As always, you can click on images to view larger versions. Also, if you are considering playing The Witcher 2, please use the original Polish voices with English (or other appropriate language) subtitles. They are, in my humble opinion, much better than the English voices.
Over the summer, I wrote a bunch of posts about the bonus Adventures included with The Witcher. I decided to play them before for my long-delayed second playthrough of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. This was all in preparation for the imminent release of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which was originally slated for February. I thought if I played the bonus Adventures over the summer, then I’d have time to get through The Witcher 2 in the fall, and still manage a short break before The Witcher 3 came out. Silly me. Naturally I’ve only had time to get through the first third of The Witcher 2, and February is almost upon us. Fortunately (for me), the Witcher 3 has been pushed back to May, so there’s a chance I’ll actually get through it before the third installment arrives.
Readers unfamiliar with the Witcher series should read my posts about the Adventures first, as they contain copious ruminations on the first game in the series (including an introduction). Returning to the second game now, I am struck by the differences between the two, both good and bad.
The Witcher 2 chronicles the continuing adventures of Geralt of Rivia, a witcher, and it has changed since I first played it in 2011. Several big patches were released, adding new content along with fixes and improvements, culminating with the Enhanced Edition in 2012. All of this was free for owners of the game, so I now found myself faced with a shiny new Enhanced Edition to play with. This meant I could now start with the brand new tutorial, rather than jumping straight into the game’s introductory section.
A tutorial was sorely needed, because the game’s introductory segment is notoriously punishing, leaving new players overwhelmed and frustrated. I’d been through it already, of course, along with the rest of the game, but that was several years ago, so I was grateful for the chance to re-learn the basics. I’ve written about tutorials before, and this one meets some of my criteria, in that it is separate from the main game and can be skipped at will. But it can only be accessed when starting a new game, which is annoying; it would be nice to be able to select it from the menu at any time.
Firing it up, I was immediately reminded just how incredibly pretty The Witcher 2 is. Its beauty has hardly faded at all in the years since its release, and my modestly improved hardware since my first foray means it all runs perfectly smoothly, too. Geralt doesn’t begin the tutorial in the most auspicious circumstances — he’s trudging through swampy terrain, soaked, his first goal simply to find dry boots — but even this backwater looks stunning, and it only gets prettier from there. The tutorial culminates with the gorgeous Arena, clinging to the cliffs high above a rocky riverbed, a location that is reused in the new Arena game mode included with the Enhanced Edition (which I haven’t spent much time with).
Unfortunately, it’s at the Arena that the tutorial stumbles. Up to that point it’s good, introducing the inventory screen, conversations, alchemy, and various basic controls one at a time, all in the context of a simple story. But when Geralt arrives at the Arena and the combat tutorials begin, things are less clear. He’s shown the basics, including swordfighting, ranged weapons (thrown daggers and bombs), magic signs, and preparing for battle using potions and blade oils, but each is only demonstrated once, without giving the player a chance to practice the moves. After this, Geralt is thrust into a series of fights, instructed to last as long as he can. Once he falls, a difficulty setting for the main game is recommended based on how long he lasted. And, unfortunately, that’s it. There’s no way to try it again without repeating the entire tutorial (done by laboriously quitting back to the main menu and starting a new game again), which is immensely frustrating.
This is only made worse by the fact that combat works in very different manner to the first game. The timing-based sword combos of the first game are gone, replaced with a more reactive system in which each strike is performed directly by the player. This does address one of the main complaints of the original — that players simply got to watch Geralt perform some epic sword moves rather than getting to actually control him — but it takes getting used to, and the tutorial does not allow for this. Ranged combat is entirely new; bombs existed in the first game but they acted in an area around Geralt rather than being thrown towards enemies as they are here. Geralt’s magical signs are also revamped from the first game and play a more central role in combat. Geralt also must actively defend against (or dodge) attacks, and positioning is extremely important. When hit in the back, Geralt will take a huge amount of damage, making it startlingly easy to go from full health to death in just a few seconds. All of this needs a good deal of practice to perfect, and until then will likely frustrate. It’s a bad sign when this frustration is already present in the tutorial.
