Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently, odds are you’ve heard about the Witcher series. Based on the book series by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher has become something of a global phenomenon in recent years. The release of CDPR’s masterpiece The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt back in 2015 and this past year’s release of the eponymous Netflix show broke new ground for the series and have cemented Geralt of Rivia as a household name. The dark, gritty setting, deep writing, and engaging characters are just a few of the reasons why the series has quickly become society’s newest fantasy obsession in a post-GOT era.
Witcher 3 received universal critical acclaim and the Netflix show got similarly favorable reviews. However, CDPR’s previous entry in the series, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, is often overlooked in favor of its triple-A brother. Even though it was not as commercially successful as the third entry in the series, Witcher 2 was a landmark in western RPGs and a masterpiece in its own right. The game’s unique take on story progression, world-building, and open-world design laid an integral foundation for the series going forward.
I recently sat down for a replay of this marvelous game and was struck by just how well it has aged. In a world where some feel that fantasy RPGs have overstayed their welcome, Witcher 2 has aged like a bottle of fine wine and remains as relevant as ever.
The Setup of ‘Witcher 2’: Realpolitik
Witcher 2: Assasin of Kings takes place right where the first game left off. Geralt has become an advisor to King Foltest of Temeria after thwarting an attempt on his life and serves as the king’s go-to problem solver. At the end of the prologue chapter, Geralt is framed and arrested for the assassination of Foltest and must escape as a fugitive to prove his innocence. Throughout the story, Geralt becomes embroiled in a complex web of political conspiracy and regicide. By the end, he uncovers a plot to destabilize the Northern Kingdoms and open them up for invasion by the militaristic Nilfgaardian Empire to the south.
One thing I have always loved about the Witcher series is its stark portrayal of politics. Forget the stories of noble knights and just rulers; politics in the Witcher world is a nasty business. Everyone seems to have taken a page out of Machiavelli’s book and is not afraid to scheme, plot, and murder their way to political power. This sort of moral ambiguity is very refreshing in the fantasy genre, which has long stood in the shadow of clearly moralistic tales like JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series. Fantasy used to be largely characterized by its relatively simplistic portrayal of good vs evil. The Witcher series throws out the black-and-white compass and replaces it with multiple shades of gray.
That is one of the conceits that make the story so intriguing. As Geralt parlays his way through dealings with military officers, local lawmen, scheming sorceresses, and murderous elven brigands, there are no clear good or bad guys. Everyone has their own motivations for acting and it’s never quite clear who is in the right and who is in the wrong. The moral turpitude the player experiences while making decisions is a strong draw in favor of the mature and realpolitik presentation of the story.
“Witcher 2′: Branching Narratives and Sandbox Design
Witcher 2 is an excellent example of a mechanic I wish more RPGs took advantage of: branching story paths. Near the end of the first chapter, the player makes a decision that changes the course of the game. Depending on what you pick, the entire second half of the game will feature different locations, quests, characters, and plot points. The story branches at several other points of the game, leading to 16 total possible end states, depending on what you decide.
This branching story mechanics was present in Witcher 3 but it always felt a bit constrained. While it is true that certain decisions lead to branching narratives, the final chapter of the Blood and Wine expansion being an excellent example, decisions don’t have as much import. The events of the main game proceed mostly the same with alterations to the ordering of sequences and other minor variations. The slightly downplayed branching storylines in The Witcher 3 were a consequence of its much more open-world design, which prioritized player freedom over linear narrative.
The Witcher 2‘s scaled-down sandbox design is better suited to the branching narrative design. Each chapter of the game takes place in a large open environment where players can complete main story objectives, side quests, search for loot, and other tasks. The focus on smaller areas in Witcher 2 has two positive effects: First, areas can be more densely populated with objectives and things to discover. The landscape of Witcher 3 is no doubt gorgeous, but long periods of the game are spent traveling from point A to B with maybe a handful of quest points or map markers in between. In contrast, the sandbox approach of Witcher 2 can fit more detail into each area so less of your time is spent running around.
Second, the sandbox design makes the branching story arcs more meaningful as entire areas, characters, and quests are replaced depending on your choices. For example, depending on your choice at the end of chapter 1, chapter 2 starts with you either in the dwarven city of Vergen or in King Henselt’s military encampment on the outskirts of the city. If you sided with Iorveth at the end of chapter 1, you fight alongside the rebels resisting the king. If you choose Roche, you fight alongside King Henselt himself. The main objectives and plot points of the entire chapter differ. The branching mechanic is one reason I immediately started a second playthrough after I finished my first one; to see the other side of the story.
The Shadow of Giants
Witcher 2 often gets overlooked in favor of its bigger triple-A brother but it introduced a lot of mechanics that the third entry built on. The new streamlined alchemy system was a necessary fix from the first game and taking on monster contracts was more straightforward as you no longer had to buy those pesky bestiary books. Quests had a more narrative structure and the pacing was greatly improved from its predecessor. Oh yeah, we should mention that the Enhanced Edition has one of the most badass opening cutscenes we have ever seen in a video game.
Witcher 2 was not perfect by any means. It got a lot of criticism for its obtuse progression system, clunky combat controls, and cluttered menus. The game has an annoying relationship with autosaves too. You get an autosave basically after every important story point you hit, but very infrequently when you are running around. Unfortunately, this means you might spend a ton of time running around the map and fighting monsters only to be killed and thrown back to the last story checkpoint about 40 minutes ago. That actually happened to me during my first playthrough and I was so peeved I put the game down for a week.
Despite these flaws, The Witcher 2 did much more right than wrong. It was a clear improvement over the previous entry in the series and beautifully set up the critically acclaimed third entry. Unfortunately, it does not get nearly the amount of praise that it should, though it received stellar reviews upon release. Fortunately, you can find the game for pretty cheap on Steam, so if you have about 50 or so hours to spare, I’d highly recommend giving Witcher 2 a spin.