If you have never played The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt before and have been tempted to do so by the new “next-gen” version — congratulations, I envy you — you’re in for a treat. You may ignore this post and enjoy this glorious, humane epic at the difficulty of your choosing (Story and Sword should do you just fine).
If you’ve played it before, however, and the new version of the game is encouraging you to consider a replay, then I have some advice: You should start your new game on the highest difficulty, Death March.
First, allow me to clarify something. This is not about gaming masochism, bragging rights, or an elitist test of skill. With the exception of games like Diablo where ascending the difficulty levels is baked into the core design tenets, I am normally the last person to engage a higher difficulty level on games. This is because I am not very good, and life is short.
Instead, my reason for advocating Death March difficulty in The Witcher 3 is that this setting actually enriches the gameplay systems of the game as well as the Witcher fiction itself. It leans into the game’s greatest strength and even corrects some of its flaws.
It’s also not that hard. As is the case in many games, the top difficulty setting is paradoxically most challenging at the very start of the game, before you have leveled up our witcher hero, Geralt of Rivia, and acquired some of the skills and recipes that provide him with critical advantages in defense, healing, and combat utility. The very first fight against a gaggle of level 1 ghouls is particularly tough and off-putting — especially since failure boots you back to the start of a long conversation. (This is one reason I wouldn’t recommend it to those unfamiliar with the game — new or rusty players might want to consider working their way up to it over the course of their playthrough.) Once you have assembled a rudimentary monster-hunting toolkit, however, Death March is less a test of great skill than it is a test of patience and your ability to keep a cool head — much like a FromSoftware game.
It’s also an encouragement to do a little light theorycrafting. One of The Witcher 3’s few weaknesses is its intriguing but rather unfocused role-playing system, which, combined with its less-than-razor-sharp combat, undersells the impact of its character builds and the way they interact with the powerful, status-altering decoctions. Not so in Death March. With even regular enemies able to take huge chunks out of Geralt’s health bar, and no natural out-of-combat health regen besides food, finding ways to improve Geralt’s survivability and make the most of resources is paramount. Builds focusing on signs (magic) and potions also become more attractive, while decoctions suddenly make all the difference, making the risk-reward balance of taking on their high toxicity suddenly meaningful. (Geralt’s bloodstream can only take so much toxicity, and a powerful decoction can take him so close to his limit that he can’t make much use of vital healing potions. A high-toxicity alchemy build is one of the most fun ways to play Death March.)
In combat, you’ll need to hang back, slow your rhythm down, watch your prey’s tells carefully, use Geralt’s dodge, and strike deliberately and decisively. In the search for an edge — particularly when taking a contract to hunt a powerful monster — it becomes doubly important to read the bestiary, apply the proper oils to your weapons, and consider the right potions, signs, and decoction buffs to use in the fight ahead.
Aside from making the game more mechanically interesting and bringing out the best in its systems, Death March, in short, just nails the fantasy of being a witcher.
This was already one of The Witcher 3’s strongest suits: its original, hyper-specific conception, derived from Andrzej Sapkowski’s books, of a mutant monster hunter, a skilled tracker and natural historian of the monster world who walks a poisonous tightrope as he alters his DNA for the hunt. The Witcher 3 excels as a role-playing game not because of any great freedoms it offers the player but, in part, because of its dedication to letting them inhabit every corner of this uniquely textured, alluring role.
Death March difficulty illuminates these corners in every sense. It’s a thematic decoction, a potent shot that makes Geralt’s muddy, magnificent world more treacherous, and invites you to inhabit it more fully. It makes you more of a witcher.