There are a lot of games that try to create a truly “badass” protagonist. Most of the time what they end up with is an immature, meatheaded, adolescent power fantasy. Geralt, the “hero” of The Witcher series, is an unqualified badass, and he is what makes this game worth playing.
Geralt’s backstory sounds like a laundry list of the genre tropes – he’s a giant-sword-wielding mutant amnesiac, caught between a corrupt regime and questionably motivated rebellion. With that description, a bit more hair gel and a few more belts, you might think he’s Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy 7. The similarities stop there, though. Geralt is a battle-toughened, matured, and ultimately scarred warrior. This game is rated M for Mature – and it lives up to this title. There’s violence, sure, but there’s also a mature tone to the game which few games attempt, and even fewer get right.
Geralt is trapped between two worlds – humans don’t trust him because of his mutated genetics and non-humans think he’s (ironically) too human to be trustworthy. This line that Geralt is walking is complex and typically morally gray, so the choices you make feel like they have weight and impact. Sometimes being a jerk pays off, and sometimes what you think is the right choice doesn’t work out the way you plan it.
I’ll admit – I did not finish the first Witcher game. I played a good 20 hours into it, but I found the combat off-putting. They’ve changed it up a bit in this installment, but don’t go into it expecting the typical “action RPG” experience. Geralt is not a tank, and if you think you can go into combat, mash the attack button, and hope to win… get ready to stare at a lot of loading screens. Evading attacks and being strategic with your strikes and special abilities is the only way to survive even the earliest encounters.
The Enhanced Edition adds a tutorial to ease new players into the experience. I failed the tutorial fight, hard. The game was being nice in suggesting I should play on easy – I think it almost wanted to tell me to give up and play something else. It was a demotivating experience to be bested so easily in the early going, but I feel now that I’ve got more of a handle on the system. The tutorial explains at a very high level how to take advantage of many of the game’s systems, but I still felt like I could use a manual or a detailed strategy guide in order to grasp the intricacies of the system. Luckily, much of my knowledge from my aborted run at the first game came in handy.
This strategic focus is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, knowing your enemy pays off. If you plan ahead, you can pick potions and weapon enhancements that give you significant boosts against whatever it is you’re out hunting. On the other hand, this required level of planning and forethought means that you’ve sometimes got to know what is coming before it does, and that failure is always an option. Frequent saves are almost required.
The density of quests per-chapter isn’t as high as some other games (Kingdoms of Amalur, I’m looking at you), and for the most part the questing is fun and often rewarding. The tracking system could use a bit of work, however. When there are quest indicators, they’re hard to see on the minimap, and the level of zoom available in the pause screen map is often insufficient. Sometimes quest markers are shown for objectives within buildings, and it’s not always clear where the door you need to take is located.
Other times, there’s no quest indicator at all. I don’t mind this terribly much in theory, as it just means the game expects me to explore a bit in order to proceed. However, when combined with the pretty much required battle prep, including limited duration weapon upgrades and potions, there’s kind of an urgency to getting on with combat once you’ve prepared for it. Meandering about in the wilderness looking for the monster you set out to kill while a timer is counting down the seconds you have left to defeat it can be stressful.
The Enhanced Edition is the only edition available to Xbox 360 players, and I can confidently say that they did a good job with the port. The controls feel solid, and responsive. There are a few issues with textures that load late – you’ll sometimes see in a cutscene a blurry texture on an object close to the camera for a second, before it’s replaced with a higher resolution copy. Although it’s recommended, I don’t have it installed to my hard drive, so I don’t know how that affects the situation.
The game’s got rough edges, but I can appreciate what it’s trying to do, and it’s largely a fun and engaging experience. It’s not going to knock genre titans like Skyrim or Diablo off their thrones, but it doesn’t really seem to want to. The experience you’re getting here is unique. If you were intrigued by the first game, you’ll find an experience as good or better here.