This is an examination of 'The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings' by CD Projekt Red. I ended up having a lot of things to say after finishing it, about the story and mechanics as well as the music. In addition to picking apart the game experience, I've transcribed the title theme, Assassins of Kings, and made a scrolling sheet music video of it.

This article is very long, you could almost say it’s a treatise upon the game. It’s focused more on the game from a designer’s perspective, examining the theory behind the decisions rather than the decisions themselves. Consider it an article with two purposes, one being the transcription of the title theme and the other being a close examination of the story and mechanics of a great game made by an important developer in the industry.

My own experience

This is a short retelling of my subjective experience of The Witcher 2, in essence a summary of my first playthrough. I chose the “Dark” difficulty level, as I figured the only type of challenge added by the hardcore (permanent death) mode “Insane” would be testing my quickload reaction time. At any rate, I didn’t “romance” (read: doink, or rather “plough” as they call it in the game) anyone other than Triss Merigold. The purported chauvinism the game’s main character Geralt is known for didn’t appeal to me very much. More on that later.

To summarise, I sided with Iorveth, saved Triss instead of releasing Phillippa, watched Síle implode, let Saskia live (the dragon Saesenthessis) and slashed Letho at the end, after chatting over a bottle of vodka. I almost chose not to, we kind of bonded at the end, but I wanted him to know that I was the better witcher; the fight was very easy, I didn’t take a single hit. I was actually surprised when the dragon turned out to be the penultimate boss. The game ending came as a bit of a shock, it was rather anticlimactic, really, but the post-credits cinematic was great.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the game, both the story and the combat mechanics. Personally, I’d give it a 5 out of 5, but only barely, so barely that a minor breeze could knock a point off. I’ll get to why after we take a look at the original score.

Music and sound

The music is, to be frank, kind of a disappointment. It’s not often I play a game that has such a poorly fitting soundtrack. Oftentimes, especially during conversations, the expressive dissonance hurled me out of the experience like a walnut fired from a slingshot. It’s not poor music, don’t get me wrong, but while it’s not as bad as, say, replacing the Dragon Age: Origins soundtrack with the one from Deus Ex, it just doesn’t fit with the experience.

It’s composed primarily by Krzysztof Wierzynkiewicz and Adam Skorupa, with additional music by Marcin Przybylowicz. And yes, I almost learnt how to pronounce their names by the time I finished writing this article.

Style and character

The Witcher 2 has a very dark and intimate feel to it, with a kind of sassy humour and sexualisation mixed in, however the composition and arrangement don’t do a very good job to portray it. In the first village of Flotsam, the background music is an epic full orchestral piece that erupts into a big, dramatic climax. It’s a terrible shame, really, as the solemnly beautiful and atmospheric graphics do an excellent job of conveying a fantasy sensation with a strong identity to it that becomes lost when the music forgets that we’re not watching the Helm’s Deep scene from Lord of the Rings.

In the interest of being more specific, the music is too heroic and too triumphant. It’s also too reminiscent of the bright otherworldly styles of Final Fantasy. The use of the duduk was a poor decision; the light-hearted melodies sound as if taken from another game, one with deserts, or something related to Middle Eastern climate or culture. There are also a couple of times, such as in the old quarry full of harpies, when the soundtrack features a very liberal use of the Chinese tam-tam and general cymbal percussion, which lacks flow and musical quality.

There are some times when the music is just right. Night time in forests sometimes plays a dark piece with plenty of tremolo strings and silence, and that’s close to what would’ve suited the game better — a backdrop, with harmony and textures, with less heroism and no jaunty medieval melodies. In my opinion, an intimate string orchestra with the occasional solo instrument in the arrangement should’ve been the way to go.

I know I’m being a bit hard on it, but believe me, I’m not criticising the music itself, just how well it suits the game.

The title theme

Called Assassins of Kings, the title theme is a pleasant thing to listen to, though it suffers a bit from not being right for the game’s character — again it’s very big and bombastic, which I think is too much for the character of the game. Had the composer toned down the relentless percussion and gone for something a bit more subtle, like the Dragon Age II title theme, I reckon it could’ve been excellent. The way it is now, when I hear it, it reminds me of a fantasy action-horror title, a bit like if you mixed in a hefty scoop of ObsCure with it.

