There’s a disappointingly high chance that there were a lot of gamers out there who are not well acquainted with Geralt, the heavily scarred hero from The Witcher. In fact, I was one of these poor souls until commotion of a sequel began to get louder and louder. Not to be out of the loop, I powered through the first game just in time to order my copy of Assassins of Kings. Boy, was I in for a surprise after importing the save data from the first adventure. The world of The Witcher 2 didn’t hold my hand. Instead, it covered my entire arm in gasoline and set me ablaze with witcher magic.
A dance with death
Most modern games ease the player into the experience, introducing the controls and mechanics one step at a time. The Witcher 2 varies slightly from this formula in a number of ways, but the most obvious decision was allowing for the beginning to be played in or out of sequence. Not knowing if I should work my way down from the top or close my eyes and click wildly until a decision was made, I decided to embrace the second option as the most exciting way to slip into the story. What came to follow was the fastest viewing of a game over screen that I had seen in years. I have since become very familiar with it.
The issue that comes from choosing to play out of sequence is that this introduction is highly tailored to be played in sequence. Imagine that. Due to my own ignorance, I had thrust myself into a high-octane situation that required a better understanding of how to play and survive. This is what I refer to as “the hump” and no, it’s not a great new dance or coy innuendo. The Witcher 2 has a huge hump that took me a lot of perseverance and swearing to overcome. Eventually, I played the story options in order and made actual progress. Guards fell to Geralt’s steel blade (not the silver one, that one’s for monsters), potions were consumed to speed up my health regeneration and, unfortunately, a king was assassinated.
While this introductory tale might come off as a case of me being an idiot and eventually figuring out the game, I apparently wasn’t the only one. The Witcher 2 received a large patch that adjusted how the first hour could be played, ultimately hiding the fourth option outright until the first three had been completed. The biggest change came from the addition of a tutorial separate from the main story. At the implementation of this patch, I was already long into my journey over the hump. While I appreciated the acknowledgment that gamers could have used more of a helping hand, it did little to educate me of anything I hadn’t already discovered.
A witcher should always be witching
If the introduction of The Witcher 2 could be described as “no nonsense”, the first chapter opened up the world for me to run loose and find out how cruel that real world could be. Geralt has met up with a number of old friends and my guard had begun to lower. I felt that I needed to accept some quests, explore the starting town and venture into the wild to stab some monster faces. It was in doing so that I ran into my old friend, the game over screen. The hump was not finished with me yet.
There are a number of routines that Geralt goes through to ensure his victory over the people and monsters roaming the countryside. It’s not just about picking the right sword and seeing how quickly you can get it all the way into a dude’s skull. Witchers have a variety of options available to them, both during combat and before the poop even hits the fan. Witchers know a handful of useful signs, or magic spells, that supplement the sword-fighting and learning how to balance combat early is crucial. Like many other epic games, Geralt is also able to gather crafting resources from chests, the innards of monsters and by picking flowers. All that junk is then used to create more useful items like bombs, traps and potions. It certainly wasn’t uncommon for me to die during an enemy encounter, reload and then cover my swords in performance-enhancing oils, drink a health potion and lay down a couple of fire traps before triggering the fight.
It might seem beneficial to employ more of a “flight, no fight” approach to most avoidable skirmishes, but the last beacon of hope to overcoming the hump is by gaining experience to level up Geralt’s skills. With each level gained, a skill point can be allocated into one of four skill trees with the first being for initial training. Abilities like being able to parry attacks, deflect arrows and have vigor (the stamina-like meter that controls magic and blocking) regenerate a little faster are way too essential to be ignored. I usually consider myself a sucker for leveling systems, so I got way too excited every time I was able to give myself more of an edge. The hump would be conquered.
Throughout all my trial-and-error misery, it’s been worth noting that everything else surrounding me in The Witcher 2 has been incredible. The world is populated with elves, dwarves, and sorceresses going about their lives and everything looks incredible if the PC running it can handle the stress. My Geralt wears a hood now, but I could watch his silver hair flow back and forth as he battles. The voice acting can be a bit hit-or-miss due to all the heavy accents, but I must say it’s enjoyable to hear the odd citizen using slang or swears in casual conversation. The sounds of steel on bone are pretty crunchy too. Last of all, the controls are fairly responsive and, once I got the hang of blocking and dodging, I stopped trying to use them as an excuse for my failure. Those dark days are behind me.
At this point, I’ve just now reached the second chapter and am a lot more confident in my witching skills. I find myself enjoying my time as Geralt more than at the outset. My adventure is still far from a cakewalk, but it’s more about being careful and learning from my mistakes than clicking my way to victory. The story and characters are interesting and if I have to work to get to the next conversation or cutscene, then so be it. The Witcher 2 is very polished and, more importantly, an adventure where decisions truly matter. I strongly suggest everyone try their hand at witching, but there’s one caveat. Nobody ever said the life of a witcher would be easy.
Reflex Review – Like a memorable meal, some games make a big enough impression that you’ve got to tell other people about them before they’re fully digested.
Giant Bomb (images)