Geralt of Rivia is a jobbing Witcher. As a child he underwent rigorous Witcher training in sword and sorcery as well as being subjected to mutations which afford him extreme agility, lightning quick reflexes and the ability to see in the dark. Now, he roams the world as a mercenary killing evil creatures in exchange for money.
Geralt’s training has honed him as an unnaturally gifted monster slayer and his talents have indebted him to a great many, Kings and paupers alike, but as a mutant witcher he remains a feared and mistrusted figure to some. Wandering the world carving up monsters and beasts is standard fare for a witcher but the regicide the game’s title hints at is not a problem a swing of a silver sword or flash of a spell can solve so easily. Falsely accused of kingslaying, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings follows Geralt as he attempts to clear his name and make some gold plying his trade on the way.
A great strength of The Witcher 2 is the world in which it takes place. Borrowing from the existing fiction of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski the setting is richly layered with a number of ongoing plot lines and strong characters with which to interact. The lands of the Northern Kingdoms face rebellion from the non-human races as they are treated like second class citizens and herded into slums; the lands of dead kings are fought over by neighbouring monarchs and all the while the ambassador from the powerful Nilfgaardian Empire is ominously ever-present.
As a usually politically neutral witcher Geralt has a surprising amount of input into how the story plays out. When asked to make a choice Geralt very rarely has a clear dichotomy of good and bad options available and the full consequences of the decision are often not revealed until much later, which makes following the plot that bit more interesting and making those decisions a great deal harder. The concluding section of Chapter 1 essentially cleaves the game in two when Geralt chooses his allies for the rest of the game. Depending on who he accompanies when leaving the village of Flotsam, Geralt’s adventure in the following chapters will be almost entirely different requiring a whole new play through to see the alternate version of the story.
The host of characters met throughout the adventure are believably drawn, with their own motivations and desires although typically for a story with so much politicking most are entirely untrustworthy. Rarely is any character made out as particularly good or especially evil and even if some of their deeds seem horrific they will more often than not have some justification for them. For example, Elven rebels are painted by humans as terrorists and murderers while they argue they only fight for freedom and equal rights. There’s no real right or wrong but Geralt will make decisions that affect either side for better or worse.
Each chapter takes place in a unique location, from the river town of Flotsam and its surrounding forest to the ancient ruined city of Loc Muinne. Each area is beautifully sculpted and densely populated with secrets and side quests that come with their own self-contained characters and stories. Exploring each location, uncovering its secrets and interacting with the characters that inhabit it is one of The Witcher 2′s greatest pleasures. Inns host a number of distractions with fist fighting, arm wrestling and dice-poker mini-games on offer, each an entertaining enough diversion and a quick way to make some money, or lose it.
Obviously these areas are also teeming with nasty creatures that are troublesome for the locals but a money-making opportunity for a witcher. Geralt’s abilities extend beyond being able to move quickly and swing a sword accurately. He is also an adept alchemist and magic user, utilising all of his skills is key to being successful in combat. Through gaining experience killing monsters and completing quests it is possible to distribute talent points in the disciplines of Swordsmanship, Alchemy and Magic to unlock passive bonuses and more advanced abilities.
Sword fights operate by tapping the light and heavy attack buttons rhythmically to combo attacks together. Smaller more sprightly foes will easily dodge heavy attacks while heavily armoured knights will require more hefty blows to do any damage. Geralt’s skill with magic allows him to place traps to snare enemies, hurl a fireball at them or propel them backwards with great force. Knocking an enemy off their feet can leave them open to a finishing move which plays out in a short cinematic sequence in which Geralt spectacularly ends their life. Potions brewed through alchemy can only be used whilst meditating so to enjoy the benefits of increased damage, resistance to poison or faster health recovery some preparation is required.
For the most part combat strikes a fantastic balance between challenging and entertaining. Throwing one enemy flying backwards with a spell before hurtling towards another with a flurry of attacks, cutting him down before his comrade even gets to his feet is extremely rewarding. Groups of enemies can be rather difficult and while Geralt can block attacks with his sword it only lessens the damage taken rather than completely mitigating it. Some encounters tip the balance toward challenging too far and end up at controller throwing, cat kicking frustration. However, nothing is impossible and usually a change in tack or a bit of preparation is all that is required to progress.
The Witcher 2 does suffer from a few minor flaws. Curiously placed auto-save points can mean reloading either a fair way in the past or right back in the action when some time to prepare would be welcome. There are also a few unfortunate stealth sections where alerting the guards almost certainly means instant failure, they’re a little frustrating but short and ultimately rather easy. Neither of these imperfections should put anyone off from playing The Witcher 2 though. Whether fighting, exploring or talking directing Geralt of Rivia through The Witcher 2 is a fantastic and varied experience, from hacking tentacles off a giant swamp beast to playing detective, collecting clues and solving a mystery. It’s an adventure with great style, a deep and enthralling fiction with a story the player helps to direct. The world Geralt inhabits begs to be explored even further.