Review: The Witcher 2
If you play The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, you will die…a lot. With most video games that’s usually a bad thing, indicating that the game is either horribly broken or that it was designed by sadistic monsters (e.g. Ninja Gaiden). In the case of The Witcher 2, it just means that you’re learning how to properly play the game. This is largely due to The Witcher 2 having a harsh learning curve and an irritatingly unhelpful tutorial. The game’s first battle has gained some notoriety already as being frustrating as it fails to ease new players into the system, instead dropping them headfirst into combat with a group of soldiers. After that, the game’s tutorial generally fails to explain how to use many of the protagonist Geralt’s skills and abilities, leaving it up to players to learn through trial and error.
The Witcher 2 is a PC game (the Xbox 360 version is set to launch around the end of this year) that follows the adventures of Geralt of Rivia, a magically enhanced monster hunter, or witcher (a name that I imagine sounds a lot cooler in Polish). The Witcher games are based on the novels of Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, and have already been adapted for film and TV in Germany and Poland. Rather than the bright and shiny lands of frolicking pixies often portrayed in fantasy RPGs, the world of the Witcher games is dark and gritty. Life is cheap, torture a ready option of the powerful, the majority of people are racist bastards, and the civilized world is generally a dirty and miserable place.
This is the kind of place where, if the Fellowship of the Ring had wandered into these lands, five minutes in Legolas and Gimli would have been lynched by an angry mob, Strider would have been knifed in the back for associating with them, and the hobbits would have been beaten and sold into slavery. It reminded me a lot of the bit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
Dead Collector: Must be a king.
Large Man: Why?
Dead Collector: He hasn't got shit all over him.
As a Witcher, Geralt’s job is to wander across this forsaken land and help people by putting down any troublesome monsters that may be bothering them. The original book series ended with Geralt dying while trying to stop a mob from killing innocent elves and dwarves, and the games pick up after he was rescued and brought back from the dead by his fellow witchers. Unfortunately, dying has left Geralt with a nasty case of plot-device induced amnesia regarding the events surrounding his death.
In the original The Witcher, Geralt worked for King Foltest killing monsters, fighting a secret order, and having lots of sex with various women. The Witcher 2 picks up shortly after the end of the first game where Geralt killed an assassin (revealed to be another witcher) who was going after his employer. The plot centers on Geralt’s quest to figure out why other witchers are assassinating kings, how it all ties into his lost memories, and to continue having sex with random women. The plot does come off as somewhat clichéd as the amnesiac anti-hero thing has been done to death in games, novels, and every other form of storytelling media known to man. And while an entertaining character, Geralt does appear to be the dark, brooding, bad boy anti-hero that every teenage gamer tries to make the first time they play D&D. The “sex cards” from The Witcher (naughty trading cards you earned for having sex with various NPCs) are gone in The Witcher 2, replaced with full cut scenes. While not completely pornographic, they’re pretty much on par with what you’d see in an R-rated movie.
While the story and setting are interesting (clichés aside), it’s the gameplay that both makes and breaks The Witcher 2. The Witcher 2’s combat system is its greatest weakness, which is unfortunate in a combat heavy game. Combat in The Witcher 2 takes place in real time in a style that may remind some gamers of the combat mechanics from Assassin’s Creed II. However, while in that game combat flowed smoothly and swiftly thanks to context sensitive controls, The Witcher 2 comes across as slow and sticky most of the time. Geralt is controlled through a combination of the mouse and WASD keys. While the mouse buttons control Geralt’s attacks with whatever weapon he has equipped, his magical attacks and combat maneuvers are bound to the keyboard. Given the importance that The Witcher 2 places on dodging and parrying in combat, it’s a surprise that neither mechanic functions very well. I found that most of the time in order to get Geralt to actually raise his sword up into a defensive position I had to repeatedly spam the block key, and even then he did so with a slowness that often allowed an enemy’s attack to slip through. I can actually attribute half of in-game deaths I’ve experienced to Geralt’s inability to raise simply raise his sword up into a defensive position.
In contrast, the magic system is interesting and can be included in the flow of battle with ease. Geralt’s five spells (with a sixth added later on) include the ability to stun opponents with a telekinetic wave, burn them with a burst of flame, set traps on the ground that freeze them in place, charm them to his side for short periods of time, and create a protective shield around himself. Sadly, the use of these powers is somewhat limited in battle as they cost energy or Vigor to use, and their odd names ensured that I had to have the manual open before me in order to remember which spells did what. I often found myself having to run circles around an enemy waiting for Geralt’s Vigor to regenerate as it was used up by both his spells and by blocking enemy attacks.
Core to Geralt’s fighting prowess is his use of magical potions. Geralt has the ability to mix the various herbs and other alchemical items he comes across and from them create potions that enhance him temporarily, poisons that weaken his foes, and bombs that do everything from blinding enemies with a flash of light to igniting them in a fireball. While many of these alchemical items can be used in fights, most of the potions are buffs and require Geralt to use them prior to entering combat. This can be a bit of a pain as there are many fights that occur as a surprise, and they are difficult enough to require Geralt’s potions in order to survive. This is solved by constantly spamming the quicksave button, but the necessity of this is a bit annoying.
While the combat system is The Witcher 2’s weak point, its greatest strength lies in the game’s dialogue system. Throughout the game players are provided with opportunities to direct Geralt’s responses when speaking with other characters. Depending on what players choose, The Witcher 2’s story will twist and turn leading players to any of the game’s 16 different endings. For instance, in the beginning of the game when faced with a rebellious nobleman on the battle field, Geralt has the opportunity to convince him to either surrender or face him in honorable combat. The option players choose will decide the fate of the nobleman’s family and which NPCs Geralt will be able to interact with later on in the game. While somewhat annoying to an obsessive, collection focused gamer like me, this system does make The Witcher 2 a very replayable game, and more importantly it makes players feel like their decisions are actually having a significant impact upon the story.
While I was personally not a great fan of The Witcher 2’s setting and protagonist, it had more to do with my own preferences than with the quality of either. The Witcher 2 is an interesting and refreshing RPG and despite my frustration with the combat system, it was actually a rather fun and engaging game. Balancing somewhere between Baldur’s Gate and Dragon Age, The Witcher 2 does risk pushing away fans of easier, more approachable games who may find the combat system and the ease with which Geralt dies to be too frustrating. For others, the complexity and choice provided by the storyline will more than make up for that. If you’re looking for an entertaining game that provides both depth and a challenge, then The Witcher 2 might be the game for you, and I heartily recommend that you Try It.