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Five Great Things about The Witcher 2, Act III

Witcher 2 Week finally comes to close in my last installment of “Five Great Things about the Witcher 2”. What an empty, lonely world it is post-Witcher2. I’m slowly adjusting to life without Geralt and the gang, but it’s tough. It’s the kind of game that makes everything else seem like crap in comparison, and even though I’ve still got the entire Roche end of the game to play, Geralt and I do need to spend some time apart. I’m still exhausted by Act III, and the game as a whole. I played it for a month straight, for who knows how many hours. I didn’t count, and neither did the game.

The Witcher 2 is one of my favorite games of all time. I loved this game like I did few others, completely losing myself in its stories, gameplay, and setting. It is, quite possibly, the best RPG I’ve ever played and I prefer it over hoary classics like Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, and anything Bethesda has ever made. I’m relieved that’s it’s over, but I miss being so involved in such a great game- and one that bucks so many trends in games design and in the industry today.

Spoilers ahead- beware.

1) The Secrets of Loc Muinne. This is a quest exclusive to the Enhanced Edition, and I believe it’s only available in the Iorveth branch. Which is something of a shame because it’s one of the best quests I have ever seen in a video roleplaying game. Through a compelling series of events and decisions, Geralt winds up doing a little dungeoncrawl with (or without) a group of Nilfgaardian-affiliated scholars including a character from Act II that turns out to be something of a double agent. In the quest, Geralt and this team plunder the laboratories of a fabled alchemist beneath the ruins of Loc Muinne. Pretty typical fare, really. But what distinguishes it from hundreds and thousands of other sidequests is that it’s thoughtfully written, excellently paced, and it features an absolutely amazing puzzle and a fascinating conversation with a Golem that can end in violence…or another possible outcome.

As if reasoning with a Golem weren’t awesome enough, the central puzzle blew me away. There’s a couple of guardian doors that ask Sphinx-like riddles and one involves a series of frescoes in one of the laboratory chambers. It’s incredibly cryptic (which is played for a great joke following an easier riddle before it), and Geralt can ask the attendant scholars for advice. They each issue forth with different interpretations of the riddle and the metaphoric and allegoric meanings of each of the frescoes. Three of the frescoes indicate the correct answer, and if you fail the chamber drops some gargoyles on you- more of a nuisance than a deathtrap.

The genius of this puzzle is in how it invites you to ask for the advice of learned academicians, completely misleads you with supposedly informed opinions, causes you to second guess every assumption, and makes you feel really dumb. DO NOT get the solution online, or you’ll miss the brilliant- and subtle punchline of the solution. After about an hour of messing around, I finally just went with the first guess I had before these people confused me and I was right. It may not have been intentional satire on common wisdom and Ivory Tower academe, but it was for me.

2) The outcome with Letho. One of the most brilliant things in a game full of brilliant things is that the character presented from the opening cinematic as the main antagonist may not even be an antagonist at all. It’s really kind of up to you, the player, as to how you want to interpret Letho, the Kingslayer as well as his motives, affiliations, and history with Geralt. Is he really a a “bad guy”? Is there even such a thing as “bad guy” in this game?

 

Much like Iorveth, I found Letho more fascinating than antagonistic, and in the end I let him go. I didn’t see any reason why Geralt would fight him. I didn’t see where Geralt really had that much fealty to Foltest or authority in general beyond an alliance of convenience. And I felt that if anything, Geralt would sympathize more with another Witcher in political matters.

So instead of a blow-out final battle, I had a drink of vodka and a revelatory conversation with the “bad guy” of the whole game. He offered to fight it out, almost out of obligation, but after so much fighting and political upheaval it wouldn’t have resolved anything or changed outcomes even if I didn’t empathize with him. And Witcher’s work would remain Witcher’s work.

 

3) The tragedy of Saskia. I sided with Saskia at Vergen, protected her secret, and supported her drive to unite the Pontar Valley. Yet in the end, I didn’t make the right choices elsewhere to save her from the sorceress’ control. So I had fight- and kill her. It wasn’t a heroic moment at all. It was sad, tragic, and really kind of shocking.

The fight was actually really well done, even though I almost threw the controller through the screen. But then I stepped back and realized that I was trying to fight it out like a hack n’ slash game. I took stock of what I had in terms of equipment, thought about tactics, spent a couple of Talent points, and after ten or so tries I worked out what to do. This is how boss fights should be- impossible at first, but encouraging you through failure to find out what works.

It was a “hell yes” moment at first, when I got to the QTE portion of the fight. But then, the impalement. And I’m sitting there with this dragon mortally wounded with a decision. But it’s not just a decision to kill a dragon, it’s a decision to kill a person who may be the region’s best hope at unity and maybe even peace. I felt at once responsible since as a game player I knew that I could have done something differently so there was regret, but there was also a sense of inevitability and defeat. I chose to kill her, just as any Ranger would end the suffering of a wounded animal out of respect and to preserve the dignity of nature.

