There’s a moment towards the beginning of Witcher 2 when you hear that several people have been sentenced to death. You’re tasked with investigating the scene, and quickly realize that two of the individuals are your close friends from the original game. The bard Dandelion and dwarf Zoltan have certainly gotten themselves into a heap of trouble, and it’s up to Geralt of Rivia to save the day. I couldn’t help but smile at the situation facing my two “friends,” and quickly found myself actually inhabiting the role of Geralt. This is a testament to the immersive atmosphere and tremendous storytelling of CD Projekt. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings may be one of the finest examples of pure roleplaying in years.
Let’s rewind a bit. At the end of the first game, Geralt found himself acting as a bodyguard to King Foltest when a mysterious figure made an attempt on his life. Geralt was shocked to learn that the would-be assassin was also a witcher: a mutant strengthened through the consumption of mutagens and schooled in both sword and magic just like our white-haired hero. Intrigued by this latest mystery (and also unable to refuse the requests of a power hungry king), the amnesiac protagonist Geralt followed Foltest into battle. Provided you took the time to read the subtitle for this sequel, you can imagine how well Geralt’s job turned out. With more questions and the need to clear his name, Geralt now travels the land in search for answers to his past.
The world of Witcher 2 is all about politics and personal gain. Sure, there are dragons, vampires and prostitutes running around, but the actions of kings and their agents take center stage. The characters’ motivations help to build sympathy for individuals as well as an understanding of the inner workings of the land. Even the most power-hungry sorcerer is fleshed out in a way that makes their actions seem reasonable, and at times even justified. No one stands out as a clear villain in Witcher 2. The game and world are shadowed in a gray level of morality that makes it both easy and hard to choose allegiances. For example, you may find yourself moved by the plights of the non-humans being driven into ghettos and poverty. Whether or not you agree with their acts of terrorism on the local populations is another matter.
Toward the end of the first chapter, you’re forced to make a difficult choice between two warring factions. Many RPGs feature branching storylines and paths, but few developers do it as successfully as CD Projekt. You spend much of the first act working with both groups in a limited fashion. This helps you to learn their motivations and decide if you want to throw yourself in with them. Geralt cannot choose a neutral path as he could in the first game, which forces you as a player to decide and not look back. The second and third act change dramatically based on this choice, creating a great deal of incentive to replay the game and see the other side of the story. Characters and developments only hinted at on one path are given further explanation and focus when you place your allegiance with the other faction.
Admittedly, Witcher 2 is able to make this strong branching narrative at the cost of world size. The sequel is significantly smaller in scope than the massive original game. But the reduced world size allows for a greater level of intimacy (get your mind out of the gutter; the naked playing cards are gone). Where Dragon Age 2 merely tried to create a home for Hawke and company in Kirkwall, Witcher 2 succeeds in creating a world that feels lived in and fully realized. The opening port town of Flotsam feels more real than just about any virtual environment available today. It helps that this game is absolutely stunning to look at. I hope you have a rig capable of playing this game, if only on medium settings. The RED engine may be one of the most technically impressive architectures on the market. The art direction is also incredible. The armor, weapons, houses, castles… everything feels deeply intricate and handcrafted.
So, the world, story and presentation are all top notch and show a deep love for the rich source material. But how does Witcher 2 play? In a word: awkwardly. Witcher 2 feels like a strange hybrid of Batman: Arkham Asylum and Demon’s Souls. The problem is that the game lacks the fluidity of the former and hardcore rules of the latter. W2 looks like an action game and places you in combat situations that would look commonplace for The Dark Knight or Dante. You are quickly surrounded by enemies and given very little to work with in dealing with the onslaught. The Witcher can quickly move around in a similar fashion to those action heroes, but the combat is designed to be more like From Software’s dark fantasy. Geralt is just a man, and he can’t take on four well-armored opponents directly. This is where the combat identity crisis begins. You may be able to move between enemies and combos quickly like an action game, but you are meant to play this bad boy like a high stakes ballet of death. To compound these problems, Geralt is fairly unresponsive in combat. His slow, ponderous swings are often interrupted and lack the grace found in most action games today.
