Gorgeous, captivating, beautiful, sublime. I could sing praises of The Witcher 2 all article long, but that isn’t nearly as useful a thought as wanting to say that the Witcher 2 is a rarity in games, or any entertainment art form. A product of craft, passion, understanding, technical feats that doesn’t pander to the mainstream and isn’t afraid to treat its audience like adults.* It’s all because of the narrative. Here, it’s the story of Geralt of Rivia, the titular witcher of Andrzej Sapkowski fanstasy world.
The sheer power of the Withcher 2’s ability to transport you into its world lies in its details. The artistry and attention given to even the most minute of incidental bits that make up the world. Watch in rapture as the trebuchets in the opening scene wind down, then launch their payloads with a satisfying crunch. Wander amidst the morbid humidity of flotsam’s forests and admire the plant life that stirs beyond the walls. Witcher 2 is one of the few games that seems powered by the imagination of when fantasy audience read their first fantasy novel. When words were all we had to paint a world in which we might adventure, where rich characters populate, pursuing their agendas and charming their way through their misbegotten lives. Geralt’s adventures takes him cross country through the Northern Kingdoms, from the swampy hellhole of Flotsam to the battlefield camp of the Kaedwen army and into the catacombs of dead Dwarves. Each of these areas is crafted with precisions, from the colorfully fitting army uniforms to the weathered carvings of ancient tombs. As dreary and dangerous as it’s meant to be, the forest around Flotsam is one of the most colorful and beautiful places I’ve ever been to in a game. It used to be the stuff that can only be described in books, or imagined from ancient pixel art on computers, now brought into full HD glory.
More can be said about the writing of characters in the Witcher 2 as well. These are fully realized people, their agendas define the story and their actions force your choices. Witcher 2’s choice and consequences aren’t as nuanced as its prequel (more on that later)* but they’re much more defined by the people you interact with during the game. Kings, corporals, sorceress, secret agents, prostitutes. These are people inhabiting a world so dark that they often can only choose the hard choice just for a glimmer of light. Then they force you to do the same. Those choices, define the story, and they are so much more about the particular philosophies you hold about Geralt’s world, if not Geralt’s belief himself.
It’s a testament to the story that it can overcome the games many niggling details in the actual game design. Finicky Inventory management system, poorly balanced loot drop, and an often erratic combat system that seems inspired by the best parts of Demon’s Soul and Batman, but retaining many of the worst parts of both; Witcher 2 probably need some more time through playtest, preferably by testers not enamored with a masochistic sense of danger. Boss fights that are tuned to be either nigh impossible, or prone to cheesing as the only viable tactic, and a small mistake can cause Geralt to get stuck in geometry, or stun-locked to hell and a load game. I suppose it’s all part of the Witcher’s philosophy of treating its audience like adults. You made your mistake, now deal with it.
There’s so much to laud in the Witcher 2’s storytelling, and the story that it tells. How it plays upon themes of revenge and racism, of politics and conspiracies. By contrast, Bioware’s Dragon Age series is an amateur effort at best, in even reaching the depths that Witcher ploughs in search of hard truth about medieval life and monsters. So much effort in setting the right environment for the story to take place that Bioware almost never seems to pay attention to. Even the directing of cut-scenes and dialog comes with the sure hand of people who know what story they are telling, and just how well they are going to tell it.
I doubt there’s going to another game like the Witcher from a different studio. Like the game’s alchemy, this game seems to have only come from the right mixture of ingredients at CDprojeckt RED. I can’t hope that other studios take note and try to mature the games the way Witcher has done, partly because I still occasionally wonder about the general maturity of gaming audience at large, but mostly because I think that this sort of masterpiece can only come from a passion to make the game that they wanted to make, damn everything else. I can only hope they get Witcher 3 out as soon as possible. I want to follow Geralt’s story. For as satisfying a conclusion as they left the Witcher 2 at, they were wise enough to open new threads, dangling more bait for fish they’ve already caught.
– I’m somewhat torn about the Choice and Consequence of Witcher 2 as opposed to the original. The first had you making choices you weren’t aware of until the consequence came to bite you far down the line. Far too late to reload a game. In contrast, 2’s choices seems obviously placed to change the course of the story and few consequences were results of small choices you made earlier on. On the other hand, these choices felt more epic in context, and tougher to make as the story progressed.
– Obviously the Act 1 choice changed the course of the story, but we’re never given much reason to choose Iorveth over Roche. Roche helped you escaped, is fighting for a proper cause, isn’t a complete dick or a rampant murderer. Why would anyone pick Iorveth other than to pursue more game content. On the other hand, I hear that Act II is much better in the Iorveth path. Sigh, I want to commend CDP for designing games with content you might not see the first time round, but I wished they had did a bit more work in making that choice more difficult.
– I also miss the original’s alchemy system, which might seem more finicky to some players, since it tasks you to managed each ingredient and their secondary properties. I can’t even managed the current version and can only hope that I don’t accidentally use up some rare ingredient in my mind-numbing button mash to get as many Zerrikanian Suns out as possible.
– Plough it all, that’s the new frak.
– On the other hand, as finicky as it was sometimes, I love the new combat system. I only wish there was more chances to go up against more monsters. Witcher 2 seemed to tune in only several really unique monster fights, and some of them were on the puzzle scale of game design as opposed to combat.
– The whole game makes me wish Dark Souls and Skyrim could be combined into one massive open-world combat simulator. Just build me the engine guys, I’ll wring the story I want out of it. Assuming I have the time of course.