Geralt’s back, and he’s Witcher than ever. Even more so than Edward VI’s Lord chancellor would have been if he couldn’t say the letter R properly. That would have made him Sir Witchard Witch, 1st Baron Witch, just in case you’re not going to spend time researching that exquisite historical joke properly. Wastrels, all of you.
If you don’t read a lot of Polish Fantasy, you might have missed the wildly successful books that the Witcher games are based on. If you missed the games as well, you probably have narcolepsy and therefore deserve all the pity you can get. The first was a smash hit by CD Projekt, a Polish company who cut their teeth translating classics like Planescape: Torment and Baldur’s Gate for their home audience, as well as making their own stuff. They clearly love their roleplaying games, and that love is made apparent in the sheer size, detail and number of fan-service boob shots in this excellent addition to their titles.
Geralt is a Witcher, i.e. a genetically enhanced killer of monsters, trained with blades, bombs and traps from an early age. But the monsters he fights to earn his keep are so ludicrously lethal that even with all that under his belt, he still has to neck down poisonous potions to give himself the edge he needs. The world he haunts is a dark and brutal medieval one. The muddy peasants are beset by scheming and uncaring rulers on one side, gibbering horrors from the woods on the other. If that wasn’t enough, there’s the simmering racial tension from the poorly-integrated dwarves and elves, and the freedom fighters of those races (the Scoi’atel, or Squirrels), to contend with as well. As sorceresses and lords plot the political fate of the lands, Geralt struggles to deal with his own love life, his broken memory and the fact that he’s just been framed for killing his pal King Foltest by a giant murderer with arms like sides of ham.
The game kicks off with Garrett being beaten up in a dungeon by some thuggish guards. Not sure why? Neither is he, entirely, he’s got RPG-Hero’s Disease, or Amnesia as modern doctors call it. As you learn the ropes through the recap/prologue/tutorial, you get to learn exactly how he ended up there, and then decide how he gets out. It’s a great and cinematic way in, and it shows off the game’s glossy graphics engine to full effect as you assault a walled town. Blazing arrows rain from above, armoured knights clank about smacking each other with sharpened steel and a lot of attractively naked women almost show you their bits. It’s violent, sexy stuff, not dissimilar to the Games of Thrones TV series in terms of content and approach to fantasy.
Sexy and violent though it is, however, it’s not a great tutorial by itself. There’s a separate tutorial section, a sort of brief prequel to the game, that takes you through that. It wasn’t available on the original launch, and this was one of the biggest criticisms leveled at the game back then. Because it’s not easy – Geralt is super-hard, super-fast and super-dangerous. But he’s all too human, and unless you’ve got a good handle on his many abilities, he can die of involuntary pointy steel insertion as easily as the next man. His potions, their brewing and consumption, are essential to get the hang of before you play. Without them, combat is exceptionally taxing. It’s fast, frenetic and not above throwing quick time events at you when you’re not expecting them. It’s amazingly realised, with pirouetting knights and exploding zombies agogo, but it’s also challenging. Poor timing can get you killed as easily as poor planning, especially in some very one-sided boss fights. You can expect a lot of repetition until you get practiced. Although to be frank, you can sometimes get by through button-mashing, which leads me to suspect the controls could use a little tidying. It’s a lot better than the original, though, which was far too hard to begin with.
But I didn’t mind this. The plot and presentation make up for any mild frustration at the combat difficulty. The level of detail and believability in this world is excellent. It’s got all the nooks and crannies and crafting that Skyrim has, but in a much dirtier, more realistic depiction of fantasy medieval life. You’re very much in the seamy underbelly of the world here. Drunks piss on walls outside the tavern. Ugly peasants shelter from the rain and call you a freakish bastard behind your back. Hookers and drug dealers trick or blackmail you into helping them. Helping them is usually what you’re trying to do, just to earn enough scratch to get by in life, but don’t expect gratitude with your measly coin pouch. The people who are supposed to be your friends are usually taking advantage of your amnesia to get your sword on their side without really telling you why. It all feels thoroughly believable, if dirtily so. There’s an amazing and enjoyable variety of characters to interact with, and they’re all as entertainingly foul-mouthed and filthy-minded as you’d expect from something whose predecessor involved a collectable set of cards representing all the people you could shag in-game.
The sex is still on, with plenty of fairly graphic cut scenes. Lovely if you like that kind of thing, which I absolutely don’t because my wife could walk in behind me at any moment. It’s restricted more to the main plot than it used to be, but I’m happy with that myself. Rather than womanising his way through every village he gets to, I prefer my Geralt to focus on his angsty past and kidnapped girlfriend. And in the meantime, he can go around aiding or preventing local crime as the mood takes me, desperately saving up enough coin through winning arm wrestles and bar fights in order to get the equipment he desperately needs to take on any of the monster quests. They pay better, but even a professional Witcher with a pack full of explosives will need a few upgrades, or at least good (and expensive) intelligence before trying to take on a pack of giant beetles.
I like this. It all feels gritty and dirty and realistic. It’s a struggle to get by financially as a Witcher, as we all know from personal experience. You need to think a bit about what you’re taking on and how to do it, rather than just grinding for loot. But it could be slow and a little over-tough to a more casual gamer. The size of the game makes pacing a slight issue, too – if you’re trapped in a town besieged by not just wraiths but invading kings too, do you really have time to fetch 88 harpy feathers for the crazy old man in the quarry? But you’re always rewarded if you do put the time in, with well-written quests and moral choices that genuinely make you wrestle. Even the harpy feather quest proves to be well worth it in the end. No easy good-v-bad stuff here, just lots of murk. Both sides in any argument are always well-justified, and you can really feel the consequences of your actions when people you like or sympathise with get it in the neck. And there is a huge amount of content, including two entirely different versions of act 2 depending on your earlier choices. Like the combat, it’s more focused than the original Witcher, though, and there’s much less trudging across the same three streets over and over.
The voice acting is excellent, especially the Scottish and Welsh accents featured on a lot of the characters. Good music too. The script’s a bit incoherent in places, although often very funny, and there are many poorly-introduced characters, people you are perhaps expected to know of from the books. The full extent of the politicking going on is probably only apparent to real fans. But the journal system is comprehensive and very entertainingly written – I’d recommend it to clear up any confusion, it’s sometimes easier to follow than the cut scenes. Geralt is a master of po-faced sarcasm, but despite his many primal ur-man moments remains intelligent and sympathetic throughout. The graphics are stunning, giving an indelible sense of place and time rarely matched in other similar games.
And best of all, the game’s makers have been slowly adding in new features since the launch. The tutorial I mentioned came with a free combat arena expansion. And this month sees the release of the Enhanced Edition, which all previous editions automatically upgrade to. It adds even more depth, quests and characters than ever before. This is a good game, and a good time to buy it. Get in there.