A number of stupendous moments punctuate your choices. Typically, the events you most fondly recall from RPGs are story related: the characters, the plot twists, the losses, the finales. By contrast, The Witcher 2 etches gameplay events into your imagination. What you remember most isn't just what you witness, but what you experience firsthand. Once such moment occurs when a large clash on a battlefield causes it to become awash with a golden supernatural mist. This moment is recalled several times later yet retains its power due to its otherworldly ambience, sense of scale, and fun combat. Its terrifying scream makes your first encounter with a harpy unforgettable. Viewing another's memory, taking on a ghostly identity, and other inspired occurrences plant seeds of apprehension: you never know what might be lurking around the bend.
If you played the original Witcher, then forget what you learned from its combat mechanics. The Witcher 2 abandons that rhythmic system for a more traditional and challenging one. You still switch between silver and steel swords, depending on whether you are facing monsters or humans, but regardless of the weapon you equip, be prepared for the occasional beatdown. You initiate standard attacks with your mouse, and you block and cast signs (Geralt's magic spells) with the keyboard. (You may also use a gamepad.) Your first encounter during the prologue/tutorial makes for a punishing introduction: Expect to die a few times as you learn just what the game expects of you. The extreme difficulty right off the bat, paired with tutorial hints that don't pop up long enough or soon enough to be much help, don't make for the friendliest introduction. But you learn an important lesson: You must tread carefully. Eventually you grasp the rhythm, which is similar to that of the PlayStation 3 game Demon's Souls. You must position yourself well and pay close attention to your supply of vigor, which is required to block, as well as cast signs; get in a few choice hits; and then block or tumble into a safer position. You may also want to soften the enemy or control the crowd by throwing bombs (blind them!) or laying traps (turn enemies on each other!), particularly during the first act, when you feel most vulnerable.
Even after you grow accustomed to The Witcher 2's combat, there are a few scenarios that are more than just difficult: They are cruel. A couple of boss fights are frustrating, as is a quest in a dark cramped mine that has multiple dwarves crowding you, all while you are hounded by fiendish foes that explode upon death. It's too easy to inadvertently tumble toward an enemy behind the one you meant to attack and find yourself in the center of a deadly mob. Yet, the action is largely satisfying and enjoyable. There's a great sense of weight in every swing. Geralt might somersault toward his victim and slash him with a steel sword or use a flaming staff pilfered from a succubus to land slower, heavier blows. As you level up and spend skill points in four different skill paths (witcher training, swordsmanship, magic, alchemy), combat becomes more manageable, and you begin to feel more powerful. And yet, the action never becomes a cakewalk, and it always retains a sense of urgency.
And so death is inescapable, but The Witcher 2 allows you to properly prepare before trying to conquer the wilds. You aren't stuck with the same weapons and armor, of course. You loot new ones or buy them from vendors, and these can be upgraded in various ways. You might also purchase equipment schematics and have a vendor craft items for you using the iron ore, timber, and other raw materials you stumble upon as you explore. You can also brew up potions and quaff them, though you can't just down a health drink in the midst of battle. Instead, you must down potions while meditating. Meditation is a returning mechanic, though you no longer have to find a campfire as in the first game. Potions are toxic to Geralt; thus, the number you can drink is limited. It might take you a while to come to terms with this "prepare in advance" approach to potions. Brews act as statistic buffs rather than immediate cure-alls, and unless you know what monsters you might be coming up against, you don't necessarily know which potions to take. When the story snatches you up into a series of battles and cutscenes, you may never be allowed to meditate and, thus, never reap the benefits potions may have granted.
It may also take some time getting used to the interface. It isn't complex but there are some minor idiosyncrasies, some of which are rather sensible. You can't hold a key to identify loot and items of interest as you can in most RPGs; instead, you activate Geralt's medallion. It's a neat way of taking a game-y function and making it seem more natural. Other interface quirks are less understandable. You can't quickly identify and sell vendor trash, for example, and there is no easy way to compare the equipment a merchant has for sale with your current stuff. These are minor quibbles, however. Not so minor are the few quest bugs that can aggravate your travels. A quest marker and journal entry may refuse to update when completing an action, leaving you to wonder what to do next; choosing dialogue options in a particular order might lead to a similar circumstance. The only solution to these circumstances is to hope you accidentally stumble upon the next phase of the story or reload a previous game save. These are disappointing errors in a well-made game with an otherwise stellar presentation.
Combat is central to The Witcher 2, but it's not the only way to pass the time. Dice poker returns and works much the same way as in the original. Proving your mettle with your fists is a more consistent way of earning some extra coin, however. You can trade blows with certain locals, though you may cringe when you first learn that doing so entails quick-time key presses--the kind associated more with console action games than computer RPGs. (Such quick-time events crop up in various boss fights and other scripted sequences as well.) Yet, the game hardly relies on them too much, and the close camera angles and barbaric punches give brawls some pizzazz. An arm-wrestling minigame is much less enjoyable, forcing you to keep a sluggish cursor within the proper boundaries. And, of course, certain characters (and the town's task board) will have some odd jobs for you, many of which involve the game's signature moral dilemmas. Who do you believe: a mythical seductress accused of murder or the elf jealous of her many lovers? When each accuser is equally unconvincing, you must carefully consider your path. And in this complicated world, just as in the real one, there isn't necessarily a right or wrong choice--or a neat resolution.
Like many ambitious games, The Witcher 2 requires you to shoulder some minor burdens; in this case, it's a finale without bite and some unfortunate bugs. Yet, you rarely sense that any given element suffered because more attention was given to another. This distinguished game makes an important statement: Visual beauty, challenging action, and game-changing decisions can coexist in a modern RPG. In one beauteous stroke, The Witcher 2 has raised the stakes. No longer need we accept that role-playing games must sacrifice the quality of one element in favor of another. Instead, we are allowed to have it all. And how wonderful that we have it right here, right now, in The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings.