Disclaimer: I'm gonna compare the game to Dark Souls throughout the entire review because I set Dark Souls as the standard by which all similar games should be compared to, because its combat is masterfully designed and I haven't seen any other games with similar combat come close to the quality of Dark Souls'. A lot of the design principles behind Dark Souls' combat can be applied to similar games, even when their combat is different. Also, when I say "Dark Souls", I'm talking about all the Souls games in general, including Bloodborne.
Anger is sometimes the greatest motivator, for it is anger the reason why this review exists. Don't get me wrong: I love the game. I wouldn't have written this if I didn't. But there is one particular section in the game that profoundly disappointed me (which I'll talk about later), and forced me to analyze Witcher 2's combat system through a more analytical lens.
As I see it, gameplay is the most important element of a game. Sure, there are some exceptions, but this game isn't one of them. And what lies at the heart of the gameplay of most games? The combat. Every other gameplay element is there merely to complement it. This is what I'll focus on in this review.
Before I get to the combat, let's get everything else out of the way. I'll cover the other game elements as briefly as I can.
For someone who is not usually interested in large scale political stories, this one was fairly engaging. The motives and objectives were clear. You feel that the story is progressing as you play the game, not only in main quests but in side quests. The world feels alive, constantly moving, which is something I haven't noticed in other RPG's such as Skyrim.
I can't talk much about the degree of choice the player has on the story, because I only played the game once. It did seem like the game gave you a lot of opportunities to shape your own path in the story, but you know how games often trick you into thinking that, so I really can't be sure. I suggest reading other reviews if you're interested in player choice in the story.
One thing I found really neat is how the quests are connected. What you do in one quests affects the outcome of others, even side quests. I heard a lot of praise given towards Witcher 3's quests, so I suppose they have only improved the quest system since Witcher 2. It's a shame that there isn't more quests in the game. Yeah, I think that they could have added a bit more side quests in there. I don't think I missed many.
Oh, I almost forgot. The dice mini-game is horrendous. It is 100% luck-based, boring, and tedious. Just avoid all quests related to it, it’s not worth your time.
The game is divided into a prologue and three acts, so you could call the game "semi-open world". You can't move physically between acts except for when you complete the final main quest of the current act, which propels you to the next one. Each act has its own open area and quests. I'm not really sure if the game would have benefited from being true open world. Yeah, nowadays, every RPG is open world. It's clear what the benefits of an open world game are, but what about the benefits of a semi-open one? Well, let's brainstorm a bit:
- It complements the story, in the sense that you're always moving forward and can't come back
- It makes you feel like time is actually moving in the world
- Your choices have more weight, because once you decided to go through the final main quest of an act, there's no going back, so you have to think more about what you could do where you currently are before moving forward.
Having said all this, would I have still preferred a true open world Witcher 2? Yeah, I think so, lol. Still, it doesn't retract from the experience significantly.
It looks spectacular for a 2011 game, and still holds up today. They could have eased up on the post process effects, though. Sometimes I couldn't even see the character's faces or my environment clearly, because of all the unnecessary effects that they added to the screen.
The game has plenty of bugs. It crashed on me lots of times. I had to load an old save once because the game didn't let me leave the inn I was in. I also came across plenty of minor bugs that I can't remember now. In terms of performance, I noticed frame drops every time there was fire on the screen, but I won't be too hard on the game for that because I don't really have the best video card in the world (GTX 660 Ti). I will talk more about technical flaws in the combat section.
I liked a lot how this game handled character progression. I played the game on Dark difficulty. I was so weak and ineffective at the start. I had to resort to cheap tricks just to get through the combat areas. I feared that's how it was going to be until the end. But after I leveled up a bit, improved my gear, and got used to the combat, I began to have a lot of fun. You can choose to base your character's build on one of three skill trees: Magic, Alchemy, and Swordsmanship. You can also play a balanced build, of course. You have many different ways of getting stronger, like:
- Getting/Crafting better gear, or gear that will be more suited to your build.
- Gaining skills by leveling up
- Improving those skills by applying mutagens
- Enhancing your armor/swords with various runes/enhancements.
