The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is a gift, gilded with moments that stay with you even after the curtains close on its dark tale of uncertain pasts and uncertain futures. Like the rare Roses of Remembrance you might find growing in this role-playing game’s lush fields, these moments are carefully cultivated. They’re meaningful not just because they are packed with excitement, but also because there are stakes–both personal and political. As Geralt of Rivia, your actions don’t just bring you closer to the truths of your own murky history, but they also influence the tides of war. And just as you exert your power on this game’s events, they work their power on you, drawing you further into a gorgeous world populated by quarrelling trolls and drunken, sex-crazed dwarves. Some bugs, combat quirks, and other foibles prove bothersome, but they don’t greatly diminish the impact of exploring a dungeon whose walls ooze the agony you’ve just witnessed. This superb role-playing sequel offers a bold world woven together by tenuous alliances and closely guarded secrets.
The Witcher 2′s phenomenal visual design isn’t its defining characteristic, but it’s an effective lure and makes for an immediate connection with the game’s provocative tone. On the outskirts of a dwarven enclave, sunlight glistens upon a misty pond; a tower just beyond it bristles with potent magical properties; the underbrush surrounding you casts deep shadows, yet rays of golden sun coax you onward. In The Witcher 2, sights like these communicate so much. The delicate lace of a sorceress’s collar gives her a regal air, yet dark makeup and dark brown eyes speak to mysteries beneath the surface. A red scar above a defiant elf’s upper lip is not just a testament to past violence–it suggests a permanent scowl. Walls, cliffs, and meadows aren’t just repeated textures. Look closely at the patterns carved into a stone column, and you notice how each one is slightly different. These may seem like unimportant details, but they’re indicators of how much care went into every facet of this game’s environments and character models.
The superlative art is rendered by equally superlative technology that ensures you can admire the rips on a mercenary’s trousers, a harpy’s individual feathers, and the buckles and seams on Geralt’s clothing. Yet The Witcher 2 is as much about grand gestures as it is textural detail. You cross paths with a giant dragon and other grotesqueries, each of which moves with a sense of weight appropriate to the creature’s proportions. Pungent colors, roaring flames, and shafts of glowing light make mainstay environments like sewers and caves a wonder to explore. Impressively, all of this beauty is rendered using DirectX 9 technology rather than the newer DirectX 11. The game is nevertheless demanding of your hardware, though it is attractive even at lower settings. A few imperfections stand out amidst all the graphical wizardry, such as mechanical facial animations, characters that pop in during cutscenes, and the occasional frame rate dip. But such quibbles are easily tolerated in this luxuriant digital world.
And what a world it is, alive with activity yet tinged with violence and sorrow. The opening moments ready you for the game’s brutal overtones, showing a captive Geralt of Rivia whipped and taunted by his jailers. Geralt’s defaced flesh is not an easy sight to take in, but it’s thematically relevant: The witcher is scarred by his past. Geralt, once thought dead, is still piecing together his memories of a savage battle and a beauty called Yennefer. The story takes its cue from these lost memories, juxtaposing violence and sex. It also presents both as inevitable and natural results of the human (and nonhuman) condition. You can still bed various women in The Witcher 2, as you could in the original game, though you no longer collect sex cards. Lovemaking (or ploughing, as so many characters call it) is a frequent subject of conversation, and it’s one of Geralt’s favorite pastimes. You can bed a few different women, and the game hardly shies from nudity, handily earning its mature rating. The lacerations on Geralt’s back are a stark reminder, however, that this earthly pleasure is only a temporary respite for him.
But The Witcher 2 is not primarily about sex, nor violence. It’s about the search for truth. Geralt seeks clues to his past, as well as the royal assassin that ended the life of King Foltest at the conclusion of The Witcher. This man’s identity is not a secret for long, but then, this is not a murder mystery; rather, it’s a chronicle of discovery, redemption, and political upheaval. Geralt is blamed for Foltest’s murder, but as he gets closer to the true killer, he becomes more and more involved in the region’s power struggles. Not including the prologue and epilogue, The Witcher 2 is split into three acts. The first is primarily concerned with following the killer’s trail, while the second greatly expands the plot, introducing so many new characters and so much lore that you might be initially confused. Yet, the convoluted plot seems poised to explode in the final episode, only to fizzle at the end. The lack of closure intimates a sequel, and it makes the final act feel abrupt when compared to the robustness of the first two.
