Return To The Witcher 2 Successful

As always, you can click on images to view larger versions. Also, if you are considering playing The Witcher 2, I recommend the original Polish voices with subtitles. They’re just better.

After my first post chronicling my return to the Witcher 2, I imagined I’d have two more, one for each of the two remaining Chapters in the game. But after I finished Chapter 2 I just kept on going, and I’ve now finished the game. Now that I’ve seen both sides of the story, I can write my thoughts on the game as a whole.

If you’re unfamiliar with The Witcher games, you should read my posts about the first game before reading this. And, of course, you should read my earlier post discussing my thoughts on the Prologue and first Chapter of The Witcher 2.

When we left Geralt of Rivia, I had guided him to the game’s major choice, which results in one of two very different second Chapters. The first time I played the game, I made what seemed like the right choice. This time I was determined to choose the other path, but, even though the game allowed for Geralt to have very different motivations for his actions, I still wasn’t convinced that siding with Iorveth, an elven terrorist, was the right thing to do. Now, knowing what happens in both versions of the game’s second Chapter, I’m certain I made the right call.

It would have been impossible to predict ahead of time, of course. On my first playthrough, I always tried to make the best and most just decisions I could, but I found my options getting worse and worse and events spiraled beyond my control. This time, despite my initial doubts, I realized I was in a position to actually make a difference. I felt a lot better about what I was doing in Chapter 2 than I did the first time through.

It’s difficult to discuss the second Chapter of The Witcher 2 without spoiling the events that occur, and I am unwilling to do that. So I will have to be very vague and simply say that my choice at the end of Chapter 1 meant I ended up on the other side of the major conflict that brews in Chapter 2. And the differences are huge. I was faced with entirely new content, none of which I’d seen before, and events played out very differently. I was surprised to find that this continued right through the third and final Chapter, which, despite taking place in the same location no matter which path Geralt chooses, unfolds in a unique way for each. And it is only upon playing both sides of the story that I now fully understand the events of the game. Certain details which were central to the story this time around were never even revealed the first time, and vice versa. Others have written extensively on how remarkable and unusual this story design is, but it’s worth repeating, because it’s rare for a big budget game to put this much effort into a branching narrative. The downside is that players need to play the game twice to see the full story, but it sure does make the game more interesting.

I must remain vague a little longer, because I want to praise the game’s ending. It’s superbly done. I think I enjoyed it even more this time, mostly because I felt better about what I’d done through the course of the game, and, importantly, felt less directly responsible when things did go bad. I also viewed it in a new light because I’ve been reading more of Andrzej Sapkowski’s books upon which the games are based, and I’m learning more about the various characters. Although I still have much to read, I’m realizing that it’s perhaps not as strange as I thought for Geralt to have chosen the way he did (this time) at the end of the first Chapter. I wonder if I found this path more rewarding because the designers wanted to acknowledge the choice that was more in keeping with Geralt’s character in the novels.

Reading the books has also provided more insight into other aspects of the game. I’ve written about the ongoing problems with the representation of female characters in the games, finding things improved but still not ideal in the second game. In particular, I was confounded by the designers’ insistence on dressing up the various sorceress characters in extremely revealing outfits, which seemed like blatant titillation rather than a genuine artistic choice. Having read more of the books, I learned that the sorceresses in the source material are fond of flaunting their beauty and wearing exactly this type of risque attire. But the books give more context for this, and while one could argue that there are problems with Sapkowski’s female characters, the games have more. I can see now what the designers were going for, but they missed the mark, especially with some choice scenes in which Geralt stumbles upon the sorceress Philippa Eilhart and her apprentice engaged in explicit acts. Ostensibly these scenes are there to show more about Philippa Eilhart’s (and her apprentice’s) character, but again they smack of titillation more than anything else. Speaking of which, I was still having Geralt doggedly pursue any romantic encounter he could, and while there were only three more in the entire game, two of them constituted sex as a reward, which felt sleazy. The writers’ paltry attempts at justifying this rang false too. Oh, and I was pleased that, this time, there didn’t seem to be any prostitutes in the second Chapter, only to find that the designers found a way to fit them in, at the most inappropriate time. Sigh. At least there truly are none in Chapter 3.

While I’m complaining, I’ll say that I was less and less impressed with the special Dark Mode gear that Geralt can craft. In the first Chapter the Dark Mode gear was unquestionably the best available and made a huge difference in Geralt’s combat effectiveness, but in the second chapter there are viable alternatives. Plus, the gear in the second Chapter requires some unique ingredients that can only be found at certain points in the story. I missed my chance at the start of the Chapter and ended up having to wait until I was about three quarters of the way through before I could craft the equipment. That meant I barely had enough time to enjoy it before I was already working on a new set in Chapter 3. I was also disappointed that the Dark Mode equipment didn’t feature more upgrade slots, so I ended up carrying a lot of cool runes that I couldn’t use on Geralt’s weapons. Plus, the gear is extremely expensive, which meant killing a lot of harpies in order to sell their feathres. A lot. Oh, and I never mentioned that the equipment comes with an annoying visual and sound effects when equipped, signifying its cursed nature. Fortunately, these effects are easily removed with a mod, which I applied immediately.

