How many dead kings is too many dead kings? That's the question at the heart of The Witcher 2: Assassins Of Kings. I mean, the clue's in the title. Perhaps the bigger question is, will you join the ranks of the titular monarch manglers? And it's a doozy of a question. In a world already destabilised by a rush of regicides, what happens when one of the last reg-es standing is a baddie? It pitches Geralt’s king-saving mission against your moral code and makes for one of gaming’s greatest moral quandaries. And the really crazy bit? There's a 50/50 chance you'll never see it at all.
You see, this particular problem arises at the end of Chapter Two, an act entirely defined by a decision made at the end of Chapter One. Whether you side with forest folk, the Scoia’tael, or their quite-racist (but infinitely better dressed) oppressors, the Blue Stripes, decides which side of a subsequent war Geralt ends up fighting on. And this isn't an arbitrary army reskin, or waved away with expository cleverness, but becomes the meat of the game. Bespoke missions, exclusive maps, consequences that’ll echo through this story and the next… it’s a fracturing of the timeline on a scale than most sane designers would run from.
In effect, it’s two campaigns for the price of one - and the stories branch out even further once you're in your respective camp. It's the only RPG I've played four times and had a genuinely distinct experience every time. Dragon Age's origin stories have a similar vibe, but are nowhere near as thorough. So, yes: if you played it once, you might not ever have to deal with the naughty king in question. (I’m deliberately avoiding naming him for obvious spoiler reasons. But those who have played the game will surely agree that letting him go with mind to bring him down in The Witcher 3, only for the sod to die off-screen, was disappointing.)
The Witcher 2 is considerably shorter and more linear than its successor. As much as I miss the wafty trees of those later, open fields, I love how the shorter runtime channels you between its diverging storylines more efficiently. When you've built two whole campaigns, keeping the length to a polite 25 hours means people are more likely to see both. But more than a simple bang for your buck proposition, the Chapter Two split is a chance to get to know every character, friend and foe (then reversed when you swap sides), in a level of detail rarely afforded by these stories. Try walking a mile in their shoes before you lop off their feet with a steel sword, and all that. I’ve spent much longer in other worlds, sure, but there are few I know as well The Witcher 2.
I’d like to see CD Projekt Red embrace that brevity again; to see that a story full of consequence is sometimes best told quickly, to encourage the retelling. Make Cyberpunk 2077 20 hours long, but the densest 20 hours in videogame history. Failing that, at least give me a terrible cyber-king to chuck down a cyber-well. I still feel bad for letting The Witcher 2’s rancid reg off the hook. (If you want to see if you’re made of sterner stuff, best play the Enhanced Edition, available on GOG and Steam.)