There’s a moment near the end of The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings where you’re given an opportunity to refresh your memory of every major plot twist that’s happened over the past 30 hours or so of game play. It’s a chore to sit through all of it and you won’t get any special achievement for doing so. It’s also a godsend, because by the time you get to this point in the game, you probably won’t be able to make sense of half of what’s transpired.
CD Projekt RED’s second tale of witcher Geralt of Rivia is rife with kingslaying, whoring, betrayal and deception, but trolls that talk like Jar Jar Binks and a narrator seemingly inspired by Daniel Stern’s ‘The Wonder Years’ monologues lighten the proceedings at least a few shades above the game’s closest analogue, George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series of novels. Occasional tonal inconsistencies aside, players with a strong attention span and a love of intrigue will find much to enjoy here, including the requisite branching morality system that shapes not only the final outcome of the game but informs ever-evolving relationships between a handful of key characters.
Interesting though the story may be, it suffers from one major flaw: too much talking and too little showing. Often referencing key events of the first game through voice-overs that provide very little context or connection to events of the current game, The Witcher 2 seems woefully inconsiderate of console players who lack the means to experience the PC-exclusive first chapter in this series.
Of course, the writing is only half the…er…story of The Witcher 2 – there’s also a video game buried under all that exposition! Unfortunately, the game itself proves less capable than the writing, with design, system and engine inadequacies that fail to integrate into a product that feels whole and complete. Case in point: the game purports to be an RPG – a genre built on allowing players to “play their own way” – but nearly every single boss fight I engaged in was absolute torture to complete because the character I’d spent hours investing in wasn’t capable of defeating them outside of a handful of prescribed methods that had nothing to do with the skills I’d honed. I clocked at least an hour of extra game time reloading the same boss fights over and over again, and I probably would’ve given up had I not pledged to complete the game for review. There’s a fine line between overly difficult and poorly designed, and far too often, The Witcher 2 falls on the wrong side of that line.
It’s a shame about the boss fights, because players willing to put the time into fleshing out their character will find their efforts otherwise well rewarded, with swordplay, magic, and alchemical enhancements that make combat infinitely more enjoyable than similar titles. CD Projekt RED has also done a fantastic job adapting a fairly complex set of inputs to the Xbox 360 controller: whether you’re casting spells, brewing potions, engaged in swordplay or navigating menus and dialogue trees, The Witcher 2 feels right at home on a console.
Not nearly as fortunate in the transition from PC to 7-year-old console is the game’s graphical engine, which has been trumpeted in promotional videos as having some of the best graphical work ever seen in a video game. Perhaps this was true when the game was released a year ago on PC, but you’d have a pretty difficult time arguing The Witcher 2 looks better than Skyrim, Crysis 2, or any of the other recent graphical powerhouses on Xbox 360 or PS3. To be fair, there are some standout environments here: forests are lush and breathtaking, with convincingly diffused lighting and flowers that beg to be sniffed; the town of Flotsam feels lived-in, dangerous, and murky. Unfortunately, these don’t make up for a game has fewer locations than the most recent Legend of Zelda…most of which have been draped in the same two shades of dusty grey and frontier brown.
At the end of the day, The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings has very little to offer console role-players that hasn’t been done before, and done better. But if you’re looking for something to fill the time between episodes of Game of Thrones, you could do worse. Just don’t blame me if you find yourself wishing you were back in Westeros sooner rather than later.