“Incredible.” “Horrendous.” “Wow. I can’t believe that just happened!” “Ugh, I can’t believe that just happened.” “Geralt, you cheeky bastard.” “Geralt, you worthless bastard.” These are all things we said while playing The Witcher 2. It’s an incredibly hot-and-cold game, to be sure. One moment it might wow you with brilliant writing, or a choice that makes BioWare’s fantasy behemoth Dragon Age look utterly toothless. The next it’ll have you spitting flames over frustrating, repetitive combat, and design decisions that simply boggle the mind. Ignore all that, though, because here’s what really counts: We couldn’t put it down.
Witcher 2 picks up shortly after its predecessor, but manages to weave a separate, largely understandable tale—even for those who never touched the first game. And storytelling is where Witcher 2 is at its best. Geralt and his companions are a refreshing departure from the archetypal steroid-scarfing princess-rescuer or boy whose hometown exploded/imploded/crumbled under the pressure of a light breeze. Ultimately, you are the real star of the show and make no mistake: This is a game where your choices really matter. Geralt may carry two swords, but his tongue’s sharper than both. In other games, picking a side might mean a few new dialogue options or a magical pair of shoes. In Witcher 2, it means absolutely everything: who you meet, what you do, what you stand for, where you go.
Geralt after realizing that he kind of wants an iPad.
Speaking of “where you go,” the game’s world is completely breathtaking. Each location feels like a labor of love—alive, breathing, and brilliantly natural aside from the occasional NPC in dire need of a swift sock in the gut from the Fonz. Beyond that, however, the game marries a bleeding-edge engine to lush, epic art design, and they absolutely live happily ever after.
Unfortunately, when it comes to actually being, you know, a game, Witcher 2 slips on a puddle of its own ambition and occasionally falls flat on its face. Combat ranges from mediocre to downright infuriating— with the latter oddly occurring mostly at the start of the game. Geralt starts off perplexingly weak, you see, and copious double-damage-dealing backstabs often put him down for the count in the blink of an eye. On top of that, the game’s a terrible teacher, essentially hacking off your wings and then flinging you out of the nest. Even after you grow some thicker skin and find an online Witcher 101 course, targeting is still a mess, uninterruptible animations abound, and surgical strategy quickly gives way to brainless hacking.
He’s probably just napping.
That’s not to say it’s all bad. The emphasis on pre-fight potion-popping, trap-setting, and weapon choices, especially, could have been amazing if encounters were better designed to take advantage of them.
Beyond that, a few termite-size issues threaten to sink the whole ship. Quest design is often cryptic and confusing, inventory management is a pain, and the ending rushes by like it’s late for afternoon tea with its awful mother. We said “threaten,” however, because that’s all the game’s issues ever do. Witcher 2’s highs are still miles above its lows, oftentimes rendering them distant memories in mere seconds.
The game, then, is an oddity. For significant chunks of time, we simply weren’t having fun. Without a doubt, however, the experience will stick with us for years. As a whole, we didn’t just like it; we loved it—jagged, disfiguring scars and all. Confused? Just play it and see what we mean. You won’t regret it.