Thursday, November 26, 2015

Revisiting The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

What is a Witcher? With the roaring success of this year’s medieval fantasy The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, most gamers know all about Geralt of Rivia and his flair for demon hunting, but it wasn’t too long ago that we were asking ourselves this question. In 2011, Polish video game developers CD Projekt RED released their first crack at a console game, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. Assassins of Kings took a relatively unknown story from a relatively unplayed PC game (simply titled, The Witcher) and ran with it. Obviously, CD Projekt RED had a lot of narrative gaps to fill in for their rapidly growing fanbase.

Acclimatizing the Pontar Valley’s sudden influx of Xbox 360 gamers to The Witcher 2‘s environment was no easy task but CD Projekt RED delivered. With the help of gorgeous cinematics (my favourite, an introductory one titled “What is a Witcher?”), a detailed inventory menu, and the expansive journal entries favoured by the best lore-heavy RPGS, Projekt RED rendered playing The Witcher 1 almost entirely unnecessary. For newcomers looking to immerse themselves in The Witcher 3’s award-winning open world, however, Witcher 2 is a crucial starting point –  not just for the backstory it offers but also because it’s a really phenomenal game in its own right.

For the new crowd (or for those who missed Justin's review of Wild Hunt), it turns out a “Witcher” is a genetically-enhanced demon hunter with super powers. Our Witcher specifically is Geralt of Rivia, a white-haired, yellow-eyed swordsman with attitude.The game begins in medias res, following quickly on the vaguely-implied heels of The Witcher 1, instantly drawing the player into Geralt’s primary objective: to clear his name of a king’s murder. Based on the player’s choice, this goal can take a back seat in favour of other potentially more pressing matters including the abduction of Geralt’s girlfriend, the poisoning of an influential political figure, or an invasion of disgruntled ghost soldiers. The various side quests are equally engrossing and diverse and remarkably free of the tiresome grinding quests that clog up other comparable RPGs.

The heart of the game (and, truthfully, the entire series) is its powerful and engrossing story based on a series of novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. In Sapkowski’s hands, the fantasy genre is transformed into something gritty and adult, boldly inverting traditional fantasy tropes and creating a world, at once so familiar and yet so changed from the standard cannon of Tolkien, Follet, or Rowling. Emblematic of this change are The Witcher 2‘s elves who are still renowned for their ethereal beauty but are also violent, displaced terrorists, led by the mercurial Iorveth in a bitter race war with humans. Characters drink, swear, and copulate indiscriminately and do so in explicit cut scenes that make no apologies – and neither does Geralt. Deviating from most best-selling fantasy games, The Witcher 2 has no morality meter, forcing the player to navigate murky situations with cunning instead of blindly groping for a “right” or “wrong” answer. True to real life, the characters are flawed, the politicians are scheming, and the player will inevitably leave someone displeased by the end of the story. Even love is no longer sacred: not only is Geralt openly questing to save two different lovers, but he also has the opportunity to take an unseemly number of romantic detours throughout his journey.

If you’ve only played The Witcher 3, one of the key differences between the two games is that The Witcher 2’s world feels a lot smaller. While Wild Hunt is one of the best examples of an open world RPG to date, Assassins of Kings uses a chapter system resulting in three separate open world “levels,” so to speak, that the player cannot return to after the section is completed. Finishing all sidequests in a chapter before moving on is therefore essential. Although the game hurtles on in a one-way fashion, it has ample replay value; depending on the player’s choices, entire chapters can be completely different and well worth investing the effort to replay. Another key difference is the content: Wild Hunt focuses much more on the supernatural and Geralt’s relationship with the titular alien skeleton horsemen he comes up against. Assassins of Kings deals primarily with the politics with of the Pontar Valley and Geralt’s profession as a Witcher is relegated to an interesting sidebar.

Revisiting The Witcher 2, I couldn’t help but remember how frustrated the ending left me. At the time, a third game was only an unsubstantiated rumour floating around the internet. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings steadily builds tension, intricately weaving together its various plot lines into the beginnings of a rich tapestry, withholding information as it goes and leaving the player to marvel at how its impressively complex story will resolve –  and then? It stops. Abruptly. Geralt meets his nemesis at long last and the man he’s been chasing succinctly concludes every plot line in three text screens or less with baffling congeniality. Furthermore – and, you know, spoiler alert – the option to let the villain walk away crops up during this exchange and it’s no ruse; you really can just part ways and be done with it in what might be the most anticlimactic endgame scenario ever. Very little closure is offered on the fates of some secondary or minor characters Geralt met, even in the concluding cutscene, and the overall impression is that CD Projekt RED deliberately left these ends loose with the intention of expanding on them in The Witcher 3. Don’t get me wrong; I loved The Witcher 3, but the thematic shift from political intrigue to “Witching” proper left a few of these loose ends still floating in the breeze.

Nonetheless, whether you’re looking to start a new series or, like me, simply stuck in last gen console limbo, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is essential playing for any gamer. The gameplay mechanics are brilliant, but it’s the story that really shines and leaves me still, against all odds, crossing my fingers for a Iorveth spin-off.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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