The joke went something like this: If that’s a witch and he’s the Witcher, who’s the witchest?
It’s not the best piece of vitriol to come from the Web, but the sting was still there, if only in an obvious and stupid way. When Polish game studio CD Projekt announced plans to make a game based on the fantasy short-story series by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, the collective reaction from American audiences was a short guffaw, a snarky comment or two, and then a constant low-level snicker that persisted in the background right up until The Witcher’s late 2007 release.
When it did hit, though, all that was replaced by the embarrassed silence of a gaming public proven wrong. The Witcher turned out to be solid, even great at times, hearkening back to old-school RPGs but with a decidedly more mature twist. CD Projekt knew the RPG audience—generally older, more well-read, and definitely more jaded than the average gamer—and they blew their expectations out of the water by refusing to insult them with a watered-down plot or a glossy, overly friendly world.
In a genre full of fairy tales, The Witcher stood alone through the bold statement that elves and magic don’t automatically make medieval fantasy any less ugly and brutish than medieval reality was. And it remained alone even still, until CD Projekt decided to see if they could improve upon the first.
And they have. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings manages to clean up the few blemishes that The Witcher had, leading to an even better game (and the coveted milestone of any PC game developer, the year-late console port).
Assassins of Kings picks up shortly after The Witcher left off. The eponymous Witcher, the perennially amnesia-stricken Geralt of Rivia, is under interrogation after being framed for—wait for it—the assassination of a king. It’s a flimsy pretense for the king’s true bodyguards to save their own reputations, what with both AoK’s prologue and the events of its predecessor being focused around Geralt saving said king from everything from civil wars to other assassins to an errant dragon or two (and even a combination of all three at once). But it serves well enough as an impetus for Geralt to track down the king’s killers himself.
From there, it’s another trek through the low end of low fantasy. Geralt’s world is a thinly veiled allegory of the meanness of the human condition. The average peasant here can be found cowering in a stinking mud hovel, watching in horrified silence as said hovel burns, shivering in a refugee camp, watching in horrified silence (again) as the refugee camp burns, or trudging through a death march to the next non-burned settlement.
Geralt himself is a product of his environment, a Legend of Zelda Link all grown up with his very own drug habit. He swears like an orc, he spends more time searching for brothels than for princesses, and he quaffs poisonous potions like he might find a portal to a better world at the bottom of one—and yet he still somehow comes across as the hero, if only because, in the Witcherverse, the minimal honor he displays once a fortnight or so makes him a paragon of virtue compared to the rest of the population.
Assassins of Kings doesn’t try to clean up its medieval gutter of a world. Instead, most of CD Projekt’s housekeeping efforts went toward making the game more enjoyable to actually play. One of The Witcher’s most glaring problems was its combat system, which was insufficiently robust but completely unaware of the fact. It wasn’t complex, but it tried to be, leading to a combat experience that was clunky and unintuitive, especially considering that the bulk of it consisted of choosing between slightly different ways to hack your enemies to bits.
Assassins of Kings doesn’t scrap this system, but it definitely streamlines it, bringing it more in line with modern gaming conventions in the single way that they were better than what The Witcher did on its own. Combat moves like it should now, transitioning fluidly from might to magic and from finesse to fury with a few simple button presses. AoK’s Geralt feels like the seasoned monster slayer that he is instead of the clumsy marionette with tangled strings that he was in The Witcher.
It’s the latest example of the growing trend of great games by Eastern European developers (see also: Metro 2033, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series), all of whom followed roughly the same blueprint. They all came out of nowhere, they all adapted locally produced works, and they all found success by giving an audience hungry for fresh ways of looking at existing genres a post-Soviet shot in the arm. It’s visceral, it’s grimy, it pulls no punches, it does things that nobody in the West is doing—and it’s just what the doctor ordered.
Just don’t play it around your kids.