For a game centered on the actions of a mutant outcast, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is a remarkably normal experience that fits right in between Assassin’s Creed and Kingdoms of Amalur. The one key distinction is that unlike American developers, the Polish team at CD Projekt RED, working from source material by Andrzej Sapkowski, doesn’t censor out any of the violence or nudity from their medieval fantasy. Nor do they hold your hand, as in the Mass Effect series, where your choices are always clearly “good” or “bad”; there’s no morality meter here, and sometimes all your options suck. All the bitter political consequences and anti-heroic or tragically flawed characters make the game feel like a cross between Choose Your Own Adventure and Game of Thrones. (There are a rumored 16 possible endings, and though the differences between them are subtle, there’s a sense that your choices do matter.)
The game’s narrative picks up immediately with your character, Geralt of Rivia, being tortured in a Temarian prison and interrogated by the recently assassinated king’s right hand, Vernon Roche. You, it seems, are suspected of the murder, and the flashbacks that make up this prologue serve both to teach you the mechanics behind the often brutally difficult combat and to reveal your actual involvement in the plot. From there, you’ll meet old friends from The Witcher—your lover, Triss Merigold; the loyal dwarf, Zoltan; and the lovable lothario, Dandelion, the bard responsible for narrating your adventures—and a slew of new characters with questionable motives, from the mages Sile and Phillipa to the elven resistance fighter Iorveth. Or, that is, you’ll meet some of them: The game forks after the first of three acts, so while you’ll hear of rivals King Henselt and Lady Saskia (equal parts Holy Virgin, Joan of Arc, and dragon slayer), you’ll have to play through twice to get to know both.
As for the gameplay, it’s not unique, but it’s certainly robust enough to warrant a second playthrough (on the Dark difficulty, if you dare). Doing away with the three styles of the original Witcher, the game has drilled down to two main weapons: a steel sword (for humans) and a silver sword (for monsters). Vigor (i.e., stamina) is used to cast spells, defend yourself, or deal damage—which means you can’t efficiently do all three at once—and after a certain level, an adrenaline meter is added, which, when filled, allows for powerful finishing moves/abilities.
Battles are still fairly complex, though, in that rushing in blindly—particularly in the early game—will get you killed, even if you’ve done nothing but upgrade your Swordsmanship skills. (Each level-up gives you a “talent” to assign on one of the three main Witcher paths; the others are Magic and Alchemy.) Instead, you’re encouraged to prepare for battle by brewing potions, bombs, and traps from the various substances found along the way (monster components or roadside herbs), to coat your sword with oils of enhancement (or to solder on more permanent runes), and to fight at somewhat of a distance, reflecting arrows back at enemies with the Quen sign while you use the Axii sign to charm enemies into fighting one another. As enemies grow stronger and more armored, you’ll need to do more than alternate between swift and strong blows—which is to say, you’ll have to be strategic. This extends to improving your equipment, too: Money is perpetually tight, so learning to craft objects in towns instead of buying them outright is essential.
And here’s where The Witcher 2 gets a little frustrating. With an epic adventure on one’s plate (giant krakens, specter armies, monstrous dragons), who wants to spend so much time bogged down in uncomfortable micromanagement? Inns, where you can store/retrieve material, are never around when you need them; consequently, you’ll carry the bulk of your ingredients and materials around with you, which means you’ll often be going over your carrying capacity, as you can’t choose to discard loot (or even see what it is) before picking it up. Throw in a finicky camera that makes it difficult to select specific objects to interact with, and you’ll be spending much of your time scrolling through your decidedly uninteresting inventory. (Tabs help, but not much.) The crucial strategizing that the game all but requires is also sluggish and frustrating to navigate: A “meditation” submenu must be entered in order to brew potions (which always seem to want to use up your rarest components first, even when common substitutes will do), and then a second screen must be pulled up in order to ingest them. Considering that neither action can be done once battle begins, the game is truly rewarding only those who are psychic or who have already played through on a lower difficulty.
And yet, all these things inevitably feel like minor nits once you get embroiled in the story: Battles for succession, territory (the Pontar Valley), and influence (there are at least two secret cabals, both working with and against one another, depending on the day) keep the stakes high and the player on their toes. The easiest decision in the game probably revolves around your condoning one man’s murder of a bragging rapist—and that’s most likely the wrong choice. Black and white are nonexistent: One side quest has you investigating which of two nobles is behind an attempt on the lives of the king’s bastard children, and the answer may be neither, either, or both. Just stay away from the mini-games: Whether they’re too easy (quicktime-event fist fighting), too random (Yahtzee-like dice poker), or too tedious (analog stick-tweaking arm wrestling), they’re too annoying to fit with all the serious questing.
The Witcher 2 is great game and a great sequel, one that’s made a terrific (and long overdue) transfer onto a console. But some poor developmental choices mean that it’s not always a fun game, or an unblemished sequel, and despite all the highs of the story, the ending plays an unresolved and thereby unsatisfying final note. In other words: The Witcher 2 uses a compelling story and adequate gameplay to cast a potent spell on the player, but after tens of hours spent in the Northern Kingdoms, the final effect is oddly disenchanting.