You can really judge the calibre of a game through its story. Sure, gameplay usually comes first. However not every game needs solid gameplay to tell a good story and (more and more often) vice versa. When dealing with RPGs however, the typical rulebook goes out the proverbial window somewhat. Gameplay mechanics often take a backseat to storytelling or are fairly overshadowed by the latter. Play mechanics are more often governed by chance and behind the scenes dice rolls. As a result, the narrative takes center stage.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is no different, sliding neatly into this category. The game is set in the dark and savage world of Polish author Andrzej Sapowski’s Wied?min, or as it is known internationally, The Witcher saga. Orginally based on the novel series, the iteration present in this product is more or less standalone, taking place within the backdrop of already established canon while not nessecarily expanding it. With that said, no prioir knowledge of the events that make up the universe is necessary as the game does a pretty good job of explaining everything you might want to know for you, providing you take the liberty of doing the research on backstory and characters via your journal. For this reason it is also unnessecary for you to have played the previous interactive installment, although you will get more out of it if you have. (But nothing that isn’t covered, at least generally, in the journal.)
Provided you have played the preceding game however, you will find that major choices you had undertaken do carry over, as well as some other minor hooks and plot threads that are resolved or reflected back upon you in this sequel. You play once again, as Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher who after the events of the first game is standing in as a bodyguard for one of the major kings of the area. Certain events transpire that force him to delve into his past and try to recover his memory, much like the last game. At this point, the idea of amnesia has been so overused, especially when it comes to fantasy and RPG games, that it takes a standout to really make the idea work in a new and engaging way. While The Witcher 2 really doesn’t give this trope a new coat of paint, it works rather well within Sapowski’s realm and is one of many reasons why the narrative is so engaging. Another is that your choices during the game actually have impact, carving out your story path as you go along, with each principle decision having visible reprecussions in the storyline, which is enhanced even further if you have a save file from the original game, as the judgment calls you made there are all too present here in the sequel, while still leaving room for the story to expand as a result of the path you undertake here. Principally, this makes for a minimum of two playthroughs. Early on in the game you will be forced to pick a side, and once you do, with a few exceptions your set there for the rest of the game. Personally, I found the nonhuman story more evoking and passionate compared to its bipedal counterpart, although both are definitely worth expieriencing for their strikingly different takes on the same game.
Overall, no matter which path you pick first, by the end of it all you will come away satisfied, and ready to go another round to see how different decisions can alternately transform the game world.
Visually, The Witcher 2 may just be the best looking RPG to date, provided you have the hardware to crank up the eye candy. Green pastures and radiant vistas literally jump off the screen, and the translucent sheen of water reflects a rocky shore or rocking vessel perfectly. Sunlight will realistically overwhelm your retinal senses after an egress from darkness, before fading back to a neutral spectrum and bringing out the other details in the environment. Rain and thunderstorms are likewise very well rendered, each shadow made visible by a brief flash of lightning or a torch swung lightly in the night stands out sharply, before retreating back into the nocturnal abode. In combat, blood is a faithful companion to the backdrop, the siren color sprayed liberally over surrounding walls and objects, or glinting dully on the ground afterwards, a personification of the damage done and a stark reminder that this world isn’t pretty, an ironic anomaly considering the picturesque portrayal of the environments in quieter moments.
Of which there aren’t many. To complement the amazing visuals, the developers never missed an opportunity to show off the sound design. Whether it’s the grating clang of steel against steel or the ear-splitting roar of a dragon bearing down on your position, the sound production is remarkable, holding its own against the pedigree of its optical counterpart. The musical score perfectly matches each scene, from quiet, soothing tunes in the background while exploring to the rising pulses and sharp tones in combat segments. The voice acting holds its own as well, although I found it to be a little forced at times, but it’s not something you’d notice often as the game does a very good job of immersing you in the moment.
As mentioned previously, a game is not a game without gameplay, with few exceptions, of which The Witcher 2 isn’t. Like most RPG games, the footwork is facilitated mostly around quests. Some you have to complete in order to advance the story, but most are side missions and the game has a ton of them, a few of whom go back to choices you may have made in the preceding title. On the whole though, most are long with multiple layers, and reveal yet another aspect of this striking, frightening, and brutal world with plenty of reason to go after them. Like most RPGs, Geralt gains in strength throughout the game via experience points, awarded upon the successful completion of quests. Each level grants you one talent point, to be used towards upgrading your character in one of three different styles, although on completion of a main or important part of a storyline, you may be bumped up as many as two or three levels at once, allowing you to more completely shape the way you want to play. There are three main upgrade trees in the The Witcher 2, and the level up system is structured so that you can’t max out your character in every tree. Most of the time, you will find yourself sticking mainly to one of three different branches: Swordsmanship, Alchemy, or Magic.
