First released in 2018 - on Xbox One, PS4, and PC - Thronebreaker has finally made the hop onto Nintendo Switch. Rather than being too late, however, publisher/developer CD Projekt Red might well have timed this release perfectly; Nintendo’s mass-market appeal may well prove to be exactly the right platform to capitalise on the new audience Netflix’ Witcher series is sure to have brought to the franchise.
Based in the same world as the novels and The Witcher series of games, Thronebreaker is a narrative-driven collectible card game that focuses on the trials and tribulations of Meve - queen of Lyria and Rivia. Story is presented by way of what are essentially animatics; drawn, lightly-animated (mouths and light gestures) with lots of text alongside. Fortunately, the text is not only richly rewarding in its own right, but it’s also incredibly well voice-acted. Simple the presentation might be, but many (most?) flasher-looking games would be embarrassed by the narrative tapestry CD Projekt Red have managed to weave with it.
The bulk of your time with Thronebreaker will be spent playing cards; if you’re already familiar with The Witcher, you’ll recognise the core of this experience as Gwent - a card game you can play inside of The Witcher 3 as well as a stand-alone title on multiple platforms (excluding Switch). Deceptively simple at first glance, there’s actually an astounding amount of depth in the gameplay - depth that’s further expanded upon in Thronebreaker by the various puzzles and scenarios you encounter.
It’s hard to explain exactly how Gwent works in a review, and there are plenty of websites and videos out there that already have. Instead, let me just say that its turn-based nature, relatively quick battles, and clear flow of power toward an obvious victor make for a very rewarding loop that will have many saying “just one more fight” way past their regular bedtimes. You’ll get the basics in a few short minutes and still be thinking up brand new strategies weeks after first picking it up; the mechanics are, quite simply, brilliant.
The card-based battles themselves are, of course, augmented by a strategic layer of gameplay in which you need to choose which cards to take into a fight from a pool of possible choices that keeps expanding as you unlock new options. This layer of consideration gives you the ability to tweak your setup or even completely change your approach, dramatically altering the way in which each battle plays out.
The bits between card battles are navigated by way of a top-down map, across which our hero Meve charts her course. In addition to moving between key locations (towns, farms, graveyards, etc.), Meve needs to pay close attention to the side roads and byways, lest important resources like wood and gold lay unclaimed - these self-same assets are not just a way to unlock cards; you’ll also need them to bribe people, gain access to areas, and generally deploy the way you see fit. Rather than just being a visual metaphor for what is essentially a menu, this section of the experience is also nicely fleshed out; you’ll frequently have options as to how you handle a situation (think: Knights of the Old Republic) and those choices will often come back to affect how later sessions of the gameplay.
Navigating the nicely detailed world, however, is one of the few areas where Thronebreaker is weak. You’ll often get caught behind some scenery, miss something important, or give up trying to get to somewhere that’s right in front of you because you can’t figure out which part of the scenery is permeable. It’s far from a disaster, but it can be quite awkward and - given the high quality of the rest of the presentation - it sticks out.
Gwent itself and deck management can be a bit confusing; there are initial tutorials, which are great, but it’s not long before you’re out on your own, with very little support. The interface is reasonably intuitive for one new to Gwent but not to card games, but I definitely struggled from time to time - your mileage may vary here.
In general, though, it’s hard to be anything but effusive when describing Thronebreaker . The story is fantastic, the voice acting best in class, and the gameplay itself an almost perfect mix of fun and frustrating (which makes figuring out how to get past a certain battle or puzzle exhilarating). Battles are fun, the effects effective, and the experience near-perfectly suited to the “play whenever and however you like” nature of the Switch. Highly recommended.
+ Story and voice acting is best in class.
- There’s lots you’ll learn by trial and error alone.