The Witcher 2 is unfriendly, unforgiving, and unapologetic. It is also incredibly rewarding - provided you have the patience to plod through the flat-footed prologue, dig (read) through the dense tutorials, and conquer the inverted difficulty curve. But If you succeed in making it to the port town of Flotsam without breaking your keyboard in half with your head, you're in for quite the ride.

All of the above make for a rough first few hours as Geralt of Rivia. Geralt is a Witcher, a professional slayer of monsters, who lives and works in a medieval fantasy world based on the novels of the Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. The Prologue is riddled with inconsistency and frequent frustrations - you can unwittingly play through the prologue backwards. Some of the dialogue choices offered seem nonsensical in the context of what little you know. The character animations in the dialogue scenes clip and jump occasionally, like CD Projekt RED gave you a choice and forgot to put in a transition. And then, after laboring through the introduction of the excellent plot of assassination, intrigue, and strife - it mercifully ends.

The game hits its stride when Chapter 1 begins, as you arrive in the gritty port town of Flotsam. The realness of the world that CD Projekt RED has crafted is a large component of what makes The Witcher 2 such a special game. It is a world of low-fantasy - violence, racism, vulgarity, and promiscuity are rampant. Most of the characters you meet are no goods, scoundrels, and drunks. Flotsam embodies this. People will call you names, run away from you in fear, and attack you. And it is in this dark world that the player exists, making game-altering choices that are never as clear-cut as good versus evil. The Witcher's world is one of ambiguities, of many shades of grey. The sheer number choices (and the divergent paths that follow from them) means that most players will get at least two enjoyable playthroughs out of this 30+ hour epic.

Along with choice, crafting is another prevalent feature in the Witcher's world. Herbs and monster bits are used for alchemy, to make the all important potions that transform Geralt from a glass cannon into a bad-ass monster slaying machine. And all manner of crafting resources are scattered throughout the world for making better armor and weapons. While I found the crafting to be enjoyable (I love fancy loot), it has three ugly flaws that keep it from enhancing the game - an inventory screen that can’t be sorted, crafting tool-tips that cannot be manually scrolled, and the prehistoric restriction of being overburdened from carrying too much weight. There isn't even a stash in which to store the abundant crafting materials - Geralt must lug them along with him all the time like a pack mule. I understand how such a system can be construed as adding realism to a game, but in practice it distracts from the rich world that CD Projekt RED has created by forcing players to spend seconds, minutes, hours staring at menus, managing their inventories so that they can move freely again.

As a prelude to a discussion about combat, let me reiterate - combat in the Witcher 2 is difficult. Go in expecting to die quite a bit if you’re playing on any difficulty other than easy. The most frustrating part about the difficulty of the game is that it seems CD Projekt RED either had hard time finding a proper balance, or didn’t care to at all. Not being a glutton for punishment, I started my game on normal as I frequently do. But I found it necessary to turn down the difficulty to easy to survive the Prologue with my sanity - a difficulty level at which enemies offer frustratingly little challenge. The difficulty levels out once you begin to develop Geralt's three skill trees and acquire better equipment, and I played the remainder of the game on normal - but the lack of adequate difficulty tuning was frustrating, especially combined with the absence of any type of coherent tutorial to help get you on your feet. To save you some of my pain, heed this advice: early on, your mantra should be Quen (the shield sign), Dodge, and Save. Remember that potions, bombs, and traps are your friends. In time, you can specialize your combat skills through the three skill trees (not counting the default tree you're forced to sink a few points into) - Magic, Swordsmanship, and Alchemy - allowing you to play how you want for the most part.

And as Geralt levels up, something wonderful happens - combat becomes exhilarating and rewarding. I found this to be true especially when I switched out my mouse and keyboard for a XBOX 360 controller (heresy to some PC gamers, I know). Moving around in the world, especially combat, felt much more natural and fluid. CD Projekt RED even mapped the buttons so that they pop up during the (optional) quick time events. Playing from my couch with my PC hooked up to my HDTV was just an added perk.

The graphics in the Witcher 2 are absolutely gorgeous. The expansive, open environments are the highlight - beautifully lit, exceptionally textured, hauntingly real. Not one pixel was left unturned, from the characters to the blades of grass blowing in the wind. There isn’t much to say that the stunning visuals don’t say better themselves - fire up that beastly gaming PC and crank up and settings.

The score backing the action of The Witcher 2 fits the billing of an RPG epic - something CD Projekt RED must be well aware, as they bundled the soundtrack with the North American retail version of the game. The music is played by an orchestra and is quite varied - including slow building drums and strings pieces, raucous, pounding war songs, and quieter string arrangements. It feels thoroughly medieval, and fits the world well.

The voice acting is adequate, if a bit bland. It won’t blow you away like say Portal 2, but it fits the intended mood of the scenes, and conveys the gravity of big moments effectively. Most importantly, it is never jarringly bad, keeping you focused on the game world.

The sound effects are also well done. The Witcher’s sword clangs convincingly, arrows embed in bodies with satisfying oomph, fires and unfortunate baddies crackle pleasantly. The sounds further enhance the engrossing environments as well, from the brushing of blades of grass against Geralt’s pants to the echo of his boots in subterranean caves.

Despite its minor flaws, The Witcher 2 is an epic, rewarding, and unique RPG experience that should be praised for its excellent characters, plot twists, and moral dilemmas as well as the beautiful backdrop in front of which the action unfolds.