A few hours into The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt it becomes clear: I’m already stuck. Not that I don’t know where to go or how to get there, I’m just cripplingly underpowered. Leveling up in this game—as with so many AAA action-adventure RPG-style titles these days—is grueling, an endless parade of side quests and enemy battles. I, meanwhile, am a chronic one-leveler, always yearning to operate at one or two notches above the suggested level for a given task. For Witcher 3 this has led to the inevitable: being trapped in the grind.
Grinding to level up isn’t new. And happily, it’s a little less monotonous than it used to be. Back in the day, it just meant throwing yourself into battle after battle, trying to accumulate those precious points (hello, every Final Fantasy game). Now, games usually give you more ways to do this beyond straight combat. But that doesn’t mean it’s not monotonous, especially when you’ve just started button-mashing on something new.
Put another way, grinding is a big, stupid chore. Not only that, it’s a big, stupid chore that too often comes during those precious early hours of a game when you’re just trying to get your bearings and master the gameplay mechanics. And when you’re being dropped into a sequel and haven’t played the previous installments (Wild Hunt is my first foray into the Witcher franchise; sue me), these early moments are even more integral to grasping what’s going on. Spending them on the grind can be, well, a drag.
Unfortunately, with Witcher 3, it is an unavoidable one. As soon as I completed the first main quest, I arrived at a different area of the World Map severely under-leveled. I hadn’t completed enough of the side quests at the beginning of the game (many of which expired after I completed that first quest; whoops), and now I was facing an uphill battle.
I’ll admit it: There are times when grinding to level up can be useful. Those side quests enable players to figure out new fighting mechanics and to try new combat tricks with little risk. And it can be a lot of fun to explore the map, which can add experience points. I’d even argue that this is integral to the game; if you play an open-world game without straying from the beaten path, what’s the point?
This isn’t complaining about having to do things that aren’t the main quest (and let me be clear, I am absolutely whining here). It’s about being required to do these things. The incredible thing about The Witcher 3 is how big it is; the world is massive, and there’s something new tucked in every nook of the map. The flip side of such a large game is that it can feel overwhelming. Staying focused on the main quest at the start is necessary to build familiarity with the game, and excessive grinding distracts from that. It’s quite possible that this is an intended game mechanic: The developers may have made a choice to encourage timid gamers to explore the wider world of Witcher 3 before continuing on with their questing. That’s fair, and it’s good to challenge yourself in some ways while you’re playing. But that doesn’t change the fact that I hate it. I want to play this title the way I want to—not venture to unseen realms against my will. Grinding may be a necessary evil, but it shouldn’t have to be a tedious one.
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