A Tale of 2 Witchers 2

WTF is The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings?

Witcher 2 is a gory, gory single player RPG in which you take on the title role of Geralt the witcher. It’s more fun if I just call him Witcher.

Witcher lost his memory before the first game, so, much like I, he is confused about what’s going on. He lives in one of several war-like northern kingdoms, where he is temporarily in the service of King Foltest. Witcher and his awesome sorceress girlfriend, Triss, want to leave Foltest behind and go have (sex) adventures by themselves, and Foltest agrees to release them after One Last Job. Which means he immediately dies.

Witcher is framed for Foltest’s murder, and the only person who believes his innocence besides his friends is the head of Foltest’s special forces, Vernon Roche. Roche helps Witcher escape from prison and they follow Foltest’s assassin to the town of Flotsam, where we learn about the story’s themes. The town is mostly made up of humans, and non-humans, like elves and dwarves, have second-class status because everyone is really racist. The most racist person of all is Commandant Loredo, who is also corrupt and on coke – I’m not making this up.

Lordeo represents everything that’s wrong with the system in the northern kingdoms, and there’s no question that Witcher’s going to oppose that – the question is only how he’s going to oppose it.

If you choose to fight the system from the inside, Witcher spends the rest of the game working with the special forces and dealing with the internal politics of the northern kingdoms. If you choose to fight the system from the outside, Witcher becomes an outlaw and spends the rest of the game with rebels who are violently revolting against the state. There’s some mirroring between the story lines, and they converge on the same point in the final chapter, but the experience is totally different depending on which group of allies you choose, and you’re faced with different quests, characters and decisions from that point on.

Comparison of the two story lines (for that is the heart of Witcher)

Story One: Fight the system from the inside

What’s the mood like? Grim and nihilistic. Everything’s going to hell, and the best you can do is try to sneak in little victories around the edges.

Who’s your buddy? Vernon Roche, commander of Foltest’s special forces. Roche is a loveable grouch for most of the game and then a violent, repulsive homophobe right at the end. More on that in a second. You get to know him pretty well, and you fight side by side with him on many missions. His sidekick, Ves, tells us that he hates the insult “whoreson” because his mother was actually a prostitute – but then he uses that insult himself over and over again.

Which leader’s interests temporarily align with yours? King Henselt of Kaedwen. He’s trying to crush a rebel uprising in Upper Aedirn and take the lands for himself. Several years ago, he led a battle on the same ground and was forced to retreat after the sorceress he was working with got mad at him and threw fire balls into the battlefield. He is a murderer and a rapist and you have the option to kill him later on.

How do you help the leader? Henselt sentenced the sorceress to die in the most horrible way possible, and she put a curse on him with her last breath. You help Henselt break the curse so that he’ll give Witcher the items he needs to fight some ghosts and get his memory back.

What’s the heart of the story? Every army is made up of regular people with the same range of personalities, hopes, fears, values and beliefs as anybody else. At the micro level, it’s not about ideals – it’s about people trying to survive as best they can in an imperfect world. There is a certain kind of courage and tragedy involved in being the pawns who serve kings.

Who’s the treacherous homosexual who screws up all your plans? Henselt’s sorcerer, Dethmold. Dethmold is actually not revealed to be homosexual until one of the very last scenes, in which his homosexuality is obviously intended as a way to emasculate him at the moment of his death. Much like the soft-core-porn-as-reward scenes in the game, Dethmold’s death seems to be intended as a gift for players who choose to complete the story quests leading up to it, and, for some reason, someone seemed to think it would be all the sweeter if Dethmold turned out to be gay and Vernon Roche cut his balls off as soon as he found out. In case you are confused, THIS IS THE WORST PART OF THE GAME.

What’s the supernatural detective quest? Find out if a ghost or a human is lying.

How many women, besides Triss, can you have sex with? A lot! There’s a whore house in Henselt’s camp, and you can also have sex with the only female member of the special forces, Ves. The latter is your reward for completing an optional side quest where you enter a tournament and fight a bunch of foes. The last person you fight is Ves and you can choose to either beat her in a fair fight or let her win – there is no option where she wins for real.

If you let her win, she gets mad at you because you didn’t take her seriously. If you beat her in a fair fight, she wants to bone, and, if you accept, you are treated to the same generic soft-core porn scene that you’d get with a prostitute. Then, both of you forget it ever happened and it has no effect on the story or your relationship or either of the characters after.

Also, Ves goes on a mission with you in the first chapter where her part of the mission is to pretend to be a prostitute and get tied up so you can save her! Later, she gets raped and she wants to go after the rapist, but Roche is like, “No, Ves, stay here” and then he avenges her honour for her because that’s what men do.

