In over 7 years of taking games apart to see what makes them tick, I’ve always had a problem with the titles I liked best: I’ve never found the right words to express that “something” which kept me awake at least 3-4 nights (on the first run). Same goes for The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, a game that not only aims for the moon, but for the sun and the stars as well, created by a Polish studio and inspired from a fantasy literature that didn’t even knew English until some 3 years ago; a title that sports a mature theme in a somewhat familiar fantasy universe (dwarfs, elves and humans hate each other, monsters threaten the world, the supreme evil always lurks around the corner) and a character far from the ideal hero depicted in similar RPGs.
Just like in the first Witcher, Geralt of Rivia has few of the “white knight” ideals. Actually, he’s part of a despised, but useful species: he’s a monster slayer, a mercenary-mutant enhanced with super powers, one that risks life and limbs for the right payday. And in the game imagined by CD Projekt RED, Geralt finds himself mixed in political intrigues, deciding the fate of a battle essential for the existence of Temeria.
After a series of unfortunate events ending in amnesia, Geralt can still kill monsters, and the beginning of this new adventure finds him helping king Foltest against a rebel uprising. Summoned while engaged in a very uncensored activity with his witch-lover Triss Merigold, Geralt is forced to go to battle; obviously, this whole rebellion crushing thingy cause isn’t really his own cause, but he’s not one to step on a promise. However, things go sideways fast and he ends up being accused of killing the same king he was hired to protect. Or at least this is what everybody thinks, so his main objective is to clear his name and find the real killer, dead or alive. But there’s a long way until then and every step matters more than you think, possibly changing the end for good.
You try to kill an important leader with a huge crossbow… whether you do it or not, the show goes on. But on what path? From this simple target hit (or miss) you get at least 3 different narrative directions, which in turn will go into all other directions depending on more choices and decisions. A simple fight to the death can put you face to face with Temeria’s mortal enemies… or with a tortured woman forced to declare a fake incest… or who knows, an old enemy that gets over his feelings to give you another chance.
A lot of things happen or not just because you go right not left and that’s exactly what keeps you up nights on end. And things aren’t at all simple, story wise: Geralt gets involved in political conflicts between powerful monarchs, mages with hidden agendas, dwarfs and elves that fight for freedom and equality, plus the ever present love and all the sexual encounters in full bloom. All this complex narration is one of the best things in the game, but also its weakness, since many enigmas remain like that because of a rushed ending, perhaps cut off to leave room for more DLCs and add-ons (it won’t be a first).
If you didn’t play the first title, you’ll get even more lost among kings, battles and probably won’t understand very well why Nilfgaard is hated by all the other kingdoms, why Redania and Temeria must not become allies or why the Kwaedani are the deadly enemies of the dwarfs. You have Geralt’s journal with the essential details, but the subtleties of the dialogues need you to have played the first game and, even better, having read the novels penned by Andrzej Sapkowski.
Beyond the story, the world of the game has nothing of an ideal place to live out your life. Of course, no RPG world is calm and at peace, otherwise we wouldn’t need saviors; but the characters around Geralt are just as real as they can be, with no pure angels or demons: drunkards, liars, assassins, lack of morality and unexpected betrayals, loyal friends and racism plague the neighborhoods, with utter poverty at one end and huge feasts at the other. And the faction leaders are just like present day politicians, except they don’t shy away from using assassins, poisons and magic to rid themselves of their adversaries.
Even so, the game never lets you forget that no matter how much of a prince, king or mage the NPCs may be, Geralt will decide. He’s well known and no beginner in terms of fighting. Belonging to a dying race makes him both wanted and feared, an impartial arbiter in conflicts, even if it happens between two kings or it’s a minor case of drugs sold by a crooked pharmacist. Geralt can threaten, save the damsel in distress or go for a quickie at the local brothel if he can afford it. No one judges him for cutting a throat, the reputation doesn’t go down and you don’t lose talent points. But the consequences are visible after an hour, five missions later or even in the final cinematic.