Dark Fantasy At It's Best on the XBOX360
What games often fail to do these days is challenge our expectations and views of things we have by now began to take for granted. To experience that which we already know, in a completely new way we've never seen before is truly a gift of its own. The Witcher 2 does exactly that through weaving an intricate tale of Geralt of Rivia, a famed witcher caught up in a series of royal assassinations, out to find the murderer and perhaps even piece together parts of his broken past.
The world we see in the Witcher is one in transition. Monsters used to roam widely in the past hence the witchers were created. Orphans taken in at a very young age to special schools, they were subject to many chemical processes and mutations that increase their senses and reflexes turning them into professional monster hunters. Now that monsters are slowly dying out so are the witchers, and they’re no longer guardians of the people but perceived as freaks and a necessary evil to combat whatever lurks in the night. The Witcher 2 is dark fantasy in the purest form. You encounter familiar races like elves or trolls, but they’re all portrayed in a way we haven’t seen before. The aesthetics are very unique to the series - you won’t be seeing your character sporting full platemail or likewise any elaborate suits of shiny armor. Witcher 2 also sports quite a mature theme. You won’t be above accepting a night of passionate lovemaking as reward for helping a poor lass in distress, and the game will show complete cutscenes for each and every conquest with full nudity. While you might get a chuckle out of the abundant usage of the word ‘plough’ after a while, the overall tone is often very serious.
In the Witcher 2 you take on the role of Geralt, a member of the above mentioned witchers who is helping out king Foltest and falling for his court advisor, the sorceress Triss Merigold. It is no spoiler to say that Foltest meets an early demise at the hands of a mysterious assassin and Geralt takes the fall for the murder. From this point on it is up to the player to clear the witchers name and confront the assassin of kings. In typical role playing game fashion you will stumble upon many individuals along the way that will become intertwined in your quest and you in theirs. What truly stands out is that all the people you meet aren’t empty husks waiting for you to come around and bring about the answer to all their woes. The Witcher 2 has a fleshed out world full of political intrigue and racial tensions between human and non-human races. Characters you meet all have rich backstories and are usually in the middle of pursuing their own goals before you show up. No one of importance is just standing around in a tavern awaiting you to engage the questline, and it’s quite commendable how the overarching plot brings these side quests about into it’s fold. There are of course throwaway sidequests such as eliminating an infestation of endragas(centipede like monsters) outside of town for example - but even these are tied into the lore of Geralt being a monster hunter by profession which makes a lot more sense. While a lot of games offer the ability to make impactful decisions in regards to story, they usually clearly fall between the good or evil side of things. In the Witcher 2 all the decisions you make are a shade of grey, and you never know for sure what is the lesser of two evils. Several times throughout the game you make choices that impact on whether someone lives or dies and there aren’t little pop ups telling you killing this person will give you +10% to all blocking or not - these are serious choices you have to make, sometimes on a countdown timer that basically are there to help you shape the story the way you want it to be. A character you might have chosen to spare might come back later on to shed new light on the plot. Be warned though that not all is what it seems in the world of the Witcher 2. A heroic act early on could lead to potentially deadly results down the road. The decisions you make determine how conflicts play out during the endgame cinematic, very reminiscent of the early Fallout games - detailing how each city and person you interacted with was changed due to your choices.
This is a very linear RPG which is the only way the plot in a game like this could make any sense. Each chapter of the story is a separate hub-like location in which you are free to go about and complete quests in any order you wish. There are three chapters total with a prologue that is comprised mostly of tutorials and an epilogue. Something unique and not common these days is that a single important choice in chapter 1 forks the path leading to two completely different areas for chapter 2 - meaning that you literally cannot see it all in a single playthrough. In a world where games try to make sure you see everything they have to offer this is quite a novelty to have so much content that a player might potentially never even see. There is always a priority quest at the top of the list that will progress the main plot ahead, and you can choose to skip many of the side activities if you so wish. Each “town” will have an inn, several vendors and blacksmiths that will craft a variety of items for Geralt such as traps, weapons or exotic armor. Similarly to the Monster Hunter games, you can acquire unique pieces of hide for slaying special boss type monsters which later can be turned into rare armor, provided you’ve acquired the diagram for it. In addition to vendors there are side activities such as a bulletin board with witcher job postings that entail eliminating monster nests from the area, as well as several bar activities: arm wrestling, fist fights and playing a variation of poker using dice. All of these are optional ways for Geralt to earn a bit more coin on the side.
