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Six Surprising Things about The Witcher 2

How much witch could the Witcher witch if the Witcher could witch witch? That seems to the question on everyone’s minds as Witcher Week here at No High Scores apparently kicks off. If you’re groaning “not more Witcher stories”, don’t worry- we’ll get back to being angry about the games business and posting “bad journalism” like my Fez review soon. But hey, that stuff beats “good journalism” about DLC announcements and Mega Man cosplay pictures, doesn’t it?

Anyway, I love the game, and I would be extremely surprised if it didn’t turn out to be my pick for Game of the Year. I think it’s a masterpiece that deserves to be mentioned alongside the very best titles in the RPG genre. It’s classical and revisionist, grim and funny, beautiful and brutish. Truth be told, I read almost no reviews of the new Enhanced Edition on the 360 or the PC version last year barring some of Chick’s comments about it so I wasn’t really quite sure what to expect outside of some very general parameters. So I managed to get surprised by the game on a couple of counts, which is pretty hard to do when you write about and read about games all the time. Here’s six things that I didn’t expect out of the game.

1) There is actual role-playing. And by role-playing, I most certainly do not mean fussing around with stats, custom faces, classes, and micromanagement. The Witcher 2 has some of that, but it’s definitely not a spreadsheet RPG like far too many examples of the genre are. What I mean is that in the game, you take on the role of Geralt and you do the kinds of things Geralt would do. He’s got to prepare for difficult fights by laying traps and brewing potions. He’s more or less a broke vagabond so he has to take on odd jobs and prize fights to earn a living. The kinds of choices you’re given in dialogue are not the typical BioWare Paragon/Renegade forked paths- they’re almost all Chaotic Neutral decisions where all options are still feasible for Geralt’s character as written and intended. The neat thing is that the player is still given plenty of agency to craft the character, but it occurs within specific boundaries so that regardless of what the player does, they’re still playing the game-and role-playing- as Geralt.

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2) It’s like a Western Monster Hunter. I totally didn’t expect the game to be so similar in certain areas to Monster Hunter, but there are elements that are almost identical in concept if not in execution. In the Monster Hunter games, the player has to kill monsters and craft things from their parts. You’ve also got to find herbs and other raw materials, and crafting is a big part of the game. The idea in both games (at least as far as I’ve played into The Witcher is that you spend a lot of time preparing for a major, impending and imminent boss battle. The trapping, bombs, learning about prey and even elements of the combat are straight from Monster Hunter. The build-up to the Kayran menacing Flotsam is totally reminiscent of the popular Japanese series. Of course, it’s a Western RPG so it’s not quite as obsessive and it’s more story-focused.

3) The writing is really damn good. The game isn’t written like a video game, which is incredibly refreshing. It’s written, paced, and structured like a reality-grounded, literary fantasy novel- it’s definitely not potboiler genre trash. It’s in line with fantasy writers like Glen Cook or Joe Abercrombie with just enough of a taste of Howard’s Solomon Kane stories to make it interesting and a little two-fisted without going full-pulp. Even the freaking tutorial was well-written, presented as a kind of short story about Geralt making his way to the arena. Motivations, ambiguities, conditional moralities, and passions blaze through the well-framed, Even though I do feel like I’m missing important story elements from the first game due to the in media res nature of it, I’m completely immersed in the world, its atmosphere, its politics, and its particulars. Most surprisingly, I’m actually reading all of the lore- something I never do because it’s almost always Biblically painful to read through horrendously didactic Z-grade garbage writing (see: any Elder Scrolls game). But The Witcher 2’s supplemental writing is handled with a smart levity, framed as the work of Geralt’s chronicler Dandelion. I’m listening to the all dialogue too and not skimming through it, because I actually care what these people have to say. I even want to read the novels, which is something of a shocker in itself since I don’t read many contemporary fantasy books.

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4) The Sidequests don’t suck. Adjunct to the good writing, the sidequests- really more subplots- aren’t the usual filler junk. Sure, you pick flowers in The Witcher 2, but at no point does someone with an exclamation point over their head tell you to go find ten of a certain type and bring them back. Geralt might be asked to do what seems like a FedEx task, but even the most mundane quest tends to turn into a more interesting and compelling situation that is actually worth pursuing. In one that I did last night, I was asked to go find these two men that were last seen going out to this burned-down- and haunted- mental hospital. That sounds awesome enough, but when I got there a complete short story unfolded complete with a chilling resolution that was grim, brutal, and honest. Another involving an alcoholic troll lead into a little investigative work and a couple of possible outcomes, one of which could have involved a sub-subplot involving the poker dice minigame. Even the arm wrestling and fist fighting feel reasonably framed and never superfluous- largely, I think, because the game is so focused and it steers away from the typical morass of phony content and false free will that plagues open world games.

