A brave young man is prepared to charge into battle donning little more than a magic amulet and a pair of tighty-whities. You, venerable witcher, can respond in one of three ways: You can tell the man, Newboy, that this is a bad idea; you can feign ignorance toward the danger he so obviously faces; or you can assure him that of course the amulet will protect him from harm. In The Witcher 2, even the most ostensibly minor choices are crucial to consider.
But whether Newboy lives or dies is of little consequence when compared to the larger decisions that shape the future of The Continent. Sorceresses wage war on one another via subterfuge and deceit, while freedom fighters are unwillingly wrenched into their primal, draconic forms. Various rebel factions are at odds with each other and the states they attempt to overthrow, while kings kill or are killed in rapid succession.
And yet Newboy’s quandary is still one piece in a puzzle of cosmic proportions. The Witcher 2 understands, perhaps more so than any other RPG (including its world-renowned sequel), that choices don’t matter half as much when they are exclusively posed in response to world-defining events. This is why when it comes to The Witcher 4 — or whatever it ends up being called — it’s important to look at Geralt’s second video game outing as closely as his third one, if not even more so.
One thing The Witcher 2 achieves to an unprecedented degree is veil the importance of its decisions. It’s not just difficult to predict the consequences of your choices — it’s nigh impossible to make even a vague estimate of their scale. This is compounded by the fact The Witcher 2’s stories genuinely branch out. It’s not just a case of a character surviving in your save and dying in mine — it’s a case of us playing completely different games. If The Witcher 4 wants to truly push the envelope when it comes to modern RPG design, it would do well to take inspiration not just from the Velen we know and love, but also the Vergen you ought to go back and explore.
The most famous example of The Witcher 2’s narrative prowess is the hard split in Act 2. Earlier in the game, you’ll already have met Iorveth, leader of the Scoia’tael rebels, and Vernon Roche, a commander in the Temerian Blue Stripes militia. At this point, The Witcher 2 is sliced in half — either you proceed with Iorveth as a champion of the downtrodden, or you fight for Roche and the Temerian cause. Both callings are noble and worthy, and both inevitably lead to death and destruction, ultimately determining which characters you can save during the denouement, as well as the overarching world state at the end of your adventure.
At this point you’ll likely already have established which character you prefer, having been tasked with either capturing Iorveth or giving him his sword in Act 1. This soon becomes a strikingly good example of the unforeseeable ramifications of your choices in The Witcher 2 — while the decision initially only appears to affect whether you’re best buds with Iorveth or Roche, it unexpectedly yet directly influences whether the civilian population of an entire city survives.
What’s more, this isn’t even the ending — it happens during the midway point of the game and can’t be reversed later. While the various end states of The Witcher 3 are distinct and generally impactful, The Witcher 2 is willing to dance with darkness as if it’s front-row at a ‘90s Nine Inch Nails show.
When you make this choice between Iorveth and Roche, you have no way of knowing that the rest of the game is about to change dramatically and irrevocably — especially because you already had to pick between these two characters on a prior occasion. You also won’t learn about how different things can be until you choose your opportunity cost in an all-new playthrough, which affords The Witcher 2 an enormous degree of replayability that trumps even that of its widely lauded sequel.
This is attributable to the fact that there’s a muted ingenuity within The Witcher 2’s narrative branches that people rarely pay attention to. For example, after the first choice you make between Iorveth and Roche — the one that doesn’t lock you into the endgame — you can kill a character named Loredo as part of Iorveth’s path, which leads to the interesting scenario of fulfilling Roche’s goals while technically being allied with Iorveth, embittering the latter in the process. The level of nuance in The Witcher 2 is wild, to the extent that even minor actions within major allegiances can actually be aligned with the counterfactuals you specifically chose against — playing fast and loose with alliances is genuinely an option, which isn’t always the case in The Witcher 3 or other blockbuster RPGs. Put plainly, you’re playing both sides so you always come out on top.
Because of this uniquely well-executed setup, The Witcher 2 is essentially a game and a half in that it has two back halves on top of its (relatively) common first one. That’s before you even begin to think about the many ways in which you can tailor your chosen path to your own liking and morality. It is frankly absurd how this game, which launched in 2011, is still yet to be matched in terms of its ambitious approach to meaningful branching. I personally can’t think of any better way to kick off a new saga than for people all over the world to have fundamentally different experiences in their first playthrough, only to come together and collectively experiment during subsequent ones. Who’s going to find the drunken neck tattoo this time?
It’s also worth examining what exactly can happen depending on the individual decisions you make. Your choices can provide mages with a strong foothold in the Northern Kingdoms. They can either further or dismantle the encroaching Nilfgaardian conquest. They can lead to characters being fatally wounded or, in unique cases, surviving against all odds. There are rebel queens, witch hunts, untethered dragons capable of raining sweltering hellfire on the denizens below.
But the beauty of The Witcher 2 is that it’s not all about the world-shattering consequences of major decisions. You can also become best pals with a troll, help some guy with his chicken cosplay, and — we weren’t joking earlier — get everyone’s favorite witcher some egregiously flashy neck ink. These aren’t branching choices insofar as they are memorable moments from easily missed side-quests, but they’re worth mentioning all the same. The point is that almost everything in The Witcher 2 is worthwhile, to the extent that missing anything will make your experience with the game drastically different from that of other players. It’s not that strong side-quests are original — it’s that minor yet unforgettable side-quests further distinguish a heavily choice-based story from similar but ultimately different versions of itself.
While Act 2’s ultimatum may be what the game is remembered for, every single decision leading to and following it is just as worthy of celebration. When you consider the ambition and quality of The Witcher 2, it becomes much clearer to see why The Witcher 3 — which The Witcher 2 set the stage for — is often considered the greatest game of all time. If The Witcher 4 wants to usurp it, then, it’s pretty clear that it needs to take lessons from both.
I mean, there’s a reason why it’s so important to simulate your save in The Witcher 3. It can ensure the survival of Letho, the regicidal witcher from the School of the Viper in the previous game and one of The Witcher 3’s best characters overall. You can also influence how various characters perceive you, such as Triss, Roche, Philippa, and more. This aspect of the game obviously isn’t unique to either The Witcher 2 or The Witcher 3 — you can lock Wrex out of Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 if you’re an idiot, for example — but it’s still worth acknowledging alongside its more original efforts. Everything works in conjunction with everything else.
The Witcher 2 weaves a masterful web of narrative dilemmas that are all invisibly interconnected in various degrees of importance. The fact you aren’t privy to which choices are linked is the main reason every single one feels so critical. It doesn’t really matter if you send Newboy into the fray with nothing more than his Calvins on — but by God will you start worrying about whether or not doing so will come back to bite you when a sorceress-controlled dragon starts battering Loc Muinne. That’s the real beauty of The Witcher 2: expensive underwear and fire-breathing lizards.
And the branching narratives, obviously. Here’s hoping we see their impact on whatever CD Projekt Red has cooking sooner rather than later.