A lot of fantasy sagas are carried by the strength of the worlds in which they take place, and not necessarily the strength of the individual characters in them. Frodo’s journey to Mordor is thrilling, sure, but it’s not really because Frodo’s a particularly thrilling character. It’s because he’s a simple and kind person, albeit one who possesses an endless well of inner strength, who is pushed out into a world that is very much not simple or kind (it certainly stands out that there aren’t any famous sagas about hobbits who don’t go on life-changing adventures). That is very much not the case for Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher books, though. The best thing about them is main protagonist Geralt Of Rivia, the eponymous witcher played by Henry Cavill in the live-action Netflix adaptation of the books. Geralt is an anachronistic fantasy character who actively pushes back against the fact that he lives in a fantasy world, even as it conspires to constantly put him in the position to save princesses, undo evil curses, and fall in love with beautiful sorceresses. He’s a hero, but he’s a hero who thinks being a hero is stupid.
Netflix’s new anime prequel Nightmare Of The Wolf, on the other hand, offers a fairly compelling counterargument. It takes place years before Geralt became a witcher, focusing instead on his mentor Vesemir (who will make his live-action debut in season two of the Netflix show), and it does a good job selling the world of The Witcher beyond its best character. A lot of that is thanks to the characterization of Vesemir here, who is more of a dashing rogue or a Han Solo-type than Geralt, which lends Nightmare Of The Wolf a wilder, quippier energy than mainline Witcher stories. Basically, Vesemir is really good at being a witcher and loves his job, while Geralt is really, really good at being a witcher but acts like his job is being a can opener for the Flintstones.
Unfortunately for Vesemir, the plot of Nightmare Of The Wolf is largely about dissuading him of that enthusiasm. That’s not to say it isn’t an entertaining adventure, but it starts off fun and then it becomes kind of sad (an arc that fans of the Witcher stories may recognize from, oh, most of them), charting Vesemir’s path from naively excitable hero-for-hire to the sort of grizzled mentor-type who could teach Geralt and the other comparatively young witchers how to survive in a world that hates and fears them. (Nightmare Of The Wolf also covers some ground in that department, establishing backstory for why witchers are so distrusted in Geralt’s time.)
The plot is also probably the weakest part of Nightmare Of The Wolf, if only because you can guess where it’s going even if you haven’t read the books or watched the mainline show, save for a mid-game twist that isn’t quite resolved how you might expect. There’s a violent, action-loving male hero, a magic-using, too-smart-for-this female hero who gets paired up with him even though they hold diametrically opposed viewpoints, and they’re tasked with finding and killing some kind of monster that’s been terrorizing a small town… it’s all very Castlevania, or at least Netflix’s Castlevania anime, but thankfully that’s a good thing.
Like Castlevania, the best thing about Nightmare Of The Wolf is the very violent action, which not only shows Vesemir flying through the air and ripping through monsters with his witcher sword in a way that Geralt—no disrespect to Henry Cavill—would never be able to pull off in the show without some aesthetic-breaking wire work, but there are a lot of lore-accurate details that are fun to see. Vesemir drinks potions that make his eyes look scary, he pours special oils on his sword before going into battle, and, like in the books, witcher-style swordplay involves a lot of pirouetting and feinting that is a little more visually dynamic than the mindless charging and swinging you mostly see in your Lord Of The Rings or your Game Of Thrones.
The voice acting is all serviceable, with the various witchers clearly having the most fun with it. Nearly everyone else (including Lara Pulver, Graham McTavish, and Mary McDonnell) is just doing a “solemn, vaguely British fantasy person” voice, which does the job. It would’ve been fun to have Kim Bodnia, who will depict Vesemir on The Witcher, voice the character here to establish a bit of continuity between the animated spin-off and the regular show, but this take from Theo James of the Divergent movies is plenty of fun. (He’s too young and handsome to play live-action Vesemir, though.)
Nightmare Of The Wolf isn’t a replacement for seeing Geralt drop dad jokes, hang out with a poet, and fall in love with sorceresses, but it is a nice appetizer for the next release from the Witcher universe (season two is coming on December 17). It’s fun to see this world, with all of its inhuman monsters and monstrous humans, from a different point of view, even if it isn’t quite as refreshing or engaging as Geralt’s.