Characters new and old both assist and hinder Geralt’s quest. These include the flamboyant bard Dandelion and the earthy Zoltan, a foul-mouthed dwarf who, like most of The Witcher 2′s dwarves, loves women and drink. Dwarves are a rich source of humor in most role-playing games, and The Witcher 2′s are no exception. Yet, the tone is different here. These are the raunchiest dwarves you’ve ever encountered, yet the comedy is undercut by underlying anguish. It’s initially funny to learn that teetotaling dwarves are outcasts. But when a dwarf confides that he fears being ostracized because he doesn’t drink, you understand his dread. You might admire a bearded character’s enthusiasm for heading to battle for the first time, but when pressed, he admits his misgivings. Aside from the occasional expository speech, most of the dialogue sounds natural, including the asides spoken by random citizens. Most of the voice actors do a good job of bringing these characters to life, in spite of the occasional hollow note. (The actress playing Triss Merigold again sounds like a random meter maid rushed into the studio for some last-minute line readings.)
The Witcher 2 is not an open-world game in the way of The Elder Scrolls games; each area is relatively contained though expansive enough to encourage exploration. The rewards for doing so aren’t just pretty vistas. You might uncover a chest that can be opened only by interpreting the clues on a nearby scroll or stumble upon a giant arachnid guarding treasure. However, the game’s flexibility isn’t a result of wide-open journeys; it is the extraordinary ways you can influence the story and fundamentally change the direction of your future travels. For example, choices you make at the end of Act 1 not only determine how immediate story events play out, but also have a dramatic impact on the entire game. The characters at your side, the enemies you face, the dialogue–they all differ based on a series of decisions that the game never forgets. And these aren’t “good” or “bad” choices: these are ambiguous circumstances with ambiguous results, which is just as well. Geralt is not interested in heroism or villainy. He navigates turbulent waters seeking neither justice nor injustice, only answers.
A number of stupendous moments punctuate your choices. Typically, the events you most fondly recall from RPGs are story related: the characters, the plot twists, the losses, the finales. By contrast, The Witcher 2 etches gameplay events into your imagination. What you remember most isn’t just what you witness, but what you experience firsthand. Once such moment occurs when a large clash on a battlefield causes it to become awash with a golden supernatural mist. This moment is recalled several times later yet retains its power due to its otherworldly ambience, sense of scale, and fun combat. Its terrifying scream makes your first encounter with a harpy unforgettable. Viewing another’s memory, taking on a ghostly identity, and other inspired occurrences plant seeds of apprehension: you never know what might be lurking around the bend.
If you played the original Witcher, then forget what you learned from its combat mechanics. The Witcher 2 abandons that rhythmic system for a more traditional and challenging one. You still switch between silver and steel swords, depending on whether you are facing monsters or humans, but regardless of the weapon you equip, be prepared for the occasional beatdown. You initiate standard attacks with your mouse, and you block and cast signs (Geralt’s magic spells) with the keyboard. (You may also use a gamepad.) Your first encounter during the prologue/tutorial makes for a punishing introduction: Expect to die a few times as you learn just what the game expects of you. The extreme difficulty right off the bat, paired with tutorial hints that don’t pop up long enough or soon enough to be much help, don’t make for the friendliest introduction. But you learn an important lesson: You must tread carefully. Eventually you grasp the rhythm, which is similar to that of the PlayStation 3 game Demon’s Souls. You must position yourself well and pay close attention to your supply of vigor, which is required to block, as well as cast signs; get in a few choice hits; and then block or tumble into a safer position. You may also want to soften the enemy or control the crowd by throwing bombs (blind them!) or laying traps (turn enemies on each other!), particularly during the first act, when you feel most vulnerable.