I did enjoy the higher level of difficulty, however, and should point out that the special equipment is entirely optional. While the difficulty is punishing early in the game, by the second Chapter Geralt is powerful enough that it isn’t too severe, and it means he still faces some challenging encounters. And I had a blast fighting through them with my new focus on magical signs. The first time I played the game I focused on swordplay, and while it’s effective, playing with an emphasis on magical signs is a lot more fun. Fights felt more strategic, as I was able to mix various magical attacks and defenses with swordplay. Geralt’s magical skills are varied enough that I could use different tactics for different opponents, and eventually learned the ability to slow time around Geralt so he could dispatch his enemies with lightning-fast strikes. I liked it so much that I may stick to a magical focus in the upcoming Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

But I did find that I mostly abandoned potions, unfortunately. I mentioned this last time too: the alchemy system in the second game is something of a disappointment, with its short potion durations, uninteresting skill tree, and the fact that Geralt rarely has time to stop and imbibe potions before battles anyway. I never felt that potions were necessary to my survival, which is a shame given how important they are in the books and even in the first game (albeit only at high difficulty settings). I’ve read that the alchemy system in the third game will be somewhat different, with Geralt able to mix and drink potions, but hold their effects at bay until the right moment, when he releases them through his special metabolism. That way he can prepare for upcoming battles without having to worry that the potions will wear off, and can be sure they’re active when he most needs them. I think this system has potential, and I hope I’ll be using a lot more potions in the future.

Another thing I enjoyed, more than I expected to, is the music. I loved the music in the first game, because it was so different than the typical orchestral fare one finds in fantasy role-playing games. So, the first time I played the Witcher 2 and heard the main theme, I was disappointed. It seemed the designers had capitulated to a more common type of score, rather than keeping a musical style that helped make the original game unique. But this time through I was instead struck by the quality of the music. The orchestral parts, if less original, are extremely well done, and there are actually many parts of the score that recall the sound of the first game, especially when playing through this side of Chapter 2. In the end I concluded that the first game has more striking individual pieces of music, but the second game has a more cohesive and consistently great score. I even caught a few strains of the original game’s theme appearing again, and I must admit I’m happy to hear that it will return in the third game as well.

I worry that this piece sounds too negative, so let me stress again that despite the complaints above I had a fantastic time. The settings for the second and third Chapters are different but equally beautiful to the first, and were a joy to explore. The oft-criticized third Chapter has been fleshed out somewhat in the Enhanced Edition, but it’s still much shorter, acting as a capstone to the story more than a full Chapter in itself. But again I found I liked it much more this time, able to appreciate how all the story threads came together and marveling once more at the excellent ending. I wish I could tell you about all the things I did and the choices I made, because it would be a gush of excitement and effusive praise, ending with joyful speculation about what might happen in the third installment of the series. But I don’t want to spoil those things for those who haven’t played the game yet. I will say this, however: for any who have only played The Witcher 2 once, it’s absolutely worth playing again to see the rest of the story. I may have bemoaned the more political nature of the narrative this time around, but I soon forgot those complaints because it’s so well done. It’s absolutely worth a second look, especially when that look will be largely new for those playing a second time.

And for those who haven’t played it at all, well, you’re in for a treat. I’ve already extolled the virtues of the series at length, so there’s not much more to say here except to reiterate that the games have some of the best melding of world, characters and story that I’ve seen. Sure, they owe much of this to Sapkowski’s source material, which I’m liking more and more the more I read, but the developers deserve full credit for their dedication in translating that material into games, and for daring to break conventions when those conventions didn’t suit the world they were trying to replicate. The first game, despite many problems, won me (and many others) over with its superb atmosphere and surprisingly personal story. The second game is a huge step forward in terms of production quality and confidence on the part of the designers, and it’s absolutely worth playing despite a few minor issues. The third installment, set to release this May, is already poised to be a blockbuster, one of the most anticipated games of the year. Having played the first two games, it’s easy to see why. I’m sure I’ll be writing plenty about it when it’s released.

So if you haven’t played the Witcher games yet, you really should. Twice.

If you are interested in The Witcher 2, it’s available from various digital outlets as well as retail. I prefer the GOG version, but that’s just me and my love of DRM-free things. I do recommend playing the first game first, if you have the time, as it’s a great set up to the second and the differences between the two are fascinating. But you can jump straight into the second if you like. Happy hunting!

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