- Crafting and drinking potions
- Getting and using traps/throwables
How you will do these things will depend on how you want your character to be. In my case, I tried to be as hardy as possible at the beginning, because I was getting one-shotted left and right. I increased my Vitality through various ways, and I relied heavily on the Quen sign. After I got used to the combat, I shifted my focus towards Signs, and that's how my character ended up: A super powerful mage steamrolling everyone. No, really, I recommend being a Mage in this game. Using all the signs in their most powerful state, in conjunction with your sword is the most fun you could have in this game, from my perspective.
Overall, the character progression in the game is addictive, satisfying and very customizable, but flawed, as I’ll explain later.
Simply put, the combat is deeply satisfying and hectic, but ONLY when you level up enough, and when the combat works as intended, which it doesn't sometimes.
You know, when you start playing Dark Souls for the first time, you have the capacity to make the combat be the incredibly amazing experience it was intended to be, from the very get-go. You have everything you need from the very start: Rolling, and a sword. That's all you need to experience the combat as it was designed, and it doesn't even get much different from there. There's no need to cheese or exploit the AI at all. The only limit was your own capacity to learn, from the very moment you start the game.
This is not the case regarding The Witcher 2. Unless you're playing at an easy difficulty, you'll have to cheese the hell out of your first battles in the game. You'll have to drag them out. You'll have to exploit the AI by baiting one soldier at a time. The combat basically becomes a chore with no fault to the player at all. No, it's simply bad design.
And I've seen this in other RPG's too. You start out as a completely underpowered character, but the AI and the combat system is built for a fairly leveled version of your character, so the combat feels bare bones, very limited, and you have no choice but to cheese the fights by casting Quen, baiting enemies, hitting them one time, retreat, and repeat. That's basically your only choice when you're under-leveled and playing on a high difficulty.
You might be thinking, "Well, of course it's like that! It's an RPG! You're supposed to be weak at the start and get stronger as you progress through the game". Absolutely, I agree. That is probably the foundation of an RPG game, but this is not the issue. You see, there is a way to make the full experience of the combat system available from the very beginning of a game, even if you start out weak. There is NO excuse for a game designer to not design the combat this way. You just have to look at Dark Souls for this, as I just described before. You can fight through everything in the early part of the game very easily with just the starting gear, if you know what you're doing. Dark Souls succeeds at handing over the full experience of the combat to the player since the very beginning, while being considered an EXTREMELY HARD game by most people. Do you see where I'm going with this? Me playing The Witcher 2 at Dark difficulty does not excuse the fact that I had to cheese all the fights at the start of the game. And believe me, I had to. I was getting one-shotted by mob monsters. It would be perfectly fine if I had a way to dodge all of their attacks, but you can't. You can still get hit while rolling, and unleveled rolling is pretty bad. When you try to strike one enemy, the others will attack you, and you can't do anything about it sometimes because the game will randomly decide what sword swing animation to use. Some take really long to be executed, which leaves you very vulnerable, and some don't (I'll talk about action consistency later).
This could have been fixed if the game simply provided you with more skills that should have been there by default. For example, "Whirl" (Description: “Can now cause damage to multiple enemies”) should be activated in the game from the start. Why do you have to unlock a skill in order to do something that you're already doing? When you swing your sword, you can already hit multiple enemies at once, the only difference is that only one takes damage. It cheapens the realism of the combat by imposing an artificial limitation into the game. It isn't a "skill", Geralt does nothing different. It's just that the game begins to work as it should after you unlock it. It's like having to unlock a skill in Battlefield for your grenades to be able to kill more than one enemy at once. It wouldn't make any sense at all. You either hit people or you don't. In order for a game to be cohesive, it has to bridge the gap between what actually happens on the screen and how it registers hits, and by having that "Whirl" skill in the game, the developers are actively expanding that gap. There are many more skills like this.
Despite this, when you leveled up enough, the combat is truly awesome. You'll be: dodging attacks, parrying attacks, trying to get that juicy backstab, combining signs and sword play, planning out your battles by drinking potions before combat, setting traps to get an advantage, chaining sword combos through beautiful animations, thinking of who to attack first, and much more. The combat is dynamic and you get a good degree of freedom to approach it in your own style. Killing a whole group of enemies in 30 seconds after you leveled up or upgraded your gear feels really, really good.
