The world of The Witcher 2 is a volatile, violent place filled with selfish, furtive characters.As monster slayer Geralt of Rivia, you’ll need to not only combat beasts and bandits, a case of amnesia and the public perception that you’re responsible for regicide, but also navigate between powerful figures and unravel complex conspiracies amidst a huge cast of power-obsessed monarchs and magic users.
It’s an adventure where choices that appear inconsequential slap the story in unexpected directions and one that doesn’t compromise its fiction in the name of convenience or accessibility. In some ways those qualities are flaws, but they also contribute to a world that feels convincing, making its initial inaccessibility seem inconsequential relative to the intrigue and revelations embedded further in.
The characters in The Witcher 2 exist in a land of monsters, celestial bodysnatchers and magic, and though there are stereotypes walking around, they’re not all typical video game fantasy fare. Even the supposed heroes are hopelessly self-serving, arrogant and impudent. This isn’t a game afraid to paint its characters as racists, sexists, drunkards or just generally reprehensible people governed by fear and uncertainty, including Geralt and his friends. Those styled as saviors and leaders possess far more flaws and secrets than they initially let on, and as a result the characters don’t feel like Pez dispensers of brittle phrases, they feel human.
There are so many involved in the game’s labyrinthine plot of conspiracies, ancient curses and power grabs it’s easy to get lost. If you didn’t play the 2007 original, expect to spend a while reeling in bewilderment. There’s a journal to help you sort out the main personalities, but little to aid you when characters speak only in colloquialisms. Toss in a few storytelling elements that seemingly pop up at random, like stylized animated flashbacks and moments where control is briefly switched from Geralt to other characters, and The Witcher 2′s pacing can be disorienting. Despite that, it lends further authenticity to the world that a ruler of a region would not take the time to explain himself when referencing names and places. Geralt too, a well-traveled figure of renown, would hardly need someone to describe the difference between Aedirn, Kaedwen and Temeria. So while characters don’t often launch into detailed explanations, it fits the fiction considering Geralt is not the genre-standard naïve paragon of morality stepping away from his home town for the first time.
Geralt slides into the background of major conflicts and, though he provides critical assistance, he is never the obvious hero. He is feared by townsfolk and soldiers because of his appearance and reputation, and he’s as flawed as you want him to be. Decisions can be as minor as determining how to deal with a small-town drug peddler to undercutting the significance of one of the game’s major motivations in the pursuit of love. There’s no +7.2 to your evil rating when you choose to punch someone in the face. There’s no morality meter at all. Instead, the quests and opportunities change to accommodate your version of Geralt. It lends an exhilarating mutability to the experience, as dialogue responses could trigger results as mundane as a quest giver’s disappointment or significantly alter the path of the main progression, even going so far as determining on which side you stand in major conflicts.
Though The Witcher 2 does not offer a huge number of quests, none feel like arbitrary endeavors. Even the basic kill quests feature multiple steps, requiring you to explore the terrain surrounding the game’s population centers, hunt creatures and eventually strike at nests and more formidable creatures. Some involve stealth, some collection, and all are wrapped in enough story to make the label “side-quest” seem inadequate. Whether it’s venturing into the depths of a foreboding forest ruin and dealing with furious spirits or negotiating with a succubus in a mountainside warren, with few exceptions the quests in The Witcher 2 refuse to blend together into forgettable haze.
It’s a little disappointing the voice acting and writing aren’t consistently on the same level as other aspects of the game. Many lines for Triss, Geralt’s initial love interest, aren’t delivered with the conviction of others on the cast, Geralt’s expressions in combat are repeated too often, and for as many hilariously brusque uses of profanity as there are, some of the cursing feels as though it’s merely there to mask a lack of substance. Still, it’s a dramatic improvement over the original Witcher, and only noticeable here because so many other aspects of the game are so stunning.
The visuals, in particular, are consistently gorgeous. Though I experienced some performance issues on launch day, a driver update allowed smooth play on max settings with a GeForce GTX 580 card, and the game still looks great at lowered settings. Provided you can turn everything up, the resulting virtual vistas are unmatched in modern role-playing games. From the towering heights of besieged ramparts at the game’s outset to the glittering forests surrounding the riverside town of Flotsam, The Witcher 2 is one of the prettiest games you can play. The lighting effects as beams bloom through trees and light up mountain peaks make adventuring all the more exciting, and the animations are far more natural and plausible than in Geralt’s previous adventure. The special effects impress, and so do the more subtle effects like the detail jammed into every one of Flotsam’s worn and dirty shacks, or the waterfall that cuts through Vergen’s rocky mountain walls. It’s a world constructed with care where everything feels custom-built, nothing cut-and-paste.