Set a short while after the events in the original title, CD Projekt Red's The Witcher 2 finds monster hunter Geralt of Rivia once again embroiled in twisted plots and politics as he strives to clear his name of a heinous crime. Maintaining the rich game world and deep backstory of the original, this dark and gritty fantasy action RPG moves the series forward in a very satisfying fashion.
From the first moments of the prologue, when most games would hand-hold players through a gentle learning curve, The Witcher 2 announces (proudly?) that it isn't going to ever be a kinder, gentler sequel. Some of the most brutal and challenging sequences of the game occur in these initial hours, when both Geralt and the player have yet to build up the skill-set necessary for success. Although this can be a put-off for many, I would highly suggest toughing it out through these early battles, as a deeply rewarding game lies just beyond.
Much of the initial difficulties lie more in lack of player skill than in an under-powered Geralt. Even for veterans from the first Witcher, there are some changes in combat and control. Gone are the combat stances, allowing (or requiring) players now to take a more direct tactical control of any given situation. It doesn't take long to learn that a group of seemingly weak enemies can tear apart even well-buffed characters, requiring players to keep a constant eye on positions and flanks. Maintaining the iconic "two sword" approach of the original, players must ensure they wield the correct weapon for the occasion. Steel swords work well against normal enemies, while the silver sword is the necessary choice for any supernatural creatures. In addition to swords and magical "signs", Geralt can also bring bombs, traps, and thrown daggers into the mix, making combat a great deal of fun.
A special mention needs to be given to the potion system. In this dark setting, all potions are deadly toxins to most normal folks. To the genetically-enhanced Witchers, these potions are often the difference between success and grisly failure. However, even Witchers succumb to the poisonous effects of these concoctions. Only a few potions can be "active" at any given time, and care needs to be taken not to exceed a toxicity limit when choosing which potions to quaff. In addition, potions can only be administered during a meditative state, meaning players cannot down a quick booster during the heat of combat. Players must instead plan ahead, using potions as preparatory measures for upcoming events. This potion system intrigued me in the first Witcher game, and I was quite thrilled to see that it stayed in place for the sequel. I always enjoy a system that puts generic fantasy tropes firmly on their ears, especially when it does so to such a fun effect.
For an action-centric, combat oriented game, I was a little disappointed by the slightly clunky controls of The Witcher 2. While nothing was blatantly wrong, there was just something a little off about the pace of many fights. Geralt's animations would seem to hang on just a second too long here and there, and movements would sometimes seem to take just a heartbeat too much to manifest on the screen. I can't put my finger on a single combat move or effect that caused these hiccups, and many were so minor that, alone, they're almost unnoticeable. However, I would find strange "micro-pauses" at just the wrong time that would through off entire attack sequences. Eventually I managed to compensate for these quirks, but even so I found them slightly off-putting for such as combat-intensive title.
As in most RPGs, as Geralt succeeds in quests and cuts his way through swaths of monsters, he gains the ability to unlock new powers and skills. Focusing on three paths of advancement, players can mold their Witcher into a powerful swordsman, a skilled magic-user, or an expert in genetically-manipulating alchemy. Each path provides powerful rewards toward the ends of their branches, and as Geralt's skills grow (in addition to the skills of the player), the game soon begins to be much, much less challenging. After about the mid-point of the game, with a decently-equipped character and a rich selection of powers, I soon found myself easily tearing through enemies almost without pause. Geralt's shield spell, in particular, can turn the game from a meat grinder into a cakewalk almost instantaneously.
Still, even as combat becomes less and less a challenge, the Witcher 2 still pulls players along with a deep and complex plot. Actually, the plot is much deeper than players will be able to glean from just the game itself--The Witcher 2 hints at an entire world just beyond the scope of the game, a world explored in other fictions and media. Some players may be a bit overwhelmed by the sheer amount of names and places that are dropped, often rapid-fire, in a given dialogue. Keeping all the players straight in the twisted political web of kingdoms is daunting for veterans of the series, and can be simply too much for newcomers. To make matters even more convoluted, there are some major plot decisions to be made a critical points in the game. Siding with one faction over another can bring about an entirely different second-half of the game, meaning that completists will need a few playthroughs to see everything.
Graphically, The Witcher 2 looks great. At higher resolutions, the gritty feel of the world shines through. Character animations are strong, the well-developed monster populations are convincing, and the environments are engrossing. Bolstered by a solid musical score and impressive environmental sound, players can easily become immersed in the dark fantasy setting. I was, in particular, impressed by the nature sounds--I heard habitat-correct birds and animals in many of the locations. Although probably an afterthought by their sound engineer, this spot-on attention to detail really struck me.
The Witcher 2 does an admirable job of carrying forward the intriguing dark fantasy setting. Once over the steep cliff of a learning curve, players will find a very detailed and rewarding action fantasy adventure. Still, The Witcher 2 is not for everyone--this is a very gritty and quite adult-oriented outing. That being said, but for a few slight hiccups here and there, The Witcher 2 is still an incredibly entertaining run, and easily the best fantasy RPG I've played so far this year.