There was a beat where Geralt touches her head, almost as an apology. It was moving, honest, and emotionally brutal. It’s the way it has to be, at least at that point. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so bad about killing a dragon. But that tragedy provided such a tremendous emotional heft to the conclusion of Saskia’s story, and I can’t wait to see what the ramifications are in the third game of her death.

4) Combat skills tested to the max. The fight with Saskia was tough, but getting there was even tougher. I liked that the last act seriously tested my fighting skills in the game and not in a cheap, millions of bad guys way. You go up against some tough opponents and in difficult situations in Act III and there are some quite frustrating battles. But there again, preparation, tactics, and using ALL of Geralt’s abilities can win the day.

Along with a little cheating. I don’t like it when games have tough fights that fall apart when figure out how to glitch your way through. There was one fight in Act III where there’s a cinematic that ends with a battle. I realized that in the last part of the dialogue I could actually move by looking at the minimap. So by the time the characters were done jabbering, I was in a narrow dead-end hallway. Guys ran in, I popped them with a couple of Yrdens, put Quen on, and just defended. Their mage came in the hall and hosed them down with Igni since they were in the way.

It was cheap, but hey. I walked out of the courtyard and they didn’t. But I think that was the only time in the entire game where I figured out something sleazy like that. In all, the combat isn’t as exhausting, taxing, or visceral as Dark Souls- but it’s a happy medium between that kind of fighting and something more accessibly hack and slashy.

I’ll have to put in some time in the combat arena to atone for my sins.

 

5) It didn’t outstay its welcome. Act III, pleasingly, held up to the high standards of the first two parts of the game and gracefully ended without outstaying its welcome or bogging down in endgame padding. I had heard some complaints that the third act felt a little thin compared to the others, but I think it worked just fine as a wrap-up to the storylines from the first to portions of the game. Even the arm wrestling subplot ended nicely.

Too many RPGs sort of fall apart in the end game, devolving into endless, grinding battles. Or fatigue sets in after so many hours of play, lessening the impact of the drama and creating a sense that the horse race to the end is as much of an endurance test as it is a sprint. Just as I was starting to feel some Witcher fatigue, thinking “I’m about ready for this to be over”, it was over. Just in time.

I actually didn’t finish all of the sidequests. There were a few that I couldn’t do, including one that required me to find a Bullvore brain but I had already passed all of the areas where there were Bullvores. I didn’t complete the Gargoyle quest because I was completely stumped by the puzzles and I never did find one of them. I figured I’d catch up with it later- it was more important to me that I strike while the proverbial iron was hot and finish the game before I got into that fatigue state.

But then there’s that post-credits epilogue…those dirty Nilfgaardian bastards. If ever there were a day one purchase for me, it’s Witcher 3. Along with anything else these people put out from this point forward.

Five Great Things about Act I of The Witcher 2

It’s Witcher 2 Week again for the third straight week. Get used to it. If you’re not playing or haven’t played this amazing game, get off my Web site. This game is almost the perfect real-world argument against everything we grumpy old folks complain about here at NHS. If only the industry would look to this game as a model that shows how to do things right.

I have no idea how many hours I’ve put into The Witcher 2, heading into the third week of playing it. Usually I’m interested to see this statistic because it speaks to pacing, content, and I can usually gauge where my interest is with the game. With The Witcher 2, I couldn’t care less. I’m taking my time and savoring every minute with it and getting the most out of it. It’s a game that you can really dig into and get lost in- these days among console games.

But I do know that as of Friday I completed Act I and as far as I know every optional objective. Following are five great things about the first part of The Witcher 2. Obviously, there are spoilers abound so don’t read if you want to preserve the great sense of revelation and discovery this game offers.

1) The Kayran. I loved that the entire first act of the game effectively builds up to the massive battle with the Kayran. As I wrote about in my last Witcher 2 entry, I loved that the game had that same Monster Hunter-like buildup and preparation for the big fight. It’s reminiscent of the movie Dragonslayer, and I love how the inevitable climax with the Kayran casts a shadow over everything that goes on in Flotsam. It’s out there. You know it’s coming. You’ve got to learn about it and get your ducks in a row.

I loved the sortie into the Kayran’s lair to get the mucus sample, brewing the Mongoose potion, and collecting materials to build traps. I loved discussing the upcoming fight with Sile. I loved the gradual development of a sense of readiness. The game never tells you it’s time- you decide.

The fight itself could have gone horribly wrong. When I saw the glowing tentacle parts, I sighed. But then it turned out to be, like some of the best boss fights in the Souls games, more of a puzzle than a resource management or dexterity test. Also like the Souls games, I had that awesome “how the FUCK am I going to kill this thing” feeling when Sile lured him out of his lair.

I actually really liked the QTE segment- it was really well done, and it depicted a kind of action that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. It only took me about ten deaths to get to that stage and then the damn thing dashed me against the columns a couple of times. But then I got to the run-up, tossed the bomb, and then robbed its body of eyeballs and such.

