I’m not sure what amazes me more: the things gamers put up with, or the lengths they’ll go to spin those things into positives. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings has a reputation for overwhelming complexity and unfair difficulty, encapsulated by a Penny Arcade strip where Tycho quips, “You just have to use abilities they won’t discuss and techniques they haven’t entirely taught you via controls they never quite explain.” The inevitable counterargument is that it “doesn’t hold your hand,” – a point that doesn’t hold a lot of water, because a) it reeks of Dark Souls apologist rhetoric, and b) a certain amount of handholding is usually desirable.
Lack of handholding is the reason 50% of NES games are unplayable trainwrecks. Nevertheless, four years later, I finally gave in to the hype and review scores and launched my un-played copy of The Witcher 2. First impressions were worrying. The Enhanced Edition that all Steam copies were upgraded to includes a tutorial, whose rough composition says a lot about how inadequate the initial version’s teaching methods must have been. The tutorial totally ignores most non-combat elements, but its greater, less obvious sin is that it grants an equal amount of time to each mechanic (that is, about 5 seconds). These rapid, regular information dumps left me confused and incompetent for several hours, as I struggled to remember which gibberish-named spell did what. I was also operating under the impression that the lock-on feature would be remotely useful, or at least equally useful as dodging and defensive magic, which are, in fact, the most important tactics in the game.
The other thing that made me consider trusting my instincts was its hopelessly convoluted interface. Half of the inventory screen is taken up by the player’s current equipment, leaving the other half to house all 16 categories of items. There is no reason these things couldn’t have been on separate screens, with a tooltip comparing spare items to equipped ones when moused over. Decisions like this plague the interface, as if it was designed piecemeal by people in six different locations. The crafting screens are stuffed with unnecessary information, enhancements are created and applied on two different screens, and every menu has different input rules. On a slightly pettier note, the potion-drinking animation is so long that I actually burst out laughing at the realization that someone was actually given money to append the five-second brow-wiping motion to it.
But during hours five through ten of my playthrough, my outlook began to change. Basically, I figured the game out. I learned to be conservative with my offence and liberal with my defence. I also learned to use every tool at my disposal, and to that end, I learned which side weapons and stat-boosting substances were worth carrying around and made sure to exploit them often. At this point, I actually enjoyed the challenge, partially because I no longer had to retry everything twice to succeed, and partially because I felt that my skills and the game’s trials were now fairly evenly matched. It stirred a strange kind of satisfaction in me, like I had outsmarted the game and had fun with it in spite of its best attempts to antagonize and repel me. I also became effectively immersed in the title role of a witcher, as the occupation is defined by its combat prowess.
The Witcher 2 is great as an RPG, if nothing else. While some character skills are undeniably more useful than others, the game still achieves a form of balance through its high challenge level, which forces players to use all of their abilities, even the weaker ones, if they hope to survive. A degree of specialization is still encouraged, however, as each of the three upgrade paths (swordsmanship, magic, and alchemy) have unique features that keep the game entertaining over time, including three different “ultimate” attacks, each with its own method of charging. And of course, it has the eternally sought-after RPG feature: a story with significant changes produced by player choice. With the exception of one option that changes the game’s entire second half, The Witcher 2 often separates choices from their consequences by several hours, neatly preventing save scumming and hiding the mechanical nature of the system.
The gameplay still had some faults at this point – the inconsistent-length attack animations and pathetically shallow stealth sections being chief among them – but for the most part, the campaign’s remaining 30 hours were largely enjoyable. The story may have had something to do with that. The premise is a tidal wave of clichés (in a medieval fantasy world where everyone is racist, amnesiac antihero Geralt is framed for the murder of a king and must work to clear his name by uncovering the conspiracy responsible), but its structure and execution make it engaging. Geralt’s amnesia is a particularly interesting case, since instead of being used to amputate the plot’s first act or set up a core mystery (as per usual), it’s primarily there to avoid alienating those unfamiliar with the game series’ source novels.
However, Geralt himself is a sore spot for me, because he’s also an enormous Mary Sue. He’s exceptionally good at everything, especially combat. He has superhuman senses, and he can use magic in a setting where most mages are lifelong students. Supposedly, the public sees him as abhorrent, but his only actual deformities are cool cat-like eyes and white hair. Neither does this perception have any impact on his thriving sex life, which he can have without worry, because he is also sterile and immune to all disease. It’s embarrassingly blatant wish fulfillment, but it bothers me even more because no one seems to care. The internet becomes ablaze with hate when characterization like this pops up in something like Fifty Shades of Grey, but it seems like wish fulfillment in The Witcher gets a free pass because it’s our wishes – those of the average gamer – being fulfilled.
Furthermore, Geralt’s characterization is indicative of the game’s decidedly teenage identity. The Witcher 2 frequently equates receiving a “mature” ESRB rating with actually being mature. It’s the kind of game where every other line must include profanity, because swearing makes you an adult, obviously. It’s a shame, because the writing can be quite witty and subversive when it’s willing to explore its vocabulary a little. But then there’s the game’s treatment of sex. In a legitimately mature game, sex is just an accepted part of life. It can be part of the dialogue like any other subject, or it can be engaged in with little fanfare. The Witcher 2, on the other hand, advertises its sexual component constantly. At least a third of the script includes a sexual reference, the first town’s brothel is namedropped about four times upon arriving there, and rape is wantonly tossed into events to incite drama. It all makes me kind of insulted to be the game’s target audience.
On a lighter, somewhat related note, let’s talk about production values. I consider this related because, like extreme complexity and pretenses of maturity, pretty graphics seem to provide a “get out of criticism free” card in some circles of the gamer community. Although unlike the other two, being nice to look at is rather objectively a good thing. And The Witcher 2 is wonderful to look at. It’s got expressive characters, lovingly detailed environments, and a generally more realistic and vivid use of colour compared to the grey and brown sludge displayed by most “mature” games obsessed with their own dreary tone. It’s also solid on the audio front, featuring a suitable atmospheric score and competent voice acting (excepting the repetitive battle quotes, of course).
I find myself mentally comparing The Witcher 2 to Skyrim and Dark Souls frequently. Not just because they’re all big-budget fantasy action-RPGs released in the same year, but because they’re all of nearly identical quality (though for vastly different reasons), and because they each have a handful of grating flaws that their fans refuse to acknowledge. But as irrationally frustrated as that situation makes me, my overall opinion of them is split nearly fifty-fifty, because each one does a couple of things incredibly well. Despite its unwelcoming opening hours and constant pandering to High School Me, The Witcher 2’s tight, multifaceted combat and well-told story made it unexpectedly entertaining. So entertaining, in fact, that I wanted to play it to the end (unlike Skyrim), and not just because of some adamant refusal to let the game “beat” me (unlike Dark Souls).