The Witcher has come to the Xbox 360, and things are serious. Kings are being assassinated, you’re having sex with women, and every sorceress is hot and busty. Scandal! In Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (Warner Bros; $59.99), you play Geralt, a monster slayer who’s been through some things (check out that bite mark on his shoulder). He lives outside of society, and he is the typical badass stranger you’d find in any good western. This is no fairytale world; morality has little meaning here. You are always an enemy of some faction, and no one’s hands are clean. Humans and non-humans have both committed atrocities for what they want to believe is a noble cause, and you’re no different.
The complexity of the game is daunting, and I couldn’t tell if the game was treating me as an adult, or just being cruel. The combat can be brutal: you rely mostly on your swords and have some limited magic, but don’t expect any easy kills. Mashing buttons gets you dead. You need some strategy, you need to know your enemies and terrain, and you need to be patient. This is one of the ways the game keeps you on edge. No fight is certain.
The UI and map systems are somewhat baffling. The map will mark enemies and goals, but doesn’t take into account different heights or blockades, and the quest journal, while engagingly written, doesn’t do much to tell you where you need to go. The dialogue system is timed, so if you don’t make a choice, it will make one for you, and it sometimes gives you symbols in front of the choices, which it never fully explains. With experimentation and patience, the game will open up to you, but I reached points where I wanted to give up, because I couldn’t figure out how to get where I needed to go, or I would travel a long distance to be met with a locked door and no idea where to find the key. There is no fast travel system, and while the world is beautiful, detailed and alive with sound and color, going back and forth to fetch this, then talk to that person, then fetch this and talk to that person again just feels wasteful.
I want to love the game, but I can’t. I want to detest the game, but that is also impossible. What it does well, it does really well. The voice acting and living world are top notch. The themes and plot are mature and engaging, but then they’ll throw in something like the protagonist’s amnesia (someone find a new plot device!), or quick time events that seem to be a cutscene, yet only happen once in the whole game, or a fist fight that’s a completely different type of combat they never explained, and you have to groan.
It is a game worth playing, certainly, but it’s fickle, asking you to read its mind and guess what it means, or what it wants, or why it’s doing what it’s doing. These things seem minor at first, but they persist. If you are not a hardcore gamer, this is not a welcoming place to visit. If you’re looking for a challenge, tragedy and ambiguity, then, by all means, you owe it to yourself to check this out. Be patient. Just as every woman in this game will take her clothes off for you, the game will eventually bare itself if you invest enough patience and persistence. It’s got quite a rack on it, too.
Frag Dean is a podcaster on Silly Frags, available on iTunes, Sticher and sillyfrags.com.