Whither the Witcher?

I don’t even know what that title means. Where is the guy? Well, let me tell you, he’s now on the XBox 360. I can’t tell you how excited I was to finally play CDProjektRed’s acclaimed PC-RPG on a system I own that can actually run it.

If my PC tried to render this, it would spontaneously combust.

While Witcher II is a sequel (there’s a hint in the name), there doesn’t seem to be a lot you need to know going in. Like many RPGs with elaborately crafted narrative universes, there are plenty of tomes, scrolls, talkative NPCs and simple context around from which to pick up everything you’d want to know about the world of Witching. Geralt of Rivia seems the titular Witcher in question, though he’s not the only one. In fact, the subtitle (Assassins of Kings) also refers to Witchers, so who’s to say for sure. Digressions aside, Geralt is indeed the protagonist of this, the previous and the entire Polish novella series the games are based off. The story is technically told from the perspective of a secondary character, the hero’s bardic confidante and fellow philanderer Dandelion, who provides run-downs with his interstitial narrations and an overly prosaic description of each of the quests in the log book. Cleverly, he gives away some hints about where a quest is heading by having prior knowledge, such as acknowledging his involvement in one side-quest in particular before the player has gathered any information of his own. It’s a minor touch, but a deft one.

And really, the game’s full of clever flairs like that. I kind of backhand complimented the humble European RPG last time (and Witcher II is very much one, with its Polish development team) for coming off like enthusiastic amateurs, but Witcher II is burnished to a sheen and is subsequently perhaps the most attractive and deep RPGs I’ve ever played, trumped only perhaps by the brand new Skyrim. That isn’t to say it isn’t occasionally buggy, but that’s nothing that can’t be said about any BioWare or Bethesda (especially Bethesda) game in recent memory. Of import is that it’s well-written, looks amazing and strikes a balance with its smattering of side-quests for each of its diversely-set Acts that give players plenty to do without over-enervating them or distracting them too much from the main storyline.

A naked lady. There's a few of these. Geralt's quite the dreamboat, you see.

The combat’s perhaps the most striking aspect, so to speak, as it will beat you down and grind you into the dirt if you throw yourself into each battle without due preparation. Geralt, though physically powerful, is but a single man and that doesn’t always bode well in battles with multiple opponents and especially not with the large monsters he’s expected to eliminate as per the Witcher’s job description. As such, players are made aware of Geralt’s skill with traps and potions, the former for debilitating opponents and the latter for buffing up Geralt to a degree that he is able to finish it off without dying in the process. It’s a brutal one-two punch that is the key to beating most of the difficult battles in the game. Part of this includes researching enemies beforehand through books and preparing the correct array of traps and potions in response. It’s very meticulous stuff and deeply appreciated in a game that could’ve easily just been another hack-and-slasher. Coupled with five very utilitarian “Signs”, it provides an extremely high level of strategic gameplay for a single-person RPG. Previously such a level of strategy, such as those of the Baldur’s Gates and Icewind Dales of yesteryear, could only be derived from having an entire diverse team of adventurers to plan tactics around.

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I’ll end this review by simply stating how cool this game is. Geralt’s an interesting character from a narrative standpoint, as are the various non-humans, government agents, sorceresses and talkative monsters that he meets, and thanks to its expansive novel background it has a very well-realised universe with its many political factions, historical records and odd phenomena. The Wild Hunt in particular, an integral aspect of Geralt’s missing memories, gets ever more interesting the more we hear about it. But when I say it’s cool, I mean in terms of sheer cinematic badassery – The prologue chapters have you partaking in sieges, dodging dragons and escaping a jailbreak that almost destroys the castle the jail sits under. The rest of the game is full of similar “oh shit” moments, whether you’re standing in the midst of some grand panoramic spectacle or simply pulling off a stylish flourish of a coup de grĂ¢ce, which ably resuscitates one’s abating interest after a particularly interminable fetch quest or two.

This is a perfectly rational course of action.

I guess my conclusion is that anyone with an interest in old-school tough computer RPGs should probably play the Witcher II, either with this enhanced 360 port or the original PC version which would no doubt look even more incredible with a powerful home system. It deserves every accolade it’s been given.

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