Combat is real time and very much so action based. Geralt has a light and heavy attack that he can chain in a variety of ways to cut down his foes as well as a dodge move that rolls him quickly out of danger. Sporting two swords on his back, one regulars for human opponents and another silver for monsters - you will almost never fight mixed groups and both handle exactly the same. One-on-one battles aren’t incredibly difficult, when facing larger groups of opponents, as the case usually is, you will have to combine a good amount of dodging and hit and run maneuvers to whittle away your foes. The battle mechanics might seem a bit rough to get into at first, once you get into the rythm of rolling past enemy swings to deliver devastating blows to their exposed backsides the combat can get to be really fun. To help even the odds Geralt has many skills to help him out. While not magicians themselves, witchers can use special signs that act in lieu of spells. You start the game with the most basic of each of these abilities that range from offensive shockwaves and fireballs to protective auras that reduce damage or ground signs that immobilize your enemies. In place of mana, each sign you cast takes up a single ‘vigor’ bar that recharges over time. Both the speed of vigor regeneration as well as the amount of bars you have can be upgraded throughout the game by leveling up certain skills or enhancing armors and weapons with special stones. Body armor and weapons can be equipped with a variety of enhancing stones or items that use up slots unique to the equipment. Throughout the game you will come across many different swords and armors, the best of which you will craft at a blacksmith towards the end of the game. In addition to sign magic, witchers have access to a variety of traps they can lay down for enemies to stumble into. These traps vary in types and effects - stunning your foes or burning them to a crisp. While an interesting inclusion and faithful to the lore, I found the combat so fast paced that while fervently dodging around, usually medium sized environments, I never really had time to utilize these - but the option is always there. Most engagements will be a frantic dance of using your signs to either help you stun your enemies for quick finisher moves or pop defensive shields that will keep you alive longer. You will more often than not be outnumbered by quite a lot of enemies in every encounter. A lesson hard learned early on in the game is that any attack dealt to your back will count for a deadly backstab multiplier and reduce Geralt to a very dead witcher in as little as two sword swings. There are skills that specifically reduce the amount of damage taken from these attacks, but you still want to constantly be on the move and never let enemies get behind you. Throughout the game you might curse up a storm when an enemy randomly slashes at Geralts back, literally killing you instantly while you had over half your life still available. This only serves as a reminder that you cannot stand still expecting to take numerous blows and still win the fight. You will get staggered and then surrounded which will usually result in either death or so much life lost that killing the remaining enemies flawlessly will prove impossible. Combining sign magic and certain abilities you get through leveling up, the combat becomes tactical, fun and exciting as you’re almost always teeter on the edge of your seat as foes try to surround you from all sides and you try to outmaneuver them.
Unique to the witchers is the ability to consume potentially toxic potions before engaging your enemies that will bestow upon you varying status effects such as faster health regeneration or more powerful signs. You make your own potions using collected ingredients that can be found all over the game world, just like in the case of weapon crafting, granted you have the proper recipe. This is done through entering ‘meditation’ mode which can only be done outside of combat. In this mode you can craft potions from your store of recipes and ingredients or just consume previously made concoctions before going into battle. It’s interesting to note that there are no health potions in the Witcher 2. Once you enter combat there is no way to heal, or even consume potions that might increase health regeneration. This makes every fight quite tense as unlike other games where your HP will start quickly recharging once you haven’t taken damage for a bit, in Witcher 2 it is a slow process that would take several minutes before your full health bar was filled back up. This means that during every encounter you have to play smart and not just rush in head first into a group of enemies as you only get one life bar per battle. The potion mechanics are interesting and certainly important at the start of the game when you don’t have powerful weapons or beefy stats. Later on though when you start to acquire abilities that diminish the amount of damage you take from enemies and your sign magic becomes increasingly powerful, potions will stop really being a big issue. I found myself popping the same three formulas throughout the entire game semi regularly, as more powerful recipies involved heavy negative effects to my health or damage that I simply couldn’t afford given the intense level of combat the game sometimes thrusts at you.
