Every Friday, several A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
It’s as I’m standing on a quiet Portland street, looking at the bloody severed horse head resting half off a curb across from a public park, that I start to suspect that the new Witcher mobile game might actually be kind of interesting.
Previous to that moment, I’ll confess to not having been especially impressed with The Witcher: Monster Slayer, which attempts to slap the extremely lucrative mobile model pioneered by Pokémon Go—i.e., send phone-equipped doofuses out into the world to scoop up as many augmented reality collectibles as they can get before accidentally walking into traffic—to a fictional world that really didn’t match that sort of exploratory tone. Pokémon was literally built for this kind of “walk around, catch stuff” action, after all, and developer Niantic’s Harry Potter-themed follow-up, Wizards Unite, managed to fudge just enough details to make a sort of sense. But while the world of The Witcher does tend to feature lots of walking—usually either to, or from, a war crime—it felt like an odd fit for a free-to-play mobile game designed for the masses to enjoy.
For one thing, it just didn’t feel very Witcher-y, at least in its opening paces, with nary a nipple or anti-dwarf racist in sight. (When I first met one of the game’s human characters, and he failed to shun my fledgling Witcher as a hated and feared mutant, I really despaired of any of the series’ signature tone leaking in.) It wasn’t until I embraced the silliness of the game’s AR integration—and specifically let it lead me into the aforementioned side street, where I encountered my new equine friend (instant nickname: “Mr. Dead”)—that I could see the places where fun or novelty might be found. That includes the game’s quest system, which picks a location somewhere near you, designates it as a spot of interest, and then sends you lumbering over to it, slapping down pleasantly grotesque monsters along the way.
This—sending players to specific spots in the actual reality—is, honestly, an awful, not especially safe idea, especially since developer Spokko doesn’t have Niantic’s years worth of data about properly scouted real-world locations to pull from when assigning these locales. (If the worst thing that happens to me while playing this game is getting weird looks from the salespeople at the Toyota dealership it forced me onto, because it thought the parking lot was an actual road, I’ll be very lucky.) And yet it’s also genuinely interesting, forcing players to reckon with navigation in ways that other AR map games haven’t. Walking past libraries and strip joints—ah, Portland!—on the way to my assigned destination gave me a sense of connection between the game and the world, even if I was still periodically looking down at my phone to swat away a zombie. (Also, it’s worth mentioning that you can relocate those quest locations, although it’s kept on an ill-advised timer.)
Beyond that, Monster Slayer is mostly trappings. (And not the “lure the griffon to its doom” kind.) True to the series, monsters are difficult to take down without proper preparation and potions, but this ends up feeling mostly like a way to force players to engage with the inevitable microtransactions to get more alchemy loot. (At least there’s no energy system.) The actual fights are twitch-heavy but actually kind of fun, though, especially when compared to the ad nauseum tracing in Wizards Unite. And if the worst thing you can say about the game is that it’s a somewhat dumber way to get an evening’s walk in—just like the other titles in this small-but-growing genre—at least now we have an option for that sort of exercise where you can see some genuinely fucked-up shit, instead of the usual old crop of Rattatas and runaway Bludgers.