Needless to say, the new combat was divisive among fans of the original game. I grew to like it a lot, actually, but at the beginning it’s tough to get used to, and made all the harder by the fact that Geralt has not yet acquired any of the skills he will accrue as he levels up during the game. Later, after I’d had more practice, I knew how to position Geralt effectively, I was able to use his magic signs for both offense and defense, and I knew the right tactics to use against different types of enemies. At this stage the combat becomes very satisfying. Unlike the first game, where success was based mainly on whether the player had made the correct preparations beforehand, here combat requires a significant investment of player skill. It’s not without problems — Geralt’s extreme reliance on his dodge-roll move, for example — but it gives room for players to truly learn and improve, which is great. And I love how much more freeform it is. Since there are no chained sword combos to perform, Geralt is able to adapt on the fly, cast some signs in between strikes, throw bombs or set traps, and maneuver carefully around his enemies. This means individual fights feel more varied and don’t get boring, since the player is always learning better tactics.
Anyway, after the tutorial (which I stubbornly repeated a few times) I continued on with the prologue chapter of the game. I ignored the tutorial’s advice (I think I’d gotten it to grudgingly tell to me try the “Hard” difficulty setting) and went straight to the new “Dark Mode” difficulty setting. This was added in the v2.0 patch, and is supposedly on the level of the “Insane” setting but does not have perma-death (which would truly be insane!). It’s still very hard, but it features some special new equipment that Geralt can craft to give him an advantage. It seemed the ideal setting for a second playthrough. Unfortunately, it meant that the introductory chapter was harder than ever, and Geralt didn’t have any special equipment yet to help. It’s a shame, really, because the introductory chapter does a great job of setting up the story. It thrusts Geralt straight into a full-scale assault on a medieval castle, complete with ballistae, catapults, and siege towers. It looks absolutely gorgeous, introduces important characters, and features an exciting and surprising climax that sets off the story proper. But man, is it hard. Geralt is fighting humans rather than monsters, and they’re usually tougher, especially the heavily armored knights. Plus Geralt doesn’t have any advanced skills yet, so he must get by on basic abilities alone, at the hands of an inexperienced player. Deaths and restarts are common and frustrating, but I was willing to forgive a lot given how much I enjoyed the story that was unfolding.
Playing the prologue again gave me a chance to test just how that story responds to my choices. The main reason I wanted to play the game again is that, partway through the game, the player is given a choice that leads to one of two completely different middle acts. The first time through I made what I felt were the right choices, and followed one of the two major paths through the game. This time, I was resolved to not only try the other path, but also try other choices wherever possible, even if they’re not what I would normally have chosen. I expected to have to force myself to do this, acting against my own instincts. But, having the benefit of hindsight, I could see now all the ways in which the game encourages both viewpoints, starting from the very beginning of the prologue. I was asked to choose whether Geralt willingly charged into this battle, or whether he felt coerced; I was asked how Geralt felt about several different characters, whether he liked or disliked them, whether he trusted them or not. I was asked how Geralt felt about the events at the climax of the prologue, and what, if anything, he wanted to do about them. And I was pleased to see just how differently the prologue could play out, while still depositing me in the same place as the first proper Chapter opens. Well ahead of the main split in the storyline, Geralt was already getting ready to head down the other path.
As great as the story is, however, it is completely focused on politics. It’s an excellent political story, in which Geralt is caught up in the tumultuous events across the Northern kingdoms, as the oppressive empire of Nilfgaard threatens from the south. But it is something of a departure from the tone of the original game, which features a more personal story about Geralt and his friends, and has a larger focus on the witcher’s business of monster hunting. There are monsters to hunt in the second game, of course, but they represent asides or roadblocks in the political narrative rather than taking the focus. Given that my favorite part of the first game was the fourth chapter, which sees Geralt take a break from the greater narrative events to handle some supernatural problems in a small village, this was somewhat disappointing. But I can hardly begrudge The Witcher 2 when its story is so well executed.
The Witcher 2 does, at least, retain the first game’s focus on a few smaller locations rather than a sprawling continent. This helped keep the events of the first game grounded and, counterintuitively, reinforced the sense of the greater world beyond. Geralt spent his time in and near a single city where important things were happening, and the events in the rest of the world felt impossibly far away. The first Chapter of The Witcher 2 takes place in Flotsam, a small border town that’s quickly becoming far more important than it looks. To say more would spoil the story, so I will instead remark upon the fantastic sense of place it has. The town itself is small and run-down, damp from the swampy river and completely overshadowed by the forest outside. It feels like the middle of nowhere, because it is. Wander outside, however, and the scenery is absolutely stunning. Towering trees, lush undergrowth, ancient statues covered in moss, and the occasional ruin providing hints of the elven civilization that once ruled here, many centuries ago. It looks just as beautiful as I remember, the only sign of age being the short draw distance (achieved via an ever-present haze). I spent an inordinate amount of time standing and ogling the scenery.