I think what elevated the combat from being "good" to "great" are the signs. They add variety to the combat in a way that sword-only combat couldn't provide, and an opportunity to come up with different strategies. You get five signs, each serving a specific purpose. I found all of them to be useful, which is a great achievement for a game. I've seen very few games where they provide you with these kind of options, and they turn out to be balanced. No, one or two often completely overpowers the rest. Not in this game. You can find a good use for every one of these signs throughout the whole game. And man, they're fun to use. Throwing enemies off a ledge with the Aard sign might be the most hilarious moments I've experienced in the game.
The Witcher series’ spin on character buffing is somewhat unprecedented, at least in my own gaming history. There are potions and blade oils you can apply to you and your swords, respectively. You get them by crafting them or looting them. The twist is that the game doesn't let you get buffed in the middle of combat. You can only drink potions outside of combat, and on top of that, you are very limited in how much substances you can have on your system at any given time. You can lessen the effect of these limitations by leveling up the Alchemy tree. Either way, what these limitations do is prevent what players often do in games like Skyrim or Fallout when they’re about to die in a tough section: They drink and eat whatever they have to get healed and buffed, seconds before they get their final blow. Can’t do that on The Witcher. This teaches you that there are consequences for being rash and careless, and it forces you to think and prepare before going into fights, and to pay more attention while fighting. I appreciate the game for doing this, because having the ability to immediately stop the flow of time whenever you want and heal in the middle of battle crushes immersion, the flow of gameplay and the sense of realism and challenge. Dark Souls solves this problem in a slightly different way: Healing leaves you extremely vulnerable for a long time, and you literally can’t pause the game.
For the sake of being brief but effective, I’m gonna list all the flaws I observed with the execution and design of the combat that I haven’t covered yet:
- [REALLY, REALLY ANNOYING BUG] Can't cast signs for like 5 seconds after rolling sometimes
- You get stuck on things you shouldn’t get stuck on while fighting, to the point where it leads you to your death sometimes. This is a collision problem.
- Soldiers will block your attacks when it would be physically impossible to do so. Sometimes their animations will change in an instant to mislead you. Sometimes soldiers with shields will block your attacks, even if you attacked from behind.
- It's silly how when you're not supposed to backstab, soldiers will turn to face you 100% of the time, even when falling. Really kills the immersion, to the point where it feels like an unfinished game.
- The game completely disorients you after you do a finisher animation. It will often lead to your death. There are times where you don't even get a chance to survive, because the other enemies will hit you instantly after the animation is finished. Also, as the witcher is taking his sweet time performing a finishing move, the other enemies will damage the person you have to protect (if you have one) and sometimes kill them, and there's nothing you can do about it. YOU EVEN TAKE DAMAGE WHILE THE ANIMATION IS PLAYING.
- You get attacked after a cutscene ends, before you can even do or react to anything. Sometimes you even have to unsheathe your sword after the cutscene ends, which will result in getting hit through no fault of your own.
- NPC's you have to bodyguard die too quickly and are EXTREMELY STUPID. They have an utter lack of self-preservation. They will enthusiastically go and try to take down 5 enemies at once with a tiny toothpick dagger and no shield, before they die 8 seconds later. They also have just TOO low HP.
- Some enemies are invincible, just because you’re supposed to kill them last. The game doesn’t tell you this, you find that out after you deplete their HP…
Did I hammer in the point of the game not being polished, yet? I hope so. Simply put, the game has a lot of flaws, but when it works as intended, it’s significantly enjoyable.
I will now write about my thoughts on some principles on how to design a good combat system in an Action RPG, which are derived from Dark Souls. Before I begin, I want to make clear the caveat that these principles don’t necessarily need to be in a combat system in order for it to be great, but I’m fairly sure that if you apply them in your game correctly, the likelihood of it resulting in a satisfying, consistent, cohesive, unforgettable and rewarding combat system will skyrocket. These principles are also non-specific, which means you get a lot of room for variety. Your take on it might differ extensively from Dark Souls’ take:
- Give ABSOLUTE, FULL control to the player. The player has to feel in direct control of every movement the character makes, every sword stroke, every attack, and every dodge. The character has to feel like an extension to the player's body.
- Make every action 100% predictable. This means that the player has to know EXACTLY what the character will do after the press of a button, BEFORE pressing it. This is not the case in Witcher 2. You have a list of different possible animations for each attack type and the distance between you and the target. Each time you attack, you roll a dice and the game picks one animation from the lot for you.
