Although The Witcher has been around now for about 9 years in the US, many people just started becoming familiar with the series after the massive hit that was The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. That’s obviously not where the franchise got it’s start though, it’s been around for a while, even longer if you’re in Poland where you got the book series as far back as 1992.
In the US though, we were introduced to Geralt of Rivia through the incredible RPG series made by CD Projekt Red starting with the PC-exclusive The Witcher in 2007. The game was very well received, especially considering it was a sequel to book series we didn’t even have in English at the time (the books weren’t published in the US until the next year). It introduced an extremely dark fantasy world that thrived in the morally grey, refusing to allow the player to ever feel comfortable with their choices between two evils. In the time of games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic or Jade Empire, where moral choices meant choosing between feeding the poor or sacrificing their babies to hellspawn, the more nuanced Witcher series felt refreshing. That said, it was the first game from an unknown Polish developer that was PC-exclusive. Needless to say, while it was a success, it didn’t get much mainstream appeal.
The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings was a great step forward for the series, releasing a version on both the PC and the Xbox 360, although the 360 version wasn’t released until a year later. CD Projekt Red also had a much greater reach now thanks to it’s digital distribution service, GOG, really starting to take off in the US. The game received perfect and near-perfect scores from almost every major gaming outlet. It won awards such as Best RPG, Best Story and even at least one Game of the Year award. Within a year, the game had sold almost 2 million copies. For a self-published, relatively unknown developer, this was a wild success.
Bring us to today, it’s been over 5 years since The Witcher 2 released and the game has sold several more million copies (the exact total is hard to say as CD Projekt Red has since released sales figures for The Witcher 1 and 2 combined). Yet, talking with people online, listening to podcasts about RPGs and just being a part of the gaming community, it seems as though almost nobody has reached the end of The Witcher 2. Even folks who love the world of Geralt and the story simply didn’t seem to make it to the end of the game. While this is entirely anecdotal, I have yet to speak to anyone personally who did finish the game besides myself.
Why is this? This game that sold well and was regarded as one of the best RPGs available wasn’t finished by anyone? I think there are a couple of reasons and I think they are the same reason why many people don’t connect with any of the games in the series.
One of the main reasons people have trouble connecting to this world is because of the main character, Geralt. I’m not saying people don’t like him (although I’m sure some people don’t) but his very nature forces the game to straddle a line that the RPG genre drew in the sand years ago. Looking at RPGs they almost all fall into one of two categories, either they are character-driven, linear experiences such as any Final Fantasy game or they are all about role-playing through a story such as in games like Mass Effect or Planescape: Torment. The Witcher doesn’t fall neatly into either category.
Players play as Geralt, an established character in the game’s lore. Even though the series starts with Geralt having amnesia, offering an entry point for newbies, Geralt still has a very clear personality and backstory. Many players played through the first game thinking Triss was clearly the main female foil of the series only to find out in the second and third games that the role was actually another character altogether that simply wasn’t mentioned in the first game. Despite that, The Witcher 2 as a game is all about making moral choices, trying to figure out what the best option is in a world filled with bad options. This creates a strong disconnect in player’s minds since their choices should feel like their own but Geralt is not the blank slate that players expect from games like this. This disconnect prevents many players from ever feeling personally invested in what is going on. Nothing takes you out of a game more than making a choice only to have your character later decide that you’re wrong.
2. Side Characters
The Witcher 2 has an amazing amount of interesting side characters. Even beyond Geralt’s group of “friends”: Triss, Dandelion and Zoltan, characters like Vernon Roche, Iorveth, and many, many more populate this world and fill it with some color. Each of these characters brings a lot to the table, particularly the flamboyant troubadour, Dandelion, but they are all woefully underutilized throughout the series. Dandelion is referred to as Geralt’s best friend frequently but despite narrating the first two games, he only shows up in one chapter of The Witcher 2 where he plays a relatively small role. Same with most of the other characters. They will show up for a short period of time before just disappearing. Zoltan, in particular, shows up after Geralt saves his life and says that basically all of his plans for the future have collapsed and he now doesn’t know what to do. Then, as Geralt is in dire trouble and another mutual friend (avoiding spoilers here) is captured, Zoltan suddenly decides he has better things to do?
Perhaps this is more realistic but it makes it harder for players to connect to the game. For those who don’t like Geralt’s dour mood or just can’t handle that much gloom over a 100 hour game, more upbeat characters like Dandelion and Triss would do a lot towards keeping people invested but they are instead shoved into mere cameo roles throughout most of the series.
3. Darkness vs. Length
When I was first hearing about The Witcher coming over to the US, I was ecstatic. An RPG that would make you actually think about the decisions you were making was rare in 2007 and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. The game was released and I got it day 1 and I was not disappointed. However, in the time since 2007, grimdark stories are a dime a dozen. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where it’s almost cliche. I find myself watching movies like Ant Man and feeling refreshed from all the depressing fiction out there.
It’s not that I don’t like darker, more adult-themed games anymore. Far from it. But it needs to be tempered with some hope or brightness in the world. The Witcher 2 contains very little of that. Rarely does the game ever use humor, instead opting to crush what little faith you may have left in humanity. You’ll more often be faced with choosing to kill a group of children or an entire town than crack a smile while playing The Witcher 2. While this is fine for a short experience, The Witcher 2 is anything but short. In fact, when playing through the story a second time, knowing mostly where I needed to go and what I needed to do, the game still took about 50 hours to complete. My first playthrough took about 85 hours and that’s considered quick. 85 hours of constant gloom is tough for a lot of people to stomach. The game needs some humor in it to keep people chopping through monsters.
4. Preparation-Based Combat
The rest of the points have been entirely focused on the plot of The Witcher 2 but the gameplay does have a significant flaw as well. Based on the lore of The Witcher series, Witchers fight monsters not only through their already enhanced strength but also through special oils and potions that they use to fight specific monsters. Certain potions provide bonuses against undead monsters or werewolves or whatever other creatures you find in your travels.
The Witcher 2 tries to utilize this lore by balancing the game so that Geralt will have to meditate and imbibe these potions the player makes based on the specific quest being undertaken. The problem is that this means quests can’t have any surprises. The player has to study the lore like a damn college course and understand exactly what it is they will be fighting based on the scant clues a quest provides. The problems are further amplified by the fact that potions last an extremely short period of time, sometimes not even long enough to get through a fight immediately after taking the potion in the first place. Since potions can’t be taken while in a fight, everything has to be prepared in advance.
This is one problem that I know is fixed in The Witcher 3 but if anything, that just makes the problem in The Witcher 2 even more glaring. It means that many encounters are matters of trial and error before quickly jumping into “whack the monster until it dies” territory so that you can kill it before your potion runs out.
I don’t want to leave anyone thinking The Witcher 2 is a bad game. Despite it’s flaws, it remains one of the best modern RPGs on the market. However, the fact that Steam’s global achievements stats say that only 18% of players have made it to the end shows that the series has some retention problems. This review is too late to make a difference with The Witcher 3 but hopefully, for CD Projekt Red’s future projects (pun totally intended!), they will be able to create a world that allows players to feel truly invested all the way through to the end.