How often in a role playing game do you actually feel the decisions you make affect the narrative in truly sweeping ways? More often than not, it seems like we’re selecting between two hallways that ultimately lead to the same room, the only difference between the two is that one is painted red and the other blue (when you play the muppet’s party cruise).
In CD Projekt RED’s The Witcher 2, the differences between those hallways would be one is painted red, and the other is a freeway.
The Witcher 2 is unlike many games in the RPG genre for many reasons. The game is set in a rather realistic world, where monsters are rare and truly monstrous, and where casting a powerful magic spell can leave even the most adept sorceress exhausted for days. You take the role of Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher. Witchers are genetically modified humans, able to ingest alchemical potions and utilize magic — things that would lead most normal humans to a gruesome death — and are tasked with hunting down dangerous creatures.
Geralt is suffering from the all-too-common RPG affliction, amnesia, something he’s had twice now over the series’ two games. Geralt is wrongly accused of killing a king for whom he was sworn to protect, after it is discovered the king was assassinated by a fellow witcher. Geralt is let free, under the sole provision he help hunt down the assassin and his cohorts, now known as the “Assassin of Kings.” The assassination couldn’t have come at a worse time — the the land is being torn apart by numerous warring kingdoms and rebel factions.
Each aspect of the game’s scenario comes into play in some form or another in the gameplay in ways that go beyond just plot devices.
For example: Geralt’s amnesia explains his need for a skill tree to expand his combat abilities. The skill tree works just as any other, with players unlocking new skills and bonuses after each level gained. These make a surprising difference in the difficulty of the game, as early on, some of the most basic enemies can kill you if you’re not careful. This does create a rather steep learning curve for the first couple hours of the game, but thankfully with the Enhanced Edition updates, many of the random shifts in difficulty — both harder and easier — have for the most part been eliminated. Still, by the middle of the game I was practically invincible in even the toughest fights.
Geralt’s ability to use potions and alchemy is also a strong point of the gameplay. Geralt is armed with a magic pendant that shows pickable plants and herb, as well as hidden items and secrets. By collecting ingrediants found in the wild, you can bring up a menu where Geralt can meditate, make potions, or take potions. Potions vary wildly in terms of stat bonuses and buffs, and give a much needed leg up in combat. They also come with a toxicity level — the more toxic a potion is, the higher your toxicity level rises. I was usually able to take between 2-4 potions before my toxicity was maxed. It’s both an interesting mechanic, and provide some realism to the RPG trope of potion taking.
You also have special magical abilities, called signs, which can aid you in combat in both offensive and defensive capacities, adding yet another layer onto the combat system. There is even a sign available for use in conversations, which acts as a sort of “Jedi mind trick,” persuading others to see things your way.
The conversations play out a lot like Mass effect or Dragon Age’s would, but without a dialogue wheel informing you of the “good” or “bad” options. In fact, every choice in the game has its own pros and cons, forcing you to listen to what others have to say and weigh your options, instead of simply clicking on the one that matches your alignment. There were many times I sat back in my seat and took several minutes to really think about the choices the game was giving me. They are all wonderfully complex shades of gray, never black and white or simple. While I certainly have my issues with overly-cinematic games and the illusion of control most RPGs give you, in The Witcher 2 I felt my decisions were not only hard to make, but were extremely important. When I went back to see how other options may have turned out, I found that I missed out on entire chunks of the game that other players saw, and vice-versa. It’s one of the few times a game has given you options with real consequences on the story’s path.
The world the game takes place in is very gritty and realistic, bringing to mind George R.R. Martin’s A song of Ice and Fire series (a.k.a. Game of Thrones), with all its political intrigue, mature sexual themes, violence, and a setting that feels grounded and relatable. The landscapes look like real places, the people and clothing — even the Elves and Dwarves — look more medieval than fantastical. That realism is boosted by the game’s gorgeous graphics. Truly, it’s one of the most beautiful PC games to come out in several years. Even at the lowest settings, the game’s animations, lighting, and texture rival even the sharpest console titles. The high graphics fidelity only add to The Witcher 2‘s immersiveness. While not entirely open like Besthesda’s RPGs, the world is still massive and filled with things to discover and quests to undertake in each of the game’s 3 acts. I never felt at a loss of things to do, though some quests did randomly fail when I completed others, but with the number you’ll have active at any particular moment, it’s a non-issue.
The Witcher 2 is complex, beautiful, and deep. The story is mature, and despite the largely cinematic presentation, provides the player with hard choices and real consequences; the combat is layered and dynamic, even if the difficulty is inconsistent. Overall, The Witcher 2 is a prime example of the RPG genre, the PC version is a strong reminder of the power PC games can hold. I very much recommend to any RPG fan, or gamers looking for something a little more mature and grounded, but nontheless fun to play.
Pros: Gorgeous graphics; deep gameplay and combat; the story and setting are much more mature and interesting than most fantasy RPGs; choices are important and never black and white.
Cons: Steep learning curve; inconsistent difficulty; requires powerful machine to run a higher graphical settings; some story elements are cliched or contrived.