As a fan and critic, I try to keep as many upcoming games on my radar as possible but now and then I have the pleasure of encountering a title about which I knew almost nothing. That pleasure is compounded when it’s a well-made spinoff of one of my favorites, like in Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales. Like so many games, it’s a genre-blending mashup but unlike so many games, it seams them together rather well and the end result is a surprisingly successful RPG/Collectible Card game with an exceptionally well-written story and Gwent-inspired mechanics that are simple and endlessly deep. It matters little whether you consider Thronebreaker essentially a card game with a fully realized frame story and exploration mechanics, or an RPG with card game fighting mechanics. In the end, it’s just a lot of fun.
Set in a timeline prior to The Witcher games, Thronebreaker is the story of Queen Mave of Lyria and Rivia, who sets out under the cloud of war to investigate the unrest that has befallen her kingdom. Throughout her long, two-dozen hour journey, she encounters a large and varied cast of allies, enemies and intrigue-filled situations, many with seriously weighty moral and ethical repercussions for her people. Told through painted and animated cut scenes and dialogue trees, Queen Mave’s tale is artfully and intelligently written and incredibly well voiced by everyone at the microphone. Thronebreaker’s story and dialogue should be required reading for every indie developer who creates an RPG and ignores those important aspects of the experience. The Witcher games have been known for their mature and layered approach to character morality, and that carries over into Thronebreaker, where it seems that no decision is a simple, black or white choice.
If roughly one third of Thonebreaker is story, and another third is the central card game battle system, the final segment is the isometric-view RPG, as the Queen journey across the kingdom and scavenges for supplies, builds and improves her camp and cards, meets various characters, performs side quests, and encounters enemies and obstacles that must be overcome. Sometimes it is a matter of throwing coin at the problem, often the solution lies in card-based combat. Although the isometric RPG aspect of the Thronebreaker exists primarily to move the story along its path and trigger card battles, it is very well made.
For anyone who missed The Witcher 3, Gwent is a card game that was developed as an optional mini-game and then appeared as a fully fleshed out, stand-alone product of its own. In fact, Thronebreaker was once upon a time destined to be an expansion campaign for Gwent, before morphing into something much bigger. Gwent of course owes its existence to games like Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering, but in Thronebreaker has a slightly simplified and relatively unique approach to card battles. Gameplay is fast and rounds are over quickly and both the cards and animations are well done and engagingly animated. Crafting new cards plays into the overmap/RPG elements of Thronebreaker and the necessity of gathering resources and upgrading camp. Additionally, Thronebreaker features quite a number of puzzle matches in which the player is given a set of specific cards and must figure out the optimal way to play them. Easy enough in the first, tutorial hours of the game, these become fiendishly difficult and happily many of them can be skipped.
It is rare that a multi-genre game can be successful in more than one of its mechanics, but Thronebreaker is simultaneously an excellently written story, an entertaining isometric RPG, and an addictive and engaging card game. Finally, for fans of The Witcher universe, it gives us another excuse to live in that richly-imagined world. For me at least, Thronebreaker came out of nowhere and was a very happy surprise indeed.