Early on in the The Witcher 3’s Blood and Wine expansion, a man is killed right in front of the player character and a chase ensues as the murderous “Beast of Beauclair” runs away. There is a fight, a complication, and the killer escapes. Instead of returning to the person that started you on the investigation to report what happened, or going back to look for clues on the body, (the victim is literally gone from the crime scene if you return to the site) the game instructs you to go wander off to meet an old friend or make some renovations to your new house. So goes Blood and Wine.
Is The Witcher’s final journey all that it should be?
After the incredible work on The Witcher 3, no one is going to begrudge CD Projekt Red a little celebration, and that’s exactly what Blood and Wine feels like. It’s a toast as the clock strikes midnight, or the last dance number just before closing the club. It’s good and bittersweet and just a bit perfunctory. “This is the end,” Blood and Wine says. “Wasn’t it grand?” Just before the credits roll, Geralt winks at the screen as if to congratulate you for having played through another 40-ish hours of The Witcher 3 and it almost seems like a relief.
The new land of Toussaint is gorgeous. Wide vistas of verdant green and gold. Rolling hills. Bright blue skies. Picturesque wineries and sun-dappled roofs. Even the native dress is awhirl with color. The people of Toussaint give lip service to chivalry, speak in a flowery lilt, and adorn their armor with feathers and bows. They stomp grapes as you pass by. There’s nary a sour word or insult tossed your way as ambient chatter. Their houses are colorful and reflect the gaiety of the countryside. Wine flows freely.
These are knights and damsels in the storybook sense, but dig deeper and there is betrayal, perfidy, and horror hidden throughout. Things are not what they seem. The lands are awash with nasty beasties to witch. There are vampires afoot! A monster roams the streets of Beauclair murdering old knights and the ruling Duchess Anna Henrietta appeals to Geralt to hunt the beast.
That’s the setup and it works. It may not be as personally motivating as searching for a lost daughter or tricking the devil out of his due, but Geralt is the equivalent of a medieval Dashiell Hammett hero anyway so why not just have him take on a murder mystery? Look for clues. Ride the story twists. Heck, there’s even a femme fatale waiting just around the corner.
Did the developers overreach, or did they just let some things slip through during the rush of high-fives? There’s a few sloppy bits. Again, no one can blame the developers for some well-deserved laurel resting, but it’s a lot easier to see the backstage scaffolding here.
The main mystery doesn’t always proceed logically and some of the revelations are telegraphed so hard that it was like watching a teen drama. When my old vampire buddy from the books showed up to tell me the main bad guy may not be acting of his own volition, it wasn’t hard to guess how that information would pay off. Did the lady with seemingly more to her than meets the eye have something to do with the murders? Wink, wink! Does the mystery involve an old grudge? Nudge! Mayhap the monster is not as monstrous as others? Titter! It’s not half as clever as the writers think. There’s even a part late in the main quest that is played out like a big shocker, but it’s like a child telling a knock-knock joke you’ve heard a million times before. Well, duh, of course that was the ultimate goal of the villain.
A story lives or dies based on the quality of its characters and it’s tough to top Gaunter O’Dimm, the malevolent force behind Hearts of Stone. He was an all-powerful enigma playfully moving chess pieces on a board that only he could see. The person you were supposed to be helping was a complicated cad and as morally grey as the Bloody Baron from the main game. No such personality drives the script in Blood and Wine. There’s a monster, a puppetmaster, and a host of characters that take a back seat to the plotted set-pieces.
The story has suitably epic moments, but the pacing is sometimes clumsy. There’s a third act that stumbles forward with no time given to rest or visit shops. Hope you have enough potions and bombs stockpiled! Boss battles show up repeatedly after a cinematic giving the player no chance to prepare. There’s one side quest in particular that had an outrageous difficulty spike due to a scripted event that tossed me into a fight already surrounded by enemies. The half-dozen deaths from this setup were all the more maddening because I could see the bad guys (supposedly in disguise) standing around from almost the start of the quest.
The new mutation system is a high-level add-on to the Signs menu that feels a bit unbalanced. Save up enough ability points and some mutagens and you can purchase mutations that, depending on your build, grant incredibly effective powers. There’s one that turns Geralt into Mr. Freeze, rendering most group encounters trivial – barring the aforementioned times when you’re trapped in a cinematic. Other choices seem like a waste of points and are only useful as stepping stones to the better options. But this is late-game, so why not let the player cheese his build?
Taken together, it sounds like I disliked my time with Blood and Wine, but even with all these issues, we’re still talking about a really great roleplaying game. In an alternate world where Blood and Wine is the only content in The Witcher 3, it would still snap up accolades and be the envy of the gaming world. The stuff it does well, it does really astoundingly well.
There’s more Gwent! More delicious Gwent cards to hoard. More players to challenge. In fact, there’s a whole Gwent tournament in Toussaint that allows you to collect a new deck that specializes in exploiting the random nature of the initial draw. Coming against the new players without a good strategy to counter their advantage is painful. It’s a challenge that stretches the skills you’ve learned in the main game. Is there such a thing as too much Gwent? Perhaps we’ll soon find out, but in the meanwhile, it’s more Gwent to tempt you away from saving the populace.
Mission variety is more playful and plentiful. There are the normal witcher contracts that require you to hunt and kill a monster, or clear out a cave of baddies but these seem almost pedestrian next to the odder quests. Wine tasting, taking part in a knightly tournament, helping someone snap selfies, tracking down genitals, (yes, genitals) mediating a brotherly dispute. Even your horse, Roach, gets in on the action in one of the more humorous side quests. There’s a mission that requires Geralt to do nothing but wait and navigate a medieval bureaucracy. It’s as if the developers, faced with The Witcher’s last hurrah, decided to let loose with all of their sillier proposals.These provide welcome breaks from the seriousness of the main story.
Despite what I said earlier about the main quest tipping its hand too often, it offers a true choice with real impact on the plot. The last act of the tale can be completely different. It can be a sunny but dangerous jaunt to a fairy tale perfectly in line with the climes of Toussaint, or a dark journey into something more worthy of Geralt’s previous adventures. Either path is valid as a series of decisions from a man trying his darnedest to do the right thing. Nothing seems forced or arbitrary.
And that epilogue! It’s a worthy salute to the world-weary adventurer that does not negate the choices you’ve made throughout the journey of The Witcher 3. All the monsters hunted, all the tragedies and victories, all the friends lost and gained, all the enemies slain – they’ve all led to this. “This is the end,” Blood and Wine says. “Wasn’t it grand?”
Yes. Yes it was.