If you go down to the woods today you’ll be sure of a big surprise. Creep amongst the undergrowth or peek between the bracken and you may just glimpse someone picking daisies who you wouldn’t automatically pin as your traditional botanist. A huge mountain of a man, he fills his pockets with petals of this and cuttings of that.
A rustle in the bushes causes him to turn and pause. Out from the leaves steps a vast, purple monster, rearing up to hint that this might be his turf that the flower collector has wandered into.
He is no David Bellamy, however. This is Geralt of Rivia, Witcher. Calmly he unsheathes his silver sword and proceeds to go to work. Sorry, monsters.
Gathering supplies for potions and gadgets can be risky business in the lands of the Pontar valley. Such drinks and tools can save your life, but in a world populated with monstrosities, guerrilla elves, and an abundance of irked undead then it could also cost you.
Already it may appear to have all you need for a traditional fantasty RPG, but the world of our Witcher is atypical. Dwarves, trolls and elves all exist here, with the shorter ones working in mines, those with pointed ears living in trees and the others under bridges, but there’s more than a hint of political rumblings behind the scenes to add spice to the mix. The non-humans are oppressed, living in ghettos about the men who now control the lands. They live as servants and smiths, looked down upon and abused by the ruling humans.
This discontent has lead a band of Elves to become alleged terrorists, living out of the woods and attacking towns and villages in the name of freedom. As a result of their actions Geralt has been framed for a crime he did not commit, and so our tale begins with our Witcher in irons and on a course that will see him try to clear his name.
Throughout, CD Projekt paint a wonderful picture of the land as a whole. Though only broadly hinted at above, they flesh out the kingdoms, history and people that turn the towns upon the way into more than simple quest hubs. It’s there if you wish to explore it, through extra dialogue options, conversations in the street and books from vendors. Though almost expected nowadays in large scale RPGs, Witcher’s world is fleshed out to the point where it feels solid and not like an exhaustive attempt to out-lore its rivals.
Where this comes together nicely is through the questing, which brings the lore and the towns together. Apart from the main story quests, other trials and tasks can be picked up throughout your journey, and each will weave in and about one another. Bit part characters in one thread could become major players in another, and all feed together to provide rewards for others. With a passing resemblance to the original Deus Ex, in that you could achieve the same result multiple ways, the same is true here; although here it is the more questing you do, then the more trinkets you will be given to complete others. It may be all well and good to buy a certain ritual ingredient or beat the face of a dozen elves to possess a mystical spearhead, but chances are that picking up the right quest line will lead you to a more rewarding conclusion.
Even your conversational choices can influence them, too. There are no arbitrary cutscene thrown in with optional dialogue to make you feel involved. Large portions of adventure can open or close to you, affecting how other quests resolve also, as you smooth talk, intimidate or appease those you meet along the way. They range from the trivial, such as fighting a commander one-on-one or having his whole squad join in, to the more dramatic where a tortured soul is murdered and a quest line abruptly terminated should you insinuate falsehoods about him to others.
Each setting feels like a large scale dramatic cast production, like a fantasy East Enders. The whole town exists, lives and breathes, with acquaintances and rivalries coming out as Geralt ingratiates himself with the locals. Snippets of what could be throwaway dialogue hints at a life unseen by your eyes, but could easily name drop a character you met but a minute ago. A great deal of work has gone into making each location bustle and feel lived in.
Still, it’s not all socialising, and out in the world our Witcher earns his crust with his talents as a monster hunter. Local contracts to remove verminous Nekkers, slaying cathedral-sized reptiles or banishing a battlefield full of spectres, all keep our man supplied with a fine range of gardening gloves.
As with the nature of his work, the combat system is not for the feint hearted. Never before have I died so much in a game and yet never felt cheated. The mechanics superbly capture the essence of Gerlat’s task at hand; each monster must be treated with respect, for rushing in flailing a blade – no matter how silver – will get yourself killed. Patience is the key as groups must be managed and windows of opportunities looked for, striking in for a counter attack wherever possible. It’s very cat and mouse, and at times it’s hard to say which role you embody most.
Flexibility comes with addition of spells and gadgets. Blessed with magical talents, shield charms and fireballs can be conjured from this air. Similarly, his hunting talents bestow traps and explosives that can turn the tide, or even just buy time to regroup.
Flash yourself with a protective bubble before wading into a mass of the undead. One touches your shield, causing a shock wave to blast them back. With the extra space you wield your sword, downing two in the confusion before throwing an incendiary at a third, leaving it burning where it stands. Gadgets spent, you roll under the incoming attack of another, placing a magical trap as you move. It holds the final wraith in place allowing some good old cathartic wailing as you take it to task with your silver blade. It could easily go horribly wrong, but when it comes off you know you’ve done well.
Thankfully a freshly built interface allows such hot-swapping. Porting from PC and being full of options, it was always going to be a concern just how well one of Poland’s finest exports was to arrive on the home consoles, but it behaves admirably. Time slows when you pull up the radial menu mid-battle, your enemies moving as though in treacle behind it. A quick flick and you’ve retooled.
Though not quite on the same scale as a Skyrim, this sequel offers an inordinate amount of quality content. Each of the main areas that our merry band visit on their way to seek the truth can easily see you spend hours and hours taking contracts, fighting in tournaments and generally bringing the place to order. In a fashion it’s far more manageable than Bethesda’s epic, and benefits because of it. Connections can be made and communities invested in, both causing an investment beyond trying to level up just to upgrade your pyromancy.
Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings arrives as yet another entry in an impressive procession of console RPGs, each offering their subtle twists on a classic genre. Skyrim wowed us with its size and scope, with Amalur recently taking that and pulling back to a more combat driven experience. Witcher, taking its lead from neither, sits astride the pair. With a wonderful series of questlines, a world full of life and history, and a combat system that could have merrily survived as part of a separate action game, we may have saved the best to last.