5) Some RPG habits are hard to break. This one is the bad surprise. I was disappointed to find some of the same silly, incongruous, or unrealistic things that have been breaking immersion in RPGs for decades now turning up in The Witcher 2. Yep, you walk into some guy’s house, talk to him, and loot everything he owns. Or you walk in and he’s asleep (or planking) on his bed. Talk, and he says cheerfully “Ah! Welcome!” without getting up. Inventory is a mess and there’s needless junk items adding to the clutter. People forget that you ever talked to them before. That said, there are so many places where the game breaks from genre expectations these things are negligible. But by the same token, they’re also more egregious.

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6) I don’t regret spending $60 on it. All too often when I buy a new game, I almost immediately have buyer’s remorse- even if I like the game. I usually have this feeble “I really should have just rented this” epiphany sometime within the first three hours of a game. But given that this is a game very clearly cared about and labored over by its creators- who thought enough of their product to grace it with an actual manual, a map, and a quest guide, none of which are tied to marketing schemes- I felt that I had bought something that was actually worth its asking price. This is a game I want to own, not just play through. The craft on display is exquisite, and it feels like a product with lasting value rather than some flash-in-the-pan, 10 hour play-and-forget title that I would trade within an hour of the credits rolling. This is one for the Forever Shelf, alongside Metro 2033, Mirror’s Edge, Dark Souls, and Bayonetta.

I doubt that I’ll formally review the game because I want to take time to savor it, but rest assured it would get our highest marks here at No High Scores including our new High Score award…which is, ironically, not tied to any score because we don’t score games here. I’m glad to see it’s selling well, not only because that means we might see The Witcher 3: Witch Hard with a Vengeance sometime in the near future, but it may also convince CD Projekt Red that the 360 audience would buy a port of the first game. The success of The Witcher 2 could also prove that a solid, lovingly made game that’s complete and not whored out in DLC and preorder bonuses can make money and be successful. And that is proof that the games industry needs to be paying attention to.

Michael Barnes

Games writer Michael Barnes is a co-founder of Nohighscores.com as well as FortressAT.com. His trolling has been published on the Web and in print in at least two languages and in three countries. His special ability is to cheese off nerds using the power of the Internet and his deep, dark secret is that he's actually terrible at games. Before you ask, no, the avatar is not him. It's Mark E. Smith of The Fall.

43 thoughts to “Six Surprising Things about The Witcher 2”

  1. “If you’re groaning “not more Witcher stories”…”

    Au contraire, Mike, au contraire – there are some of us who saw this story and said: “Wooo, new Witcher story on NHS! *opens link*”

    And speaking of drunk troll, I somehow couldn’t solve that quest in any other way besides fighting him, dunno why. Gotta start the game again nowadays and try it once more, I’d really like to talk to him and solve that quest in peaceful manner.

    Oh, and you should see “final boss” in first game’s poker sidequest 😀

    1. Oh, we came to terms amicably…he does have to have a little bit of an attitude adjustment at first but it can be resolved amicably and it seems like there’s at least two ways to go about it.

      1. Save and load options to the rescue then, don’t wanna fight him. Damn, should’ve already started my 2nd playthrough.

        And, enjoy your time with it, the best is yet to come 😀

        1. I saved him too. Poor chap. I could NOT find the damn mental hospital!

          I LOVE the trolls in this world.

          “We need the trolls to repair and protect the bridge, but this one’s drunk.”

          Awesome.

          1. If you did the thing with Malena and spared her at the caves, she later actually runs to the hospital. It doesn’t really look like a hospital…in my mind I thought it would be like a mansion or something but it was really more like a dungeon.

            WELL worth finding…that story was really spooky.Leads up to a great chaotic neutral decision point.

            But then, every decision point in the game is chaotic neutral.

    1. Ohh….tough.

      Dark Souls would like a word! Two very different games, though. Gun to my head I’m taking Dark Souls but it’s certainly in the discussion.

