The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
Previews of The Witcher 2 hinted at an experience akin to what would happen if Sephiroth had featured in Game of Thrones; fortunately actual game is angst-free, interesting, pretty, and quite possibly what EA’s Dragon Age 2 should have been. The Witcher 2 is based on a series of short stories by Andrzej Sapkowski about the pallid, cat-eyed problem solver, Geralt of Rivia. As far as the game explains, Witchers are magical monster hunters who are looked down on by most of humanity, despite their funky powers. They use mystical signs to cast spells, and are experts with weapons. As awesome as Geralt is (as is the albino Drizzt Do’Urden. Or, indeed, Elric, as has been more publicly noted), so is his nemesis. The intro video shows a giant Rob Liefeld-looking Witcher performing feats of badassery and slaughtering a king. It’s a spectacular video, and one that has even more impact when you realise that this is the chap you’re tasked with killing.
The game open’s with your character in a prison cell, recounting the dramatic prelude while feeding you information about who Geralt is, what his powers are and the kind of state the world of The Witcher 2 is in. There are a lot of kings who act like dicks. You serve one of these kings, up to a point. Events go awry, as they are want to do, and you are cast aside with your mandatory hot high fantasy redhead.
From here, the world opens up to a point, making little free-roaming clusters of a village, then a mountain city, and so on. Each one offers several side-quests while Geralt pursues his giant Witcher nemesis. The side quests could be a simple fetch quest, or a fist-fight in a pub, or more strange offerings such as reconciling a marital dispute between trolls. Where Dragon Age 2 felt like a game entirely made out of side quests, this feels like everything’s at least partly-linked to the chapter you’re in. The locations are small enough for each chapter that you can see the effects fairly regularly. You beat up a noble in a pub fistfight and he’ll be the one to show up and put the knife in when you’re trying to placate the smallfolk.
The world is both pretty and deep-looking. Even with a restrained environment compared to say, a Skyrim, it looks like there’s a whole world out there, and that’s a good thing. While the world is gorgeous and intricate, it can make navigation a bit tricky, especially in the dwarven mining town of Vergen. The navigation blip on the mini-map doesn’t understand up or down and makes things tricky to find. Another problem with the world is how there are blatant and terrible references to other properties (a painful banter about magical rings), or references to real-world people (the use of Heidegger and Kierkegaard as passwords for non-human freedom fighters). Helping the feeling of Game of Thrones-ification of fantasy games are names like Prince Stennis. It’s a shame, as it ruins the immersion into a great and often grisly-looking world.
That’s enough about the setting and the story, one thing everyone tends to talk about in The Witcher series is the system. You may well have heard rumours about its complexity, instilling fears of a Dark Souls level of difficulty and requiring heroic levels of commitment and patience. In practice it’s not as rock-hard as you’d think, but yes, it does require you to be smart.
Controls are simple enough, with light and medium attacks, blocks, magic and special items like traps or grenades. It’s all fairly standard, but then there’s the unique thing for The Witcher games. Planning. Brilliant, odious planning. It’s difficult to gauge whether this is a good thing or not. Potions are a big aspect of the game, but you can’t apply them in a fight, instead you must prepare for battle by drinking a few, often boosting one stat to the detriment of another. You can lay traps for your enemies, snares, exploding bombs or even one of your magical signs. Time doesn’t stop, but instead slows down, when you enter the menu to pick spells or items to use.
These ideas are great, but work mainly when you know a fight’s going to happen, which is where it can get awkward. If you don’t know, then you’re potentially screwed. You have two swords, one for monsters, one for people, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason other than occasionally being caught out picking the wrong one.
The first boss you play against is one of those classic bosses where when you fail, you know it’s all on you. All the necessary equipment is on your person already, and while you’re pointed in the right direction initially, you have to work out what works with each section of the boss yourself. This isn’t a game where you fail 99 times and that hundredth time you win and have no idea what you did which was different. You know when a tactic works, and have to endlessly repeat it, trying different things until you do. While it feels good being smart and defeating the boss with preparation and clever use of your tools, it also prompts bad behaviour. Because you can’t instant-heal, but you do naturally gain more vitality, you end up hiding and running away from enemies until you’re ready to try again. You game the system, and that’s probably not a behaviour they wanted in the players.
Despite these gripes with the system, it still feels good to control and like you’re a smart person for using it well. You can often fail a mission and carry on, knowing that you’ve affected the story because of it, rather than only having one completion condition. You’re a grizzled hero who in interesting, has some humour and depth to him, compared to most amnesiac heroes in gritty settings. It’s a good world with a few flaws, and as long as you’re okay with having to repeat certain bits and learn from your mistakes, then it’s definitely worth your time.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was reviewed on the Xbox 360. Game provided by Namco Bandai.
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