Town Called Malice
An RPG's first town can almost always tell you everything you need to know about the game. That's certainly true here- the first quest hub of The Witcher 2, the sordid, secretive swamp town of Flotsam, is a showcase of everything you should play this game for.
First of all, it's a deeply ominous place. The Pontar river, which traps the village on one side, is the home of a monster that’s bigger than most final bosses. On the other side of Flotsam a forest of poison undergrowth and monumental trees is the home to colonies of imps (“Nekkers”), entire families of Smart car-sized spiders and, worst of all, the Scoia'tael- a guerrilla army of elves who want to live in peace, yes, but they'd also like to tear Flotsam apart. These are all great enemies.
Secondly, it's an interesting setting. The only reason the elves can't have their way is because Flotsam's cruel commander keeps a sizeable, unwieldy militia of grubby thugs. They keep Flotsam safe, but at what cost? “Good” and “evil” aren't words in The Witcher 2's vocabulary, and while the moral grey area the game keeps the player in leads to some tough decisions, these are endlessly refreshing moments.
Thirdly, I know I'm making Flotsam out to be the Hull or Slough of Fantasy RPGs, but it's actually a breathtakingly pretty place. Sure, it's a rotting, boozy pit full of racism, fear and injustice, but it also might be the most believable settlement a fantasy RPG has ever produced. This goes beyond the game's astonishing graphics - The Witcher 2's themes might often be ugly, but the backdrop behind them, the architecture of this world, its scenery, its quests and deeply nuanced characters, all of it showcases a level of artistry that drowns out the darkness. The game's world might be a miserable place, but you'll still want to live there.
Likewise, the character you control, Geralt of Rivia, might be as sad, damaged and haunted as a funfair ghost train, but you'll still want to be him. Geralt is a Witcher, which sounds effeminate but actually makes him one of the manliest beings around. Witchers are professional monster hunters that make their living going toe-to-talon with creatures that even the land's warriors might think of as forces of nature. Witchers are also mutants, making them stronger and faster than humans, but also infertile.
The “sex cards” that the original Witcher let you collect (you don't want to know) are gone for the sequel. You can still seduce plenty of characters, but there's less sex in general, in part because this game is only some 30 hours long, making it around half the size of the original, but also because it's just keener to make this game about Geralt.
While The Witcher 2 excels itself constantly in its world and character design, combat's a bit more hit and miss (pun not intended). The system is both sluggish, yet frantic as you control Geralt from a 3rd person perspective. Blows are delivered using one of his two-handed swords along with mouse-clicks for whichever spellcasting opportunities present themselves.
When this combat system works, it’s exhilarating. There’s an enormous amount of satisfaction to be gained from just barely surviving an onslaught through nothing more than your quick-thinking and foresight. But the balancing lets the game down. The first 10 hours of the game are amongst the most challenging, and the game becomes somewhat easy towards the end – a shame.
Any die-hard RPG fan should not be put off by this though. No other game comes close to the storytelling and characterisation of The Witcher 2 – rather than pandering to you as a player, the game treats you like an adult. If the likes of Oblivion or Dragon Age set your heart fluttering, The Witcher 2 will surely fight for attention on your game of the year list.
- Rich, dark world
- Fantastic characters
- Unparalleled visuals
- Imbalanced combat
- Confusing plot
- Demanding on a PC