The Witcher is one of the biggest fantasy franchises of all time. It started with a simple short story written by Andrzej Sapkowski which grew to a book series, and now it’s a massive multimedia empire.
A large part in this explosive growth on the English-speaking markets was played by the wildly successful video game series developed by CD Projekt Red.
The Witcher games follow up a few years after the events of Lady of the Lake, the fifth and chronologically last book of the series. Geralt returned to the world amnesiac and weakened, and spent most of the first game reforging some of the lost relationships. The Witcher 1 was fun, but very different from the games which came after, and it’s best treated as a curiosity, at least until the remake actually gets off the ground.
Instead, let’s focus on the next two installments, as they found solid footing in third-person action gameplay and a more modern RPG presentation. Despite their obvious similarities, they remain, however, quite different from one another, and appealing to different tastes. We won’t tell you which one is better, but we will help you decide which game fits your preferences closer.
So, to channel the rhetoric of a certain scrappy kid from the books, let’s not occupy the outhouse anymore and get to the gist.
|The Witcher: Enhanced Edition||2008-09-16||39%|
|The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition||2011-05-17||86%|
|The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt GOTY||2015-05-18||65%|
|Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales||2018-11-09||61%|
|The Witcher Trilogy Pack||2015-05-18||74%|
Graphics and Audio
Let’s rip off this band-aid right away: if you’re after top-tier graphics, you won’t be satisfied with The Witcher 2.
It doesn’t look bad by any measure, as it’s carried by strong designs, but you won’t find DLSS, RTX, 4k, and other fancy options in its settings. It was released in 2011, so it’s over a decade old at this point, and it shows. It might have aged well, but it has aged nonetheless.
In comparison, The Witcher 3 is not only a few years younger, but it also received a nifty next-gen graphics update, bringing the 2016 game closer to 2023 standards, with all the cool initialisms and numbers mentioned before, and a few more. It looks lovely, with rich colors, detailed textures, everything you could have hoped for.
Now that we got that settled, let’s move on to more interesting things.
Both games are very different in their structure.
The Witcher 2 could be described as a mostly linear progression through hubs. It doesn’t have the freely explorable world of TW3, instead as the plot progresses, you’re taken to a different central location surrounded by a reasonably sized area focused on a manageable number of well-developed quests. Once you leave an area, it’s for good, no going back, which might be restrictive, but it gives the game a strong structure and gives the plot a good pace. There is plenty of combat, but eventually, you run out of things to do and kill and need to push the plot forward, way before you forget who’s who and what’s what.
On the other hand, the maps of The Witcher 3 are large, and full of both story-oriented quests and a ton of side activities peppered across the maps: bandit camps, monster nests, lost contraband, and the like. In the core game, there are two large maps, and two smaller ones, all unlocked at different points of the plot, but they remain available for quick travel forever more. Thanks to the scale, The Witcher 3 is much better at letting you just be in the world and explore, although the pacing of the plot can suffer due to the freedom of exploration. Neither game has a ton to do other than talk, kill, and loot, but the minigames are a worthwhile distraction.
Discussing the story here is a little bit tricky, because the plots of TW1, 2 and 3 are connected, including some limited save transfer. We recommend coming into this section with the understanding, that while the central plot of each game is standalone, some overlapping elements might be lost on you, if you don’t play them in order.
The Witcher 2 begins with high personal stakes: after a quick tutorial, Geralt is framed for murder of King Foltest and has to skedaddle to get the dude who actually did it. There are mysteries to solve, monsters to kill, memories to refresh, and sides to pick. The last part is very important because your narrative choices create two very different story branches. No spoilers. TW2 is very focused, never lingering somewhere for too long, which makes it easy to keep track of the fairly nuanced political plot.
Meanwhile, The Witcher 3 is a direct sequel, and starts off with Geralt focusing his efforts on finding his adopted daughter Ciri, who has returned to the Northern Kingdoms and is apparently chased by the Wild Hunt again. As the final chapter in Geralt’s story (esp. if you have the Blood and Wine expansion), TW3 is something of the Avengers Endgame of the series, with appearances from fan favorites, and a satisfying sense of closure.
The sword stuff
Although on the surface both games are very similar in gameplay, focusing on swords, magic, and traps, the two games feel very different in practice.
The Witcher 2 even at its normal difficulty can catch people unawares with the challenge rating. It’s not Dark Souls, but combat is quite lethal for both parties involved and encourages preparation, caution and crowd control. Dying is easy, but once you get the hang of combat, the stakes and impact of TW2 fights become quite satisfying. And if you unlock the finishers, you’re in for awesome canned animations really selling Geralt’s skill. The contained, directed pace of the game also makes sure that combat encounters are deliberate, rather than spontaneous.
On the other hand, The Witcher 3 is a fair bit more permissive, with combat being smoother and faster, fitting in better with the open-world, free-roam structure. Geralt is also more resilient and quick healing with potions is more of an option than it was in TW2, which required you to drink all potions ahead of time. Brute forcing your way through combat encounters is less risky which isn’t a bad thing, because a chance encounter with a wyvern is less of a roadblock and more of a fun sideroad event spicing up your travel. Of course, there are cool boss battles, especially in the expansions, which take prep and care to clear in a satisfying manner, but due to the open world nature of the game (and depending on your own playstyle) they can feel rare and far-between.
Take both descriptions with a big, difficulty settings-themed grain of salt, however. The Death March difficulty of TW3 truly lives up to its name.
We’re capping it all off with a brief consideration of the games’ progression systems, since they, as well, are quite different.
The Witcher 2 uses a fairly traditional skill tree, with a few core skills, and three branches for alchemy, magic signs, and swordmanship, with each purchase (from a limited stock of skill points) providing a significant boost to your options and effectiveness. It’s rather high-commitment, as there is only one respec and it’s very missable, so you better plan ahead. It doesn’t have a lot of room for mistakes, but TW2 is short enough (averaging at about 33 hours according to HowLongToBeat) to be easily replayable, so it’s fun to try different builds. This system works very well for the Arena mode, too.
Like with combat, progression in TW3 is more forgiving, and much more flexible. It happens in two steps. The first are tiered lists of perks (swords, alchemy, magic, miscellaneous) you purchase for level up skill points. They don’t work on their own, however, you need to slot them into active sockets if you want to benefit from them. This allows you to mix and match your build in response to the situation at hand. It lacks specificity but works great for a 100 hours long game.
In both games you can augment your skills with additional mutagen, mostly providing handy passive buffs. It’s a nice little loot-based tweak to the inherent progression, and it works well in conjunction with the robust gear systems, which are quite similar and not very distant from the usual RPG fare.
The Final Cut
This concludes our quick look at the core and key aspects of The Witchers 2 and 3, which might guide your purchasing decisions. Both games are excellent action RPGs with great writing and interesting characters. Whether you pick the sprawling open-world odyssey of 100 hours, or the contained, intense story-focused one, you’ll have a great time in one of the world’s most popular fantasy settings.