I came across this video and accompanying blog post in my feverish attempts to consume any and all media created surrounding The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Both pieces suggested that the "best" way to play the game was with the difficulty set to the easiest level.
I will now do my best to convince you of the opposite.
Before I get too far into this, I want to say that if you want to just experience the story, cruise through the game, and see all the pretty sights, go ahead, put the game on the easiest difficulty, aptly named "Just the Story!" There is no wrong way to play a game you enjoy, so please don't feel shamed or pressured by my advice.
However, if you want to fully enjoy the game, and really feel like you're a Witcher in this brutal world, you need to play on the "Death March" difficulty level.
The combat is deeper than you think
The easier difficulties levels of The Witcher 3 allow you to coast through the game without learning the intricacies of the combat; you can succeed by mashing the light attack and maybe popping a sign here and there. While this does indeed make the game easier for the uninitiated, it also masks one of the richest combat systems of modern games.
The comparisons to other games are well earned, but a bit shallow. While both Rocksteady's Arkham series and The Witcher 3 are games designed to make you feel like a badass, the latter requires a bit more work on behalf of the player.
The Arkham combat feels more like ballet.
The Arkham games have a very friendly progression curve, as the game starts you off as an unstoppable ass-kicking machine. Which is fitting, because you're the Batman. The game continues to make you more powerful as things progress; the combat is fluid and generally forgiving. You can effortlessly stomp crowds of thugs, and getting good generally just means an easier path to leveling up as you land more combos.
Compare that fluid, forgiving combat with The Witcher's lore. Geralt is training Ciri in an early scene in the Witcher novel The Blood of Elves. Ciri is failing at one of the obstacles in Kaer Morhen, and Geralt gives her a key piece of advice: "This is a fight, Ciri, not ballet. You can't move rhythmically in a fight. You have to distract the opponent with your moves, confuse his reactions. Ready for another try?"
The Arkham combat feels more like ballet. It's enjoyable and looks great, but it often lacks risk. Missing a combo just means you aren't as effective of a pain machine; it doesn't end with a bandit's axe buried in your back.
The Souls games, on the opposite end of the spectrum, punish you severely for mistakes, and generally require the player to be a lot more measured and patient than the Arkham series. Because of the animation locking that defines the Souls combat, enemies telegraph their moves and in most one-on-one situations, you're waiting for an opening and exploiting it while trying to avoid or minimize many-on-one scenarios.
The Witcher 3 does not have the automatic combos and countering of the Arkham games nor the rigid animation locking of the Souls games. There is a sluggishness to Geralt's movement and abilities that sometimes can lead to frustrating deaths. The hardest difficulty will mean that you'll often face undeserved deaths because of this latency and that can be extremely off-putting, especially early in the game.
In The Witcher 3, allowing yourself to be surrounded is dangerous and often lethal.
However, a player who learns the various systems will overcome this challenge and will be rewarded with a system that marries some of the best parts of the Arkham and Souls games.
As Batman in the Arkham games, you are encouraged to surround yourself with enemies, and then you use their various attacks as counter-attack fuel, increasing your combo multiplier and using enemies' weapons against them. In The Witcher 3, allowing yourself to be surrounded is dangerous and often lethal. As Geralt, you will often take on large groups of enemies but you'll need to be much more thoughtful in your approach.
While it may not be initially apparent, the controls in The Witcher 3 do equip you to move gracefully through packs of enemies. Depending on when you choose to dodge, you may make a backwards step away from an incoming thrust, or you may casually sidestep around the enemy, allowing for a brutal counter. Coming out of a roll and correctly timing a fast attack will unleash a deadly thrust directly into the stomach of an opponent. These movements aren't highlighted with any sort of combo indicator or audio cue, but they allow you to move fluidly through a group, wreaking havoc.
Players who invest the time in understanding these movements and capabilities will find a combat system that successfully marries the speed and deadliness of the Arkham series with the ever-present risk of the Souls games, and transcends both to create an exceptionally satisfying spectacle of swordplay.
Potions and Oils and Bombs, oh my
The alchemy and crafting system in The Witcher games can seem, at first glance, to be overwrought. There are many different oils, potions, decoctions and bombs that you'll be able to craft as you go through the game.
It is likely you may never need to use these if you're playing on the easiest difficulty level. The best part about the higher difficulties is that they force you not only to use, but to become adept at these dark arts. The rewards are many, and alchemy is such a large part of the lore than any difficulty that allows you to ignore them completely feels like a design failure.
Walking into a battle prepared is a key part of a Witcher's profession, and this is proven again and again in the lore and world-building. Knowing what you're up against and preparing the appropriate potions and oils is all a part of the job.
Outside of the role-playing and lore implications of this, it is very satisfying as a player to know that you researched your enemy, prepared for the fight and then you kicked ass because you were well prepared.
Watching the explosions chain together and immolate an entire pack of monsters is deeply rewarding.
Witcher potions also come with toxicity, which is a well-designed limiter for potion consumption. Drinking potions (short term buffs and health recovery) and decoctions (more powerful, longer lasting buffs) will increase the toxicity meter. If this meter becomes full, you'll begin to lose health over time until toxicity is back within a healthy threshold.
This means that unlike many games, when you are low on health in The Witcher 3, you can't just guzzle healing potions, nor can you make yourself godlike by juicing up on attack power increases. Even in Bloodborne you're never more than a few blood vials away from full health. When you are wounded in The Witcher 3, you must be tactical and choose your strikes.
On a more mechanical level, the spectacle of tossing a couple Dragon's Dream bombs to create a cloud of flammable gas, igniting it with a well placed Igni sign, and then watching the explosion chain together and immolate an entire pack of monsters is deeply rewarding.
Playing on a higher difficulty will mean that learning and using these systems effectively will be encouraged and after learning to use them, you'll feel much more powerful. It rounds out the game and makes sense in the world. Missing this aspect of the game is a shame.
On being a Witcher
The world of the Witcher is cruel. The combat of The Witcher 3 reflects that, especially when played on the hardest difficulty. Health is restored only through potions or food and, while no video game health recovery is truly realistic, this system requires players to be more thoughtful about their in-game vitality.
Players may struggle early on with recovering hit points, but after the first few witcher contracts, food and coin will be ubiquitous. Looting downed bandits and wolves will give more than enough equipment to sell and meat to recover health.
The first time you just barely sidestep an otherwise lethal sword strike and counter with a decapitation, then perfectly time an Aard sign to blast an incoming arrow into another nearby bandit (yes, this is a thing you can do in The Witcher 3), you'll agree that cranking up the difficulty and investing the time to learn the nuances of the combat system is well worth it.
And should you make an error and get run through with a pitchfork from some dullard peasant, you might think that's a very un-Witcher-like way to die, but I assure you that you couldn't be further from the truth.
Polygon Video: The Witcher 3 - monster contract guide