This classic of the German studio Piranha Bytes has been a secret recommendation in circles of RPG-lovers for as long as it has been released. Being an originally German game by a German studio, and already (to date) over 17 years old, it is understandable that it is not as known in other parts of the world as much as it is revered in the German-speaking area and especially (and this might come as a surprise to some) in Eastern-Europe.
As a matter of fact, both Gothic 1 and Gothic 2 along with its expansion Night of the Raven (NotR) have had a huge success in various Eastern-European countries such as Poland or Russia, fielding a loyal fandom that is still very active and even keeps bringing out new mods to this day.
But what makes this old classic so special? What makes fans swear by a game with outdated graphics and an at best wonky combat system? Beware that this review contains spoilers for Gothic 1. Should you decide to play the first part before checking out Gothic 2, I recommend you stop reading here.
The first and probably strongest argument I have to make for Gothic is its immersion and the world. Rarely does a game make it so easy to believe that the world you are just now entering is a real, authentic place that is not just a stage or designed level for a video game.
The barrier or how it quickly turned wrong
To understand the world of Gothic 2 , we must first delve a little bit into Gothic 1. The first installment of the series is basically a smaller, less polished, and less successful but still brilliant version of the second title. It lays the foundation for the series’ strength and sets the overall tone for the story.
You play the Nameless Hero. A witty, at times cynical and seemingly ordinary guy who just got thrown into a penal colony called The Valley Of Mines on the island of Khorinis. The king has commanded his mages to set up a magical barrier around the valley, that transmits everything from the outside world but does not let anything escape once it has entered.
Said mines are to extract magical ore that is used for the king’s war against the orc-hordes on the mainland, while the barrier is supposed to ensure that the extraction of ore is protected. This makes being thrown into the colony effectively a life-sentence of forced labor.
However, things go wrong very quickly. Upon establishment of the barrier, a miscalculation of the mages makes it grow bigger than expected and imprisons the mages themselves. To add to that, the prisoners who were already in the colony use this situation to stage an uprising against the guards. They take over the castle in the valley and effectively control the whole area. The result is a brutal quasi-dictatorship that controls the mines and forces the king to barter with the criminals who are now in charge. Women, supplies, and fresh prisoners are traded regularly against shipments of ore.
You are now inside this strange and brutal place and have to fend for yourself amongst murderers and rapists. Basically, you need to survive and ultimately find a way to get out of this prison. Without going into too much detail on how, you succeed in this task by bringing down the whole barrier.
Actions really do have consequences
Gothic 2 is a continuation of this story. The barrier has fallen (by your hands) and hundreds of criminals have been unleashed on the rest of the island of Khorinis. A dark magician – Xardas – that you met while you were inside has saved you from impending doom, as you were buried under boulders on the day you brought down the barrier. You are weakened, without any equipment, and already facing a new monumental task. Your adventures in the Valley of Mines have attracted a new menace. Dragons! Ultimate killing machines of evil that are threatening the whole island. You are to retrieve a magical amulet, the Eye of Innos, and return back to the Valley to defeat them.
How the war affects the Island
To be honest, this already sounds very unique and exciting, and the strange but enticing story is already an argument. The aftermath of your actions in Gothic 1 just makes sense. You go out of Xardas’ tower and encounter countless bandits and cutthroats that try to scam you or even outright kill you for the gold you have. You realize that some of the ex-cons have banded up to a group of mercenaries. They have allied up with big farmers around the city who protest against the rising war taxes that the king imposes. The fall of the barrier and subsequent escape of the convicts has brought ore-extractions to a halt. Naturally, the king has sent out troops to ensure that the operations continue. Elite Paladins have set up in the city.
Suddenly, what has been a normal island seaport, is now in the middle of political conflict around war and resources. And the magical, dark threat of Dragons is about to crash the party.
Right at the start, you encounter a bandit that seems very suspicious
You are in the middle of all this. Your job is to get the Eye of Innos and for that, you will have to join one of the three factions that are powerful enough to aid you in this endeavor. You are going to have to choose sides. You are going to have to rattle cages as well. And rest assured that your actions are going to cause more consequences. Effectively, you are a real part of this world and everything in this game makes you feel like it. And the way the game tells you about all of this is not by lengthy trailer-explanations, but by simply throwing you into the world and letting you explore all the intricacies of Khorinis yourself. You have to talk to the people and slowly figure out how the political landscape is shifting before you can figure out how to do your job.
Immersion does not necessarily mean that you need high-quality jaw-opening graphics that make you feel like you are stepping into a real world. In this game, it is provided by the life that the designers have breathed into it. The whole world is just alive. Small enemies that are just part of natural wildlife like wolves or molerats are around everywhere. NPCs feel alive as well. They will have daily routines that will include simple things like having a chat with somebody and can range to complex procedures like the process of forging a new sword. They will do their work and then slowly stroll into the next pub or inn to reward themselves with a nice beer or a sip of wine. Some of them even will take a small break from their shop-stand to relieve themselves at the city walls! And you can hear and feel all of this. When you walk through the town you might pass the smith who has just finished his shift. Or you hear some woman talking about the latest rumors to her neighbor. Somebody might just approach you with a message or a question.
This guy has a wanted poster with your face on and is curious
Excellent sound design, great voice-acting, and NPC-design ahead of its time are what make Gothic 2 feel alive. Like you are just another average part of this city. Sometimes I will pass a part of the city where most of the traders relax and smoke water-pipe and I will feel the urge to just sit down next to them and enjoy the relaxing atmosphere.