I also love how the deadly creatures Geralt hunts for a living really seem to inhabit this place. Endregas skitter down the trunks of trees to defend their nests, while mounds of earth and piles of bones are telltale signs of nekker burrows. Unlike the first game, where Geralt removed a monster infestation by just killing a certain number of them, in The Witcher 2 he must actually exterminate the creatures. The means for this vary depending on the creature; sometimes nests must be destroyed, other times Geralt must eliminate the creatures’ food supply, or cut off their entry points and force them to hunt elsewhere. The ultimate means of extermination is always prescribed, but it still makes monster hunting much more interesting. The monsters themselves, however, aren’t as openly inspired by folklore as they are in the first game. I loved the various creatures in the first game because they were so much more interesting than standard fantasy enemies: man-eating plants that grow on the sites of murders, ghostly dogs that appear when heinous crimes are committed, and spirits that cling to the mortal plane because they were wronged in life are just some examples. In The Witcher 2, most monsters feel more like wild animals. Animals that exist within the greater ecosystem, sure, but their supernatural origins are not as overt. There are moments in the game that recall these fairy tale inspirations, usually when Geralt must lift a curse of some sort, but I was missing it more often than not.
Battling these creatures is usually easier than fighting humans and elves, especially after learning the appropriate tactics. Also, by this point, Geralt has acquired his basic skills and can start to specialize a bit. The game features three main skill trees, for swordsmanship, alchemy and magic, each with plenty of different skills to choose from that offer everything from passive bonuses to new moves. This design is almost certainly in response to criticism of the first game, where the tiered skill system meant every player ended up with more or less the same skills. The new skill trees, then, intend to offer choice in how to develop Geralt by inviting players to focus on one of the three pillars of witcher abilities. This is both good and bad. The good is that different builds actually do feel different, and provide a fresh experience when playing the game again. In keeping with my goal of making different decisions this time, I chose to focus on magic signs rather than swords, and I’m really enjoying it. The abilities on the magic skill tree make Geralt’s signs much more useful and change how I approach combat. But the downside of this system is that Geralt’s other abilities feel underdeveloped. Witchers are supposed to be nimble swordsmen who use powerful potions and magical signs to give them an edge in combat against supernatural creatures. The Witcher 2 asks players to pick one of these, rather than developing all three as in the first game.
This is especially disappointing because alchemy, one of my favorite aspects of the first game, seems underserved. While I’m assured that alchemy-focused character builds are perfectly capable, none of the skills in that tree sound particularly appealing. Worse, the potions themselves are much less useful. In the first game, on the hardest difficulty setting, Geralt absolutely needed to prepare and imbibe the appropriate potions if he hoped to survive certain encounters. Here, I feel like I’m having Geralt drink potions simply because I feel I should. And when their effects expire after a pitifully short amount of time, I don’t really do any worse than I was when they were active. Alchemy skills can increase potion duration and improve their effects a little, but not much, and overall they feel less important than they were in the first game. Bombs, on the other hand, are very useful as active battle tools, and I found myself using them far more often.
As I said before, however, mixing up potions and fighting monsters is more of a side project in The Witcher 2; most of the time I was having lots of conversations about politics and getting ready to make completely different decisions than I made last time. But there weren’t too many decisions to make in the early parts of Chapter 1. In fact, it more or less went the way I remembered, except that I was now desperately trying to save up money so I could craft my first set of new Dark Mode gear. The crafting system in The Witcher 2 is something of a response to criticisms of the first game’s lack of variety in equipment. I actually liked that the first game didn’t have Geralt finding a new sword every few minutes, but it did limit one of the staples of the role-playing genre and many players missed it. The second game’s crafting system allows Geralt to have craftsmen make him some new weapons and armor, often using ingredients harvested from monsters he hunts (a venomous sword made with endrega venom, for example). I think it works very well, because the extra investment in getting something new made, which involves not only finding a crafting diagram but collecting (or crafting) the ingredients, makes each new piece of equipment feel special, and appropriate to the witcher profession. The system can be fiddly, and some players won’t want to bother, but then it’s totally possible to survive using only the equipment Geralt finds or buys directly.
