On paper, The Witcher: Monster Slayer (available for free on Android and iOS) seems like a rock-solid idea. The game combines the dark tone, deep lore and violent action of the Witcher games with the “get outside and walk around” gameplay of Pokémon Go. From a thematic standpoint, this makes perfect sense. A Witcher’s whole raison d’être is to walk from town to town, slaying monsters as he goes. It sustained a book series and a game trilogy, and is currently working wonders for a Netflix series.
And yet, as I walked from one corner of my neighborhood to the next, periodically stopping to do battle with all manner of vampires, ghouls and ogres, I had an unfortunate realization: I was playing through the most tedious part of the Witcher games, just in real life.
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A walk to remember
Anyone who’s played The Witcher trilogy knows that it’s comprised of three exceptional games. As Geralt of Rivia, you slay fearsome monsters, undertake morally complicated quests and advance a sweeping narrative where politics and sorcery collide. And, to do all these things, you need to walk from place to place. You need to walk a lot, in fact.
What I never realized about all the “walking from place to place” in the Witcher is that it’s fairly boring. It’s necessary, to an extent — after all, it helps pace out the big encounters, and gives the world a sense of scope. There’s also the possibility of discovering something unexpected along the way. But what makes the traversal tolerable is that you’re almost guaranteed something interesting at the end of the road.
In The Witcher: Monster Slayer, on the other hand, walking seems to be the main activity. At the very least, it’s what you’ll spend most of your time doing. I spent about an hour and a half walking around my neighborhood to see what I could accomplish in the game. The answer was “not much.”
If you’ve never played The Witcher: Monster Slayer (or a similar “walk around and do things in augmented reality” game, like Pokémon Go), the basic premise is pretty simple. The game syncs up with a real-world map of your surroundings. You walk around your neighborhood, and encounter monsters every few blocks. When you get within proximity of a foe, you can initiate a battle. Here, you can swipe your finger to swing your sword, hold your finger down to parry or draw a symbol to cast a spell. It’s all very straightforward, although the controls in a game like Infinity Blade are much more precise.
The trouble is that these monster battles are short and shallow, and they’re the most common “reward” you’ll get for all your walking around. Furthermore, you can’t even defeat most of the monsters you meet early on. Any monster with a skull symbol next to it represents a significant challenge; any monster with two skulls, you may as well forget about. You can craft oils, potions and bombs to aid you against these beasts. But doing so takes a while, and you can craft only one item at time, unless you pony up some real-world money for microtransactions.
When you get right down to it, The Witcher: Monster Slayer has very little gameplay, even by mobile game standards. Most of the time, you’ll be walking around with your face glued to your phone; occasionally, you’ll stop to swipe at the screen a bunch of times. Frankly, even without playing the game, I think this is the way most people walk around their neighborhoods lately.
The Witcher: Monster Slayer does have a few bright spots. There is a central story quest, and it’s fully of fully voiced characters, dialogue options and attractive motion-comic artwork. The immersion at the heart of the game is also admittedly pretty cool. Seeing a familiar map of my neighborhood overlaid with a fantasy veneer and a whole host of monsters made the real world feel just a little more magical for an evening.
In fact, there were a handful of times when I really did feel like a Witcher on a dangerous quest. The game’s first story mission challenges you to identify and track down a griffin, with only a general location to go on. I had to follow a directional pointer on my screen, not knowing exactly where I’d wind up, before the griffin’s first victim — a cart horse — appeared unexpectedly front of a real estate office. In the game’s second story mission, I had to venture even farther out to find three altars to a dangerous gargoyle king.
(Granted, I could have simply zoomed out on the map to see exactly where I was going. But there was something undeniably charming about setting off in a direction, knowing I’d zero in on the exact location over time.)
But the more I played The Witcher: Monster Slayer, the more I realized that I was missing out on the best parts of wandering around my neighborhood. First and foremost, I wasn’t really free to go wherever I wanted. Instead, I had to follow the trail of monsters, and they were usually on nondescript residential streets, or in front of businesses I’d seen a thousand times before.
I also realized that even if I did find an interesting place, there was no point in stopping there. To The Witcher: Monster Slayer’s credit, I did find a late-night coffee shop that I’d never seen before, a little off the beaten path. But I realized that if I sat down and got a snack, I’d have to put the game away and do something else until I started walking again. After all, the monsters never come to you.
Furthermore, even if you put aside potential safety issues (there are a lot of streets to cross in my neighborhood; a lot of suburban neighborhoods don’t have sidewalks at all), there’s something profoundly uninteresting about getting outside, only to spend your entire time engrossed in your phone. You can turn on the game’s AR mode, where you can see the monsters overlaid in real-world environments, but you’ll still need to split your attention between your phone and your surroundings — and your surroundings will usually lose out.
The Witcher: Monster Slayer has its heart in the right place. It wants players to feel like fantasy adventurers on a quest for parts unknown, and that sounds like a promising way to spend an evening. But getting from place to place is arguably the least interesting part of any Witcher game, and Monster Slayer is no exception. Try it out if you wish Pokémon Go had a better-defined story and setting, but don’t be surprised if you wind up opting for a podcast or some music instead on your next neighborhood jaunt.