If you played the original Two Worlds, you might not be surprised to learn that its sequel does not represent the role-playing genre at its most refined. What may surprise you, however, is that Two Worlds II's clumsy features don't greatly diminish the impact of its big, busy world. Here is an expansive third-person role-playing game brimming with fearsome monsters to slay, colorful spells to cast, varied quests to perform, and murky swamps to explore. The game lacks the fine points that adorn the greatest role-playing adventures--distinctive characters, a compelling narrative, and memorable plot reveals. But this is an entertaining journey nonetheless, due in no small part to intriguing but accessible systems that let you create your own magic spells, concoct potions, and upgrade your favorite weapons and armor. If you've been looking to lose yourself in a fantastical kingdom, and don't mind some clumsy combat and some nagging interface issues, Two Worlds II is a fine way to escape the rigors of the real world.
Like its precursor, Two Worlds II takes place in the land of Antaloor, where (once again) your sister is in trouble and where (once again) the evil wizard Gandohar is up to no good. It's a suitable framework, but the game fails to build on its foundations. Through a series of good-looking flashback sequences, you eventually learn more about Gandohar, but the personal touch is conspicuously absent. The game devotes little time to giving your sister a personality, making her a simple MacGuffin to help put the story in motion, but nothing more. Nor do you meet many memorable characters. While much of the voice acting isn't bad, some of it is lifeless (your own character), ridiculous (a drunken local), or stiff (a student in need). The tomes you collect contain some fascinating tales and tidbits, but much of the dialogue sounds forced and unnatural--like something an author would write, but not something an actual person would say.
That isn't to say that Two Worlds II's quests won't draw you in. Sometimes, it's the bits of humor that keep you interested. A one-armed man threatens you, but as it turns out, it's a two-handed weapon he hangs on his wall. The dialogue's little jests may put a grin on your face, but you might actually guffaw if you explore this abode later and discover that the treasure chests within all contain two-handed bludgeons. An encounter with a black knight recalls a memorable scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, while a character involved with the quest is a Sean Connery soundalike (a clear reference to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). If the humor doesn't inspire you, perhaps the chance to drive the outcome of the quest will. In multiple cases, you choose how to proceed. This kind of decision-making isn't unique to Two Worlds II, and you won't see the exciting flexibility you may in a game like Fallout: New Vegas or Dragon Age: Origins. Nevertheless, quests involving the element of choice stand out in Two Worlds II because there is not always a clear "bad" or "good" path. A witch accused of crimes against nature; a professor accused by a supposedly innocent student: these characters may or may not be who they appear to be, and choosing to follow one path may result in unforeseen and occasionally heartbreaking circumstances.
Of course, there's more to Two Worlds II than its narrative. There's a whole world to explore, made up of rolling green hills, decrepit universities, and dank dungeons filled with rattling skeletons and hulking beasts. The visuals aren't best in class, but they aspire to more than simple "generic fantasyland." The savannah of the early hours sticks closely to brown, dusty trails and grassy meadows, but moving through the chapters unveils more interesting vistas. The Asian-inspired design that kicks off chapter two (of four) revels in attractive red trimmings and intricately adorned bookcases. Nearby, gnarled branches and grim darkness lend an air of mystery to a society of outsiders. You still set foot in some boring caverns and bland (if sunny) fields, but progressing through the story exposes more visual delights. Loading times are generally breezy, so you won't have to wait too long when entering houses or caves. It's when the game forces you to get up close and personal that it bares its visual quirks. Characters gesticulate stiffly and exhibit little personality as they converse. Many animations, such as those when mounting or dismounting your horse, are jittery or off in some other way. But Two Worlds II is a huge improvement over its rough-looking predecessor and is attractive on its own terms.
When facing your menacing adversaries, you aren't stuck with just blades, or a bow, or magic spells: you can choose any of these, and easily switch between up to three equipment sets with the press of a button. Regardless of your weapon of choice, combat is appealing, if a bit ragged at times. If you wield a blade, crunchy sound effects give battles some oomph, as do melee moves that knock back nearby enemies. On the other hand, inconsistent collision detection means you don't always get that delightful sense of impact you might hope for when plunging an axe into an ostrich. Casting a spell results in windy noises (summon a giant spider) and swirling visual effects (heal yourself)--though the auto-targeting has the camera occasionally whipping around in uncomfortable ways. If you enjoy ranged weapons and magic, you might find bows and spells better left to certain occasions, since it's often difficult to put space between you and that swarm of bees descending on you.
That's especially true in Two Worlds II's tight, dark dungeons, where many of the game's most obvious flaws come to light. Narrow caverns are often populated with monsters too large for them. Maneuvering into an effective position can be tricky in these cases, especially when the uncooperative camera makes it impossible to figure out exactly what's going on. The need to manually unsheathe your weapon--and the delay when switching between weapon sets--can also complicate these sticky moments. Fortunately, some slippery combat situations can be exploited to your advantage. Monsters and humanoids alike suffer from pathfinding and AI difficulties. A beast might get stuck running against a rock, allowing you to pelt it with arrows until it falls over dead. Or if you put enough distance between you and your target, it might not even react at all when your arrow finds its mark. You can see that some thought was given to how certain creatures behave. For example, big cats run toward you to attack and then scamper away at a quick clip to escape your blows. But when the same cat runs halfway up a crevasse and gets stuck, or slides across a rock formation at angles that defy gravity, the immersion is broken.
