Note: I wrote this up 5 years ago and intended to publish it, but I guess it got lost on the cutting room floor. My bad!
In Witcher 2, you have 2 swords, steel and silver (for humans and monsters respectively), and 5 spells you can cast: Aard, Axii, Igni, Quen, and Yrden.
Aard and Igni are projectiles, dealing damage/stun on impact. Igni deals more damage and burns the target for damage over time. Aard knocks the target back, stunning them, knocking them down, or dizzying them, setting up for a 1-hit kill. Quen is a shield that will block 1 hit’s worth of damage. Axii will convert one enemy into an ally temporarily, but needs to be channeled over time and has a chance to fail. Yrden places a trap on the ground that will stun an enemy who steps on it, holding them in place until it wears off or they are hit out of it. There are upgrades to each of these, Aard and Igni gain range and area of effect, Quen can reflect damage back onto opponents, Axii buffs the opponents you control, and Yrden lets you place multiple traps.
Almost every enemy in the entire game follows a similar template, they run at you, do attacks straight ahead of them, will not rotate while performing attacks, sometimes block moves that hit them from the front, and you can get behind them to deal double damage to their back.
This means fighting enemies is generally a process of rolling around them to get to their backside and hitting them for as much as you can. This can be accomplished by baiting them into doing attacks and moving while they’re occupied. This method of play, rolling behind enemies to backstab them with Quen shields up, is how all the best players play the game, and encouraged by the game design on multiple levels.
The Frustration of Geralt’s Random Attacks
Geralt’s attacks are the same with his steel and silver swords. He can swing light and heavy attacks. Heavy attacks usually have a longer windup and deal twice as much damage, but sometimes they come out quickly, and sometimes light attacks come out more slowly than heavy attacks. Sometimes during a light attack, Geralt will spin and hit 3 times, dealing more damage than a heavy attack. When you are far from an enemy, you will do a lunging attack of some sort, closing the gap. This is sensitive to distance. It could be a jumping stab (mid distance), a roll into an upwards slice or stab (far distance), or a step forward while spinning(close distance). Some of these attack as soon as you reach the enemy, some reach the enemy quickly and take a while to actually attack them.
There are a bunch of closer range attacks Geralt can do on enemies. Exactly which one he does is unknowable. It does not seem to be tied to distance, the direction held, or follow a set order. Sometimes he will do the spinning attack with 3 hits twice in a row, sometimes he’ll do an attack with a long windup. If someone can show me them doing the spinning attack 10 times in a row, and explain how the hell they did it, I might admit that there’s some consistency to it, but I think it’s beyond the average player to figure this out.
There seem to be patterns to which attack Geralt will perform, but I cannot discern them, and neither can literally anyone else who plays the games. I have been unable to find any guide that explains how to produce each attack consistently, and none of my friends who like the games can explain how to do so either.
Many attacks are animated to slash in such a way that they will miss their opponents, such as slashing high up in the air in an arc that won’t connect with anything and if you end up using one of these and don’t happen to be right in the enemy’s face, you’re out of luck. Sometimes you’re out of luck and will miss even if you are in the enemy’s face. It’s like they tried to animate paired animations from Batman, but then went with hitboxes instead, combining the disadvantages of both systems!
Everything is Unsafe on Block, and Blocking is Random!
Of the enemies that can block, you can never be certain if they’re blocking or not. Enemies can initiate blocking instantly, even during certain other animations, such as drawing their sword, attacking, or even hitstun! If you hit an enemy that is blocking, you will rebound off their shield. This recoil animation lasts longer than the windup of their attacks, so if they block one of your attacks, you’re going to eat an attack more often than not. You can get out of this recoil animation more quickly by blocking, but that’s of limited effectiveness, and still not a guarantee.
This means that frequently you cannot be sure if an enemy you’re hitting will block, and if they decide to block, you’ll be punished for it. It is also possible for your sword to clash with the opponent’s when they attack at the same time as you, also causing you to recoil, which is dangerous if there are multiple opponents.
This uncertainty of whether an enemy will block or not helps feed into the dominant strategy: Bait enemies to attack so they cannot turn around, roll behind them, and backstab them for big damage. There is a minor fault however, that if an enemy finishes an animation while you’re attacking them from behind, they have the capability to rotate to face you instantly without warning, so if you attack too many times or get the wrong animation, or the enemy isn’t actually stunned, you might hit their block anyway.
Even with enemies that cannot block, it is still best to hit from behind, because it deals more damage, and because they frequently won’t be stunned by your attacks, super armoring through them. When? It is uncertain and unpredictable.
Wraiths can randomly phase through attacks and counter attack, even if caught in a combo. Rotfiends can do similar with super armor. It’s best not to even risk attacking them from the front and simply bait attacks or stun them, then catch their backside.
Additionally, animations for many enemies can sometimes be fast, difficult to discern, or unnoticeable. They can slip between Geralt’s practically random attacks. All of this leads to many players taking the safe bet and attacking at the back, where they don’t need to bother with difficult to interpret animations for attacking, blocking, and dodging; or deal with Geralt’s random attacks coming out in a way that leaves you at a disadvantage.
Quen helps this out, acting as a safety net in case you do get hit. You can always use Quen, fight for a bit, and run away until you have a chance to refresh it. Quen is balanced a little by reducing the rate your spells charge, but given it’s nigh impossible to play consistently otherwise, it helps avoid a lot of the consequences of a bad roll of the dice. If you’re behind them, then they probably won’t block, they probably can’t counter attack, so you’re much more safe, even if you get a slow attack or miss outright due to bad luck. In the rare case they flip around and block you, or super armor or dodge through your attack, Quen acts as a safety net and just requires you run away for a bit to recharge it.
