Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Witch, Witcher, Witchmost

Part something of a semi-regular series of words about games I bought because Steam had them on sale! This time: The Witcher 2, which I think cost like £3.

The Witcher 2 is a rambunctious monster-hunting adventure through a preposterous medieval fantasy world inhabited variously by A. crusty dirt-farmers with silly regional accents and upsetting stains on their breeches, B. impossibly-endowed sorceresses with cold stares, thick eyeliner and low-cut dresses or C. blood-curdling monsters from the Dark of the Depths, who are also sometimes B. An action-RPG with a set character - Geralt, the titular Witcher, a dark, brooding antihero straight out of central casting - the game is notable primarily for its interesting gameplay structure and an amusing story shot through with dark-grey morality.

You, Geralt, are a monster hunter with a bad (and entirely narratively suspect) case of amnesia. Also, you might have died once; it's not really clear. The game does an excellent job of making sure the player shares in Geralt's confusion with the in-media-res prologue. Amnesia is a hack's tool for story-writing, but here it's carried off with such aplomb - and it's used so well, as the player feels they're discovering (or rediscovering, if you played the previous game) the world along with Geralt. You'll meet characters who've known you for years, or so they say - how far can you trust them? How far do you think you can take them for a ride? Many of these choices are left up to the player. You have a limited amount of control over Geralt's character and decisions - you have some wiggle-room on what strategies to take in conversations, but none of the options presented feel out of line with the sort of character Geralt is clearly meant to be. He's not a bad man, not a cruel man, but he is a hardened professional and outcast who works in a very dangerous and expensive line of business. Be kind to peasants if you want, but magic swords don't pay for themselves. I usually like more freedom in choosing my character and their portrayal, but Geralt anchors the tone of the game very well. Although he's not particularly original (and neither is the world he inhabits), he's well-executed and interesting enough to separate the game from a lot of action-RPG fare alone.

The standout feature, however, is the structure of many of the game's quests. Most RPG quest design sticks to a well-tested "go here, do this, bring evidence back here" quest mechanic, and I won't pretend that's not well in evidence here. Where the game shines, however, is in integrating the quest mechanics with the goals and methods of the character you're playing, and the tone and themes of the story. You have to hunt monsters, but the reason people will pay you to do it is that hunting monsters is extremely difficult. This doesn't just mean that they're tough enemies, but that there are methods and tactics you'll need to research and adopt in order to win. You could just wander into the cave with a sword, but you'd probably die. No, what the game wants you to do is to play like a professional monster hunter: research your enemies by fighting them off the beaten track, or better yet, by reading about them in a book. Then, gather ingredients for the potions and items (traps, bombs, swords, armour) that will swing the odds in your favour. Learn to make the right items, do so, and then you might be set. This process is my favourite part of the game, and when the game trusts itself enough to let you complete these processes, either organically in side-quests or with objectives in the quest-log on the main chain, it's always satisfying to do so, especially when this long drawn-out process is leading up to a boss. The game loses some of its shine, however, when it falls back on the more traditional "talk to this guy, now that guy, then back to the first guy" structure, mostly in the second act. It's a disappointment, because tying the character, their motives and expertise so closely into the core game mechanics is something that RPGs should be doing much more often.

Combat itself is based on a relatively simple and intuitive system of combo-chaining using two attacks; light and heavy. It bears some similarities to the Batman: Arkham Whatever series with the ability to acrobatically flit between enemies; also that you're almost always outnumbered. You can also block and dodge, and, with the right timing, execute riposte attacks for extra damage. It's intuitive and satisfying without really being anything new or outstanding. A lot of the time, especially with tougher enemies, it becomes a matter of slogging it out and outlasting them rather than any especial skill.

There are problems: the Grim Yet Curiously Sexy Darkness of the Imagined Past setting is overdone, silly and uncomfortably male-gazey (although there's nothing as bad as the previous game's pinup cards); it's clear that the writers' aim at Gritty Fantasy is still too-often dragging them into puerility. The story, while good, is also confusing as hell sometimes and rewards close attention. The array of craftable potions and items was sometimes a little too overwhelming for me, with marginal distinctions at best between a few of them. Fighting human enemies, as you will for big chunks of the game, is nowhere near as interesting as the varied cast of ghosts and ghouls, mostly because there's little to research or prepare and they have few interesting attacks. The game tries to compensate in the most dismal way possible by simply making you take on huge groups all at once. The quest tracker is buggy and navigation difficult; it's easy to get lost in some of the more open areas.

Still, though, I had fun. It's a good game, especially for the price I paid.

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