(My deal with publishing this review on another site has fallen apart, I'll save that for a rant later on, here is the review in its entirety.)
In 2007, an unknown developer by the name of CD Projekt made a game that should have flopped in the US: The Witcher was a challenging action-oriented CRPG based on a Polish fiction series written by Andrzej Sapkowski where sex and violence abound. Despite these details, the game took off and became a surprise hit in the US; for me was one of my favorite RPGs to come out in some time. When a sequel was announced, I knew I couldn’t wait and pre-ordered several months in advance. I really wanted to fall in love with The Witcher 2, but after some initial playtime, I couldn’t help but be tempered by some critical, and not-so-critical, issues.
The Witcher 2 takes place one month after the end of the first game. Without spoiling things too much, Geralt is now employed by the king he saved at the end of The Witcher and finds himself pulled into a conflict. From there, things go from bad to worse as Geralt is implicated in a grand plot that has him escaping capture to prove his innocence.
The story and world of The Witcher 2 are well made. Like the first game, this is a dark fantasy world, where racial tensions between the various species are a constant undertone for the events in the game. Geralt’s journal, narrated by his friend, the bard Dandelion, fills in the blanks behind the world and the characters in it. There is a level of maturity here that is not normally seen in RPGs. What I like the most about The Witcher 2 is that there is rarely a “good or bad” choice. Everyone, including Geralt himself, exists in that grey area of morality, where they must deal with all the repercussions of their actions.
One returning element from the first game is the use of choice in the game’s plot. There are no morality sliders to judge Geralt’s actions; instead, the plot will change based on the player’s choices throughout the game. Choices range from deciding who lives or dies, to simply answering a question or two, with all decisions having repercussions - both short- and long-term. The game boasts 16 different endings and there is no doubt that no two playthroughs will be the same.
The most noticeable changes to the design come from the new combat system and character progression. In the first game, while the combat was real time, it was still more about stats and dice rolls. The only things the player could control were what style to put Geralt in (style affected damage potential) and clicking the mouse button in rhythm to the combat to create combos. In The Witcher 2, styles have been removed and the game has moved more towards an action game. Geralt can now dodge, block, use different bombs and signs (magic attacks) and his sword attacks have been simplified to a light and strong attack.
All these changes amount to combat being quicker and more demanding on the player. Unlike other RPGs, Geralt’s health and vigor (which controls how often the player can block or use signs) are regenerated after a battle is over without having to use recovery items. This allows the player to focus more on moving through the game, instead of slowing down to heal after each fight.
Progression has been altered, allowing the player to customize Geralt a lot more compared to the first game. There are four skill trees: Training, Alchemy, Magic and Swordsmanship. Every level, Geralt gets a talent point that can be applied to these trees. Training is the first tree and requires the player to spend at least six points on it before the other three unlock. The skills available radically change Geralt’s options in battle, such as enhancing your signs or unlocking the ability to counterattack. Each skill tree also offers a special attack that can be used once Geralt has accumulated enough adrenaline through combat.
I find having Geralt’s progression split this way offers a greater sense of customization compared to the last game, where there were certain skills that were almost required to have a chance at beating the game, such as the various styles , after leveling, increased their damage and combo duration. The further you go down your chosen skill tree, the more options open up for you. One other change I like is how all of Geralt’s signs are available from the start, instead of unlocking them gradually; this allows the player to integrate them into their combat strategy earlier in the game. From the beginning the player is tasked by the game to make use of all of Geralt’s talents, however, the game has a funny way of “teaching” the player about combat, and that is where my issues with the game begin.
Starting out, the game is tough for the wrong reasons. Geralt lacks ways of easily dealing with crowds of enemies and your signs don’t do much due to vigor restrictions. As the game goes on and you level Geralt up, the skills earned drastically reduce the difficulty of the game. Depending on which skill tree you focus on, you’ll either be able to slice through crowds easily, blast them with magic, or use your stat-enhancing potions and bombs to make life easier.
The backwards difficulty curve of the design does not help matters. From the start, the game constantly pits the player against groups of enemies without adequately explaining battle tactics. Nowhere in the game’s tutorial or manual does it explain how to deal with shield-wielding enemies and leaves the player to die figuring it out. Quick, one-paragraph blurbs pop up in an attempt to teach the player, but it’s hard to concentrate on them when most of them come up during a battle. One of the best examples of this design is that the first tutorial screen regarding leveling up does not mention the fact that the player has to rest to distribute the much-needed talent points.
Across the board, there is this general feeling of a lack of polish throughout the game. For instance, you can’t see how many of each ingredient you have when doing alchemy or how many items you have in reserve on your quick menu. The mini map doesn’t have a compass to help the player figure out which way they are going. The menus are obtuse with no way to sort items in your inventory. During combat I ran into plenty of situations where Geralt would not attack the person directly in front of him because the targeting cursor was stuck on an enemy further away. Certain areas require Geralt to avoid detection, using a less than adequate stealth mode. While none of these issues alone condemns the game, pooled together they create a frustrating environment that chips away at the quality of the experience.
There are several issues with the combat system that I noticed the more I played. One example is how some enemies will only engage Geralt if the player crosses an invisible threshold, and will automatically retreat when you move away from it, and come running when you move past it again. The decision to tie the attribute: Vigor to blocking, and start it very low (two points) was a poor choice. At the beginning of the game, where the player is assaulted by multiple enemies, they will run out of vigor within a few seconds of combat and be forced to take damage while trying to understand the combat system.
There is a basic combo system here: left clicking will launch Geralt at the targeted enemy after which you can chain attacks together. This is not mention in either the tutorial or manual. Geralt can only loot enemies if there are none nearby; however, once Geralt kills everyone, the game takes an additional 10 seconds to confirm it, dragging things down further. The combat flows well during fights with just one enemy or boss, when the player doesn’t have to worry about targeting and the loose controls; however, you rarely have these fights.
Another game-play complaint revolves around the use of potions to enhance Geralt. In the first game, you could drink potions at any time, with the only limitation being how much poison was present in Geralt’s body. This time, potions can only be used while mediating, meaning you can’t use them while in combat. I’m not a fan of this as it removes the element of being ready unless the player stays constantly intoxicated. It also feels like an unnecessary decision to slow the game down, requiring the player to stop what they are doing to take a drink.
I also ran into technical issues while playing the game, including a game-breaking bug. On my first playthrough, I decided to focus on making bombs; however, when Geralt would try to throw, the camera and controls would freeze. As this became more frequent, it made the game unplayable for me. After the first patch, the performance became so bad that I had to restart, losing about six hours of play and being forced to sit through the lousy prologue yet again. The recent patch has also brought about an increased issue with framerate dipping. These technical and design issues remind me of the first Witcher, which also had numerous flaws and bugs at launch, and the game didn’t hit its stride until the developers released “the enhanced edition.” The developers have been releasing major patches to the game; the first one removed the DRM in the retail version. With patch 1.2, combat has been given a fine tuning, along with the tutorial.
It’s a shame that the game has so many issues, because once you get past the first chapter and start to go up your preferred skill tree, the issues with difficulty begin to disappear. The opening battles in chapter 1 were more challenging then the first big fight of chapter 2. Mainly due to having Geralt’s signs improved allowing them to hit groups of enemies. At that point, I could finally stop feeling frustrated by the game and enjoy the story. I can see the glimmer of an excellent game; however, there are just too many issues for me to overlook to rate it that high. Hopefully, it won’t take long to fix the issues present with The Witcher 2, as that would turn a good game into an amazing one.
(I'm also curious as to any impressions from this analysis , as this was going to be my review).