- Don't ever, EVER take the player out of the combat experience in the middle of combat. I'm referring to those finisher moves the witcher does after you stun an enemy. It's disorienting, it's annoying and it takes you right out of the battle. I don't care if you want to put a cool animation in the middle of combat to make it look more cinematic. Don't do it. This isn't a movie. There are much better ways to do it anyway, if you want to. Just look at the God of War series.
- Make every hit avoidable. Not just technically avoidable, but the way the game lets the player know how he could avoid every single attack should be a fundamental design question to be answered. The player should be able to avoid every single hit in the entire game, no luck required. Dark Souls solves this by making the enemies slowly choreograph their attacks, so the player has a chance to figure out how to deal with them. This is what will make the game FAIR, no matter how hard it is.
- And please, don’t make it possible to pause the game and heal in the middle of combat without any negative consequences. Recovering from your mistakes should be something to actually worry about. It just breaks the game. The Witcher takes this principle to heart by not having health regeneration by default and by only allowing you to drink potions outside of combat, but there are so many RPG’s that do this…
I’m sure I could find more if I think more about it, but that should suffice for now. This is basically all you have to do to make your combat system great. I’ll go more into it if people show interest. The degree to which The Witcher 2 has veered away from these principles is the degree to which it is flawed. But it stayed close enough to it to be great.
Now, let me talk about the reason why I wrote this review: The quest named “The Eternal Battle” at the end of Act 2:
So, there is a section in the main story that is so unfair that I genuinely don't understand how it made it to the final game. I really don’t get it. I wonder if they even tested the game from start to finish in the higher difficulties. The game drops you alone with five enemies, and it forces you to fight as a useless soldier that can’t roll or use signs. Your only recourse is to swing your sword, block, and riposte (if you have it). That’s it. That’s how limited you are. So, what does this mean? It means that if you focused your build on ANYTHING other than Swordsmanship, you’re screwed. If you didn’t acquire the Riposte skill (like me), you’re screwed. If you rely on rolling, you’re screwed. Only the Swordsmanship skills are of use in this section, excluding rolling. I had to roll back to a past save to level up Riposte and try again. After dying for about 40 times, I beat the section. And to add insult to injury, the Boss you have to fight a few minutes after that was EXTREMELY easier than that stupid section that was supposed to be a breeze. I killed the Boss on my second try.
The game spits on how you chose to build your character, if you’re not a swordsman. No warning. No way to know in advance. It is so unbelievably obvious how… wrong this section is, that I think the dude who designed The Witcher 1’s combat sneaked into the studio and designed it. I was deeply disappointed by this. Anyway, I suggest you make sure to acquire the Riposte skill before you attempt doing this quest.
There weren’t a lot of bosses in the game. I count… 6? (One being more like an optional mini-boss from a side-quest) But it’s more like 5, I’ll get to that in a second. Anyway, there’s not a lot to say about the bosses. Nothing impressive about them, but nothing especially wrong with them. They were fine. Some were appropriately challenging, but not most. Well, the Dragon fight was pretty cool, though, but just from the visual side of things. But I have to talk about the final boss fight of the game.
FINAL FIGHT SPOILERS BELOW - Skip to “Closing Thoughts” if you don’t want to get spoiled
Final Boss Fight Spoilers:
The final fight of the game was quite disappointing to me. It is literally easier than the first Boss fight in the game (Lethos, Act 1). Even if you had the same stats as you did on Act 1, it would still be easier. It is exactly the same fight, except that you have all the space in the world to move around. The combat arena is so vast that you can just get away from Lethos whenever you need your Vigor to recharge. The fight has no surprises at all, it's all just one phase, the same phase as in Act 1. I beat it on the first try with ease, on Dark difficulty. I suspect the reason is that the developers simply ran out of time.
Over all, it's a great game worth your time. Flawed but satisfying combat, deep character progression, beautiful visuals and an engaging story. I cannot wait to play the third one. I didn’t talk about The Witcher 1 here, but just to give you some perspective, I found the combat to be nothing short of ABYSMAL. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I quit the game after 22 or so hours. If the difference of quality is the same as the one between Witcher 1 and 2, then 3 must be the best RPG ever made. Fingers crossed.