Version tested: PC
As fantasy action-RPGs go, 2007's Two Worlds may have been a bit shonky, but it certainly had a lot of heart. The sequel goes one better: it's got a lot of lung.
Loot a slain animal and, with a squelchy audio cue, you'll fish out one of its meaty gasbags and flop it into your backpack. But even the gizzards of a lowly hyena are worth collecting in Two Worlds II. In fact, absolutely everything is worth looting, as the game's superb crafting systems enable you to repurpose every piece of trash in your backpack to useful ends. It's almost a meta-commentary on recycling.
Basic alchemy is available pretty early on, and lets you combine reagents into healing, mana, and stat-buff or resistance potions. The entire process is affably simple, too. Looting can be done from a distance, and a single click sucks everything into your backpack. You find yourself running at breakneck speed through the countryside, snatching indigenous herbs without pause and emptying foes' pockets, post-massacre, with Dyson-like efficiency.
A similarly elegant system applies to weapon-modding. A bag bursting with looted weapons doesn't necessarily mean a trip back to town to offload at the vendor, as any weapon or item of apparel can be broken down on the fly to its base components. Through the metallurgy skill, these can be used to improve the stats of your favourite weapons and armour so they grow with you.
When I learned that Two Worlds II did away with the first game's item-stacking mechanic, I was dismayed; it was one of the things that kept me playing. But this new system, which turns the useless into the useful, is a considerable improvement.
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Spell-crafting is the most intriguing of Two Worlds II's crafting systems. While you need to pour skill-points into specific schools of magic – Fire, Necromancy, Air, for example – to improve your abilities, mastery of the schools doesn't actually unlock spells. The spells themselves appear as cards, and can be bought or looted just like any other item.
To create a castable spell, it needs to be combined with carrier and modifier cards in the spell-crafting interface. Combine a Fire spell-card with a Missile carrier-card and an Increased Damage modifier-card, and you have you a tasty, direct-damage fire-bolt. You can then stack more of these combos together within the spell, depending on your mastery of specific magic schools.
Why not add an area poison-burst to it? And an icy damage-over-time effect? The combinations are mind-boggling. One early NPC actually mentioned a rain of anvils, which I haven't seen – but, given how outlandish and versatile the system is, I firmly believe it's in there.
It's difficult to get as excited about the game's storyline, which follows on from Two Worlds, and once again sees the hero's sexy sister (yeah, that always was a bit weird) in thrall to the evil Gandohar and in need of rescue. The narrative arc isn't the pay-off, though. It simply forms a backdrop for the game's myriad smaller tales. In both content and geographical terms, Two Worlds II is enormous; if you're after an absorbing time-sink of an RPG, here it is.
It's bulging with off-piste quests, and many of them are agreeably potty. At one stage, in the beautiful, Feudal Japan-themed city of New Ashos, I found myself assisting an umbrella-vendor whose latest inventory had been cursed by a jealous shopkeeper, and was now flapping around her customers' houses munching on them. The quest concluded at a songbird exhibition. I walked in and was confronted with a scene of comical avian carnage. I set to dispatching the rogue brollies... before picking over the parrot carcasses for eggs and feathers. Alchemy never sleeps.
Two Worlds II also features a number of multiplayer modes, the most expansive of which is the Adventure mode. It's like a second campaign, in which you start a new character and fight your way through a series of linear maps to earn XP and gain levels.
Like the single-player game, there are no set character classes; you just spend your skill-points where you want. My current multiplayer character is a necromantic archer who also dabbles in healing; my conjured hounds keep the mobs at bay while I aim for the head, and if anything gets a blow in, I can pull out some heal-over-time spells.
The difference, of course, is that you can do the whole thing co-operatively. However, there's no level cap on co-op play, and no XP modifier for partying with higher-level players, which is an unbalancing factor. It means that a level 1 character can run through all seven of the Adventure maps behind a level 50 behemoth with no XP penalty, and level up in no time. But it's still a lot of fun, and involves all the crafting and character-progression detail of the single-player game. Like MMO instances, it's best played with a group of similar-level pals on Skype.
Using the same character, you can also start your own settlement in Village mode, the world's first FarmVille for hardcore RPG gamers. It's essentially a management game in which you build structures – farms, ranches, guard-houses and so forth – to attract settlers, improve trade and build a booming economy. It's surprisingly detailed, remarkably compelling and needs regular check-ups, since once you start a village, it's persistent. If there's not enough bread in the shops, villager happiness drops; if there aren't enough guards recruited, monster attacks will whittle the population. And woe betide any tavern that runs short of ale.
Every six hours, a complete stock-take is performed automatically, and your overall villager happiness is calculated. The more contented the populace, the more money they spend, and bigger revenues mean more upgrade-investment possibilities. It's very cute, and you can invite other players to your village to buy and sell supplies, or help you beat off marauding mobs. The multiplayer modes are rounded out with a bit of player-versus-player via Duel and Crystal Capture (essentially capture the flag).
All of this is enormously entertaining. Even when Two Worlds II isn't innovating, it displays a keen understanding of constant player reward. That makes the game's failings difficult to swallow, and while each irritation is relatively minor in itself, they aggregate into a noticeable and chronic series.
The inventory is pretty awful. Items are displayed too large, in a grid format, upon a translucent background, and the whole thing is just a confusing mess. Considering the sublime crafting system and the amount of time you consequently spend tinkering on the inventory screen, functional design isn't just a luxury, it's a necessity. While picking through your assorted swords and staffs, you find yourself longing for Bethesda's simple lists.
The map follows suit, and the way it tracks quests is next to useless. Click on a quest in the log (which doesn't visually distinguish ongoing from completed quests, annoyingly) and it brings up the map, but doesn't give you a nice clear marker, just a bunch of identical points of interest. You find yourself scouring it continuously, looking for the relevant marker by its hover-over tooltip. It can be infuriating.
The dialogue shows a marked improvement from Two Worlds, and many of the key characters' voiceovers are perfectly professional and well-delivered. It's still hammy though, and some of the small NPC parts are voiced pretty poorly. The vendor-barks are a particular low-point.
Perhaps the worst aspect is the sense of feedback in combat, which is largely non-existent. Melee players will feel this more than bow-users or spellcasters, as none of the weapons feel like they have any real weight or impact.
Certain foes will block endlessly as well, which is rage-inducing. One of the melee skills, Block Breaker, crashes straight through their defences, but it fails to open them up. Follow the strike with another, and their guard is right back up up again. You flail uselessly against them like John Inman pattering ineffectually at a window-pane – hardly conducive to feeling like a war-god.
It's galling, because Reality Pump clearly knows what makes an RPG tick. I sincerely hope these problems are recognised because a patch could fix them all and elevate Two Worlds II above the budget effort it currently resembles. It deserves more. [Editor's note: Indeed, Topware Interactive has been in touch to let us know that a patch is in the works which fixes some combat issues, including blocking, as well as the levelling in multiplayer. It should be ready for the game's UK launch.]
There is real innovation here, and there are some ballsy forays into game-styles that are way outside the standard tick-list of features for the genre, both online and off. There's also a great deal of absorbing content to enjoy, not to mention consistent, meaningful progression, creative quests, and empowering customisation systems that let you craft your own rewards form a plethora of resources. If you can live with the lo-fi elements, there's an awful lot to enjoy.
I sincerely hope it does well enough to fund a bigger-budget sequel. Because at this rate of improvement, Reality Pump could be snapping at the heels of the big RPG developers next time.
7 / 10