The song is very dramatic, with a sheer female vocalist performing a strong, dark melody, above a continuous minor sixth ostinato. The chord changes and atonal notes in the melody are both strong and powerful, not to mention quite classic, to tell you the truth. It hangs on the initial tonic, B Minor, for a long time, and then goes to the harmonic fifth, F#, but the most interesting transition comes later when it makes a tritone skip from B Minor to F Major.

My favourite part begins at measure 25, at the end of the song, around 1:10, when the percussion finally lets off and is replaced by just the melody and harmony, and you get a taste of those really dramatic chords and the harshly passionate vocalist; very plangent, angrily, and almost mournfully too — it’s certainly a very expressive voice.

You can download the sheet music to Assassins of Kings from The Witcher 2 here:
The Witcher 2 – Assassins of Kings (Raw Transcription)
The Witcher 2 – Assassins of Kings (Raw Transcription, Concert Pitch)

Sound editing

I want to briefly mention that the handling of the sound in The Witcher 2 is really rather amateurish. It’s obvious that the different voice files do not have similar peak and RMS levels. It’s not rare for the volume to go up and down between lines and the music is often louder than the dialogue lines. I recognise FMOD when I hear it but this is on the resource level. The sound files weren’t properly edited before implementation. I’m not sure if the original Polish is better but whatever the case, CD Projekt Red should’ve put someone more competent in charge of audio.

Story and atmosphere

The story of the game is a refreshing break from the usual type of mainstream writing, in other words the kind that is either plain crap or halfway decent, if predictable. One of its most interesting features is the tendency to present the player with either an object or a conversation that is ostensibly very interesting and curious but nonetheless obtuse as to why, to later on in the game reveal the answer, which I have to say is often really quite clever. In addition to the classic “you had what you were looking for already but didn’t know it”-twist, there’s a certain dwarf that talks about a bird stealing his dream of his dead wife which is later revealed to refer to a special kind of harpy that steals and crystallises people’s dreams.

However, while the story is both compelling and imaginative, it still relies on the typical fantasy kind of mechanics. In practice, this means that the plot holes are rarely found in the story itself but rather in the magical stuff that keeps it together. The story only works because the magic of the universe functions in specific ways that often don’t make very much sense. This is a rather minor complaint all things considered, but I prefer my fantasy to stick to realism as much as is possible, instead of introducing magical artefacts and legends (practically deus ex machinas) at every turn.

Nevertheless, it’s obvious that The Witcher 2 is based on a book (namely the second book in the series The Witcher by Andrzej Sapkowski) as there are plenty of plots going on at the same time from various character perspectives. In addition to the primary plot concerning, as the title suggests, the assassinations of kings, Geralt is trying to piece together what happened to him before the story began. Yes, amnesia makes an appearance, however unlike so many other video games that have made this mistake, The Witcher 2 handles the memory loss thing better by not throwing it in the player’s face, instead skirting around it as much as possible after it’s been established.

Unfortunately, the story does contain one or two pre-fight pep talks. You know, when the leader stands in front of the demoralised soldiers, talking about death and glory to dramatic music, making them all summon courage and erupt into war chants. Given how well-handled the fantasy aspect is in every other regard, it comes off as particularly awkward, as it doesn’t belong, and nothing had previously indicated that we were in store for something like this (unlike in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim where there is overblown drama around every corner). Luckily, you can skip these cut-scenes.

Narrative mechanics

The dialogue scenes leave a bit to be desired; they’re not directed, and lack a certain narrative elegance found in games like BioWare’s Mass Effect 3. Some of the most notable examples of this include character’s eyes, Geralt’s in particular, not looking at whomever’s talking during conversations, also we get to see a lot of those random gesture animations that are kind of a half-step between static and fully directed; characters crossing their arms, looking around, walking back and forth — often rather inappropriate given the context. You can often catch the game engine popping in and out textures as the camera shifts. Sometimes, characters will even appear and disappear.

Story and exposition are neatly woven into the narrative in several ways, including cut-scenes, books, narration (by Geralt and another character named Dandelion), flashbacks and various others. They are mixed in well enough to not break the flow but the first time the other guy started narrating, it took me a bit by surprise as the story had not yet been established as a combination of Geralt’s first-person perspective and a third-person storyteller perspective by the elf Dandelion, kind of like the “story within a story” framing device from Dragon Age II in which Varric was ostensibly the one retelling everything that had happened.

