Grizzly Gaming

Friday, May 18, 2012

Review: The Witcher 2 - A thrilling, if challenging, fantasy RPG adventure

Creating tense, interesting and intriguing drama is a difficult task no matter what the form of media and video games have traditionally, unfortunately, suffered from lackluster writing. In terms of game development – especially at smaller companies – resources are usually reserved to refine aspects of the gameplay, sharpen the visuals or make the sound more crisp usually leaving room for a barebones story that may or may not include compelling, developed/developing characters, or even much of a coherent plot. As long as the game is pretty and plays well, many gamers can overlook a pedestrian plot (the “Call of Duty” series is a perfect example of this – the story of each game could be interchangeable [you know, depending on the time period of the game] but each new addition to the series somehow breaks the sales records set by the previous one).

But the dramatic failings of other games simply cannot be said of “The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings: Enhanced Edition,” developed by CD Projekt Red for the Xbox 360. A third person, action/adventure, fantasy RPG, “TW2” takes place in a medieval time ruled by swordsmanship and magic but more than that, takes place in a land characterized by constant war and political upheaval. A majority of the themes present in “TW2” are very adult and the subject matter of many of the games quests and storylines would not be considered “child friendly.” Though it may seem like another “Skyrim” or perhaps even “Fable,” “TW2” takes a drastically different approach to storytelling (with heavier themes and topics covered) and gameplay than the aforementioned titles.

“TW2” follows Geralt of Rivia as he attempts to clear his name after being accused of killing a king. Geralt is a witcher, a profession more-or-less forced onto unwanted, orphaned candidates. Though human in appearance and mind, the process of becoming a witcher allows Geralt numerous, supernatural powers and abilities normal humans don’t understand and often fear. Witcher training also bestows incredible abilities in swordsmanship, making not just Geralt but all witchers fearsome opponents in any battle. Though being a witcher means serving and protecting humanity from all manner of monstrosities and supernatural beasts, not all are as noble as Geralt and many turn to the mercenary’s life.

Though the narrative of “TW2” is gripping, dark and filled with heavy themes, its twists and turns and numerous  characters can get somewhat confusing – especially in the early stages of the game. Also, since you’re thrown right into the meat of the storyline, getting deep enough into the story of “TW2” to the point where you’re familiar with the recent events and characters can take a pretty hefty time commitment that some might not be willing to make. Those who are willing to get deeper into “TW2” will find a riveting tale, the direction of which can be changed by the player during pivotal moments in the story. 

Not all witchers are as heroic as Geralt

For example, the first 5-6 hours of the game are comprised of Geralt being questioned about recent events (where a king happened to lose his head and the only suspect is Geralt) and take place in the form of a flashback. Also, being that Geralt has amnesia and doesn’t remember much before the events of the game’s opening hours, your only options are to hold on tight and try to make sense of the massive amount of info being thrown at you, or not play. As the game goes on, you’re given ample opportunity to talk to NPCs, read books and investigate, so you won’t be out in the cold for long but you ought to be prepared to be slightly confused for the first few hours of the game (that is, unless, you played the previous title or read any of the corresponding books).

Also, the first few hours don’t do a very good job indicating how much of the game plays out. While the early stages of gameplay and story are very linear, you’re eventually given free reign to explore a number of different, large, open environments. The story is broken up into chapters and each chapter brings along a new area to explore with tons of items, loot and quests to be found.

Though at first confusing and slightly winding, the story eventually begins to make sense and once it does, you’ll be gripped by Geralt’s plight and how deeply your personal choices affect the outcome of the story. Events are moved along with the aid of beautifully rendered cutscenes. Well, all of the visuals in “TW2” are pretty incredible – not just the cutscenes. Characters are highly detailed, environments are awash with saturated colors of all types and there is a surprisingly effective use of light and shadow. The voice acting is equally superb, giving life and character to even the lowliest and most forgettable NPCs. 

I’ve mentioned other titles similar to “TW2” so far – like “Skyrim,” “Fable,” or “Mass Effect.” You should know right now that while “TW2” is similar, it’s much heavier on traditional elements of RPGs such as skill development, inventory management, challenging combat and a robust crafting system. Though you won’t be able to build Geralt’s abilities from the ground up (like “Skyrim’s” leveling system), there are four different ability trees with tons of ways to hone Geralt’s already impressive skills. I won’t dance around it any longer – “TW2” is about as hardcore an RPG you can find on the consoles these days (or anywhere, really, since it’s the port of a PC title) and its steep challenge and learning curve (coupled with its deep if somewhat twisting story) may be too much for most to handle.

I’ll get the boring inventory management aspects out of the way now before moving onto the much more exciting methods and strategies for combat. I know managing inventory isn’t the most exciting way to spend your time but if you want to play “TW2,” you better at least come to terms with it. 

 Witchers are tasked with protecting humans from all manner of nasty monsters
From typical items like weapons and armor to books, crafting materials, diagrams and even junk, there’s an astounding, almost overwhelming, amount of stuff that can be collected throughout “TW2.” Once you become accustomed to the game, you’ll start to understand what is worth picking up and what isn’t though early on, it’s very easy to become over-encumbered. While the inventory screen is broken out into easily navigable categories, the sheer amount of stuff you can carry around occasionally makes it difficult to locate specific items. A more intuitive inventory system would’ve been nice, considering the sheer amount of items available to collect, but the one present is serviceable enough.

