The Witcher 2 was the best game of 2011 that I completely ignored upon release. I never experienced the original game, so I couldn’t grasp from the screenshots why I should care about a guy who carried two swords yet couldn’t bother to take a single shower. It turns out this was a huge mistake. With the release of the Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition on the Xbox 360, I immediately corrected this oversight by promptly ignoring the $60 Xbox version and picking up the PC Enhanced Edition on Steam for $42 instead. I figure a rough, world weary protagonist like Geralt would approve.
I haven’t finished the game yet, but I can already tell you beyond a doubt that it is worth every penny. If you are even remotely interested in a fantasy RPG, then go buy it. The game’s voice acting is good, the story and setting are gritty, mature and deep, and the combat will punish you if you get complacent. Graphically, the world of Witcher 2 is stunning. I was extremely impressed by the aesthetics of the game everywhere I turned. I didn’t notice any major graphical flaws, and the animations were spot on. The sound effects and music are immersive and extremely well done. It’s no wonder the game scored so highly when it released.
The only real downside I’ve encountered thus far is the lack of user friendly design in some cases. Something as simple as changing your keybinds cannot be done from inside the game. This may not bother most people, but as someone who primarily controls his virtual movements via Nostromo game pad and Naga mouse, concepts like WASD binds don’t really apply. It is a minor complaint, but it turned my first few play sessions into a series of rapid restarts just to get everything sorted out. There doesn’t really seem to be any sort of tooltip description for your abilities either. You can bring up a radial menu of spells with interesting sounding names, but you won’t be told what any of them do. I ended up playing with a cheat sheet next to me just to minimize deaths from using the wrong ability at the wrong time. My final UI complaint revolves around the quest log which is hit or miss about telling you where to go next. It works for the most part, but it isn’t perfect. Even early on I had to alt-tab out a few times and Google the quest name to figure out the next step. Fortunately, the game shines in nearly every other respect, and these problems in no way diminish what a great experience it is.
I’m not a huge fan of spoiling the story elements of a game during a review, but I can give you some of the basics. Witchers are something like Rangers from Dungeons & Dragons had they been raised by a coven of witches instead of being armed members of the ASPCA like they are in most other fantasy settings. They’re monster hunters, alchemists, accomplished swordsman and generally distrusted for the dark arts they employ and their nasty reputations. I get the feeling from talking to the common folk in the game that calling upon a Witcher is a last resort in the eyes of most.
In Witcher 2, like the original, you take on the role of a particular Witcher named Geralt of Rivia, and apparently you’re fairly notorious at the start of the game. I’ve heard that if you have a save file from the original game that it does a wonderful job of weaving your prior exploits into the sequel, but I can’t speak to it. What I do know is that the Geralt in my story has lost his memory somewhere along the way, but that doesn’t stop him from being in the good graces of a King and waking up in bed with a hot sorceress within five minutes of the game’s opening sequence. Unfortunately, just as in real life, our hero’s day can only go downhill after that kind of morning.
Along your journey, you will use your steel sword for slaying human foes and your silver sword for everything else. You’ll have numerous traps, spells and poisons at your disposal, and you will need every advantage you can to defeat the enemies that the game throws at you. This game not only refuses to hold you by the hand, it threatens to chop it clean off with disturbing regularity. It isn’t quite to the level of absurdity that Dark Souls is, but the enemy AI clearly isn’t pulling any punches. Enemies will use pack tactics to corner you and mince you to pulpy bits. Considering that a single sword hit can take off roughly a third of your health bar, facing five or six foes can be quite a challenge. Save early. Save often.
I originally picked up Witcher 2 just to see what I was missing, and planned on weaving my play time in with other titles that I’m currently enjoying. I quickly had to rethink that plan. As the game progresses you’ll absolutely need to have the combat mechanics be second nature in order to survive. A single false step or firing off the wrong spell at the wrong moment will mean a reload of your last save is quickly to follow. I found this level of challenge frustrating in a good way. It reminded me of old school gaming, and I love that it rewards skillful play. Those first few failures make your victories much more gratifying because you had to earn them. I wish more games embraced this idea.
The other reason that Witcher 2 makes a poor “part time” title is that the story is dense and packed with complex characters. It can be easy to forget the interrelationships of characters you meet, their motivations and their machinations, and believe me, everyone has their own agenda. In an odd way, it reminds me a great deal of Game of Thrones. There doesn’t seem to be much Black and White here, only various shades of Grey. Call me a pessimist, but I think it adds an additional level of realism when everyone is flawed, self-centered and out to protect and advance their own interests. The game world is a harsh one where even kings can be murdered, and where terrible creatures prowl the night not far from the relative safety of city walls. A stalwart hero who valiantly fought with honor would probably end up with a dagger in his back his first night at the local inn. Corruption is rampant, and I often find myself accepting quests from the people who I’m least likely to want to impale or set on fire.
If you have the time to dedicate to it, Witcher 2 is an incredible RPG that will reward your patience and skill with a dark, mature story and visceral combat. The game is reported to control extremely well on the 360, although the PC version does look a little better. Ultimately you can’t go wrong either way.
At the time of this review, The Witcher 2: Assassins Of Kings Enhanced Edition for Xbox 360 is available at Amazon for only $44!
The Witcher 2: Assassins Of Kings Enhanced Edition for PC is only $35! That’s cheaper than I got it on Steam, but the instant gratification of downloading it was worth it.