I’m always fascinated with how a game teaches the player the mechanics and techniques necessary for success. After nearly thirty five hours, I’m still waiting for Witcher 2 to properly teach me how to play it. The prologue is supposed to act as a basic tutorial, but there are simply too many options available to Geralt at the beginning of the game compared to the explanations given. I know that it’s a strange thing to complain about. If anything, I should be the guy lauding this game for giving the player options. Geralt can use bombs, traps, magical signs, throwing daggers and good ol’ steel (or silver) to defeat his enemies. But imagine trying to play chess without anyone telling you how each piece moves, and then they get to punch you in the temple every time you mess up. I burned with rage during every “Game Over” screen. I knew I was playing the game wrong, but I had no way of knowing what was being asked of me. I was able to conquer these early obstacles through sheer force of will, but it was done in the trial and error fashion that is most irritating to me as a gamer.
The leveling structure helps, though in a very odd way. Geralt has plenty of options and techniques available from the outset, but he is also severely handicapped at the start of the game. Only one leveling branch is open initially, and most of these skills are essential to survival. Enemies do a whopping 200% damage when attacking Geralt’s back, and he can only damage one target enemy at a time, even if the sword slash passes through three of them on the way to its intended target. But then something strange happens. Around the time the other three branches of progression open up to The Witcher, Geralt turns into an action hero. His abilities are shockingly overpowered, and even large enemy forces cannot stand up to the rage of Rivia. Witcher 2 features an inverse learning curve. It starts out as an incredibly difficult game, but then the combat becomes almost trivial by the second act. This is compounded if you realize that one spell is much more useful than all others (hint: it’s probably the least effective at the start). At least the leveling system allows for multiple play styles. Kyle and I played very different versions of Geralt, and it’s great to know that both could succeed in this harsh world.
Boss fights are, unfortunately, more frustrating than the unbalanced combat. CD Projekt attempted to create large set-piece battles that compare to Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden and God of War, but each encounter feels hopelessly outdated. There are no checkpoints in sight for multi-stage fights, and the bosses can usually kill Geralt in one or two hits. These prove to be the most obnoxious parts of Witcher 2, and stink of a “me too” approach that is very out of place given the talent displayed in making the rest of the game. Add in a couple of awful (but mercifully brief) stealth sections, and Witcher 2 is sometimes a chore to play.
“Awkward” also describes the UI and menus. The artwork associated with the design interface fits the mood and atmosphere, but the menus are convoluted and messy. There’s no easy way to switch between menus. You have to exit out of the map in order to reach the inventory, for example. How something this basic has been seemingly overlooked in the era of iPhones and tablets is beyond me. Geralt’s inventory is a jumbled mess of tabs and headings. God help you if you ever need to find one specific item or book. The maps are all gorgeously hand painted, but are often confusing and hard to read. Quest markers often appear in different places on the mini-map and overworld map. Sometimes shopkeeper names show, and sometimes they don’t. The menus are all aesthetically pleasing, but they lack friendly functionality. The journal is awesome, though. It’s written from Dandelion’s point of view and shows a great deal of creativity and humor.
It may sound like I hated my time playing Witcher 2. It was certainly difficult and cumbersome to play at times, but the whole experience is rewarding. The skill based combat is a giant leap forward from the mind-numbing fights of the original game. Early fights that seem impossible are easily conquered once you’re familiar with the gameplay systems in place. The quests are also much more interesting. Even the seemingly straightforward extermination sessions provide variety and opportunity for ample planning. The alchemy system has been simplified. Components are easier to locate and harvest, and the bonuses provided are always substantial. While I still think the series relies a bit too much on previous knowledge when it comes to proper alchemy use, the improvements are definitely welcome. CD Projekt also seems dedicated to their product, and several patches have already addressed some – but not all – of the complaints I’ve mentioned here.
The Witcher 2 may not be the friendliest or most inviting game around, but I couldn’t help but find myself immersed in this world of political intrigue and strife. The game features wonderfully developed characters and plot points that rival anything coming out of BioWare or Bethesda these days. There’s a reason that CD Projekt kept hyping the story and technology up to the release date, and that’s because they are the most impressive parts of the game. Though the combat is sometimes wonky and abrasive, it still offers a great deal of individual customization and depth. Witcher 2’s most telling success and triumph is just how quickly I dove back into the experience for a second playthrough after the credits ended from my first. Geralt’s world is one of adventure and satisfaction, even if it tries to drive you away at times.