My biggest gripe with the inventory system is how Geralt collects these items. Say you just finished killing a bandit, a little hand will appear over his body, indicating he has things to pick up. A little box in the corner will tell you what he has and you can click “A” to pick it all up – that’s it. You can’t pick and choose what to pick up nor can you even tell how many of those items he had (if he had four Iron Ore, it will only show up in the list as “Iron Ore”). For a game that’s so heavy on inventory management to have such a surprisingly lazy method for collecting items is pretty ridiculous, considering how much work went into other areas of the game.

But considering how much work went into crafting the combat system of “TW2,” its inventory shortcomings can be forgiven. Combat in “TW2” takes place in real time and can be very challenging for new players. The challenge lies in the amount of strategy required to be successful in even minor squabbles with bandits or monsters (like nekkars or rotfiends), let alone larger enemies or bosses.

Though Geralt is a witcher, he’s still human and therefore just as susceptible to damage and death as any enemy he faces. What I’m getting at, basically, is that even once you’ve increased Geralt’s armor rating and vitality, a few missteps in any battle will likely spell defeat – or at least the beginning of the end. Though not as unforgivingly difficult as past “Ninja Gaiden” titles or “Demon/Dark Souls,” combat in “TW2” can be infuriating even for experienced gamers and near-insurmountable for button-mashers. Carefully timed attacks, blocks, dodges and careful position are essential for success in combat. Though it’s difficult to master, becoming proficient at the combat in “TW2” is incredibly rewarding. Watching Geralt move deftly from one enemy to the next, striking quickly while casting signs and laying traps is very satisfying but takes plenty of practice.

Along with his swords (steel for humans, silver for monsters), Geralt can use magical abilities called “signs” which are your typical video game fare – a force push, a protective barrier, a fireball, etc. Every sign is available to you from the beginning of the game so you won’t need to worry about unlocking these abilities. Geralt can also make use of throwable items (selected in an in-game window with LB and used with RB) such as bombs, daggers and traps. However, you’ll first need to buy those quick-use items or craft them yourself.

“TW2” features a robust crafting system that allows you to not only create quick-use items but also weapons, armor and magical potions as well. Geralt himself can create potions, bombs and daggers while Meditating (initiated by selecting Meditation in the quick-use menu) but must find craftsmen to build weapons, armor and traps. 

 Geralt will face many massive monstrosities, many bigger than this troll
While the crafting in “TW2” is fairly deep and robust, it’s also slightly confusing at first (like most aspects of this game) but with some experimentation can be comprehended eventually. Geralt will need crafting diagrams before being able to create bombs or potions and will also need to own a diagram before he can get a craftsmen to create a trap or weapon. You’ll constantly be finding crafting elements so don’t hesitate to create plenty of items for use in combat (rather than hording everything for use later).

I briefly mentioned Meditation before and I should mention that it’s used for more than just crafting items and potions. You can get a deeper look at Geralt’s character stats from this screen, wait time (since there is a day/night cycle in “TW2”) and drink potions. Potions work slightly differently in this game than other RPGs. While in “Skyrim” you can down health potion after health potion from a menu, potions in “TW2” can only be imbibed while Meditating and as such, must be used prior to battle (since you don’t have time to meditate during a fight). Potions in this game are used to buff abilities and stay active for a long period of time. However, Geralt can only drink a few potions at a time as each potion has a toxicity level that limits how many (and how strong of) potions he can take at one time.

“TW2” also features a tutorial that will get you accustomed to the various aspects of gameplay, such as crafting, combat and dialogue. It’s really the only time “TW2” holds your hand before throwing you into the fire but overall doesn’t do much to explain the intricacies of its combat system. At the end of the tutorial, you’re given a chance to fight in an arena setting, at the end of which the game will suggest a difficulty setting for you. (I’ve no doubt most people will be suggested they play on “Easy” because the game, for some reason, figures you’ll pick up the combat right away which, if you’ve been paying attention so far, you won’t. It doesn’t lock in that difficulty choice so you can still choose your own.)

Because the Xbox 360 version is ported from the PC version, it includes patches that have been released so far as well as DLC quests not found in the original version. The 360 “Enhanced Edition” also features an Arena mode that is separate from the single player narrative. The goal of the arena is to complete increasingly difficult waves of enemies for points that count towards a global leaderboard. Victory also earns an experience point and the choice of an item. It’s an interesting, fun little diversion but ultimately doesn’t add too much to the total package. It’s difficult since you start at level one with barebones equipment and weapons and you stop earning points if you die. You can continue after you die but since you don’t earn leaderboard points or items/XP for single player, there really isn’t any reason to.

“TW2” can be characterized overall by its commitment to challenging the player. Not just with the difficulty of gameplay (combat, getting the most out of dialogue, inventory management, etc.) with the dark, mature themes that constitute the majority of the narrative. I’d also be in the wrong to not mention how frustratingly few checkpoints and autosaves there are throughout the narrative of “TW2.” Though you’re able to save at any time outside of combat, it’s easy to forget that little fact and considering this game’s difficulty, I’ve had to replay areas and battles more than a few times because I hadn’t remembered to save my game in a long time.

Though it does have numerous quirks and some elements of odd design, they are not so overwhelming that they cannot be looked past or, in time, adjusted to. Overall, I highly enjoyed the challenges presented in “TW2” and will definitely be returning to it in the future. With its unrepentant difficulty and its diverging narrative paths, “TW2” is a game that could be different for you on each subsequent playthrough. Though I have no doubt many will pass on this game due to its difficulty or its design quirks, those who do decide to take on the role of Geralt of Rivia will not be disappointed.


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An avid gamer and long-time pro wrestling fan, stay tuned to Grizzly Gaming and the Delco Elbow Drop for game reviews and pro wrestling news.

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