      1. Better than the Infinity Engine games. And not because of the technology advantage. The writing, structure, and storytelling is better and those are all things that could have been done back then. Those games were still great and represent the best of their time, but I think both Witcher 2 and Dark Souls are better, richer, and more compelling games.

        1. You still haven’t played Planescape Torment have you? I would certainly be happy if Witcher 2 had as good writing but I would be shocked if it was better.

  2. Note to Barnes on Witcher 1: in media res is a feature of the *series*, not just the sequel.

    There’s a pretty lame amnesia plot, but its main purpose is to make everyone in the game demand something of the player because they already know him. The amnesia allows the player to choose what backstory he cares to hear about, and to maybe choose actions slightly differently than he would have done as Fully Realized Badass.

    The quest structure surprised me for Witcher 1, as well. Their solution to fetch quests was surprisingly elegant: they just made Geralt dirt poor.

    Want to blaze around and see everything before completing quests? Fine, but you won’t have all the sweet gear soon enough. Conversely, you can generally noodle around a populated area, collect intelligence and quests, then walk through the map and complete everything in a smooth, single run.

    There are “get X object” quests, but the fun part is that they’re usually tied to something else. For example, a guy that wants 10 flowers will buy your overruns, too. And you have to decide whether to share a percentage with the guy who told you what plant to look for.

    1. When you say series, do you mean the books too?

      Yeah, the amnesia thing was kind of a letdown at first, but it works and it’s a plot device rather than the plot itself. And I seriously doubt that Geralt will turn out to be some Square Enix chosen one or any of that stuff.

      And like you said, it is necessary to give the player some decision as to how to play the game. It totally makes sense that there aren’t classes, but you can focus on Geralt’s abilities in four specific, character-defining areas. And it does enable the story to continue on from the first more or less from scratch, which it needs to be able to do.

      It’s a contrivance, but they made it work without it turning into an embarassing liability. That says A LOT for their writers, handling one of the most overused tropes in the RPG playbook.

      It’s funny, I’m not really sure what “sweet gear” is yet. I made the silver Witcher sword but I almost never use it because I found this poison cutlass that’s better. I haven’t changed my armor yet either…did some enhancements, but I haven’t seen a need to switch it up yet. Plus, I’m broke.

      I haven’t seen a “get x things” quest yet…I kind of suspected there were some since I’ve been finding some monster parts that are billed as quest items.

        1. Yeah, I’m kind of gathering that…it’s definitely a change from, say, Dark Souls where weapons have all kinds of visible stats and metrics. At first I was looking to see if weapons were rated for speed or endurance or anything…nope.

          It seems like it’s a good halfway point between the games where you have very specific gear and games that are more open-ended with it.

          Funny, Dark Souls (and Demon’s Souls) trained me to dutifully tend to and maintain my weapons…I still think like that.

          1. Silver swords are designed specifically for monster fighting, whereas your steel sword is for humanoid muderage. There is a very distinct difference in feel in terms of damage between the two. Knowing which to use and where (along with appropriate sword oils) can make a staggering difference in damage.

      1. A lot of the gear you’re using in the early game was free “DLC” that rolled out shortly after the PC release. The stats were clearly and afterthought and kind of screwed up the early game crafting and upgrade system that had been developed. “Sweet gear” will start making an appearance towards the end of Act 1.

        As to the fetch quest, they do exist but they are cleverly disguised as “witcher’s work”. Check the message board outside the inn. And don’t forget to squeeze every last penny out of those cheap bastards in Flotsam. They hate you and they will rip you off if you let them.

      2. By “series”, I meant the games. There’s a lot of showing up as things are underway between chapters of Witcher 1.

        For me, “sweet gear” is usually weapon upgrades and intelligence. Having the right journal entries is key to completing “witcher’s work” quests, and prevents a lot of sidetracking. You never have enough money to buy everything in one go, though. And they’re big enough bastards to put free copies of only 30% of the mandatory books out in the world. Do I pay out the nose now, and save myself a trip, only to discover a free copy ten minutes later? Or do I go on a scavenger run first, save money, and kill a slew of monsters for nothing?

      3. If nobody noticed, they released a new version (?) of one of the Witcher books about a week before the game came out. I had read the short story collection, called The Last Wish, in the past and thought it was really pretty great. I bought the new book, called Blood of Elves, because I was excited for Witcher 2 and I’m not disappointed.