A lot of RPGs that have come out in recent times have clear weaknesses in this regard. While some titles like Bethesda’s Skyrim opt for generic dungeons and enemies that level with you, Piranha Bytes chose a different approach. There are no zones for you to progress through. No artificial barriers that block you from entering something just because you might be too low level. The world is designed naturally. For instance, paths between main locations feel safe most of the time while delving into the deeper parts of the forest quickly becomes very dangerous. Gothic 2 emphasizes exploration.
A bit of dialogue here and there will tell you which parts of the island are more dangerous than others. However, for the most part, you will just have to find out yourself. You might think you are the boss when you kill a couple of wolves and try to take a stroll into the dangerous eastern part of the forest, only to get your teeth kicked in by some armed to the teeth cutthroats that were just waiting for a freebie like you.
Maybe you will find yourself in front of a small cave that has bright red pools of blood, bones, and old weapons scattered around. If you are curious, you will enter and see what horror has caused such bloodshed only to be ripped apart by a terrifying shadow beast
You probably don’t wanna face this bad boy too early in the game
Or maybe your explorations will yield a quick find to a strong weapon that is going to give you a power spike for future plans.
The point is: Gothic 2 does not try to hold your hand. It will throw you into its world and barely show you anything. You will just have to see for yourself. You might die a lot. But it’s going to feel so much more rewarding once you have gained some new armor or weapon and a couple of levels and can now explore with a new sense of courage.
What also works really well in this game is the way your character progresses. I do mean development in your in-game stats as your hero is always gonna be the opportunistic badass that he already was in the first installment of the game. You do not get skill points that you can just put into stats as you level up.
What you have to do is find a teacher that knows more than you. However, you also need to convince him to share his secrets. Sometimes that’s just as easy as asking, and other times you will have to pay or do some sort of quest for the character. You might want to improve your crossbow-skills, but the only teacher in town only teaches members of the militia. So you might look for a teacher elsewhere, and perhaps find another one. A hunter in the wilderness in Khorinis for example can teach you. Except that he has lost his crossbow while hunting in the woods and you will have to find it for him first.
Its also really cool, how the focus of your stats changes the way you approach the game. Gothic 2 doesn’t exactly offer a plethora of different fighting styles but say focusing on magic will drastically alter the way you play the game, because there isn’t any way to learn how to cast spells (scrolls not-withstanding) without joining the monastery of Innos, essentially the Mages’ Guild.
Which brings us to the next part…
Questing and progression
Gothic 2 has three factions. The story will force you to join one of them and each play-through will feel vastly different. Join the mercenaries that have a bunch of characters you might know from Gothic 1 and you will feel a similar experience to said part. Ex-cons everywhere, fistfights (or duels), and impressing your peers through a show of strength or wit is what awaits you. Join the militia and you are suddenly a constable who investigates criminal activity in the city and has aspirations to become a paladin. Or you could join the monastery. Start as a novice, and do simple household work like cleaning the rooms or distributing sausage among the other novices. Perhaps you will get the privilege to do research in the library and eventually become a full-fledged Fire Mage of Innos. An ex-con who is now a priest!
Each path to these guilds is extremely entertaining, full of surprises, and makes you feel like you are actually a member of this group now. And that’s just the beginning. Countless quests in this game have sudden twists, interesting elements, or seamless integration into the rest of the world. Sometimes you will just have to pick turnips for a farmer to get some extra gold. Or you might ask the farmer to reduce his price on the farm-workers clothes that he is selling. Use the clothes to act like you are just a peasant from the farm in order to not get stopped by the guards of the city who will not just let anyone through. Apart from the immersion, quests might be the strongest suit of this game. There is barely a task you have to do that is not in some way or another elaborate and engaging.
Canthar wants us to frame another merchant for stealing his stall
There is not much to say here, except that it is beautiful. Just listen to it yourself. The music was composed by Kai Rosenkranz who is simply a genius. Each song enhances the experience and atmosphere and frankly, just listening to some of the tracks takes me back right into the heart of Khorinis. Have a listen here
Gothic 2 is a different breed of a game. It is old, and not everything is perfect. The combat system for example will be fairly simple and feel at times dull. However, the experience that awaits you if you just dive in head-on into this game is one so unique and one of a kind, that its gonna make it to the list of games you wish you could play for the first time again. Gothic 2 is weird but engaging, it’s old but beautiful (there are tools to improve the graphics though), it’s witty and charming. It makes no excuses and doesn’t hold you by the hand. And also, its age makes it cheap these days.
My advice is: Pick it up! Give it a try. The worst that could happen is that you spent a few bucks. The best thing however is that you might share my feelings of enthusiasm and immerse yourself into a world that is full of real passion. A world, where you can feel that the people that made it, loved the shit out of it.
If you’re looking to buy Gothic 2, I recommend you pick up the Gold-Edition on Steam or on the Humble Store. Can’t really go wrong there!
If you are having trouble with crashes or want to mod your game, check out my modding guide:
Looking to play it and can’t figure out how to build your character? Check out the following builds:
- The 1H-Bow Dragonhunter Build
- The 2H-Crossbow Paladin Build
- The 2H-Bow Dragonhunter Build
- Ultimate Guide to Permanent Bonuses in Gothic 2