If you’re looking for the worst female character in the game, you may find her in Ves.

How many men, including Witcher, do you get to see naked or have sex with or even flirt with a little? None!

And the general attitude toward gender and sex? Men keep calling women whores. Like, they won’t STFU about it. And, if you go on an insanely hard mission where you have to protect one of Roche’s female CIs, you get to hear some guy yell “Kill the whore!” over and over again, every time you fail and reload.

The game also really, really wants you to know that all the guys are straight. Except for Dethmold. Because he’s evil. All the other guys are straight, and they tell you how much they like having heterosexual intercourse with women, even if you never ask. They call it ploughing, which is kind of funny, but they doth protest too much.

The best part? Being friends with Vernon Roche, up until the time he casually commits a hate crime. He’s such a funny, grumpy, hapless little spy until then.

The worst part? When Roche commits a hate crime WTF.

Story Two: Fight the system from the outside

What’s the mood like? Hope tempered with sorrow. It’s not inevitable that the world’s going to hell; it’s because people are choosing to wreck something that could be great and beautiful.

Who’s your buddy? Iorveth, leader of a band of elven outlaws. At first, it sounds like, if you go with Iorveth, you’re going to have to live in a tree or something, but he actually takes you to another city to join up with a less homogenous band of rebels fighting for an independent state. He goes off on his own a lot, and you don’t get to know him that well, but he helps you out a couple of times. He calls Witcher “Gwynbleidd” which is kind of a cool nickname.

Which leader’s interests temporarily align with yours? Saskia, leader of the uprising in Verden. She’s accomplished the seemingly-impossible task of uniting people across class and race barriers to fight for a free and equal society. She’s brave and strong and good at making inspirational speeches. At first, it seems weird that she seems to have values and ideas completely divorced from the culture she grew up in, but then it turns out there’s a really good reason for that.

How do you help the leader? Saskia is poisoned by one of her followers shortly after Witcher arrives. You help to find an antidote for the poison because that’s the right thing to do, but also because no one will let you fight the ghosts until that’s done.

What’s the heart of the story? People can come together and fight for a better future. When you place your trust in others, you are sometimes betrayed, but often rewarded, and there’s a transformative power in simple things like friendship and loyalty.

Who’s the treacherous homosexual who screws up all your plans? Saskia’s sorceress, Philippa Eilhart. Philippa’s homosexuality initially seems to be intended as one of the soft-core porn rewards in the game, and something to titillate players. Witcher walks in on her doing a BDSM scene with her female partner and he smirks like that’s both amusing and sexy. Later on, though, it turns out that Philippa put a spell on Saskia, and she did it specifically by adding a step where she kisses Saskia on the lips, which makes the whole thing feel uncomfortable – just much less uncomfortable than the stuff with Dethmold because OH MY GOD.

What’s the supernatural detective quest? Find out if a succubus or a human is lying.

How many women, besides Triss, can you have sex with? A few! You can get it on with the succubus from the supernatural quest, some random elf who’s happy that you saved her from burning alive, and Philippa’s BDSM partner. Generic soft-core porn scenes all.

How many men, including Witcher, do you get to see naked or have sex with or even flirt with a little? None!

And the general attitude toward gender and sex? Better than the other story line, but weird. People keep calling Saskia “The Virgin of Aerdirn” and, while I get the Joan of Arc reference, whether or not she’s a virgin has nothing to do with anything. Also, while Henselt is alive and well while Witcher breaks his curse, Saskia is sidelined and unable to command her army while Witcher’s finding an antidote for the poison. After there’s a spell on her, she’s similarly helpless and waiting for someone to save her.

Philippa’s a pretty fucking bad-ass villain – and I love her – but the game’s insistence on leering at her sexuality is uncomfortable and strange. Everyone else in this story line is still super!straight, but it’s not wrapped in as much misogyny.

The best part? Defending the walls of Vergen and zapping enemy soldiers so that they fly to their deaths yelling “Aaaaaah!”

The worst part? When I accidentally had sex with some woman because I was trying to move the story along.

Verdict on the story

Either way you play, the story is detailed, involved, emotional, morally-complex and interesting. Players are forced to make hard choices and live with the outcomes – there’s no way to get a “good ending” where you save everyone. There are pros and cons to anything you do – just like in real life. The “best” ending will depend on your values and what you think is the lesser evil.

