The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings – review

Witcher 2 screenshot #2

Don’t worry, this scene happens within about 2 minutes of the game starting.

Witcher 2 quite simply features the best-directed story of any videogame.

This does seem like hollow praise seeing as most games’ stories have less depth than a Peppa Pig episode. So I will go one further: Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings is narratively better than most films I’ve ever watched.

At first I was a bit worried because the protagonist, Geralt, is struck with amnesia. This is a pretty standard plot device for a game, feeling as predictable as a ‘the butler did it’ moment, and there are very few games that pull it off well.

This is the only misstep that the game makes and, after the brutal tutorial which accustoms you to what is to come, the story has you guessing at every point.

It starts in earnest with Geralt being tortured with no explanation as to why. Rather than just spit it out the game treats us with the kind of respect not usually reserved for gamers and, instead, the storyline is tackled through a series of flashbacks that are controlled by the player. Given this choice of exposé it is strange that they would have given Geralt amnesia at all, given that the amnesia slant is typically used to justify why the protagonist is as unfamiliar with the game world as the player. Regardless, each of the vignettes detailing why Geralt is in this predicament are well-paced with a slow build-up that doesn’t rush anything, sets the mood of the world and starts to tell a story unlike that of any other RPG out there.

Witcher 2 screenshot #2

Hopefully this text is small enough not to be a massive spoiler.

In most RPGs Good and Evil are clearly defined. A character’s intent is easy to read by the task they bequeath you. If a man wants you to rob someone then he is a Bad Person; if another wants you to collect some berries then their intent will – at worst – be neutral; if you see a large group of aggressors picking on a defenceless person then they are bullies waiting to be taught a lesson. In Witcher 2 none of this is necessarily true. Time and again a seemingly innocent or noble request can leave you a victim of some unpredicted malice.  It makes you question every decision you make, especially as actions and choices can have a wider impact on the story. It can be jarring to find out that your fetch quest is actually going to result in a woman poisoning her husband after years of abuse at his hands, so much so that you actually become suspicious of each character’s motivations.

And, as in my case, you can become quite an awful person.

The exact moment this happened to me came when, at around the 12 hour mark, I came across a tortured soul of a soldier. The soldier was complaining of being chased by spirits and that he had become a hollow shell of his former self. After going through the dialogue I then completely ignored him.

I had become jaded, tired of people leading me into ambushes or conning me into rescuing murderers and sneering at me for any perceived good deed. I had reached the point where I preferred the company of trolls.

And the truth is… well, the truth I told myself to justify the fact that I was being a massive arsehole was that he worked for a faction I didn’t really trust and so far they had done nothing but fool me. I won’t actually spoil what happened when I stumbled across the quest many hours later as that would ruin this delightfully twisted side quest, but I will say that I came off even worse in its resolution.

This is what makes Witcher 2 great: these moments where decisions have an impact not only in the microcosm of that quest but also in the overall game and on the moral composition of the player themselves. Nor are there ever any easy decisions (unless you are some kind of psychopath). Do you take  revenge on the man who murdered the team which rescued Geralt from imprisonment and raped his way through the main storyline? In any other game the response would be a resounding ‘yes’, however in this game the person could also be the only one able to clear Geralt’s name, reunite warring countries and secure a legacy for Geralt’s dead patron. The answer is no longer as simple.

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I cannot think of another game that conjures up these kinds of questions and makes you worry about the choices you are going to make. Make no mistake, some of them will result in the story taking a completely different turn by the end of the game with whole swathes of content being locked out from a player. This is a brave decision on the developer’s part and one they should be commended for.

It is unfortunate then, that Witcher 2’s combat never quite seems to gel. Even with the apparent Enhanced Edition changes made to the introduction in order to ease players into the combat the experience remains daunting. There are five distinct spells that are not communicated well, a multitude of bombs and traps that the control system doesn’t give you enough time to practice with, and the melee gameplay’s depths are hinted at but not shown in action until the player has had the chance to suffer a lot of death. Normally a game that obfuscates its systems would earn my praise but with a learning curve shaped like a fairground wall of death it is hard to level up your own thumb skills without getting repeatedly killed by the first characters you encounter in the game. As you increase Geralt’s abilities through the skill trees you will have moments where you will be jumping from enemy to enemy dealing death blows at regular intervals but you will also have moments where Geralt will fail to connect and stumble over level geometry. To be fair, though, the generous save system and the alchemy perks that you can apply to your character and your weapons helps ease some of the awkwardness and I never ended up throwing my hands in the air in frustration with them. No, those moments of wanting to give up were saved for the boss fights.

Witcher 2 commits its worst sin here, after sidestepping so many narrative stereotypes, by presenting very painful boss battles.

Witcher 2 screenshot #4

We at Arcadian Rhythms are worried about AJ’s need to play games whilst screencapping things that look like vaginas with teeth.

Each of the bosses is immune to pretty much all poisons and traps as well as most of the magic spells that Geralt can use, and they cannot be countered or parried like standard enemies. This means that any tactics or skills employed during regular combat have to be defenestrated in favour of a lot of rolling around and hastily stabbing bosses when they aren’t looking. I placed most of my skills into sword mastery and still had to employ this tactic so I can’t imagine how people who specialised in the arcane or alchemy trees faired against these setpieces.

Yet despite every cursed word uttered against the boss design I forced my way through such moments, because Witcher 2 is just worth it.

As an experience the final chapter is emotionally exhausting. It is made clear that no single character is sacred and nor are any principles you may try and adhere to. Characters you may have sworn to kill will reveal deeper reasons for their actions, reasons that actually make sense. In my own personal story, after witnessing so much murder and torture I treated anyone who didn’t have their head stuck on a pike as a survivor and regardless of what they had done I appreciated that they had probably had to do it. The amount of story and development of the course of one game and the emotional investment I ended up having in the characters puts both of the Mass Effect games I have played to shame.

Witcher 2 is a mature game. It deserves its 18 rating for all its sex and violence but, unlike other games with the same ‘accolade’, Witcher 2 deserves praise for not getting bogged down in it. As a result, slightly clumsy combat aside, I would say that it is one of the best Western RPGs ever made.

Play it now.