Artwork of Geralt and Meve from Thronebreaker

Gwent's singleplayer campaign Thronebreaker was supposed to arrive nearly two years ago, but due to a series of unfortunate circumstances it ended up being delayed over and over again. By the time Gwent's second major rework was announced around half a year ago, I was just about ready to write Thronebreaker off completely. As such, I hope you can understand just how pleasantly surprised I was when Thronebreaker not only came out, but ended up being a pretty darn enjoyable game as well!

So if you're curious about what Thronebreaker has to offer in terms of gameplay and story, as well as where exactly it falls flat on its face, allow me to share my thoughts after a rather long and eventful campaign.

Gwent Thronebreaker screenshot of Queen Meve from a cinematic

Queen Meve - proud, loyal, and overly self-confident

The first thing I have to commend Thronebreaker on is that it didn't go the usual route by making the campaign nothing more than a string of card game battles, all loosely tied together with the flimsiest of plots. Instead, Thronebreaker is a story-focused RPG through and through - it's just that it uses card game elements in place of the usual combat system. In other words, you still have the ability to explore the world at your leisure, talk to a variety of intriguing characters you meet along the way, make plenty of morally gray decisions with seemingly long-standing consequences, and naturally, strip-mine the entire landscape in search of secrets and resources.

Since Thronebreaker's scope is considerably smaller than The Witcher 3's, the whole experience is a bit more linear than how it might appear on first glance. Personally, I don't consider that too much of a problem as it helps keep the pace up. After all, if you're trying to tell a story about a group of characters in truly dire circumstances, it's probably for the best if the player can't get sidetracked for hours upon hours with unrelated side quests.

That said, there's still a decent chunk of content present in each map, especially if you're willing to go out of your way to find all of the hidden chests that reward you with some fancy Gwent cards. I just wish you were able to get an equally fancy card to use in Thronebreaker as well, because while I do plan on playing Gwent, it still felt a bit disappointing to go through a lengthy treasure hunt only to end up with something you simply cannot use in the campaign itself.

Gwent Thronebreaker screenshot of a map riddled with loot

I hope you like loot, because there is a lot of it!

Besides collecting cards and portraits for Gwent, each of Thronebreaker's maps also offers three major resources you'll need in order to upgrade your base and construct new cards: gold, wood and recruits. As a fan of both card games and RPGs that let you manage your own base, this system immediately clicked with me, and soon enough I managed to construct pretty much all of the most useful upgrades. Getting such a massive power-spike felt absolutely amazing at the time, but that feeling slowly started fading away as I went further and further into Thronebreaker's campaign, my coffers becoming obscenely large from all of the gold I had managed to amass simply by exploring the map at a casual pace.

It's about the time I entered into the third chapter that I finally realized what the problem is: I no longer cared about any of the resources or the tension that might come from spending them. This was especially problematic for the story as it constantly kept reinforcing the idea that you have to make sacrifices, that you cannot help every village along the way because your own soldiers are poor and starving as well, and yet I had more gold bars in my vault than the Emperor of Nilfgaard himself.

While this might seem like the pettiest of complaints, it is something I would like to see fixed in the near future as the overabundance of resources really does undermine the desperate atmosphere of the situation, and that is a real shame since both the writing and voice acting are top notch. More on this a bit later as the problem sadly rears its ugly head once more.

Gwent Thronebreaker screenshot of a burning countryside

The burning countryside will be your somber companion throughout the campaign

For now, I would like to shift the focus towards the Gwent card game itself. As you progress through the campaign you will find two primary types of battles: puzzles and standard games of Gwent. Out of the two, the puzzles are the definitive highlight of Thronebreaker as pretty much every single one was well designed and interesting to tackle. Even some of the earliest puzzles will requires you to stop for a couple of minutes and really work things through, which for me was a delightful breath of fresh air as I've become far too accustomed to video game puzzles that are about as complex as "flick the switch to make the thing go BOOM". 

I think the best piece of praise I can give to Gwent's puzzle design is the simple fact that I never dreaded encountering them. Instead, since they were pretty much all optional content, I would charge directly towards them as soon as I saw their telltale mark on the mini-map!

As for the standard Gwent matches, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to hear that they have been built on a very solid foundation. Each turn you only get to play one card and activate abilities you might have available, meaning that there is a great deal of strategy you can potentially tap into. If you're so inclined, you can set up a deck that's almost nothing but disruption and damage, thus essentially locking your opponent out of the game with precision strikes. Or if you're like me, you can fill your deck with super-efficient units that create or summon additional units, thus slowly but surely overwhelming your foe with sheer force of numbers. But whatever playstyle you might prefer, the important thing to take away from this is that Gwent (and by extension Thronebreaker) has a great deal of depth to it, should you decide to really dig in.

The card types and mechanics I've encountered throughout the campaign were also genuinely fun to play around with, while the art, animations and sound made the whole thing rather exciting. I have to give a special shout-out to whoever voice acted the Nilfgaardian troops as their ridiculously over-the-top "ALBAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA" battlecry will probably be stuck in my mind for many years to come. So while I may have very little actual experience with the newest online version of Gwent, I am happy to say that what is currently present in Thronebreaker is quite enjoyable to mess around with.

