Leave it to the witcher Geralt to slay the trendy bugbears currently laying waste to the video game sphere. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings displays incredible integrity by renouncing the commercial safety nets of accessibility, cheap multiplayer add-ons, and other shallow gimmicks. A paragon of a sequel and the new standard for fantasy RPGs, The Witcher 2 creates a world sui generis with unparalleled verisimilitude. The world is not so unlike our own that we learn nothing from an extended visit, however. Repugnance is just as common as beauty, but a learned man knows that the latter always eclipses the former.
Geralt of Rivia is one such man. A month after saving King Foltest from an assassin with witcher eyes, Geralt finds himself irrevocably entwined in politics. The story that follows is a twisted one of politicians’ lies, counselors’ schemes, and sorceress’ magic that may make players renounce humanity as a whole. As a witcher, Geralt once vowed to remain neutral in the games of kings, yet the events that follow the attempted assassination show the fallibility of codes. Geralt cannot help but be swept into politics any more than you or I can. In a world of overbearing governments, neutrality has a price few can pay. Geralt’s repeated beatings (both emotional and physical) and his struggle to choose between various unattractive paths make him a vivid and sympathetic protagonist. We feel his pain, and we want him to find peace.
Tomes have been written on the subject of Geralt of Rivia, and I’m sure his life is not untouched in the least by the purple prose of various bards. But another paragraph need be added to the annals, for to understand Geralt is to understand a great portion of TW2’s appeal. Geralt represents a sort of modern species of fantasy hero. He forgoes the brawn-over-brains archetype, but doesn’t stray into the opposite territory of mind over matter, nor does he don the cloak and pick up the dagger. Geralt is all these things and none of them. He is hero and anti-hero. He can bandy words with kings, switch to the vernacular of the common thug, and convince either that their mother is a whore. Slaying monsters takes both knowledge and strength, and dealing with humans is even more trying. Geralt knows that wisdom may succeed where the sword cannot.
The success of the story does not ride on Geralt alone, however. TW2 tells an unconventional tale unafraid to eschew the tradition of creating an epic. The story doesn’t deign to chronicle the saving of a world, a far-reaching journey, or even a tale in which the protagonist plays the biggest role. Geralt’s role is not insignificant by any means, but in the company of kings, he cannot help but seem subordinate. The forces of the world push him about, and TW2 makes amazing use of this to craft a realistic world and uncompromising plot. Those pushing him around come alive with concealed motives, varied allegiances, and one of the best scripts in a video game to date. Kings don’t feel like brigands, drunks don’t feel like whores, and sorceresses are not defined by their ability to cast magic. The characters are treated as humans first, and fantasy characters second. At times, Geralt feels utterly alone and without an ally. Choosing between one kingdom and another, between one human and an elf – these become dangerous and difficult decisions, but necessary ones.
Even better, the game leaves the real purpose of the story for the player to determine. The story can be about saving a kingdom or liberating the oppressed races of the world. My story was a refreshingly self-centered one in which Geralt just wanted to regain his memories and rekindle a past love. Such is the power of the player’s decisions. One false move, and Geralt may find his path greatly altered. People may die. Kingdoms may fall. Unsympathetic characters in one playthrough may turn out to be allies in another.
Aside from an intriguing plot and charismatic protagonist, TW2 uses setting and atmosphere like will o’ wisps to draw the player into the experience. Geralt’s world resembles our own in many ways: a beautiful natural world dotted with settlements in which stew the vices of humankind. The denizens of the Northern Kingdoms are sloppy, sexist, horny, ignorant, miserable, and capable of almost anything, which is a frightening prospect. Be they kings or peasants, most revel in filth and greed. As cynical a presentation as this seems, the world of TW2 is not without beauty. Indeed, those willing to look will find just as much, if not more, beauty than ugliness. At the end of a day, Geralt can rely upon the counsel and companionship of a few good friends and the beauty and magic of nature. Much as we can.
TW2’s graphical style transcends mere realism. While technically phenomenal, the graphics engine’s real credit lay in its ability to infuse the witcher’s world with a special kind of life. Ethereal lighting and vivid coloring give the environments unearthly beauty. I never wanted to leave the forest surrounding Flotsam. That there are a limited number of locations in the game can only be a disappointment. Great art direction and stunning levels of detail make the world even more enchanting. From crowhaunted graveyards to dwarven catacombs, every locale breathes eldritch beauty.
Underscoring the phenomenal visuals is a subtle, yet occasionally stirring soundtrack. I would have liked to hear more unique Celtic-style music rather than more traditional fantasy fare, but the soundtrack at least never does any harm. Where music doesn’t play, immersive ambient sounds take over. The real aural prize here, however, is the voicework. Without it, the script wouldn’t be half as impressive. Not every actor gives a spectacular performance (Triss unfortunately does not), but all are at least above average. The majority of them could hardly be better.
To complete the reality of the witcher’s world, TW2 needs gameplay that makes sense in context. Geralt’s tasks need to feel attuned to the ways of the witcher. When he fights, the player needs to feel his skill and strength. Fortunately, TW2 fulfills these requirements and melds gameplay with thematic elements. The combat system is action-oriented, complex, and always fun. TW2 rejects the tiresome fighter/rogue/wizard model in favor of something more witcher-y. Geralt can specialize in magic, alchemy, or swordsmanship, but he must use all three to overcome his greatest foes. Particularly while the player is still learning, victory requires the use of Geralt’s full arsenal of tools. This includes swords, potions, magic, traps, blade oils, and ranged weapons. Although Geralt can level up, the player needs skill. By the second chapter, Geralt’s fights become easier as he puts more experience behind his blows. The player puts experience behind his mouse clicks as well, however, and by the end, the normal difficulty may not be challenging enough. I can attest to the fusion of numbers and player skill: in a second playthrough, Geralt slipped through the originally difficult prologue with significantly fewer injuries.
Outside combat, Geralt finds himself in a variety of situations and scenarios, from sneaking around to rolling dice to entering a dead man’s memories. These gameplay shifts provide TW2 with an unpredictability found in few games. Although there aren’t as many side quests as I hoped, most involve situations not overdone in other games. Even monster hunting quests show evolution. What would be “bring me eleven harpy breasts” in any other RPG becomes a quest that requires exploration and knowledge. Once again, TW2 encourages virtues like intelligence and curiosity. Even quests involving information gathering can be challenging to complete. A mechanical persuasion attempt is often not enough to convince drunken brutes to divulge information that could get them hanged.
The experience of TW2 would be incomplete without even one of the aforementioned elements. This is a game to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace so as not to miss out on any of the magic or arresting beauty. From reading books to exploring masterpiece environments to conversing with locals, Geralt can always take a break from fighting monsters and breaking curses. Time seems to behave differently while immersed in Geralt’s world, and in the end, I only wanted more.
To mention the game’s flaws seems a disservice, for they weigh lightly on the overall experience. Combat can be sloppy at times, and the controls aren’t always responsive. The menus, though gorgeous, can be inconvenient and difficult to navigate. Weight limits and managing crafting materials don’t go well together. There are also a few graphical glitches and other miscellaneous hiccups bound to arise in any large, complex game. Unfortunately, they turn up frequently enough to hamper immersion. Most of the time, however, the game draws the player back in easily enough with its many charms. A final complaint can be leveled against the occasional awkward cutscene or conversation – unfortunate miscommunications present in nearly every RPG. TW2 has no more of these than any other game, however, and perhaps fewer – impressive considering its non-English origins.
The Witcher 2 is everything that a good sequel should be. A continued story, yet one told differently and one that touches difference spheres of meaning. Restrained and realistic references to the original. Riskier, grittier, more confident presentation and design. And fidelity to the heart of the series: Geralt the wise, Geralt the great. Those with appreciation for a masterfully crafted world, magic, and passion will find something exceptional in The Witcher 2: a world worth seeing, a story worth hearing, and a character worth stepping into. That questions remain after the conclusion of Assassins of Kings only means Geralt has more work to do. After all, a witcher’s work is never complete, and I would have it no other way.