Editor's note: We've updated this review to reflect our time with the PS4 version of Thronebreaker, which rarely differs from the previously released PC version. The frame-rate is drastically reduced when inspecting cards and their descriptions during battles but remains smooth and consistent outside of this. Controls are translated well to traditional controllers, although it feels odd having to control a cursor like a mouse when navigating your camp. Otherwise Thronebreaker remains the exceptional role-playing adventure it was when it launched. Playing Gwent is not impacted by the control scheme changes, and it is still the methodical collectible card game that it has been for months on PC. The original review follows.
With the Witcher trilogy, developer CD Projekt Red established that it's capable of making compelling role-playing games with tough decisions, hearty combat, and engrossing lore. In Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales, all but one of these aspects has persisted. This prequel is as captivating narratively as some of the Witcher series' best tales, filled with gut-wrenching decisions that have far-reaching consequences. The only difference is that instead of fighting with a sword, you battle with cards. Thronebreaker is an intelligent spin on the collectible card game Gwent and manages to transform its simple premise into an enthralling tale of family, loyalty, and hardship.
You play as Queen Meve, ruler of the lands known as Lyria and Rivia, on the eve of the great Nilfgaardian invasion. These ruthless imperials sweep across the land like a plague, decimating villages and their citizens and using underhanded tactics to wrestle control of kingdoms away from their rulers. Meve and her forces, returning home after another lengthy war, get caught in the middle of the invasion. With traitors around every corner and spies lurking in the shadows, you'll have to make difficult decisions about who to let into your party and who to cut ties with permanently as you rally together a guerrilla army to snuff out the Nilfgaardian invasion and rally support for a full-blown counterattack.
Thronebreaker's tale involves an entirely new cast of characters (with some notable cameos here and there) which is fully voiced throughout the 25-hour campaign. The interplay between Queen Meve and her trusted subjects is notably strong, with exceptional writing bringing each character's motivations and principles to life. Meve isn't as blank a slate for you to project upon as Geralt is, but Thronebreaker gives you room to work in her decision-making. The choices you make are painted with the same grey brush that The Witcher is known for, with no one choice promising a better outcome than the rest. Leading a dwindling army into battles with impossible odds puts an incredible amount of responsibly on your shoulders, and choosing when to be empathetic and when to be ruthless has some fascinating repercussions--both immediately and far further into the story.
You command Meve through multiple large open areas, each bearing a distinctive visual aesthetic and characters to interact with. These areas look like pages ripped from a concept art book, with stunning watercolors and brush strokes bringing sun-kissed pastures and bubbling swamps to life with impressive detail. The cel-shading on Meve and supporting characters helps define them against the background while giving them all distinctive appearances, but it can be slightly jarring when brought into focus during serious conversations. Thronebreaker is a tour around some of The Witcher's most engrossing landscapes, and it's a treat to see them from a different view.
Each area plays host to the many story battles you'll need to undertake to progress, but also numerous side missions and collectible content. Side quests can be as simple as making decisions to solve petty quarrels or as involved as hunting down dragons in dark caverns at the request of terrified villagers. Each quest has a story to tell, which can either affect the mood of your troops, bestow you with important rewards such as gold and wood, or introduce new special characters into your ranks. Skipping them can have consequences too, with characters reacting to the people you help and the bounties you choose to take. It makes Thronebreaker's world feel incredibly reactive to your choices, compelling you to take care with how you handle each of them.
Thronebreaker interweaves Gwent into its story in smart ways that keep it from feeling like an intrusive method for resolving combat situations, helping you learn its intricate systems while engaging in unique quests and rulesets.
You'll also need to gather resources in the vein of gold, wood, and requisitioned troops to better establish your fighting force. Constructing new attachments for your base camp can help you grow your deck of Gwent cards with new characters and abilities, ranging from simple Lyrian forces to noble dwarves and stealthy elves. Thronebreaker doesn't make you feel the need to scour each corner of the map for resources, instead giving you more than enough on the critical path alone. But seeing your small army grow with each passing area is rewarding, as are the effects it has on your abilities to fight with your chosen cards.
Units have a variety of abilities that can be triggered in a number of ways, many of which can be chained up with other units to create devastating combos during a single turn. Since Gwent isn't just about dolling out damage and more about field control, striking a balance between cards that damage your opponent and ones more adept at raising your personal score is paramount. Thronebreaker's shifting priorities in combat prevent the flurry of battles from wearing thin, with only a few resting on the basic rules of Gwent alone. Some standout fights had me chipping away at individual cards that made up the body of a dragon, with each piece having its own attributes that either damaged my cards or healed others. Thronebreaker contextualizes the rules of each of its encounters to fit the purpose of the story in clever ways. This makes playing Gwent consistently rewarding and helps avoid the potentially deflating transition from a rousing ride into battle to a simple game of cards on a table.
Playing Gwent in Thronebreaker can often feel like a reintroduction to the game with its new rules and stipulations, and that comes with the cost of some quests that feel too easy. On the default difficulty, most core quests won't trouble you enough to make meaningful decisions about the composition of your deck, which saps some life out of the overarching metagame of having to use resources to acquire better cards. Optional puzzle encounters make up for this though, giving you a specific deck to work with in uniquely tailored challenges. These encounters are the best learning tools Thronebreaker has to offer, exposing you to complex card combinations as a requirement to win. Often these challenges lead to card unlocks for Gwent's online component, so you're encouraged to take them up as often as they present themselves.
Don't be tricked into thinking Thronebreaker is simply a lengthy tutorial for what is to come when Gwent opens its multiplayer. Its tale is mandatory if you're looking for more Witcher lore to chew on and manages to engage you with a strong cast of well-written characters and a suitably dark plot that challenges your morals every chance it can. Thronebreaker interweaves Gwent into its story in smart ways that keep it from feeling like an intrusive method for resolving combat situations, helping you learn its intricate systems while engaging in unique quests and rulesets. Gwent was a side attraction in The Witcher 3, but through Thronebreaker, it's blossomed into something new that stands on its own as a proud member of the Witcher family.