Now I’m wearing the son of a bitch.

2) Adult sex! BioWare, I hope you saw the scene with Geralt and Triss and the Elven Baths. I hope anyone entertaining the idea of putting a sex scene in a game sees this, because it was by far the most successful, heartful, and mature one I’ve seen to date- even with some still pretty creepy and weird uncanny valley stuff going on. The secret to its success is that it’s a very spontaneous, actually quite romantic interlude between lovers- not some sleazy Commander Shepard hook-up where the player has followed leading dialogue lines to try to get in the sack with a blue lady or gifted a bunch of trinkets to a character to shift a slider toward Booty Readiness.

Prefacing it with the scene where Geralt gives (or doesn’t give, if you’re a jerk) the Rose of Rememberance to Triss made the entire exchange feel genuine and tender, even in its relative explicitness. I didn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed by it at all, and instead it seems to really cement Geralt and Triss’s relationship in my mind. I’ve run across a couple of instances where Geralt could hop into bed with other women, but it makes sense to me that the character would be completely monogamous and faithful to Triss- particularly after the Elven Baths. It also influenced my decision to go after Triss at the end of the first act.

I also really liked the humorous denoument to the scene with the dwarf bandit hearing the “ghostly” moaning- one thing that I absolutely love about the game is its willingness to introduce some levity into its otherwise dark proceedings.

3) All politics is local. I loved encountering the unique political situation in Flotsam, rife with corruption, racism, rebellion, and intrigue. I felt like it all integrated seamlessly into the larger story of the game and the subplots were compelling and well worth pursuing. I also really liked becoming a thorn in Loredo’s side, skulking around his compound, stealing all his stuff, and snubbing him whenever possible.

I also really liked how Iorveth’s Scoi’atel, who could have been portrayed as Robin Hood and his Merry Men, are not apparently good or bad. Like almost every character and faction in the game, they’re chaotic neutral. How delicious was it not knowing if Iorveth was going to be friend or foe, or how Geralt would fit into the dissension between the trading post and its harassing outlaws?

It’s another testament to the great writing on display. Even more than obscured motives, situational ethics, and moral gray areas, the story and decisions are so well-presented that the game never has to tell you what is right or wrong. It’s up to you- the player- to decide where you and Geralt fall politically without facile value judgments or phony morality. That’s a very, very uncommon degree of respect afforded to the player.

4) Learning by Doing. I’m over games that explain everything in tutorials. I never want to spend the first hour of a game in some tutorial, learning to press the A button and tilt the control sticks again. I loved that I spent a lot of Act I learning to play the game, developing skills, and figuring out how to do things like brew potions and fight crowds effectively. I almost feel like I’m remembering how to do all this stuff along with Geralt as he regains his badassedness.

It’s another example of how this game respects its players. It knows you’re smart enough to figure most of it out. The tutorial is really just a combat exercise to teach you the mechanics- but even then, it’s part of a mini-story about Geralt and the game’s combat arena. Of course, there were times when I just didn’t know what was going on and I felt like I was thrown in the deep end. But the payoff of actually becoming skillful with the game was well worth some early frustration.

Some ways into Act 2, I feel like I’m still learning. I still don’t really get how to use the Harpy traps for exampIe. I almost hope that I never figure it all out.

5) A Witcher’s work is never done. The sidequests are probably the best I’ve ever seen in a game because they make sense, they’re interesting, and they’re thematically consistent with the nature of a Witcher. Taking on jobs to root out Nekker nests, investigate local strangeness, and even prizefighting make total sense for a ronin-like vagabond taking odd jobs and plying their talents for coin.

A couple of the sidequests have been as good as the main story- the burned-down hospital in particular. The key is that the optional quests all provide compelling leads and the promise of story content, not just level grinding, money, and loot. They’re fully realized sub-stories, and they reveal more of the game world and Geralt’s character.

I keep thinking of how wrong Kingdoms of Amalur had it with its MMORPG-style quest system. Doing menial crap like picking flowers or killing X of Y may make more sense with an overlay of socialization, but in a single player, story-focused title they simply do not work. I’ve done- and will do- every side quest in the Witcher 2. I think I saw maybe 15% of the hundreds of empty, meaningless sidequests in Kingdoms of Amalur.

I’d feel like I was missing out if I skipped them in this game. In Kingdoms and other, lesser RPGs I’ve never looked back. Somewhere on my 360’s hard drive there are dozens and dozens of NPCs wondering when I’m going to be back with whatever crap they wanted me to find or why I said “no” to getting their cat out of a tree. The Witcher 2 demonstrates the difference between great optional content and filler trash.

So it’s onto Vergen in Act II, and I’m already cowl-deep in the goings-on there. A mist choked with wraiths, a Joan of Arc-like figure seeking to unite the races of the Pontar Valley, foul-mouthed dwarves, and harpies galore. It’s almost like another game, and truth be told if Act I were all there were to the Witcher 2, I’d still be very, very damn satisfied with it.