Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

    The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is one of my favorite video games of all time. I know I say that a lot but the quality of the story, graphics, characters, and setting adds up to something far greater than the sum of its parts. I know people might find me a bit hypocritical for this after bringing the game to task for its depiction of women but that doesn't mean the work as a whole isn't awesome. There are also far, far worse offenders in the handling of females than the Witcher series.

    The premise of the game is that Geralt of Rivia is presently serving as the bodyguard of King Foltest of Temeria. The ending of the previous game had Geralt save the monarch from an assassin who appeared to a Witcher himself. This is a premise which stretches credibility a bit since Witchers are supposed to remain apolitical but Geralt's willingness to involve himself in Temerian affairs can be explained away by his love for Foltest's adviser Triss.

    To talk about the rest of the plot runs the risk of spoilers. However, I will share the detail that a powerful Witcher named Letho is attempting to assassinate the Kings of the North. Geralt of Rivia, interested in the affair for reasons of his own, is attempting to stop him. At the very least, Letho's actions endanger all Witchers everywhere. The resulting story involves politics, dragons, betrayal, racism, and epic monster fights.

    The more you know about the Witcher series, the more you'll enjoy this game though newcomers to the franchise won't be lost. My wife, not a fan of video games, fell in love with the setting and spent many an hour just watching me game. The graphics are gorgeous and even the Xbox 360 version looks more like it was painted than designed. I can't say it has quite the same sweeping vistas as Skyrim but the individual characters are a treat to look at.

    The gameplay of the Witcher 2 is much simplified from the original one. You can wield your sword in one of two ways, hitting with hard but slow strikes or short but fast ones. You can supplement your character, Geralt, with powerful potions if you know combat is coming. You can also work a series of minor spells at the beginning of the game, which can become more powerful if you choose to enhance them. Like most RPGs, it works on a leveling system with the option to improve any of the above skills. Finally, Geralt has regenerating health.

    The Witcher 2's real heart, however, is in it's evocative setting. The Witcher world will come off to Americans as closer to the fantasy world of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire than J.R.R Tolkien though the game contains several hilarious digs at The Lord of the Rings. Morality isn't black and white with the game going to painstaking lengths to make sure that every group has a reason behind their actions.

    This culminates in one of the game's coolest features. The entire second act of the story completely changes depending on whether or not you wish to side between the human knights you've befriended or the elvish terrorists who have a semi-legitimate cause. Very few video games give such a divergent path structure and such serious consequences to your choices. This carries over into Act III where the fate of whole nations can be decided by Geralt's actions.

    I'm going to take a moment to also talk about the heart of what makes the story work, Geralt of Rivia. Fans of the Witcher novels need no further explanation as to why he's such a wonderful character to play but newcomers should know he's one of the best protagonists in video games. It's difficult to put into words why but he manages to invoke all of the charm and ruggedness of a Clint Eastwood character without falling into of the pitfalls that afflict characters who try to be tough. Geralt simply IS tough.

    Playing the role of a mercenary monster hunter is enough to win you badass credentials to begin with but he's a figure who also speaks truth to power. No matter what choices you make during the game, Geralt never 'breaks character' and always does his decisions in a way that feels true to the previous scenes. That's fantastic writing there. He's also a character who is funny as hell, often serving as the only rationale person in the setting. Nothing the other characters ever do is silly but they routinely are blinded by sexism, racism, or hatred to the point they can't serve their own interests.

    The other characters are also a source of tremendous amusement. My favorite is Dandelion, the womanizing bard and part-time spy. As Geralt's best friend and chronicler, he provides much of the commentary on the politics involved. Geralt doesn't care who sits on the thrones of men but Dandelion keeps us informed of the stakes. It's an odd but enjoyable friendship to have the toughest man in the world hanging around with a flamboyant dandy. I also enjoy Zoltan, who has the misfortune of being a capable and ambitious man born in a time when dwarves weren't allowed to be either.

    The game is a vast improvement over the original Witcher in terms of handling romances as well. While Geralt is still able to have optional sexual encounters other than his primary love interest (Triss Merigold), these are all relatively well developed. The only ones that are 'just sort of there' are an elven woman whose life you saved and prostitutes. It's a far better handling of the subject of sex than the seemingly two dozen or so women you could seduce in the original game.

    The female characters are also extremely well-developed with the Witcher 2 having some of the most memorable plot-important women in gaming. The fact there's more than one vitally important plot-moving female PC shouldn't be rare but it is and the game mostly avoids depriving its female characters of agency.

    There is, however, a couple of points that need to be brought up for gamers interested in the Witcher 2. The first is that the game pushes hard the Mature rating. It is one of the few games I have encountered to have topless female nudity. Likewise, this is not briefly shown but the focus of several scenes. There is no 'censored' version of option, you simply have to experience it if you're a prudish or shy sort. The second is the contains exceptionally harsh language and some scenes of strong violence.

    More or less, the kind of thing you'd see if The Witcher was a show on HBO.

    The game also features two gay characters and one potentially bisexual one. Unfortunately, the two gay characters are both villains while the bisexual one is morally gray at best. I wouldn't bring this up if not for the fact the option exists for both of these characters to suffer horrific injury as well. The scene for the gay male character involves the option to have him castrated, thankfully in retaliation for his murder of someone as opposed to a hate-crime against his sexuality. The game also contains an example of one of my personal pet peeve: Rape as Drama.

    I'll spare you a long lecture on the topic but rape is something I think which sinks the narrative cold. It's especially problematic when otherwise strong female characters have it somewhere in their background. In the Witcher 2, the female character knight Ves only manages to become a Blue Stripes Knight after spending weeks as the sex slave of an elvish terrorist. Later in the game, a important female character (whose name will go unmentioned) is raped by a major NPC.

    This is in no way condoned by the game or treated for titillation value. It's a repulsive crime done to someone that Geralt may have romantic feelings for at best and at least has positive feelings toward. Unfortunately, that's the real rub. The rape exists to get the player well and truly pissed off so they will be more inclined to stick the aforementioned Major NPC many times with a dagger. This was something I could have done without in an otherwise progressive game.

    If not for these elements, I would have given the game a perfect ten. Everything else blows its competitors away. Unfortunately, these are not small flaws to me and affected my enjoyment of the whole. I'm not a prude and I'm capable of appreciating horrible things happened to people in "realistic" settings. Still, the game showed a mild sense of homophobia (while using lesbianism for titillation) while also doing something with rape I felt was tired and overdone. I don't think the game should be considered garbage for these elements but buyers should be warned. It's an otherwise great game with astounding visuals, amazing characters, and fun game play.


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