If you hadn’t realised by now, TheGamer has once again been gripped by the throes of Witcherdom, specifically the current-gen upgrade variant, the symptoms of which are nicer reflections and better frame rates. I’ve bounced off The Witcher 3 what feels like a hundred times before, but once I finally got past the Griffin (yes, I didn’t even pass the tutorial on my previous attempts), it has well and truly sunk its talons into me.
I’m enjoying all the stories that I uncover and bonding with the characters I meet, even if there are too many quests going on at once. I cursed Geralt with a bad haircut, became a frame rate snob, and killed a fair few monsters along the way. I’m having a great time in The Continent, but nothing in the game has compared to getting to know Novigrad.
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At first, Novigrad is a daunting city, thanks to its sheer size and the warrens of side streets that web through the teetering houses, lead you to towering palaces, and tunnel to the sewers beneath. Roach is slowed to a crawl as you try to weave your way through throngs of people to your destination. The fish market? No idea mate, you’ll just have to follow your map and see where it takes you.
For multiple Novigrad questlines, I had no clue where I was going, and just followed the dotted line on my minimap as it led me through the cobblestone streets. But slowly, I began to remember my way around. First it was simple stuff, like getting from Hierarch Square to the docks. Cross the bridge to get to Temple Island. Then, the smaller areas started to fall into place. I navigated my way through the new city much like I do in real life: I remember where the pubs are. Need to get to the docks again? Well the Rosemary & Thyme is just round the corner, so head past Hattori and head southwest at the Crippled Kates. Need to exchange some foreign currency? The Kingfisher’s the place to be, then just cross the square. Heading out of town to Oxenfurt? You’ll want to stop off at the Seven Cats Inn on your way, or near enough.
It’s not just self-guided exploring that helps you get to know Novigrad, though. As well as introducing you to the colourful characters of Novigrad, from allies like Dijkstra and Triss, to gang leaders like Cleaver and Whoreson Jr., to enforcer bigwigs like Caleb Menge, quests teach you how to navigate the city. Various missions have taken you from the bathhouses to the brothels, and you’ve crawled through sewers and climbed the highest towers of Novigrad.
There’s a reason Novigrad is classed as its own region, despite being geographically far smaller than Velen and closer than Skellige – there’s more to do within these walls than in most of the other areas combined. The fact that you can't freely fast travel is another design decision that forces you to really navigate the city, and before too long, the walls that were so daunting before are now comforting.
Novigrad feels like a real city because it’s so large, so sprawling, and so well designed. It looks like a real city, it functions like a real city, but it’s so much more than cobbled streets and dark alleys. People often describe fictional cities as characters. But Novigrad isn’t a character, not in the slightest. It’s the opposite, in fact, and the characters make Novigrad. Whether that’s the warring gangs squabbling over gold and territory, the city guards cracking down on mages, Hattori the blacksmith who you always go back to to sell your wares, or the NPCs just staggering out of the pubs and trying to remember their way home, the city is alive and abuzz. There’s always something going on, and stopping on any street corner can reveal a thousand stories about Novigrad’s citizens.
While you can’t explore it in the same way you can Dishonored’s Dunwall, and it doesn’t have the pizazz of Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City, Novigrad surpasses any city I’ve ever virtually explored. Even if you start cheating and saying things like Forza’s version of Edinburgh or Assassin’s Creed’s take on Paris, Novigrad is clear. It’s incredibly rewarding to explore any of these cities, but only one feels truly alive.