to be torn apart from the tiniest of seams. That said, you do need to prepare for a lot of reading of particularly tiny text, which includes the necessary item descriptions alongside early tutorials, quest directions, bestiary secrets and so on.
Also, if you're going digital, then bear in mind that Switcher requires a 28.1GB install, meaning that an SD card is essential to accommodate it (Skyrim is 14.3GB, Zelda is 13.4 GB). It’s likely that you already own at least one, to be fair. However, in case you are buying Switch just to plough through Switcher...
Switcher In Another Case For Switch
Could The Witcher 3 look any better on Switch? Sure, CD Projekt Red might’ve opted to go the cloud-streaming route adopted by Ubisoft for Odyssey. But, aside from performance issues such as stuttering and input-lag, there’s a huge reason why CDPR went native.
“We wanted to bring the full experience of the game, and for people to enjoy it ‘on the go’, even when they may not have internet access,” advised Chrzanowski. “This is the best way to do it. Witcher is an immense experience, it’s a lot of hours to play the game fully and enjoy all the possible options. Not everyone has the ability to spend dozens of hours sitting at home in front of the computer. There are hundreds of hours. It’s a unique experience.”
Rather amusingly, Chrzanowski looked kind of stumped when asked to distinguish between The Witcher 3, Breath of the Wild and Skyrim. We were reminded that The Witcher 3 is one of the most critically-acclaimed games from the last few years, combining mature RPG with open-world. “Zelda and Skyrim are great games – but they are just different, you know?”
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Complete Edition is planned for release on October 15th, 2019.