        It totally explains the amnesia business – essentially, the games seem to come AFTER the short story book, and the series of novels that starts with Blood of Elves. So the amnesia is there so that people who come into all of that with the game, like I did and it seems like most Americans would have, aren’t totally lost and confused, but those who had already read the books have a bit of inside knowledge about some of the characters. While I normally hate amnesia, I think it serves a pretty smart purpose in this case.

        Also – Barnes, you use the Silver sword for monsters, and the Steel sword for regular creatures.

        1. Yeah, I sorted that out…for some reason I was thinking that this cutlass was outperforming the silver sword even against monsters…I think the green poison cloud tricked me.

          Dang, yeah…thing just hacks through some nekkers.

    2. You can’t deny that the amnesia and the poorness do go well with the books too.There is some heavy fan serves in both games and I can see CDP go with characters and plots from the books in the next game even more deeply.It sure looked kind of cheap and cliché for me when I played the first game,but then when I read and played The Witcher again it felt very convenient and plausible.

  3. I’m having a great time playing this but recently discovered I’m most likely out of my depth.

    After playing the tutorial the game suggested I play on Easy, which I agreed to because I still hadn’t fully grasped the intricacies of combat. I figured I’d switch to Normal after I had a better grasp of the system.

    So I tried that… and died. Over and over. Dying. Lots of it.

    I apparently still don’t actually have a grasp of the combat system. I’m back to Easy for now but hope to one day be competent and Normal.

    I am at least still having a great time experiencing the story. It’s probably a little like Demon’s Souls was in that I just need to figure out how to play and take my time.

    Just curious, but what contemporary fantasy do you read?

    1. Not a whole lot- I’ve read Cook and Abercrombie as the references in the article suggest. Gene Wolfe is one of my favorite authors, although his best work is practically not contemporary at this point. And possibly not really fantasy anyway. I read a lot of fantasy in the 1980s and 1990s, I just don’t have much interest in it as a literary genre anymore. I don’t even like the George Martin books (ducks).

      I’m more of a Moorcock/Zelazny/Leiber/Vance kind of fantasy fan. I like it dark, weird, druggy, and low. And the old pulp stuff, the Howard stuff and whatnot.

      But yeah, easy was recommended to me too after the tutorial but I insisted on hard. I died TONS during the siege. And I’m still dying a lot, I just fought this group of Drowners literally ten times before I figured out how to do it. It does require learning, and also using ALL of the tools at your disposal. Hacking and slashing simply doesn’t work. You can’t rush the fights. Every fight on hard takes consideration, and it makes everything feel more threatening and every step more risky.

      It’s the backstabbing that gets me…fighting Nekkers and then a warrior jumps on you out of nowhere and you’re bleeding…dead. I’ve heard complaints about that, how the camera is such that you can’t see when someone is leaping at you from behind…WELL DUH. That’s not a fault.

      1. Well, Witcher stories and novels are written in 1990s anyways, as far as I know (and as far as my quick glance on Wikipedia confirms).

        And, as BlackAdder (love the name!) said, do a barrel roll! Also, as soon as you’re able, invest in that skill which cancels 200% backstab damage, if you haven’t already.

        Btw, does successful blocking still require one vigor block/point?

      2. I’ve only heard of about half the names you mentioned as I am only now getting into fantasy. I’m glad to have someone who I share so many opinions with suggest a few starting places. Any tips are greatly appreciated

        1. I’d recommend Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun quadrology, but it’s difficult, challenging, demanding, and not likely what you’re looking for. That said, they are the best fantasy books I’ve ever read. To give you an idea of how they are, I sat next to this guy on a plane once and I Was reading them for the second time. The guy recognized the book and asked “oh, how many times have you read them?”

          If you have the Elric: Stealer of Souls collection, that’s a great place to start. As mentioned, Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself is a a fine piece of modern low fantasy, very easy to read and smart. Glen Cook’s Black Company books are quite good and pretty Witchery. Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books are _essential_, so much of the D&D style of fantasy comes directly from those books. Likewise, Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books were a HUGE source for Gygax & co. Roger Zelazny’s stuff is often bizarre and he does more SF than fantasy, but the Amber books are must-reads, at least the first five. Some pretty crazy stuff in those.