When playing in Dark Mode, however, there’s little reason to craft anything besides the epic Dark Mode gear, which is not only better than everything else but is also extremely expensive. I was trying perhaps a little too hard to make this stuff early in the Chapter, which led to a not insignificant amount of grinding for money (usually by repeatedly beating the same oaf at arm wrestling and extorting 30 orens from him each time). The new feature allowing Geralt to store heavy crafting components at the inn was also a lifesaver. Finally crafting the suit of armor and pair of swords was a huge achievement, and made fights a whole lot easier. Then I proceeded to collect a big sum of money finishing off various quests, and felt silly for doing so much arm wrestling. Oh well; I just saved it up for the next set of gear I’d need to craft in Chapter 2. Honestly, after playing the game once, I was glad to have simpler crafting goals, rather than having to sift through various recipes and decide what’s best. The Dark Mode equipment is great for a second playthrough of the game.
Onward, then, with making different choices. Since the major story choices happened later, I focused on having Geralt sleep with as many women as possible, instead of staying true to his girlfriend Triss Merigold like I did the first time. As I wrote previously, the first game had a big problem with its portrayal of women — one that is deservedly dissected in this excellent series — likely in an attempt to capture Geralt’s womanizing in Andrzej Sapkowski’s source material. But the tone of the romantic encounters in the first game missed the mark compared to the short stories I’ve read, and they earned a lot of criticism from press and players alike. CD Projekt RED must have listened, because I was surprised to find that it’s not actually possible to sleep with anyone other than Triss in Chapter 1 of The Witcher 2. Well, unless you count the prostitutes. I still don’t quite believe that a tiny village like Flotsam would have a full brothel, and the sex scenes with the prostitutes are no better than the encounters in the first game, existing purely to titillate a straight male audience. At least they’re also a waste of in-game money. There are plenty of other issues with female characters that still exist in The Witcher 2 as well, including the designers dressing women up in absurd “sexy” attire (a particular problem for sorceresses) and having Geralt’s openly lecherous friend Dandelion pen the in-game journal, filling it with descriptions of character’s bosoms and whatnot. But Geralt’s interactions with women are definitely improved. Aside from the prostitues, I only managed to have Geralt get a little flirty with one other woman. The only sex he had (without paying for it) was with Triss herself, and it was actually somewhat romantic.
With my amorous aims (happily) thwarted, all that remained was to take a different stance as the first Chapter concluded. The first Chapter didn’t do quite as good of a job in letting me set up my stance early (having done that primarily in the prologue), and honestly I still wasn’t convinced of the merits of the alternate path. The final choice boils down to whether Geralt should stick with Vernon Roche, the special forces soldier he’s been following (willingly or otherwise, that’s up to the player), or if he should instead side with Iorveth, an elven terrorist. I suppose one could consider Iorveth a freedom fighter, but my, he’s an unpleasant fellow, making no apology for his desire to kill all humans. Even though I knew I would choose him so I could access the other path through the game, I still didn’t like him. I understand that many players felt differently, and there are reasons to hate Roche too, but I thought he at least had motivations that could be construed as just. Iorveth really didn’t convince me. Still, the game does leave room for players to choose different motivations for Geralt’s choice, whether it’s simply because he thinks Roche or Iorveth can provide what he needs, or if he really agrees with their positions. And it was interesting to see just how differently the Chapter concludes when taking Iorveth’s side. I will save the game’s second Chapter for next time, but now that I’ve started it, I wonder if its events will actually convince me that Iorveth was the right choice after all.
OK, this post is way too long now. Next time I’ll write about my experiences in Chapter 2, which, since I sided with Iorveth, will be almost entirely new. Stay tuned!
EDIT: The next post is available here.
If you are interested in The Witcher 2, it’s available from various digital outlets as well as retail. I prefer the GOG version, but that’s just me and my love of DRM-free things. I do recommend playing the first game first, if you have the time, as it’s a great set up to the second and the differences between the two are fascinating. But you can jump straight into the second if you like. Happy hunting!