The Witcher is a game series that I have wanted to play for a really long time. The first game came out back in 2007 and was a PC exclusive. Since I lack a true gaming PC, there was no chance for me to play it. But I pined over screenshots and videos. He has two swords? An adult story? The developer of this game and the creator of the story itself is Polish???? (ed. note – I’m Polish, so…Polish pride!) So I patiently awaited a sequel, all the while hoping that maybe this would get a console release. Fast forward 5 years to 2012, and finally, The Witcher arrives on consoles with the release of The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings on the XBox 360. Was it everything I had hoped for? Let’s take a look.
Story is an integral component to any RPG, but it carries even more weight in The Witcher. Reason being that The Witcher is a game that is based off of a very popular series of books. If the writing and the story are no good, then a game like this would fail. Fortunately, I’m happy to say that the story is arguably the best I have ever encountered in a game. It’s full of intrigue, plot twists, and even a bit of humor.
You play as Geralt of Rivia, the titular hero. The first question that many people have upon hearing of this game is “What the hell is a Witcher?” A witcher is, basically, a monster hunter for hire. As Geralt himself says, he is a “solver of problems”. What makes a witcher unique is that they aren’t just mere mortals. They are trained from a very young age to become monster hunters. Along the way, they are subjected to various potions and magics, actually mutating them into someone more than human. Most children subjected to this rigorous training die as a result, but Geralt was special. For whatever reason, he was able to stand up to much stronger doses of said potions and mutagens, making him extremely powerful. The only side-effect was that his hair turned stark white.
As The Witcher 2 opens, we find out that Geralt is suffering from a bout of amnesia. He knows certain things about his past, but much of the specifics are cloudy. This lends well to the gameplay, especially for someone new to the series like myself, because it fills in much of the backstory in a very organic way. In the very beginning of the game, Geralt finds himself charged with the protection of King Foltest. A battle insues, and among the confusion, a large man disguised as a blind monk assassinates the king. I’m not marking this as a spoiler because, come on, the game is subtitled Assassin of Kings.
As you can probably guess, guards arrive on the scene just as Geralt is hovering over King Foltest’s body. Naturally, Geralt is thought to be guilty of the murder and labled kingslayer. This becomes the basis of the overall story. Geralt saw the killer’s face, and spends the rest of the game tracking him down. That is the story at its absolute simplest. The best way to think of the story in The Witcher 2 though, is to think of it like an onion. It’s an analogy that has been done to death, but it really does work here. Taking the game at face value, Geralt is trying to clear his name and that’s that. As you peel away the layers however, you see that the game is rich with backstory and sidequests. Along the way, we see recurring themes like racial prejudice and inequality, betrayal, class struggles, and much, much more. None of these aspects really effect the endgame here, but they are all things that enrich the experience and make the game world all that much more believable. It’s awesome. The story here is second to none.
Gameplay-wise, The Witcher 2 is very action heavy. The battles are fast, furious, and frequent. Geralt’s primary method of dispatching foes is via the sword. Geralt always carries two swords at the ready – one steel and one silver. Steel is very strong and cuts easily through the flesh of men. Unfortunately, steel has little to no effect on monsters. Silver, on the other hand, works quite well on them. It’s a pretty unique gameplay mechanic, always forcing the player to pay attention to whom or what they are actually engaging. The only thing I would like to see added to this mechanic in the future would be the ability to dual-wield. It’s a minor gripe, and the game in no way suffers without it, but it would be pretty cool.
Swordplay isn’t the only way to vanguish enemies either. Witchers are also proficient in the use of magic, which are called signs. Geralt has access to all of his signs from the very beginning, and they are all very useful. I tended to focus mostly on pure swordplay during my time with the game, but I used signs to support my attack. In particular, there is a sign that sets a magical trap on the ground. When an enemy walks over the trap, it ensconces them in electricity and hold thems in place briefly. This sign is invaluable against large foes, as it allows you to take position behind them and hack away. It’s just one of the many examples of how deep the combat can really become.
Outside of combat, Geralt will spend much of his time speaking to other characters. Like many games this generation, Geralt will be faced with dialogue options throughout the course of his conversations. What is really cool about conversations in The Witcher 2 is that what you say really matters. In other RPGs, you might make a choice that you think is really important, only to find out later that it had very little effect on the outcome of the game. This is not the case in The Witcher 2. In fact, there are some choices that drastically change what happens in the story. For example, there is one decision in particular you have to make at the end of chapter 1 that completely alters what you experience in chapter 2. I’m not talking about simple dialogue changes either. I’m talking about entire sections of the game that you may or may not see based solely on what decision you make. On more than one occasion, I sat slack-jawed while looking at the choices laid out in front of me, pondering what selection would greater benefit Geralt. Do I kill the dragon or let it live? Ahhhhhhh.
There are some small side diversions throughout the main game as well. These aren’t huge aspects of the experience and you could play the entire game without doing either. They do both serve as amusing breaks from the core gameplay, though. Basically, Geralt can either partake in sort of an underground boxing league, or he can challenge an inn patron to an arm wrestling match. For the boxing, this simply plays out as a quick time event (button prompt flashes on screen, and you have to press it before time runs out). Arm wrestling has the player keeping a small icon inside of a moving meter by lightly feathering the thumb stick. Again, nothing major, but they can be fun distractions.
All things considered, by the end of the game, I was incredibly satisfied with how both the story and the gameplay came together. It’s rare that I am already thinking about replaying a game before I have even finished playing through the first time, but that was the case with this game.
The last thing I want to mention here is the arena mode. It’s an extra mode accessed from the main menu, and it’s a fun one. Basically, you fight waves of enemies that gradually increase in difficulty. Between waves, you have access to a shop where you can buy armor enhancements and potions. You can also recruit an AI companion to join you in your next battle for the cost of a few coins. The mode itself is a nice diversion from the main story, and it gives the player a chance to cut to the chase and to slice up some baddies.
The Witcher 2 is a year old (the original PC release came out in 2011), but it still holds up as one of the prettiest games out there. While the best-looking version of the game will only be visible to those playing on a beefed-up (aka expensive) PC, the Xbox 360 version I played ranks up there amongst the system’s most gorgeous. The character models are lifelike, the environments are detailed and alive, and the animations are realistic. Graphically, I have not one complaint. On the audio front, the soundtrack is great. Lots of subtle string work and brass rumble. The strongest part of the audio experience is the excellent voice work on display. The main characters are all acted incredibly well, and Geralt is just a total badass through and through.
The one other thing I want to mention here is the game’s opening cinematic. Holy hell is it awesome. It is one of the coolest I have ever seen, and let me tell you, if they made a full movie based on the game/novel in this style, I’d be first in line to watch. It’s that good. Here, just watch it:
As far as I’m concerned, The Witcher 2 is the perfect action RPG. It has an incredibly rich story, lush graphics, deep and challenging combat, a strong vocal cast, and insane replay value. Honestly, what more can you even ask for in a game? It covers so many bases so very well, that I just don’t see how it can get much better. I will be patiently awaiting The Witcher 3. Do yourself a favor, play The Witcher 2. It’s an incredible game and an incredible value. In fact, every copy of the game comes with a small printed guide, a fold-out map, and a disc including the game’s full official soundtrack. CD Projekt has outdone themselves in every way. Now, go do some witchin’.
The Witcher 2 gets 5 out of 5 stars.