The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

witcher 2

Geralt of Rivia is the Witcher, a chemically enhanced warrior/mage/alchemist/mutant trained to hunt through forest and fen for all that goes bump in the night. Or that is what he’s supposed to be doing when he’s not becoming enmeshed in world politics. Geralt is reserved and quiet until he’s ready to drop a one liner or brutal threat upon a ne’erdowell. The Witcher is both a fantasy series written by polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski and a video game series based on the same. I’ve never read the books nor played the game (until now) but the latter has been on my radar for a while. I hear it named as a game with a great storyline and a fantasy series that is a more ‘mature’ alternative to the occasionally twee universe of Dragon Age.

And now the Witcher 3 has come out and received raving, gushing, positively euphoric reviews. This finally pushed me to get into the series (at part 2). Did I get what I was promised in the above paragraph? Mostly. The story was engaging and the world felt alive in a way that only something based on thousands of pages of text can be; This means loads of names and terms and countries and people and wars and arcana that can be easy to lose track of, but are summarily engrossing and immersive. It’s mostly typical medieval fantasy fare of the ‘gritty’ stripe. Life is cheap, prejudice abounds. A major plot point/theme is that elves and dwarves are oppressed and misused by humans and The Witcher pulls this off better than most users of this trope. It gets somewhat close to real oppression by realizing the situation is complicated and difficult to fix; there will never be a point where Geralt frees a bunch of slaves, gives a stirring speech in front of local government, and creates… peace.

The plot is literally the title — a super powered assassin is murdering kings. It’s somewhat ridiculous in summary but engaging in practice. Geralt is framed for the latest king’s death and sets out to clear his name. Three chapters take him to three different villages/cities. The choices he makes in each greatly change the following events. The end of chapter one either takes him (you) to fight for a non-human revolution or instead into the camp on the opposing side (I did the former and thus have little detail on the latter). Geralt himself is a solid protagonist and a contrast to many other western RPGs that allow you to create your own hero, something that lets you insert the persona you want but naturally disallows the history and character that can be imparted upon a singular creation.

Geralt comes equipped with a few different iconic Witcher abilities — he can throw fireballs, become invulnerable, fire off a shockwave to knock foes down, set magical traps, and force enemies to fight for him. It’s a small, focused ability set with silly names (‘I need to use Quen now so I can trap those enemies with Yrden and light them up with Igni!!’). The Witcher also comes equipped with both a steel sword and a silver sword slung across his back — the lore ties into older legends that spoke of using silver to fight certain creatures (think: werewolves and silver bullets). You switch swords depending on the foe. It’s a small thing that gives the world immense character.

The Witcher is far from flawless. It’s buggy, dialogue and cinematic transitions are janky, movement and looting items doesn’t always work as you’d expect and most strikingly: The game has a distinct problem with its portrayal of women. The game revels in the male gaze. In other words: women are throwing their clothes off on screen, which isn’t a problem necessarily in and of itself, but they are doing this so the camera can zoom in on them in ways that don’t even make sense in the context of the scene/plot/Geralt’s point of view. It’s just a show for the player, which is assumed to be a man. At one point, Geralt walks in on a woman inexplicably spanking another (and when he sees the spankee in the following chapter, he flashbacks to the scene again). All three characters just sort of look at each other and grin, before the scene continues on as if nothing happened. It’s a not a game that maturely acknowledges sex or bondage. It’s a game that throws women on the screen for men to treat like objects!