Gwent Thronebreaker screenshot of the new boards

The new game boards are a great improvement over all of Gwent's previous ones

Unfortunately, no matter how much I enjoy the latest Gwent rework, I simply cannot overlook the fact that the balance in Thronebreaker is downright atrocious. Even on the hardest difficulty setting I would frequently win matches with ten times more score than my opponent, completely and utterly crushing their forces. All of this is happening because of a very simple reason - a lot of the starter cards you receive are beyond ridiculously overpowered.

You would think a poor peasant conscript would be the filler card you're supposed to throw out of your deck as you move further into the campaign, but in fact it's actually one of your strongest units since each activation of your hero ability (two turns cooldown) boosts all of them by a significant amount. Combine this with the drummer card that lets you summon additional units at no cost, as well as cards that give your drummers the ability to summon even more units, and you've got a recipe for an absurdly powerful peasant militia before the enemy can even muster a couple of troops. If you're feeling particularly evil, you can also add a couple of units that create hazardous environments on your opponents side, thus swinging the balance of power even further in your favor.

Gwent Thronebreaker screenshot of a problem with difficulty

194-14, and this is without even using half of the cards in my hand

If it was just a couple of cards I would simply ignore them and build decks that actually let me play 'proper' Gwent, but pretty much any archetype you can create will be significantly more powerful than what the enemy can come up with. Besides making regular matches a bit of a chore, this also works hand in hand with the above-mentioned resource problem to create an opportunity for me to use my favorite big boy word: ludonarrative dissonance - a problem that appears when the gameplay and story are at odds with each other.

I won't go into any details in order to avoid spoilers, but you're frequently going to be put into battles that are described as nearly suicidal, sometimes even having you face off against an entire army with a bunch of peasants you just picked off the street. A truly harrowing scenario to be sure, but one that's almost impossible to take seriously when your peasant rabble can not only win the day, but win with such an overwhelming advantage that it makes you wonder if your allies are intentionally sabotaging the whole war.

Now don't get me wrong, I still enjoyed my time with Thronebreaker as the puzzle encounters with their pre-constructed decks are completely devoid of these issues, but I can't help but think how much better my experience would've been if the difficulty was more appropriate to the situation. And mind you, I played on both the normal and hardest difficulty - both of them have the exact same issue.

Gwent Thronebreaker screenshot of a puzzle battle

Some of the puzzles appear simple, but can actually get quite tricky

As for the story itself, it should once again come as little shock to hear that Thronebreaker has inherited The Witcher 3's excellent writing and voice acting. While the main narrative can be a bit predictable if you're familiar with The Witcher universe, at no point did I find myself losing interest in either the overall story or the characters themselves. This is partly because CDPR has created some remarkably likable characters, and partly because the story has managed to get me fully immersed into the world and its problems.

Once again I won't go into any details as I could easily ruin some of the surprises, but what I will say is that Thronebreaker represents the correct way of doing mature storytelling. The stakes are high and characters will die, sometimes in rather excruciating and undignified ways, but at no point does Thronebreaker treat any of that horror with anything but the utmost seriousness. There are still a few jokes here and there, mostly from one of the rogueish characters or Meve herself when she's faced with a particularly stupid situation, though thankfully they are timed well so they never work against the atmosphere or the story's tone. It is because of all of this that I found it particularly easy to get immersed into Thronebreaker's world, and why I have spent so many paragraphs bemoaning what the often trivial difficulty does to the story's impact.

Gwent Thronebreaker screenshot of a sabotage attempt

Know that while you may have the best intentions, other people might not share your ideals

I haven't had the time for multiple playthroughs so I can't comment on just how far-reaching your decisions are, but the important thing is that almost every single major choice I've made has resulted in a noticeable change in my story. Sometimes this would mean a character would leave the party because of slowly building disagreements, other times I would encounter new events that directly reference my previous choices, and sometimes I would just end up ruining my chances for future success by making a bone-headed move. None of these decisions and consequences were particularly game-defining until the very end rolled around, but they gave Thronebreaker's campaign plenty of ammunition to create a rather lively and somewhat unpredictable story, and that is certainly something I can appreciate.

Speaking of which, I especially appreciate how cleverly our protagonist Queen Meve is portrayed throughout Thronebreaker. You can be as ruthless, pragmatic or benevolent as you want, but no matter the choices you make, every single one will make perfect sense for Meve to do in the current situation. As such, she never breaks character or feels like her personality is being flinged around in order to better fit the narrative. The end result is a sympathetic leading character that you can both respect as a person, as well as use as your means of exploring Thronebreaker's world - a perfect example of how to write a strong female lead.

Gwent Thronebreaker screenshot of an adorable dog

You can also recruit an adorable dog - 10/10, game of the year!

Closing Thoughts

Thronebreaker is not an easy game to summarize. On one hand it's an excellent blend of card game strategy and classic RPG storytelling, but on the other hand the easy difficulty often makes it feel like you're playing an elaborate visual novel rather than an actual strategy game. As such, your enjoyment of it will depend almost entirely on how much you're willing to endure some of its flaws in order to get a closer look at the thoroughly engrossing Witcher universe.

That said, CDPR is well aware of Thronebreaker's problems and they have announced that they are working on a fix that's supposed to come relatively soon, so my advice would be to wait for it to arrive before making up your mind. If the update manages to rebalance the game so that the harder battles are actually as scary as they're supposed to be, that would immediately make Thronebreaker twice as good as it is right now, as well as something I could easily recommend to both RPG and card game fans like. So if you're even remotely curious, I would highly recommend keeping a close eye on Thronebreaker and its future.

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