Describing the opening moments of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings as a "trial by fire" is almost too trite to bear, but don't tell me it isn't accurate. As the dragon swoops overhead and incinerates you yet again, you'll understand that the game's method of delivering a tutorial, which is to whisper it to you in passing, has failed.

Your repeated, humiliating immolation isn't even enough to summon a helpful tip. When one of the characters asks the witcher how one handles such a beast, he responds, "You don't. You run!"

That's the advice from Geralt, professional monster hunter.

It's also completely incorrect. What you're supposed to do is cast the Quen spell, which creates a temporary, flame-resistant shield around you at the expense of vigor. Some of this information may have been presented via fleeting pop-up, but reading the tiny text on those things in the middle of your first battle is like making out the picture on a postage stamp while you're hurtling past it on a bullet train.

The Witcher 2's Cajun-style kick-off delivers a good jolt though, and a lingering dose of caution. That's where the role-playing truly begins. Geralt never speaks of monsters lightly, remaining stiff-necked and all too cognizant of the fact that getting stabbed in the back does 200 percent damage. Allowing yourself to be surrounded by a group of fiends or rushing into battle unprepared will get you killed, sometimes within seconds. It's nice to see monsters restored to a more threatening status than snarling sacks of XP.


Geralt, who is often greeted with the same uneasy gratitude reserved for burly exterminators, succeeds because of his mental and physical preparation. To share in that deadly serious mindset is what makes his affairs so involving. Thanks to his aptitude for on-the-go alchemy, you can use collected herbs and icky monster parts to concoct all sorts of potions, oils and absolutely crucial grenades, provided you own the recipes. Potions can temporarily augment vision, resistances or health regeneration (you can't use healing items during battle at all!), and oils enhance your swords, usually to the extreme detriment of certain species of monsters (all of which are more vulnerable to laceration from your silver sword).

The way in which all these options congeal in combat is impressive alchemy in itself. The Witcher 2 becomes enthralling when you venture into the dense woods, draw your sword in the moonlight and start the hunt for the fleshy components you need to craft a new set of armor. If the numbers aren't in your favor, you start picking opponents off by planting snares, tossing mind-altering gas bombs and cutting down stragglers. The swordplay never finds a good rhythm on its own, but it's an elegant complement to the witcher's satchel of tricks. It's just a shame that his profession won't be necessary a hundred years later. The monsters are all so eager to rush into obvious magical traps, they'll probably do a good job of exterminating themselves in the long run.

You never stop living the life of a witcher, though it does sometimes feel like you're on a working vacation. The lands of Temeria and Aedirn are so vivid and relentlessly realized, I was convinced my computer would start negotiating for less strenuous graphical settings, spitting out its GPU as a bargaining chip. In this game, a sword hilt and a distant mountain are treated with equal reverence, as is everything that lies between them.

The warm lighting, embellished clothing, the granite textures that can be felt without a touch, the rain that forces townsfolk to scamper for cover, and the best forest I've ever seen; it's hard to process for all parties concerned. The only thing that's not successfully rendered is a post office. I dearly wanted to send a postcard to Kirkwall.

Memories of that place aren't completely abolished here, as the inventory system also grows far too cluttered (it is a Western RPG, after all). It says something about the patience of shopkeepers when Geralt stands there for minutes, digging around in his disorganized bag of baubles for that item he'd like to be rid of. There's also no way of telling how many traps or grenades you have left once you've equipped them, which is about as baffling as the handful of hokey stealth sections that made it into the game. Still, there's nothing in this paragraph to get upset about.

The Witcher 2 is polished for the most part and Polish throughout, though its unique origin is reflected more in the grounded fantasy than in the charming, brassy localization. There's no apocalypse in sight, only a well-written web of murdered monarchs, racial tension and freedom fighting -- with just a dash of magic. Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher novels exhibit a clear influence, with the whole plot unfurling steadily like a poster that's just come out of a tube.

Geralt may occasionally seem like a vapid amnesiac, but his neutral position hides an inflexible hatred of injustice and inequality. Whether those ideals justify the alliances that are necessary to carry them out is a matter left to you. The Witcher 2 makes economical use of plot-altering decisions; the big ones count and the small ones often take you by surprise.

As it turns out, the same holds true for monsters. I had to learn that the hard way in the absence of a decent tutorial, but with the exception of dragon slaying, some professions are clearly best suited for on-the-job training. When can you start?


This review is based on final PC code provided by GOG and CD Projekt. Note: The Witcher 2's combat is very sensitive to sluggish framerates, so disable some graphical effects (like depth of field) if controls feel unresponsive. The game also plays very well with an Xbox 360 controller, and on-screen prompts are adjusted to match the controller's face buttons.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.