Swordsmanship is the most combat oriented class of the three. As you progress up the ranks you will unlock the ability to counter enemy attacks or reflect back arrows. You can increase the damage dealt by your sword or be able to block attacks from any direction. At the very end of the tree you unlock special “adrenaline” ability, which is true for each separate tree. After the charging of the adrenaline bar you can unleash said ability. For the swordsman branch, you are able to instantly kill an enemy in a cinematic finishing move, usually only available after stunning your opponent. This can be upgraded to finish off a maximum of three enemies at a time.
Alchemy is a rather novel concept in the vein of RPG games. Rather than being able to consume potions on the fly, The Witcher 2 mixes things up a bit, requiring you to consume potions before the situation presents itself. As such, this adds another level of complexity to the game which may seem daunting at first, but in actuality it is very easy to get the hang of after a while. Points invested here will lead to the ability to consume more potions at once, (of which you are limited via a toxicity level) increase the duration of potions and blade oils and harvest more ingredients to make potions. The adrenaline ability for this branch is berserk mode, and the ability to generate adrenaline when poisoned.
The Magic tree is relatively self explanatory. Talent points used here will increase effectiveness and damage of your spells (called signs) and allow you to use them more frequently, among other things. The adrenaline ability for this tree allows Geralt to create a buffer zone around his body, considerably slowing down everyone except himself.
In addition to exploration, the other part of The Witcher 2 is combat, which is quite varied and in depth. Unlike some other RPGs combat is fluid and controlled by the player. The ability to block and cast signs is regulated by Vigor, which is a segmented bar that is depleted whenever an attack is blocked or sign is cast, and can be upgraded to increase recharge rate and add additional slots. On the offensive, you will mainly use a silver sword for monsters, or steel sword for humanoids, as well as a plethora of other weapons that can increase damage dealt or critical stats such as stun chance or critical hit percentage. Magic and Alchemical abilities are mainly used as a support option, and unless you consciously choose not to, you will probably find yourself relying on your sword to get things done.
With that come the previously mentioned counter attack abilities as well as others in other trees, all relegated mainly to improving your combat stats. You will find that some areas of the game and side missions will be considerably easier if you wait and come back later in the chapter when you’re better upgraded and equipped to deal with threats, rather than rushing everything head on. To accompany the combat system, there is a crafting component where you can upgrade your weapons, or create potions from ingredients found around the world to aid you in your encounters.
Dialogue is handled via the standard dialogue tree, with some contextual actions relative to your persuasion/hex/intimidate ability, similar to the Paragon/Renegade scale in Mass Effect 2, although there is no moral counter in this game, simply different to get what you want out of a conversation. You can also engage in dice games or fist fights in local bars, the latter of which is handled by a series of timed button presses which refreshingly never feel overused. The default control scheme works well, and there are so many different control features to this game that I have no idea how anyone could play it with a gamepad. Gameplay should primarily serve to be the main point of a game, with story and other elements coming in second, and The Witcher 2 definitely succeeds here, with fun and engaging gameplay intricacies that are never tedious.
I believe there is a term for this. MMORPG. The Witcher 2 is not an MMORPG. It’s a riveting, joyous experience that was meant to be experienced individually. The day developers start adding multiplayer to RPG games will be the day when the world goes to shit. Although, now that I think about it, an MMORPG set in Sapowski’s domain could work rather well…
The Witcher 2 is a game of choice. How you play and the path you take will change the world around you. Therefore, this game warrants multiple playthroughs in spite of the fact that there are only two main paths. The secondary choices along each of them make for a slightly different experience every time, and it’s interesting to see the difference one decision can make. If playing through the same thing a little differently each time does not interest you however, two playthroughs, once through each path, should give you a good idea of the overall narrative that is being told. After that, like most RPGs, it’s something you come back to on a rainy day.
Lasting Appeal: 8.5