I won’t even attempt to beat around the bush on this one. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is everything I’ve wanted an RPG to be. The game isn’t perfect, but it’s the the best I’ve played in the genre. It’s definitely not for children and it will test your patience from the very start.
You play as Geralt of Rivia, one of the last remaining witchers. Witchers are genetically altered humans trained and paid to hunt monsters in a mythical, medieval world. The opening sequence shows you running through a forest while wounded, attempting to escape your pursuers. You are eventually caught and wake up in a prison. There you are interrogated about the assassination of King Foltest which you are accused of.
This is the prologue and where the action starts for you. You’ll be forced to relive the day's events leading up to Foltest’s death. In the first game you stop an attempt on his life and are hired to protect him from further attacks. Now you are accompanying him on an assault mission to retrieve his illegitimate children. The arrival of a fierce dragon and the deception of another witcher disguised as a blind monk throw a wrench in the king's plans, leaving him with his throat sliced open and you alone over his dead body.
Combat in The Witcher 2 is actually quite difficult. I learned right away that unlike previous RPGs, you cannot run headfirst into a pack of enemies and expect to last more than a few seconds. Geralt will not survive against multiple enemies hacking away at him. The AI attack in predictable patterns and it’s up to you to learn when to dodge out of the way, or charge in to strike.
You carry two swords on your back which are suitable for different types of foes. Your main sword is made of steel and is particularly good at dispatching flesh and blood humans and animals. Your second weapon is the witcher’s silver sword. This one is only effective against supernatural and undead creatures. How fast you can attack depends on the weight of the weapon. Both can be augmented permanently by runes or temporarily by crafted oils.
Geralt is also proficient in using magic. By holding down the Alt key the action slows and a menu is displayed with magic symbols for you to select. I wish I had known what each one did before going into battle the first time. For surviving a group fight you must separate your enemies so you can bring them down one by one. I used the Quen and Yrden signs. The first puts a protective shield on you which absorbs damage and the second lays a trap which stuns and roots the first person to walk over it.
Trial and error learning is typical in this game. For harder enemies expect to die up to a dozen times until you figure out the trick. Bosses can be even more frustrating. To defeat the giant amphibious octopus boss, the Kayran, you’re sent searching for a rare herb which can be used to create a potion granting you resistance to the beast's toxins. Well I’ll tell you this much, a potion does a lot of good against a two-ton tentacle dropping on your head or a shed-sized boulder being hurled in your direction. Be warned, small mistakes will cost you dearly.
The difficulty level of combat can be toggled through the in-game menu at any point, even during a fight. I played through mostly on normal and still wound up finding new ways to die. The auto saves are few and far between so it’s up to you to save after everything you kill. I mean everything. Nothing is worse than crawling your way through 30-40 minutes of combat and cutscenes only to get yourself killed and sent right back to the start of it.
This encapsulates the love-hate feelings I have for the game. I absolutely love the fact that the game challenged me and forced me to keep my guard up. I love the sense of progressing through a difficult encounter. You get one more mechanic right each attempt inching closer to the end.
The enemies hit so damn hard. It’s incredibly frustrating in the first half of the game, especially before I figured out how and when to save my progress. Some fights seem impossible until you’ve tried it ten times, when suddenly the stars align and you finally get it right. It’s exhausting in the moment but thoroughly satisfying afterwards.
The storyline is what really keeps you going throughout the game. You spend a lot of time out of combat which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. CD Projekt RED Studios has found an amazing balance between time spent fighting and time spent developing the plot. Cutscenes are a common occurrence but the voice acting is all very well done (except for Dandelion, but there’s already enough reasons to hate that character).
What makes this game special to me is just how much your decisions affect not only the story but your overall gaming experience. This is the video game version of the old ‘choose your own adventure books’ on steroids. There are multiple paths to the end of the story which in turn has multiple versions. My play-through of The Witcher 2 could be very different from your play-through of The Witcher 2. You must choose your words carefully, some may lead you to a dead end or with a half dozen arrows in your chest.
Many of your choices don’t reveal their consequences right away. There is a constant sense of building towards a tipping point. There is always some sort of tension.
When morality comes into play there are no simple decisions and you’re often left with more than two choices. Nothing is cut and dry, black or white. This made me feel like I was in control of how Geralt developed as a character. I chose whom to save or let die, to kill or allow to be killed and, of course, whom to sleep with or distance myself from.
Geralt’s journey is a chase. You are racing to catch the man who killed the king and left you to blame. What is revealed along the way is a war between humans, dwarves and elves. Geralt and his friends are thrust into the middle of the conflict with no way to avoid being involved. All the while there is another plot developing within the main character. You have died once in the past and been brought back, leaving you with severe memory loss. Your flashbacks are animated in an artistic comic book style. As the game progresses you are able to uncover more and more of your past and it’s connection to the events unfolding before you.
The visual aspect of the game is another thing I couldn’t get enough of. The lighting, the details and the textures all helped to create an amazing experience. The feel of combat was more than just bodies colliding awkwardly while swords flailed endlessly around them. When you took a hit or had your swing parried, Geralt reacted. Your health bar wasn’t the only thing that moved.
I can’t say enough for this game’s appeal. CD Projekt RED delivered a complete gaming experience from top to bottom where so many have failed before them. The frustrating parts are more than forgivable in the face of such a well paced, challenging and captivating game. You better believe I’ll be giving this another run through to see what the other side of the coin is like.