You do more than fight, of course: you loot and level, and Two Worlds II handles both of these aspects superbly. There's a lot of stuff to collect, and while you inevitably discover a lot of items and weapons you won't use, you find enough helpful treasures to make it worth opening every armoire and investigating every nook. It helps that the lock-picking minigame, which involves matching your rotating lock pick in a series of notches, is enjoyable and, when you're picking master-level locks, quite challenging. Your spoils might include skill books, which unlock new skill trees. (These might be new spell categories, such as necromancy, or new attacks, like ice arrows.) You also loot items used in Two Worlds II's fascinating and complex spellcrafting system, in which you create your own spells from raw materials; you can even name spells yourself. It's entertaining to mix and match various spell cards and modifiers to see what spell you will devise. Perhaps it will fire ice missiles, or improve your health regeneration for a time. In any case, you can bestow powers upon your mage as you see fit, from a number of different schools of magic--air, earth, and so on.
There are other diversions as well--some integral to the experience, some optional. You create your own potions out of the foliage you gather and the entrails you scavenge from defeated foes. As with spells, experimenting with potion ingredients is enjoyable, in part because there are so many morsels to mess with. You can also break down accumulated equipment into its raw materials and use those materials to upgrade your favored armor and weapons. In both cases, you perform these activities directly in the inventory menus--you don't need to visit a blacksmith, or find a campfire or potion set. Considering the huge numbers of materials you collect, this is a great convenience when compared to other recent RPGs, such as Risen. Unfortunately, your inventory gets clogged with all sorts of miscellaneous doodads and can be a hassle to sift through. Perhaps you are looking for potions to improve your shock resistance, but because so many potions look exactly alike, you might have to hover the mouse over each identical item until you find what you need. Additional sorting options would have been infinitely helpful. Fortunately, Two Worlds II offers conveniences that streamline other parts of the experience in welcome ways. For instance, it's easy to traverse long distances using the numerous teleporters scattered about, and you even possess your own teleportation device. There are no restrictions placed on this kind of travel, so once you discover a teleporter, you can zip to it at almost any time.
Other activities are there if you fancy them, but aren't necessarily integral parts of the experience. You can purchase a home, for example, though it's too bad you can't gussy it up with furniture or knickknacks a la Fable III. If you enjoy a bit of gambling, you can participate in a couple of dice-rolling minigames. One good way to fill your coffers is to join locals in a bit of music-making. You can purchase and play a number of different instruments (violin, flute, harp, and more), and buy sheet music for several tunes. This isn't always as easy as it sounds; depending on your instrument of choice, you might have to pound on three or four keys at once in quick succession. These tavern tunes aren't so rip-roaring as to have you seeking out a musician when you discover a new village, but this melodious distraction helps Two Worlds II feel more like a virtual world, rather than a vast collection of quest-givers and shopkeepers.
Like its predecessor, Two Worlds II doesn't scream for a multiplayer component, yet there it is, buried inside an unintuitive and vast selection of lobbies. Nevertheless, if you form a group with up to seven others and tackle the cooperative missions, you're bound to have fun. This mode has a Phantasy Star Online vibe, getting you and other players together to simply go out and kill some monsters as you progress from one quest to the next. Your online character (or characters; you can create several) is different from your offline one, so this is another chance to level up, earn loot, and play with systems you may not have messed with too much in the campaign. It's also a chance to have fun with archery and spellcasting, which are far more viable when you are supporting teammates than when you play the lone hero. You might also battle other players in online competitive play, but it is unfortunately an unbalanced mess and lets players with leveled-up superwarriors compete against unsuspecting newcomers. The resulting sequence of horrible, frustrating deaths is absolutely not fun. Even if you compete against players around the same level as you, whether or not you have any fun depends almost entirely on the class you select. For example, you might find your spellcaster getting cut to shreds with a single hit before your homing missiles can even find their mark. With so many combat classes all but pointless, Two Worlds II's online competition is a curiosity, but nothing more.
It's unlikely that you look to an expansive role-playing game like this seeking the thrill of online rivalry, however, and Two Worlds II delivers where it counts most. The spellcrafting, potion-making, and equipment upgrade systems offer plenty of depth, yet aren't so convoluted as to make their workings a mystery. Great quests and hidden caches of treasure make this an inviting world to explore, and the ease of travel ensures that exploration is never a frustration. Great writing and characterizations could have taken Two Worlds II to the next level, but even without them, there is enough combat and mission variety to keep you busy and happy for dozens of hours. If you long for a bit of old-world flavor, you'd do best to overlook the ragged edges and let Antaloor work its magic on you.