          Robert Howard is essential too, Conan (of course) and some of his other characters are great fantasy. I love the Solomon Kane stories. Also very Witchery.

          1. I can’t thank you enough for the recommendations. I recently read a lot of Brandon Sanderson books, which, to me, were excellent. So much so that I’ve started reading the Wheel of Time series to get to the books he writes, 11-13 or something. They don’t seem like the pinnacle of the genre in my opinion and I’ve been looking for other things to enjoy between them. I know these are almost not the same genre, but I think that was what I’m looking for. Thanks again, my education in this area is obviously lacking.

      3. Okay, started a new game and accepted “The Barnes Challenge”(Hard Mode).
        Playing much more carefully and doing much better.

        I’ll admit that I was button mashing and fighting an Endrega Queen when I tried Normal before, so that was probably the source of the constant death. I think a good challenge will help me appreciate this game even more than I already do. On Easy it is simply too easy.

        I want that feeling Dark Souls gave me where it was actually me who conquered all those things. Where would I be without bad journalism? Skating by in Easy Mode.

        1. Heh…yeah…that Endrega Queen. I can’t beat her yet. Apparently you have to fight two to finish that quest.

      4. So – Joe Abercrombie? Did you ever wonder why in The Blade Itself Inquisitor Glokta just didnt make wooden teeth to eat with? My memory is probably faulty, but doesnt the character at one point describe his torturers either pulling out every other tooth on top and then alternating ones on the bottom so that he cant chew? For some reason this bothered me for such a smart character….

        Also – I also have a working wife, with 2 1/2 year old twins – how do you find the time to play games? If I get an hour or two a night, thats alot…

        1. I don’t sleep much- four or five hours a night. I work from home, so I don’t have to do crazy shit like get up at 6am and get the kids to daycare or anything like that. Kids are usually in bed by 11, wife by 12. I get three or four hours to myself every night.

          Glokta, what a great character. But yeah, that didn’t make any sense really. It does make him somehow more pathetic.

  4. I probably wouldn’t have given this game a second chance before this writeup. I’m glad you are shying away from “bad journalism.” 😛 But if you come to E3 we should meet up and discuss bad games in person, I think it would come across better and faster and be fun!

    1. I’ll never shy away from it. See, I flunked out of “Good Video Games Journalism 101”. I can’t perform necessary and essential tasks like posting press releases or trailers and telling you that it’s journalism. I can’t write an objective review without bias. Nor can I blog about how great indie games are and how terrible Call of Duty is. I’m a failure. So all that’s left for me is bad video games journalism. It’s my lot in life.

      E3 likely won’t happen this year for me with two small children and a working wife, but it’s not impossible…I’d love to hang out though if the June Miracle happens…

      1. Barnes remains the only NHS staffer I have not met in person.

        I’m not convinced he really exists.

    1. And Barnes hasn’t even really made any plot decisions yet. muhahaha.

      I did find that I needed the best gear I could get at the end of Flotsam…

      How good is the Hospital. You certainly dont come out of that feeling good about yourself.

  5. None of the decisions leave you feeling entirely right or wrong. That’s the beauty of it, some of the actions which seem good often have their motives in much murkier things, and some actions which are less pleasant are very idealistic. Iorveth is a good example of an idealist who does some very wrong things.

    It’s the hallmark of a good game and good writing when you actively and constantly think “I am N, what do I think N would do.” and when you question whether you have done the right thing long after the event, the consequences of which whilst logical, sometimes leave you feeling a right bastard.

    I think only Planescape Torment came close to these kinds of standards. Baldur’s Gate series was excellent mind, but it didn’t -quite- have the same agency the Witcher manages.

    1. Yeah, like I said it’s all chaotic neutral decisions. It’s not even necessarily moral ambiguity or “gray area”. Ethics are situational, honest, and connected to larger themes and character motives.

      That’s a great point you make about thinking in the role of the character- that’s what I’m getting at with the “there is role playing” comment above. I’ve considered decisions _through the viewpoint of Geralt_. Normally in an RPG where I’m playing the lawful good guy, I wouldn’t have asked the people I saved from the soldiers for a handout. But Geralt most certainly would. At the hospital, I chose the path that seemed like what Geralt would do even though it was brutal and chilling. With Malena, I did something that I thought spoke to Geralt’s nonhuman sympathies…but it was still an honest and unfortunate outcome.

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