Witcher’s relationship with Triss is based on respect and good boundaries, and one of my favourite scenes is where he tells someone that he and Triss each have their own friends and he doesn’t actually keep a running list of whom she’s talked to. Even though rescuing her from kidnappers is added to Witcher’s list of quests pretty early, there’s a real sense that they are separate people with their own lives and agendas – that they happen to like each other, but their lives don’t revolve around that. There is, of course, a scene were you watch them have sex – I mean, can you imagine a version of this game where you didn’t watch them have sex? – but it’s also the only story-relevant sex scene in the game, since it shows us that their relationship is like a beautiful oasis that suddenly appears in the forest full of monsters that is their lives. Metaphors.

Iorveth, Roche, Saskia and Philippa are also interesting characters who really flesh out the game and make it feel personal and meaningful – maybe Iorveth less than the others. These are people you want to spend time with and get to know. Until they commit a hate crime.

Speaking of which – I could have done without the homophobia or weirdness about women. The strange part is that Witcher is a pretty tolerant character and doesn’t, himself, espouse any negative ideas about women or gay people – yet, for some reason, the people who designed this game don’t seem to be as open-minded.

So, the story is ambitious and complex and interesting but it could have been a little more socially aware. Like, all they had to do was imagine for five seconds that a woman or a gay man was going to play this game and think, “Would this be really hostile to our players and make them feel unwelcome or insulted?” That’s seriously it.

Verdict on the gameplay

This is mostly hack and slash, with a few other components.

The combat system in Witcher 2 is both hard to learn and hard to master. When the game starts, you’re quickly introduced to five different spells, two swords, two sword attacks, ranged weapons including bombs and knives, potions, traps, two ways of blocking an attack, and one way to dodge. Then you’re thrown into an arena like, “Fuck it, let’s see how you do.”

I did poorly.

The combat system is flexible enough to let you fight the way you want to, but it takes some getting used to before you can remember WTF button to press to do what you’re trying to do. And, in the meantime, you’ll probably be horribly killed, because the difficulty level is kind of uneven. The second hardest fight in the entire game takes place midway through the first chapter.

To its credit, the game lets you change your overall difficulty level on the fly, so if you’re struggling at first, you can start on easy and move up to normal or hard once you get the hang of it. Even on easy, though, this game would be a nightmare for anyone who hasn’t played an RPG before. At the start, I accidentally undressed Witcher whenever I opened the inventory, and I didn’t understand what I was picking up when I looted things, or whether I was supposed to be doing a stealth mission, or whether I was supposed to rely on the auto-save, or basically anything that was going on. I fought my way through a dungeon naked and unarmed, using only my fists and the one spell my spell wheel was stuck on.

The inventory system is really fidgety, both in terms of using your inventory and figuring out what kind of equipment you want to buy and which upgrades you should do. Fidgety inventory systems are one of my least favourite parts of RPGs, so I sighed a little when I realized that there were a zillion different kinds of swords you could have and a frillion different upgrades you could apply to your armour, but I was able to finish the game with only a medium level of investment in that process.

The game’s also buggy in places. My overall enjoyment was high – don’t get me wrong – but I noticed that things didn’t always work right, and I had to turn to the internet more than once to find out WTF was going on. Sometimes the in-game instructions for what to do were flat-out wrong. Often, they were misleading or confusing. I once hit a bug where everything turned upside down and I had to reload and replay half an hour. It also seems that the accepted strategy for fighting some of the monsters is to doge and hope the monster gets stuck in the scenery.

I had enemies silently spawn into empty rooms and stand there without moving or reacting while I killed them, or attack me without any noise or reaction from Witcher. I was temporarily frozen in place if I held the guard key down while doing a special attack. People walked through objects in the environments sometimes. Sometimes the yellow guide arrow that’s supposed to show you where to go wouldn’t show up on my map. Sometimes dialogue options that shouldn’t have been there came back. Sometimes they duplicated themselves, so the same option appeared two or three times on the same screen… and so on.

My overall impression was that the game design was more complex than the programming could actually handle. Some things seemed like they might be translation mistakes, but other things seemed like they were oversights or artefacts of having too many possibilities, or too many overlapping quests open at once.

Will I play Witcher 3?

Yeah, for sure.

Despite the bugginess and some off-putting scenes, this was 85% a really fun game with interesting characters and complex choices that felt important. Plus, blasting people off the wall while they go “Aaaaaaah!”

I notice that there have already been several patches and updates to Witcher 3, though, and I realize that my experience of Wticher 2 may have been enhanced by getting the “final” version rather than the one that was originally released, so I might wait a while to pick this up.

Image: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings; CD Projekt | August 15, 2015