That said, this style of play is reasonably fun, but not fun is the way that more straightforward tactics are discouraged. It’s cool to bait attacks and use positioning and the fast and fluid roll to get around enemies, however frequently enemies were capable of rotating during some attacks and states, the rules not being very consistently applied overall. Attempting to bait attacks frequently went awry, especially during the story fights where you were not permitted to roll.
Still, there’s something I like about the idea of using just positioning and movement to get around enemies, especially with the upgraded dodge that goes 3 times as far as the normal one and lets you steer it the whole time. The devs were cognizant enough to allow the followthrough of heavy attacks to cancel into light attacks or rolling, which is pleasant for hit and run tactics, as well as keeping enemies in stun when only a bit of extra damage is necessary.
A Promising Sign
The various signs are fun to use and have a fair amount of tactical application for crowd control and in individual combat with enemies. I mostly focused on Aard and Yrden in my playthrough; Aard being my workhorse, breaking blocks, helping me position around enemies, stunning multiple enemies at a time and dizzying them randomly to get instant kills. Yrden helped me with crowd control, and occasionally with enemies that didn’t want to cooperate with Aard.
Some enemies, even while stunned, can still rotate to point their shields towards you. This is especially obvious and annoying with the animation where shielded enemies get down on one knee, only being vulnerable from behind. But it’s frequently impossible to get behind them, because they always face towards you no matter how quickly you roll around them. They need to be facing away before this animation plays in order to actually hit them from behind, knocking them down and scoring more damage. More frustrating is that hitting them in this state will cause them to get up, and force you into recoil.
Yrden was helpful for stunning these enemies and holding them in place for backstabs. If not aiming for backstabs, Aard almost always allowed 2 free hits on enemies with shields. Igni was less useful than Aard, as it could not dizzy enemies, and stunned them for less time, meaning I got less damage than a few heavy attacks, and couldn’t set them up to backstab, but it was occasionally useful as a low-risk way to finish off weakened enemies. I didn’t find Axii particularly useful due to the long time it took to cast and high rate of failure.
I did not use Quen during my playthrough (self-imposed challenge), but from experimentation, I do respect that it limits the rate your vigor charges so that it’s not completely broken.
The Feel is Jank
Instant kills are implemented extremely sloppily in Witcher 2. When an enemy is dizzied for an instant kill, the camera cuts away to an empty version of the scene where Geralt does a finisher move. The weird thing about this is, the enemies around Geralt are not paused while this is happening, and will continue to move and fight invisibly around him. Very frequently this means cutting back from the instant kill to instantly have a monster’s claw in your face before you can block or dodge.
Additionally, holding block during the instant kill cutscene will not block as soon as you come out, the button must be pressed after the cutscene has ended to actually block. Even if you’re lucky enough to not have an attack waiting for you as you get out, the positioning of enemies will shift around you while instant killing, so you don’t know where to dodge to avoid the next attack when you get out, you may think you’re dodging away from where the enemies were, only to find they’ve warped behind you. Sometimes you will hit an enemy in the dizzy state and they will die instantly, not even playing the cutscene. It’s perplexing and frustrating.
The quality of visual feedback in Witcher 2 is miserable. There is no hitstop on attacks, frequently blood would not fly on successful attacks, and hitstun will not play, these two are especially noticeable during your roll, where the only sign you took damage sometimes is that your health bar lowered. There is also a glitch where you can roll, take damage, and finish your roll then even run a little ways before realizing you have 0 health and are dead.
The animations across the game are poor, lacking in the exaggeration necessary to sell the impact of blows, which ends up feeling limp, and looking like kids drunkenly playing with sticks. This quality is constant across all the game’s animations, not just the combat ones. An awkward floatiness, like the characters are always slightly jiggling for the sake of continuing to move, with no weight to their motions.
Exaggeration is counterintuitively necessary to make a motion feel realistic, and more importantly, sell the feeling of impact or force for a motion. Animators attempting to make a realistic looking motion may be inclined to not exaggerate, but this makes the motion look awkward more than realistic. The lack of distinct visual feedback in Witcher 2 can make it difficult to know whether attacks connected, how much damage they hit for, and whether the enemy is blocking or counter attacking.
The user interface is also frequently a mess. Things in menus often refuse to be highlighted by the mouse or clicked upon until they are properly highlighted. There’s no central menu to access your inventory, journal, map, and character development, instead requiring you to remember the keys for each of these menus. There is also no way to bind keys ingame, so you cannot check which keys these are bound to either.
Also oddly, your character development menu will not allow you to upgrade skills unless accessed through the meditation menu, which has a weird slow transition animation to access, rather than showing up instantly. When picking up items, your cursor could appear anywhere on the screen, and this menu does not respond to key presses, so you need to frequently move the mouse and click to pick up items rather than quickly pressing keys, or having the mouse start in the same place every time the menu is opened. Annoyingly, the interact button is the same button as attack, so if your weapon is out, you may accidentally attack when trying to interact, especially if trying to loot a large number of bodies or crates.
Witcher 2 is an exercise in frustration, sometimes being comically easy, sometimes being intensely frustrating when your attack gets blocked or misses for no reason and an enemy crits you. It has the foundation of a fun combat dynamic between its spells, enemy template, and roll, but is hideously inconsistent all around. I give it a 5/10, because the optimal way to play does mitigate a lot of the randomness and has the spark of something fun, but also because it is still incredibly flawed across the board.