The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is a gift, gilded with moments that stay with you even after the curtains close on its dark tale of uncertain pasts and uncertain futures. Like the rare Roses of Remembrance you might find growing in this role-playing game's lush fields, these moments are carefully cultivated. They're meaningful not just because they are packed with excitement, but also because there are stakes--both personal and political. As Geralt of Rivia, your actions don't just bring you closer to the truths of your own murky history, but they also influence the tides of war. And just as you exert your power on this game's events, they work their power on you, drawing you further into a gorgeous world populated by quarrelling trolls and drunken, sex-crazed dwarves. Some bugs, combat quirks, and other foibles prove bothersome, but they don't greatly diminish the impact of exploring a dungeon whose walls ooze the agony you've just witnessed. This superb role-playing sequel offers a bold world woven together by tenuous alliances and closely guarded secrets.
The Witcher 2's phenomenal visual design isn't its defining characteristic, but it's an effective lure and makes for an immediate connection with the game's provocative tone. On the outskirts of a dwarven enclave, sunlight glistens upon a misty pond; a tower just beyond it bristles with potent magical properties; the underbrush surrounding you casts deep shadows, yet rays of golden sun coax you onward. In The Witcher 2, sights like these communicate so much. The delicate lace of a sorceress's collar gives her a regal air, yet dark makeup and dark brown eyes speak to mysteries beneath the surface. A red scar above a defiant elf's upper lip is not just a testament to past violence--it suggests a permanent scowl. Walls, cliffs, and meadows aren't just repeated textures. Look closely at the patterns carved into a stone column, and you notice how each one is slightly different. These may seem like unimportant details, but they're indicators of how much care went into every facet of this game's environments and character models.
The superlative art is rendered by equally superlative technology that ensures you can admire the rips on a mercenary's trousers, a harpy's individual feathers, and the buckles and seams on Geralt's clothing. Yet The Witcher 2 is as much about grand gestures as it is textural detail. You cross paths with a giant dragon and other grotesqueries, each of which moves with a sense of weight appropriate to the creature's proportions. Pungent colors, roaring flames, and shafts of glowing light make mainstay environments like sewers and caves a wonder to explore. Impressively, all of this beauty is rendered using DirectX 9 technology rather than the newer DirectX 11. The game is nevertheless demanding of your hardware, though it is attractive even at lower settings. A few imperfections stand out amidst all the graphical wizardry, such as mechanical facial animations, characters that pop in during cutscenes, and the occasional frame rate dip. But such quibbles are easily tolerated in this luxuriant digital world.
And what a world it is, alive with activity yet tinged with violence and sorrow. The opening moments ready you for the game's brutal overtones, showing a captive Geralt of Rivia whipped and taunted by his jailers. Geralt's defaced flesh is not an easy sight to take in, but it's thematically relevant: The witcher is scarred by his past. Geralt, once thought dead, is still piecing together his memories of a savage battle and a beauty called Yennefer. The story takes its cue from these lost memories, juxtaposing violence and sex. It also presents both as inevitable and natural results of the human (and nonhuman) condition. You can still bed various women in The Witcher 2, as you could in the original game, though you no longer collect sex cards. Lovemaking (or ploughing, as so many characters call it) is a frequent subject of conversation, and it's one of Geralt's favorite pastimes. You can bed a few different women, and the game hardly shies from nudity, handily earning its mature rating. The lacerations on Geralt's back are a stark reminder, however, that this earthly pleasure is only a temporary respite for him.
But The Witcher 2 is not primarily about sex, nor violence. It's about the search for truth. Geralt seeks clues to his past, as well as the royal assassin that ended the life of King Foltest at the conclusion of The Witcher. This man's identity is not a secret for long, but then, this is not a murder mystery; rather, it's a chronicle of discovery, redemption, and political upheaval. Geralt is blamed for Foltest's murder, but as he gets closer to the true killer, he becomes more and more involved in the region's power struggles. Not including the prologue and epilogue, The Witcher 2 is split into three acts. The first is primarily concerned with following the killer's trail, while the second greatly expands the plot, introducing so many new characters and so much lore that you might be initially confused. Yet, the convoluted plot seems poised to explode in the final episode, only to fizzle at the end. The lack of closure intimates a sequel, and it makes the final act feel abrupt when compared to the robustness of the first two.
Characters new and old both assist and hinder Geralt's quest. These include the flamboyant bard Dandelion and the earthy Zoltan, a foul-mouthed dwarf who, like most of The Witcher 2's dwarves, loves women and drink. Dwarves are a rich source of humor in most role-playing games, and The Witcher 2's are no exception. Yet, the tone is different here. These are the raunchiest dwarves you've ever encountered, yet the comedy is undercut by underlying anguish. It's initially funny to learn that teetotaling dwarves are outcasts. But when a dwarf confides that he fears being ostracized because he doesn't drink, you understand his dread. You might admire a bearded character's enthusiasm for heading to battle for the first time, but when pressed, he admits his misgivings. Aside from the occasional expository speech, most of the dialogue sounds natural, including the asides spoken by random citizens. Most of the voice actors do a good job of bringing these characters to life, in spite of the occasional hollow note. (The actress playing Triss Merigold again sounds like a random meter maid rushed into the studio for some last-minute line readings.)
The Witcher 2 is not an open-world game in the way of The Elder Scrolls games; each area is relatively contained though expansive enough to encourage exploration. The rewards for doing so aren't just pretty vistas. You might uncover a chest that can be opened only by interpreting the clues on a nearby scroll or stumble upon a giant arachnid guarding treasure. However, the game's flexibility isn't a result of wide-open journeys; it is the extraordinary ways you can influence the story and fundamentally change the direction of your future travels. For example, choices you make at the end of Act 1 not only determine how immediate story events play out, but also have a dramatic impact on the entire game. The characters at your side, the enemies you face, the dialogue--they all differ based on a series of decisions that the game never forgets. And these aren't "good" or "bad" choices: these are ambiguous circumstances with ambiguous results, which is just as well. Geralt is not interested in heroism or villainy. He navigates turbulent waters seeking neither justice nor injustice, only answers.