Review: 'Witcher 2' casts a spell on the Xbox 360

Associated Press Published: April 26, 2012

There's always an element within any role-playing game that fans of the genre will gripe about.

While last year's "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" was lauded for a beautiful and expansive open world, it was slammed by others for its somewhat bland combat. On the other hand, "Dark Souls" was hailed for a brutally difficult combat system yet dismissed by those seeking colorful characters and a tangled web of folklore.

"The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings" (Warner Bros., for the Xbox 360, $59.99), with a nearly flawless combination of deep, nonlinear storytelling and challenging combat, satisfies all around. One of 2011's most popular and critically acclaimed PC games, it comes to the Xbox in a robust "Enhanced Edition" full of bonus content.

Playing as the witcher Geralt of Rivia — a mutant who "slays monsters for coin" — you are quickly immersed in a complicated world of political intrigue where loyalties are tested and back stabbing is frequent. With only fragments of his memory intact, Geralt is accused of assassinating the king and seeks the true killer to clear his name.

Beyond the main storyline are plenty of colorful characters who need help, so you can pick up monster-hunting jobs here and there — or you can just sit around drinking and arm-wrestling for money.

The enjoyable quest log is written from an outsider's perspective, and the pieces are slowly put together based on the decisions you make. These choices have significant weight, and even those that seem small could have a huge effect on the story as you battle your way toward one of 16 possible endings.

Combat is fast-paced, and the Xbox translation has very responsive controls. The magic spells, called "signs," work well in tandem with the swordplay. You can cast a sign to protect yourself or throw a ball of flame, but the most amusing sign turns enemies against each other: Hit three foes in succession and enjoy the mayhem.

As you gain experience you earn talent points to spend on three skill trees: swordsmanship, alchemy or magic. The variations are many, making for high replay value. There's also an intense "Dark Mode" that must be played to unlock even more quests and content. An "Elder Scrolls"-type alchemy system requires you to collect ingredients and formulas to make powerful potions, and you can also collect items to craft and upgrade weapons and armor.

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