I’ve spent the last month getting familiar with The Witcher, by which I mean I’ve spent nearly 80 hours playing through the first two installments and slowly settling in with the third. I could probably write a novel about how realized and fleshed out the world of The Witcher is, but not only would that take a long time, I specifically want to talk about the combat and how it drastically changes with each entry. While the three games may have returning characters, locations, and monster types to slay, the combat changes, with each game building on the blueprint left by its predecessor.
In the first Witcher, combat plays out almost rhythmically. When you attack an enemy, it starts your first attack animation. An animation typically consists of a few swings of your sword (although the amount of moves in the animation can be increased later) or a snazzy front flip. During an animation, an icon of a silver sword will appear on the enemy you’re facing, symbolizing that you’re in the middle of an attack. For a split second after the attack, the icon will quickly flash orange and have a flame around it. Successfully clicking the attack button during this flash will launch you into the next attack of the combo, but clicking too early or too late will result in a fumble, leaving you vulnerable to enemy attacks.
You can also switch between stances, which alter the way you swing your sword and changes the timing of your attack animations. Heavy stance is perfect for armored foes wielding shields, Fast stance is great for light armor wearers and weaker monsters, and Group stance is a lifesaver when you get surrounded. Not only do you have to monitor which stances are best for whichever situation you’re in, you have to memorize the timing and rhythm of the attacks in each stance. Keeping the rhythm going in order to successfully string along powerful combos makes the combat feel tense, especially since you’re punished for messing up.
In the sequel, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, the combat has a more traditional feel. Instead of stances and rhythm, you have a simple heavy/light attack system. With each click of the mouse (or press of a button, if you’re playing the Xbox 360 version) you swing your sword. Clicking or pressing further will continue your attack into a combo, which is pretty much the standard for most third-person melee combat in video games. However, unlike the first game, Assassins of Kings has an extra emphasis on defensive maneuvers, making you rely on rolling away from enemy attacks or blocking with your sword.
While this all works really well, it’s nothing that you’ve never seen before. In fact, you could argue that combat in the sequel actually feels like a step backwards from the originality of the rhythm based combat of the first game. I imagine the decision to go in this direction was made to make the game accessible to a larger audience, but I can’t help but feel that something special was lost in the process. It’s easier to pick up The Witcher 2, but the original is ultimately more satisfying.
There’s also significantly less combat in The Witcher 2. In the first game, I was constantly facing a plethora of soldiers and monsters, but I spent a large amount of the sequel in conversations and exploring large areas that house only a handful of enemies. Perhaps the developers just wanted to keep of the pace moving swiftly, but I was shocked by the decrease in combat.
Thankfully, The Witcher 3 finds near perfection by mixing the combat system of the two previous games. While primarily following in the path of the more accessible Assassins of Kings, it doesn’t feel as generic. You have the more direct sword swinging combat of the second game, but there’s also a degree of calculation and timing to each strike that makes combat feel more deliberate and thoughtful. You can’t easily cancel an attack animation to enter a block, so you need to play defensively until you can find an opening. There’s a weight to each blow and you shouldn’t move in for an attack unless you know you have enough time to land the blow successfully. I’m only 10 hours into the game, but so far it’s reminding me of Dark Souls. The dance of circling an enemy to learn their attack patterns and range, the weight of your weapons, and the deliberate nature of each and every blow is as engaging as it is deadly.
It’s also worth bringing up Signs, which are magical abilities you can use in the heat of battle. There’s a total of five of them and they’re present in all three games and utilize the same effects in each game. Aard blasts away enemies and barriers with a concentrated force of air, Igni lights torches and sets foes ablaze, Yrden creates a magical trap, Quen casts a protective shield around yourself, and Axii allows you to manipulate minds. The Signs worked perfectly as supportive tools in case I messed up combos in the first game, but I found the second game easy enough to clear through by just spamming your sword attacks over and over. However, Signs really shine in The Witcher 3, where they can often be the deciding factor in whether or not you survive a fight. Being able to place a magic trap or shield yourself is quite often the only difference between life and death.
I’m sure my opinions on the combat in The Witcher 3 will evolve as I play it more, but I’m impressed with what I’ve currently encountered. It’s actually been awesome to play the games this close to each other, since I’ve been able to get a very good grasp on how the combat has changed with each installment. I also love seeing the DNA from the first two games fuse together and form the blueprint for the third. If you’ve played these games, I’d love to hear what you thought about the progression of combat in the series, so feel free to leave a comment below!
– Zack Burrows