Even after you grow accustomed to The Witcher 2′s combat, there are a few scenarios that are more than just difficult: They are cruel. A couple of boss fights are frustrating, as is a quest in a dark cramped mine that has multiple dwarves crowding you, all while you are hounded by fiendish foes that explode upon death. It’s too easy to inadvertently tumble toward an enemy behind the one you meant to attack and find yourself in the center of a deadly mob. Yet, the action is largely satisfying and enjoyable. There’s a great sense of weight in every swing. Geralt might somersault toward his victim and slash him with a steel sword or use a flaming staff pilfered from a succubus to land slower, heavier blows. As you level up and spend skill points in four different skill paths (witcher training, swordsmanship, magic, alchemy), combat becomes more manageable, and you begin to feel more powerful. And yet, the action never becomes a cakewalk, and it always retains a sense of urgency.
And so death is inescapable, but The Witcher 2 allows you to properly prepare before trying to conquer the wilds. You aren’t stuck with the same weapons and armor, of course. You loot new ones or buy them from vendors, and these can be upgraded in various ways. You might also purchase equipment schematics and have a vendor craft items for you using the iron ore, timber, and other raw materials you stumble upon as you explore. You can also brew up potions and quaff them, though you can’t just down a health drink in the midst of battle. Instead, you must down potions while meditating. Meditation is a returning mechanic, though you no longer have to find a campfire as in the first game. Potions are toxic to Geralt; thus, the number you can drink is limited. It might take you a while to come to terms with this “prepare in advance” approach to potions. Brews act as statistic buffs rather than immediate cure-alls, and unless you know what monsters you might be coming up against, you don’t necessarily know which potions to take. When the story snatches you up into a series of battles and cutscenes, you may never be allowed to meditate and, thus, never reap the benefits potions may have granted.
It may also take some time getting used to the interface. It isn’t complex but there are some minor idiosyncrasies, some of which are rather sensible. You can’t hold a key to identify loot and items of interest as you can in most RPGs; instead, you activate Geralt’s medallion. It’s a neat way of taking a game-y function and making it seem more natural. Other interface quirks are less understandable. You can’t quickly identify and sell vendor trash, for example, and there is no easy way to compare the equipment a merchant has for sale with your current stuff. These are minor quibbles, however. Not so minor are the few quest bugs that can aggravate your travels. A quest marker and journal entry may refuse to update when completing an action, leaving you to wonder what to do next; choosing dialogue options in a particular order might lead to a similar circumstance. The only solution to these circumstances is to hope you accidentally stumble upon the next phase of the story or reload a previous game save. These are disappointing errors in a well-made game with an otherwise stellar presentation.
Combat is central to The Witcher 2, but it’s not the only way to pass the time. Dice poker returns and works much the same way as in the original. Proving your mettle with your fists is a more consistent way of earning some extra coin, however. You can trade blows with certain locals, though you may cringe when you first learn that doing so entails quick-time key presses–the kind associated more with console action games than computer RPGs. (Such quick-time events crop up in various boss fights and other scripted sequences as well.) Yet, the game hardly relies on them too much, and the close camera angles and barbaric punches give brawls some pizzazz. An arm-wrestling minigame is much less enjoyable, forcing you to keep a sluggish cursor within the proper boundaries. And, of course, certain characters (and the town’s task board) will have some odd jobs for you, many of which involve the game’s signature moral dilemmas. Who do you believe: a mythical seductress accused of murder or the elf jealous of her many lovers? When each accuser is equally unconvincing, you must carefully consider your path. And in this complicated world, just as in the real one, there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong choice–or a neat resolution.
Like many ambitious games, The Witcher 2 requires you to shoulder some minor burdens; in this case, it’s a finale without bite and some unfortunate bugs. Yet, you rarely sense that any given element suffered because more attention was given to another. This distinguished game makes an important statement: Visual beauty, challenging action, and game-changing decisions can coexist in a modern RPG. In one beauteous stroke, The Witcher 2 has raised the stakes. No longer need we accept that role-playing games must sacrifice the quality of one element in favor of another. Instead, we are allowed to have it all. And how wonderful that we have it right here, right now, in The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings.