Released for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC back in 2015, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was an immediate critical and commercial darling. During E3 2019, Nintendo made the surprise announcement that the game would be coming to Nintendo Switch. Cue disbelief.
This was an undeniably exciting announcement, but the more skeptical among us were convinced that such a massive game wouldn’t be able to run well on the Switch, a device that is objectively less powerful than the PS4 and Xbox One. I love my Switch, but that’s just the way it is. Sorry guys.
I must admit that I counted myself among those skeptics. While I was giddy at the prospect of being able to take one of my favourite games with me wherever I go (I exclusively use my Switch in handheld mode), I found myself asking; “what’s the catch? What concessions have been made, what dark bargains struck to fit a game of this size on Switch?”
After promising myself I’d reserve judgement until I saw the game running with my own eyes (the E3 trailer gave nothing away), I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend a few hours of hands-on time with The Witcher 3 on Switch, and it runs well, guys. Like, unbelievably well.
CD Projekt RED, together with developer Saber Interactive, have managed what many assumed would be impossible: Porting one of the largest games of this generation to a handheld machine, with minimal problems.
“I think over a year ago or so, the conversations started to bring The Witcher to Switch”, CD Projekt RED’s Piotr Chrzanowski told me during an interview. Chrzanowski is a Senior Producer at CDPR who’s worked closely with Saber to ensure that the Switch port is of the highest quality possible.
Chrzanowski made it clear to me that bringing the game to Switch was not a decision CDPR simply arrived at one day – it was a process. The studio started by seeing how feasible it was to port the engine over to Switch, and built it up piece by piece from there.
He told me:
We started first by saying; ‘okay, if we can port the engine, can we get the gameplay in a limited scope?’ Like, a short prologue or area of the map, and we kind of grew from there and built up the full product. And that’s kind of how it started and how we went through the full cycle.
Saber Interactive was chosen for this undertaking for a few reasons, according to Chrzanowski. The studio has previous in porting games over to Nintendo Switch, having handled NBA Playgrounds and its sequel, for one thing.
Saber had also previously worked with CDPR on the performance updates for The Witcher 3 on PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, so as Chrzanowski put it; “they knew our in-house engine, they knew The Witcher 3. They understand the product, and we knew we could actually get it to market working with them.”
So while Saber has been handling the “full execution” of the project, CDPR remained on hand to provide “high level guidance and overall direction towards production”, and to make sure that the final product is “up to the quality and expectations of what we believe in.”
The Switcher 3 still needs a little more tweaking before its ready for release towards the end of 2019, I’m told, but I think it’s safe to say that what I played during my time with the game is very much up to CDPR’s famously high standards.
What immediately struck me when I first loaded up the game and ran through the prologue was that the character models are essentially unchanged. Any fears that Geralt, Yennefer, Ciri, and co would be reduced to lifeless, expressionless potatoes were immediately allayed as I ran through the first in-engine cutscenes and was immediately drawn back into the White Wolf’s epic search for long-lost friends.
These are still high-quality character models, full of life – even Geralt’s hair maintains an impressive level of bounce. I’d love to know what conditioner he uses. Drowner blood, probably. That or Head and Shoulders.
With the option to jump into multiple save files and explore the game’s various regions, I decided to do a quick tour of the world to see how the game’s many locations hold up. Even if they aren’t quite as detailed as they appear in other versions of the game, environments are still absolutely stunning to look at.
The way the sunset bathes the fields of Velen as you dart across the dirt on Roach while the wind gently rustles the trees is breathtaking. The rain soaked, craggy peaks of Skellige remain as enchanting on Switch as they were on other platforms.
Even the colourful, packed with greenery Touissant from the Blood & Wine expansion holds up on the handheld machine. There were so many moments that I had to take a beat to remind myself I was playing this game on a Nintendo Switch
Obviously, some sacrifices have been made in order the ram the game and all its DLC onto a single cart, but the cost is nowhere near as dear as you might have thought.
Textures are a little less detailed, the draw distance and framerate have been reduced quite a bit, the audio has been compressed and there’s a decent amount of pop-in as you ride through areas that are a little more heavy on foliage, but none of these issues really detract from the experience.
For the most part? It looks the business, it really does. The Witcher 3 might just be the best looking game on Nintendo Switch, in fact. The only concession that might rub some players up the wrong way is the increased motion blur. There’s a lot more motion blur in Switcher, which sometimes made combat a touch more intense than it needed to be.
Oh, a quick note on combat: it feels and plays pretty much the same as it does on other consoles. That is to say, if you hated the combat system on PS4, Xbox One, or PC, nothing has changed – you’ll still hate it. Sorry about that.
If anything, combat can actually feel a little bit more fiddly, but that could just be because I’m not used to playing The Witcher 3 with Joy-Cons yet. I’ll reserve final judgement on how it handles for when I’ve got a review copy in my mitts, but for now? Everything feels more or less as it should.
One of my biggest fears was that loading screens would take a hit as you fast traveled between areas. To test this, I traveled between regions, and various locations within the same region a few times. When I got home, I did the same with my copy of The Witcher 3 on PS4, and found very little difference between loading times, to my genuine amazement. Perhaps one or two seconds more on Switch, max.
Chrzanowski told me that was important to CDPR and Saber that The Witcher 3 be the same experience on Nintendo Switch as it is on all platforms. It’s an ethos the company clearly believes in, following the recent news that Cyberpunk 2077 wouldn’t feature any platform exclusive content or pre-order bonuses at any point.
We wanted to provide the same experience across all platforms, for people to buy the game on Switch and for it to be the full game, so they can enjoy that. We did what we could to make sure The Witcher 3 on Switch is as it is.
This belief in a unified experience cuts both ways of course, so don’t expect to see Geralt running around with a Master Sword or green tunic – as incredibly awesome as that would be, there are no plans to include Nintendo-specific content in the same way that the Switch port of Skyrim did.
While there might not be any new quests or cosmetic items exclusive to Switch, Saber has made a few smart tweaks to The Witcher 3 on the handheld console. The UI has been slightly updated to include larger text size, for example, in order for people playing the game in handheld mode to actually be able to read what’s going on.
I was, if you haven’t already guessed, thoroughly impressed with my time playing The Witcher 3 on Nintendo Switch. I asked Chrzanowski if a port of this quality is proof that virtually any current-gen game could be ported onto the console with enough work.
He took a second to consider the question, clearly not wanting to speak for the scores of other talented studios and hardworking developers out there. Eventually, he told me that “it all depends on the specifics of each engine.” On a personal level though, he told me he was “happy that we managed to port our engine – I think it shows the flexibility of what we’ve produced so far.”
Oh, and if you’re wondering, I did try to ask if we’d be seeing Cyberpunk 2077 on Switch one day. I was, predictably, met with the standard line; “We are releasing Cyberpunk on PC, PS4,and Xbox and we are sticking to that message.”
That’s not a yes then, but it’s certainly not a know either. A few months ago, I would have said that Cyberpunk 2077 on Switch would be a fool’s dream, but after playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt on Nintendo’s machine, I’m very much left feeling that anything is possible now – what a feeling.
I don’t really know what else to tell you. If you’ve played The Witcher 3, you’ll know how special it is, and it’s still very much that special on Switch. Its vast, gorgeous open world is still teeming with stories to discover, monsters to slay, and murky moral choices to navigate.
The script is still sparkling, whether you’re embarking on one of the game’s many side quests or pursuing the main story, and the performances and score are still best in class. Simply put, one of the best RPGs of the last few decades is now on a portable machine, and that’s as good a reason as any to revisit it.
Ewan Moore is a journalist at UNILAD Gaming who still quite hasn’t gotten out of his mid 00’s emo phase. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in 2015 with a BA in Journalism & Media Studies (thanks for asking), he went on to do some freelance words for various places, including Kotaku, Den of Geek, and TheSixthAxis, before landing a full time gig at UNILAD in 2016.