A couple of times during the game, you take control of someone other than Geralt, usually someone currently unbeknownst to the player. Once it becomes clear who they are and how they’re involved in the story, it brings with it a sensation that there’s truly a lot happening, only very little actually revolves around Geralt, and people actually do stuff when you’re not around.

Speaking of that, this is a game in which you can fail quests by not doing them before a certain point in the main quest has been reached. There are also a few (only one particularly noticeable) examples when the order in which you perform a number of side quests determines whether you’ll actually be able to complete them. During Chapter II in the dwarven city of Vergen there’s a murder mystery that you only get to “solve” if you do things quickly, and in the right way.

On the whole, The Witcher 2 doesn’t bring anything entirely new to the table, but some of the mechanics are executed in fresh and interesting ways and it never feels like it almost always does when you’re playing a hub-based role-playing game. You know, you get to a place, walk around everywhere and gather up a bunch of side-quests, finish them at leisure and then move on to the main quest. That doesn’t happen here, rather most of the side-quests are woven into the main quest — unlike a few which are merely pure witchers’ work; monster hunting contracts — and are not only deep and engaging but make sense given the situation of the place you’re in. Sometimes a side-quest evolves and becomes relevant to the main quest.

Main protagonist

The character Geralt of Rivia is one of the best realised video game characters of this generation. I found myself becoming quite attached to him during the course of the game, owing largely due to his rather objectivist philosophy on the world combined with a decent set of pragmatically and personally inspired morals, rather than some pseudo-superstitious ideas of what’s right and what’s wrong. He is what is called a “witcher,” which is basically a mutated human, capable of magic, alchemy and advanced swordsmanship, trained to defeat monsters. In essence, you can replace the word witcher with monster-hunter and it would make just as much, if not more, sense.

At any rate, his role as a witcher brings with it a very appealing aspect: Geralt has access to skills and knowledge beyond what the player provides him with during the course of the game. Whilst in most RPGs, the player character will almost never be the one to answer the question about how to deal with something — you either ask someone else or you research the answer — or provide general information or lore, in The Witcher 2, Geralt often makes it perfectly clear that is a highly experienced monster hunter with prior knowledge on how to go about dealing with enemies and obstacles.

This makes him feel a lot more real and personified, like he’s truly a character in the imagined world rather than a digital extension of the player’s own consciousness. It also helps to create a strong foundation for his relentless confidence and frequent tendency to intimidate people by threatening to use their entrails as a jump rope. The expression “richly detailed” is most adequate, and can be applied liberally to most of the primary characters in the story.

There’s also a matter of Geralt’s chauvinism. I’ve not had any experience with the previous instalment in the series so my thoughts are based exclusively on the sequel. In any case, I didn’t see anything that I would qualify as chauvinism. Given the type of world and setting we’re in, combined with the time period and some dialogue lines (such as those with Cynthia) make it clear that Geralt is emotionally invested in his attractions. Rather than chauvinism, I’d say that he just follows a more open and less dogmatic kind of sexuality, much different to the one most common in modern real-world western society; people have attractions, they act on them by having lustful sex, without any baggage attached to it.

This becomes arguably a matter of definition but I find that I can relate well to Geralt’s view on sexuality, and my decision to not romance anyone other than Triss was not made because of monogamy but rather because I figured she was the only woman that my Geralt (read: me) was interested in. Had the game allowed me to plough Saskia, I probably would’ve. But I digress.

Gameplay and mechanics

At heart, The Witcher 2 is a classic-style RPG that shares some of its mechanics with the hack’n’slash model. Fighting is done by performing fast and heavy swings with the left and right mouse buttons, respectively, and also by casting magic, picked from a radial menu that appears by holding Ctrl. There’s also blocking/parrying, with the option to riposte, as well as finishing moves that become available by charging an adrenaline meter by attacking enemies. Alchemy is used in two ways. First, to make bombs that do everything from stun to burn opponents, and second, prior to battle, you can drink potions to strengthen yourself, as well as apply things like oil to your swords for special effects.

More often than not, the combat is fast, fluid, fun and very satisfying. The animation is both imaginative and excellent. I’ve also never played a game that had such good-looking weapons. Every single sword you can acquire is very handsomely conceptualised and modelled. The metal shines beautifully in light sources unlike anything I’ve seen before. In this aspect, The Witcher 2 stands very high above recent titles like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and even personal favourites of mine like Dragon Age: Origins. The weapon design doesn’t bother itself with lavish and complicated designs and the swords actually look like they were made to kill things rather than to appear fantasy-like — they’re proportional, both in length and width, and they look good. To any other game developer wanting to make fantasy weaponry, here’s a modelling team to learn from.