Leveling is handled much like any other RPG would. You attain experience either by defeating foes or completing quests and gain skill points each level that you spend on various abilities. There are four primary skill trees, although you are permitted only to spend points in the beginner path until you reach level 10. The initial path provides various beginner skills such as faster vigor regeneration or the ability to block without taking any chip damage. There is a Swordsmanship path which has various physical abilities that increase your sword damage, dodging, decrease damage taken or even unlock special group finishers. Directly opposite you have your magic skill tree which will increase the damage of signs and unlock evolved forms of them such as the Quen shield ability which will last longer and absorb more damage with each successive skill point spent. Lastly is the alchemy skill tree which has everything to do with helping you craft better potions or find more ingredients off monster corpses or plants. While the alchemy bonuses are an interesting addition, considering that the game caps out at level 35 and at that point you have enough points to maybe max out only two out of the four possible skill trees, it hardly seems worth the effort to invest in.
The Witcher 2 is sadly not without faults. The game plays very much like an older PC game would, which is not a detraction on its own but can be confusing for some players who grew up on newer age systems. There isn’t as much hand holding as console games tend to usually have. There are several systems that while not complex on their own aren’t explained as best as they should be at the outset of the game and can prove to be critical later on. The game was more than happy to let me take on monster slaying quests when I still haven’t crafted a new silver sword - and I basically had to take the initiative to find a blacksmith and figure the whole process out on my own. You can truly see the oldschool feel in the quest design. Often you are given a task with no quest marker and a simple clue to follow such as being told to find a specific person in town with no indication where they might be. While quest arrows detailing your every move might ruin immersion a bit, having to go about these towns looking in every house to find that single person you need to talk is just frustrating and feels like a waste of time. The quest markers that the game does use on your map can often be dead wrong or lead you astray. There was a moment where I had to literally look up online where to go because I was running in circles after a quest marker that kept changing it’s position. The maps screen is often useless as the game tries to convey a realistic cloth map-look but lacking any real detail just ends up being more confusing than helpful. In chapter 2 the city of Vergen is almost a maze to navigate and only when I was wrapping up that area did I finally start to get a feel for the place. The porting job while admirable does have a few shortcomings. Menus seem to have some rough artifacting in several places. Switching between your various tabs such as inventory, quests, map etc will cause a slight delay and a completely black screen between each and every one. The menus all still seem to favor a mouse cursor instead of a controller. Your inventory has a ton of different categories and you have to scroll through each and every one using your bumpers. This is a time when you can really appreciate the radial menus games like Mass Effect employ which utilize the controller in the best way possible and get you to where you need to go quickly. The tabbed style interface of the Witcher 2 will soon have you in the habit of mashing your RB and LB buttons trying to get to the right tab as quick as possible. Graphically the game looks great and is a wonder it fit on only two discs (which you only need to change once thankfully). There is some texture popping very reminiscent of Mass Effect 1 but in the grand scheme of things it’s not that big a deal. Also make sure to manually save your game often, as the checkpoint system in the game seems largely absent - several times I found myself dying in a fight where I got a little too impatient only to end up at a save before I had even taken on the quest I had been on. While with a bid of prudence situations like that can be avoided - it’s worse when you’re in a place where manual saving isn’t allowed and death means replaying several events leading to the fight you had been on. Thankfully all dialog and cutscenes can be skipped.
The Witcher 2 is an excellent RPG and very unique among it’s fellow competitors in the genre. The voice work is quite good and the story quite interesting depending on how much you invest yourself in it. For those that have been disappointed by unclear endings in games of late, the Witcher 2 offers a very satisfying moment of clarity in the epilogue where almost all your questions are extensively answered. While not a perfect transition from the PC the issues here are so minor that they don’t detract from the whole. Any serious role playing game fan should definitely play the Witcher 2 or at least give it a try - they definitely won’t be disappointed.