"Some people mod because they like to give others joy with their creation. Others [mod] because they just fuckin' feel like it. I'm the latter." I'm chatting over Discord with Reaperrz, a Romanian college student and creator of the Witcher 3 Enhanced Edition, an overhaul mod that completely guts the vanilla game and replaces its systems with new approaches to combat, leveling, magic, and alchemy.
Reaperrz (whose full pseudonym is actually "Sir Reaperrz ‘Custard' McButtfuck, Esq") is one of very few people in the world who are ambitious enough to make an "overhaul mod." Rather than adding the mask from Predator into Witcher's Polish folklore-inspired world, overhaul mods are dramatic, sweeping, and huge amounts of work. There are about 2,100 mods for Witcher 3 listed on Mod Nexus; only about 20 of them are considered overhauls.
I talked to the creators of two of the most popular overhaul mods, Witcher 3 Enhanced Edition and Ghost Mode, to find out how and why they go about remaking one of the most ambitious and celebrated games in recent memory. The answer? Mostly boredom.
Anna, a scientist living in Samara, Russia, usually goes by the handle "Wasteland Ghost," shortened to wghost81 in most of her modding projects. She's careful, deliberate, and organized, so it makes sense that she uses her PhD in telecommunications to teach programming at the local university.
That methodical approach has made her mod, Ghost Mode, one of the most endorsed and most downloaded overhaul mods. It started small and grew over the years into a vast and comprehensive clean-up of Witcher 3's many bugs and quirks. "I was trying to fix sign skills… because half of them were not working," Anna says. "Then I realized that there are many other skills that are not working. And when I started fixing them I realized that I [was] making Geralt even more OP than he already is. So I started thinking on damage formula and on leveling system, how to improve them. And then I understood why armor was not working. So yeah, modding is a fun thing: you never know where [you'll] end up."
Anna's approach to her overhaul mod was born out of love for the game. After beating it three times, going through New Game+ mode and playing through on Death March, the hardest difficulty, she still wanted to play it but had run out of things to do. When she tried to experiment with other builds, she realized that many of the less-popular skills and signs didn't work at all. Instead of moving on to a new game, she started making changes.
As her project grew, she started fixing bugs and cleaning up inconsistencies. Did you know that fire elementals can be killed by Igni, the fire sign? I didn't, because I'd be a damn fool if I tried to cast Igni with a fire demon trying to eat my face. But it can be done., which doesn't make much sense. Though most of the monsters in the game look different, they have the same stats under the hood. When she realized that, she spent a year balancing and polishing all of the enemy and armor details. "I still have the spreadsheets," she says, calling it a "nightmare."
I spent some time with Ghost Mode and a few other favorite mods, and it reignited my love for the game in an instant. I remember being disappointed in my first play-through when I upgraded my Axii into the "puppet" mind-control spell, only to find it didn't work. Checking online, I learned it was a known bug. Bummer.
Thanks to Anna, Axii now works beautifully, and I've been tricking bandits into shanking each other for ages. Everything's the same as I remember it, but better: item descriptions don't have typos anymore and merchants don't charge an arm and a leg for a basic sword. I did cast Igni on a fire elemental, just to check, and it burned me alive as punishment. Exactly as advertised.
Enemies of all levels are also savvier. I was feeling confident in a one-on-one with a bandit holding a club, so I was shocked when he dodged my counterattack and planted a hit across my jaw. I don't think I've ever been hit by a lone bandit on a road before.
Ghost Mode is very modular, and one of my favorite options is to simply goose enemy damage by 200% or so. Everything more or less feels the same, but when you get hit you really feel it. Even much lower-level bandits and wolves felt dangerous. Should wolves feel dangerous to a master witcher? That depends on the player, but personally I love it.
After almost three years, Anna has spent more than 1,200 hours inside CD Projekt's magnum opus. She's still regularly updating Ghost Mode. She loves the Witcher 3, and just wants it to be even better. "[I]f the game is bad and boring at its core, no amount of modding support can make me play it and fall in love with it," she says. "And falling in love with the game is the first step, at least for me."
The Witcher 3 Enhanced Edition
"Yeah, I hated the game," Reaperrz says. "I still do, really." After Witcher 2, Reaperrz got as far as White Orchard before he felt like Witcher 3 was a disappointment. The way the combat camera auto-aims, the way nuisance creatures like nekkers level up with you to always pose a (slight) challenge; Witcher 3 felt like too much handholding and not enough freedom to learn new skills.
"I think a game is more fun if you need to get a feel for the mechanics, find out small ways things interact with each other," he says. "I wanted to drop the game after White Orchard because I grew to hate it so much. I noticed you [could] fumble around in there a bit and change some stuff, so with my then sub-par knowledge I started changing stuff around until it sort of worked differently."
The Witcher 3 Enhanced Edition, unlike most of the mods on the Nexus, hasn't been around since Witcher 3 launched in 2015. Reaperrz just posted the project in the summer of 2017, and it's already one of the most popular overhaul mods, just behind Ghost Mode by number of downloads. Reaperrz has posted videos showing how the new combat system works by eliminating the auto-targeting camera; now all of Geralt's acrobatic swordplay and backflips can be aimed manually, letting players flip around an enemy's shield or slip inside their guard.
"I just started looking at stuff more, learning. People asked different questions in the comments, pitched ideas, [and I] slowly branched out to other stuff I disliked about [the game]." By this time, Reaperzz began his degree in programming and math ("though I don't have a predisposition for either," he says). "At one point I stopped working on it for maybe a year and then came back and rewrote most of it from scratch, it kinda went on from there. It was boredom plus community drive—mostly boredom, though."
The Enhanced Edition makes the Northern Realms feel more like a real place and less like a game world. There's a brutal logic working behind Reaperrz's mod. All levels have been removed, even from Geralt himself. "A nekker is always a nekker," Reaperrz says, and he means it. Getting better at skills and unlocking new talents only come from experience using those skills; players become better at alchemy by making potions, not by killing monsters and deciding to spend their experience points in alchemy.
The mod puts much more emphasis on a player's individual skill and dexterity aiming Geralt's attacks. Anything that feels "gamey"—like automatically refilling potions or limiting players to only three bombs—has been stripped away. Carry as many bombs as you want, as long as you can haul the weight.
I really enjoyed my time with the Enhanced Edition, but it doesn't feel as much like a Witcher game. If anything it feels a little like Dark Souls or perhaps the "hardcore" and "survival" genre of mods popular for Fallout 4 or Skyrim. In my experience, these mods are more logically satisfying than "fun," though that word almost sounds like a pejorative here. Killing monsters for coin is not "fun," and Geralt is not often jolly fellow. This mod fits that dour, grim outlook in a realistic and almost off-putting way.
Combat is the biggest difference. Without the auto-targeting camera I found myself flailing and missing enemies until I calmed down and started to aim. Fights in Enhanced Edition feel faster, and I love that head wounds or crippled limbs can happen at any time, and they dramatically change how enemies behave. I also had to unlearn my habit of spamming health potions or food during a fight, as Geralt now has to stop, put away his sword, and slowly chew an apple before it starts to heal him.
Reaperrz is still regularly updating the Enhanced Edition, and he and Anna have collaborated on a few things here and there. Reaperrz asked permission to use bug fixes and other changes Anna included in her mod. Reaperrz acknowledges that the two of them are "polar opposites." "She really loved it and modded it because of that," he says. "I hated it and had free time. The mods themselves reflect that pretty well."