As fresh and well-designed as the gameplay is, however, there are some poor ideas and executions mixed in. But, at worst they’re minor inconveniences that seldom occur; they don’t colour or affect the entire gameplay as a whole.

Unskippable cut-scenes

I keep coming back to this topic. I don’t know how many more times this needs to be said: The player should never, ever, be forced to sit through any non-interactive gameplay section of any kind.

To be fair, The Witcher 2 is a minor offender. All long cut-scenes and dialogues are completely skippable. It’s only a certain kind of intermediary cut-scene that the player is forced to watch, and they’re often quite short. The rule still stands, however; the programmers should’ve extended the skipping feature to all cut-scenes, without exception.

The only time when the player should not be allowed to skip a cut-scene is when there are quick-time events in it. This more or less disqualifies it as a non-interactive gameplay section, but it’s worth mentioning. For a flawless execution of this, look no further than Resident Evil 5.

Quick-time events

Whilst we’re on the subject of QTEs, The Witcher 2 does something that I’ve yet to see in any other game, placing each of the icon indicators (the ones that tell you which button to press) in its own area of the screen. In other words, you can tell which button to press by recognising where on the screen the indicator is, and not just by “reading” the icon. This, unfortunately, has both good and bad effects.

It’s an example of a good idea beset by poor execution. The good is during fist fights, which are all cut-scenes with quick-time events. Only the movement keys (WASD) are used. The placement of the indicators appears to be based on a sideways rhombus, either centred vertically or slightly above (I think it’s the latter). At any rate, the human eyes are more adept at noticing where something than they are at recognising relatively small, intricate shapes. In this case, capital letters. This means that the fist fights don’t suffer much from merely being QTEs. Once you get used to the placement, it’s not difficult to succeed without so much as reading any of the indicators.

The bad comes during every other circumstance. During regular cut-scenes, there are only three buttons; the left and right mouse buttons and the space bar. They’re positioned on the lower side of the screen in a similar rhombus-shaped pattern. The problem here is that the regular cut-scenes that have QTEs in them are not only short but also infrequent. When fist fighting, you’re faced with the QTEs several times in a row, and each fight last for 20 seconds or more. This means that you get repeated practice and you get used to the pattern. In all other cases, there’s just not enough of either to make the placement scheme anything other than a nuisance.

The Witcher 2 should not have had QTEs in its boss fight cut-scenes. Unlike in the God of War series where QTEs are a significant part of the gameplay mechanics, here they’re just thrown in, less than half a dozen times throughout the entire game. The first time a QTE popped up during a cut-scene, I almost missed it, because I’d been playing for hours and I hadn’t seen one yet so I wasn’t expecting them. The placement made things even worse because not only did I not know where the indicator was going to pop up, I had to decipher which button to press.

The QTEs aren’t difficult by any stretch of the imagination but they have a solely negative effect on the gameplay experience. By all means, use them in the fist fighting mini-game, that works fine, but they should not have been part of the regular cut-scenes. At the very least, they should have enlarged the indicators significantly and put it them all in the centre of the screen. The way it’s done now does little but penalise those who like to sit back and enjoy the boss-killing cut-scenes.

Changing the rules

Another criticism, this time a rather large one, I have of the cut-scenes is that on rare occasion, they’ll suddenly change the rules of the game for narrative purposes. The most notable example of this is the first fight with one of the primary antagonists, the witcher Letho. During the fight, you’ll almost certainly dodge several fire and force magic attacks. It’s not difficult to roll out of the way of them. Moreover, getting struck by either doesn’t kill you (unless your health is low), and, most importantly, if you survive getting struck by one, you do not end up disarmed and on the ground, too beaten up to move. You’re also likely to have a Quen sign active most of the time, which is a barrier that completely stops a single attack, physical, magical or otherwise.

In spite of all this, when you reduce Letho’s health to the halfway mark, all of sudden he strikes you with a magic spell that cripples and disarms you, making you lose the fight. When this happened to me, I was actually a bit insulted. I had been deftly out-manoeuvring the guy, striking at his back when his shield dropped and then rolling away, keeping a Quen sign up at all times; he hadn’t laid a single hand on me. And then all of sudden I lose the fight?

