There’s some cracking design choices in the Witcher. The casting of the player as a professional monster-hunter-for-hire makes all the usual quest tropes seem so much less contrived – plus the ability to haggle over the price of a job 🙂
In addition, it limits the player’s character development choices to a very specific set of skills – still plenty of options, but this is fundamentally and unashamedly a game about melee combat. The freedom of Skyrim allows the player to play how they want, but often that creates a very unbalanced experience (I played Skyrim as a full-on Mage, spells only, no armour. It involved a lot of running backwards shooting fireballs). The Witcher gives the player plenty of choices within a very specific field instead.
Finally, the depth of story in every side quest is brilliant – for example the haunted well in White Orchard, which sounds like a simple “go here, kill monster” but unfurls into an elaborate backstory that links with several NPC backgrounds and other side quests. That sense of consistency and rich detail makes for powerful worldbuilding.
The menu text is far too damn small on a console though 😉
I’m particularly taken with The Banner Saga’s map, for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, every feature on the map is clickable for a snippet of lore about that part of the world. It’s a lovely way to add depth to the gameworld and reward the player’s interest in notable landmarks.
But further play reveals something even better. An entire chapter of play covers a journey of two inches across a two-foot-square map. This world is HUGE, and difficult and dangerous to traverse. Much as I love Skyrim, the ability to fast travel to previous locations turns the explored regions of the world into a homogenous mass – the player is encouraged to teleport directly to quest locations like a globe-trotting NightCrawler. If you actually attempted to log your “journey” on the map it would look like a child’s scribble. This makes distance a trivial thing, and the epic landscape is reduced to background vistas for the towns you warp directly into. The amazing sense of place conjured by your first explorations is sacrificed on the altar of convenience. And yet there’s no attempt to mitigate the inconvenience of a cave full of dreugh. The Banner Saga makes the trials of travel one of the pillars of the gameplay, and the far-flung corners of it’s world are all the more intriguing for it.