Allow me to set the scene…
Having saved some hapless shoppers from man-eating umbrellas I decide to wander outside of the city in which I’d found myself. The tropical surroundings are pleasant enough but the local dinosaurs prevent me from taking in the sights. While the carnivores are easily dispatched with a few swings of my mace, the demon samurai waiting for me a little further ahead are not.
Yes, Two Worlds 2 is completely and utterly insane – drawing inspiration from a disparate mish-mash of cultures and ideas. And yet, this is one of the things I adore about it.
For all that, it starts blandly: you and your sister are the long-term captives of the evil emperor Gandohar. Several interminable cutscenes then depict you being broken out by a band of (supposedly-extinct orcs). From there you trot through a few fantasy clichés, ending up on a quest to find out how the emperor rose to power in the first place – you’re ultimate goal to counteract his power and rescuing your sister from his clutches.
Then, just as you start to get sick of the overbearing tutorials and countless cutscenes, you’re dumped into a gigantic savannah, tasked with a vague goal (to reach a city on the other end of the island) and pretty much left to your own devices.
Two Worlds 2 isn’t a completely freeform game, a la Oblivion, but you’ve certainly got a lot more freedom than in most conventional RPGs (the opening savannah area is huge) and there are scores of sidequests to find.
Said savannah was the point when Two Worlds 2 started to grow on me. Perhaps I haven’t played enough medieval fantasy games, but I can’t remember the last time I was plonked in an area so clearly inspired by Africa with wandering enemies ranging from cheetahs and ostriches to poo-flinging baboons (sounds like Christmas with the in-laws – Ed.).
I don’t remember ever playing a medieval fantasy game that had an area functioning as an analogue of ancient Japan. Each region has its own strikingly beautiful visual theme, from the lush and inviting colours of a tropical rainforest, to the foreboding green glows of a blackened and charred magically-irradiated wasteland.
Things improved further as I started to experiment with the smart customisation options; a system that makes me feel all gooey inside. Everything you pick up, be it armour, weapons, or even cheetah hearts, has a use beyond being sold to shopkeepers.
Equipment can be disassembled into component parts and used to upgrade your own gear. Plants and creature giblets can be brewed into potions. Spells are created through a system of cards, using a base element (Air, Fire, Life), an effect (Enchant, Area Effect, Summon) and modifiers to create something that suits your purposes.
Your character, too, is heavily customisable. Rather than pick a class you assign attributes and skill points as you see fit. If you fancy playing as a melee-heavy type with the ability to summon spiders, you can. Likewise, if you want to focus entirely on archery and build up your ability to fire eight arrows at once (at different targets) it’s entirely possible – and if you ever feel dissatisfied with your choices you can pay to have your points refunded. Levelling is quick and bonus skill points are awarded for pretty much everything, whether it’s picking a lock or upgrading your bow, which helps keep the game fresh.
At its best Two Worlds 2 is surprisingly compelling, perfectly recreating the loot obsession lure of something like Diablo and taking it one step further. If your inventory fills up then you just disassemble a few of the bulkier items, upgrade your gear and test your new setup: stroll out of town, do some quests, disassemble the loot, brew some potions, do a spot of blacksmithing, and repeat. It’s frighteningly more-ish.
But, at its worst, Two Worlds 2 is a clunky, schizophrenic mess. The quality of the writing and voice acting jumps erratically from being half-decent – with several brilliant and genuinely hilarious exchanges – to being hilariously bad. There are some odd bugs, such as cutscenes occasionally repeating as soon as they finish and one character’s voice is twice as loud as the rest. The game never seems sure how serious it wants to be, making overt references to Indiana Jones one minute and then jumping back to po-faced cod-fantasy the next. Animations segue jerkily into each other and at times don’t play at all, which is particularly jarring in combat.
Combat itself see-saws precariously between irritating and fantastic. On the one hand, experimenting with new abilities and using equipment you’ve personally upgraded never loses its enjoyably experimental edge. On the other hand, it seems to be balanced around decidedly undesirable elements such as the utter stupidity of the enemies.
As a mage, you want to use your summons to keep enemies away from you. Preferably you’d like them to achieve this by drawing enemy attention away from you, rather than by blocking their path. Unfortunately, it’s the latter that happens here. Archers will try to get foes stuck on rocks.
As for close-combat specialists, well: they’re invincible when performing a special move, presumably because those moves would otherwise be easily interrupted by the A.I. This means that rather than blocking, parrying, and fighting back, you’re juggling cooldowns and using special moves when enemies attack so that you don’t take a hit. When you consider that plenty of foes from the mid-point onwards can down you in two or three blows it’s certainly tense and exciting, but not necessarily for the right reasons.
The controls (while I wouldn’t go so far as to call them bad) suffer a little on the 360 controller. You can quickly change equipment sets via the D-pad but, due to it being about as precise as a chocolate thermometer, I regularly wound up drawing the wrong weapon.
Things can even get a little complex when you do have the correct weapon drawn. To use the archery ‘Multi-Shot’ skill, you need to hold down the right trigger to load an arrow, tap the left trigger to switch to manual aim, hit Y to select Multi-Shot, tap the left trigger to select targets, and then release the right trigger to fire. You get used to it, but it never becomes comfortable.
Thankfully, most skills require only one button press, but there are plenty other problems to contend with. The auto-targeting can be wonky, for example, which is particularly troubling if you’re trying to block attacks due to the fact that blocking is direction-based. Again, however, you get used to it.
For most games these issues would probably be enough to kill my interest, but the truth is you do get used to these things. You work around the problems because there’s a rich and beautiful world to be explored and a huge number of interesting quests to embark on.
For all that I’ve complained about the combat it still provides some wonderful moments; particularly when you win against the odds. You find yourself wanting to loot caves and dungeons, upgrade your gear, and experience the ludicrous areas the game has in store for you. There’s even a full-fledged and self-contained multiplayer campaign to partake in, which is something I’d love to see more of from RPGs.
Buyer beware, though; I wasn’t kidding when I said Two Worlds 2 was maddeningly clunky but, if you’re willing to put up with a few hassles and don’t mind the odd difficulty spike, there’s a lot here for an RPG fan to fall in love with.
In some ways Two Worlds 2 is the antithesis of Dragon Age 2. BioWare’s title focuses on characters, drama, and accessibility; Two Worlds 2 has little of the sort, instead making you work for your fun. However, your rewarded with unparalleled customisation and a huge degree of freedom.
I daresay that anyone who enjoys less linear, more ‘hardcore’, RPGs like Divinity 2 or Oblivion will cherish what Two World 2 offers. That is, if they can put up with its problems.
Version tested: Xbox 360
Follow @IncGamers on twitter for instant access to videogame news, reviews, previews, interviews and features.