Way to cheapen my playing skills and take a big bite out of the sensation that I have some level of control over where this story is going. The boss fight left me real sour and feeling somewhat betrayed. Look, guys, a supposed-to-lose fight is a tricky thing. Rule of thumb: don’t do them. They were originally used to make opponents feel more threatening, usually in turn-based RPGs. Consider the first with with Gades in Lufia II. Unless you had spent hours upon hours of levelling your characters, you have next to no chance of winning; the dude would smash you to bits. This to make him feel like the super powerful enemy he was supposed to be.

Things have evolved since then. You need to be delicate about these things or you’ll damage the image you’re trying to build up of your main character. In this particular case, the developers should have made it an interrupted fight with no winner. What they did do is sloppy and ham-handed, especially since I thrashed the guy even more easily at the very end.

But even then they decided to make Letho get a good hit in on Geralt in the end cut-scene, even though he’d hit nothing but air through the entire fight. It didn’t even take me more than a single attempt. At least it’s plausible this time around, but I still would’ve liked it if the cut-scene reflected how my skills during the fight had been clearly superior to his.

Combat and targeting

As I mentioned before, the combat in The Witcher 2 is almost exclusively competent and I have very little against it. After playing through the game, there are only three things that I think could’ve been done better. The first is rather small, and it concerns the targeting. This applies perhaps in greater extent to non-combat targeting. At any rate, the camera angle is, as usual, the primary tool used to convey what you want to be hitting. Sometimes this doesn’t flow all that well. When you’re swordfighting, it doesn’t matter so much, but if you’re trying to strike a very specific enemy with a magic spell or a bomb, it can get quite difficult. Also, like I said, targeting items out of combat is also not very well programmed. You often have to stand in specific spots and look in the right direction, and not necessarily the one that makes the most sense.

The second criticism is that whenever Geralt strikes and enemy that is either blocking or has a shield up, he’ll stand still, completely unable to move, as if he’d just swung his sword onto solid stone with all his might. This is understandable and a natural reaction that shouldn’t be removed, but he stands still for far too long. If it happens when you’re fighting multiple enemies at once, you’re likely to find yourself completely stun-locked for roughly two agonising seconds watching all the other opponents bifurcate your witcher ass. They should’ve made the delay shorter, or at least let Geralt move slowly. Perhaps then it wouldn’t feel as though he’s both an expertly skilled acrobatic swordsman and a crotchety old man with a fragile hip.

The third concerns the bombs. To use one, you select which bomb you want to use in the radial menu, look at an enemy or in any direction whether something’s there or not and then press R. Geralt will pull out a bomb and chuck it at your target. This sounds simple and straightforward but not only is it really awkward but I suspect it’s probably even broken to a certain extent. You see, sometimes after pressing R, Geralt will freeze in place, unable to move, and wait for several seconds before throwing the bomb. I’m not sure why this happens but I think it has something to do with a lingering animation that fails to complete in time, suspending all further input until the action is completed.

Since The Witcher 2 works on a rather persistent queueing system for all commands, it’s impossible to interrupt what you’re doing, or to even cancel it. If you press quick load twice in close succession, the game will diligently do it twice in a row, whereas you’d expect it to cancel any subsequent input after the quick load button was pressed. At any rate, the bomb throwing mechanic should’ve been as smooth and flowing as in Thief: Deadly Shadows, in which Garrett can easily toss out a flash or gas grenade whilst fighting or running, without him having to stop dead in his tracks to slowly pull out the bomb and then chuck it.

Oh, I almost forgot. There’s one other small thing. The Witcher 2 does just what Dragon Age: Origins did, in that you’re only allowed to loot enemies’ bodies several seconds after the fight is over. What this means is that after almost every single fight, I found myself standing in sullen silence for five seconds waiting for the game to realise that all the enemies were dead. I’m not sure why it was done this way but it is obtrusive enough to affect the flow of the game.

In closing

The Witcher 2 is definitely a video game that qualifies as a work of art and I’m excited to catch the next instalment. I hope that with their new money and experience, CD Projekt Red will be able to offer an experience that is as fresh and relishing as The Witcher 2 whilst also being as mechanically polished as the second and third Mass Effect titles.

All the best,
Daniel

My music, elsewhere:

© Raniel Dan MMXX.